When we first set out to determine what restaurant served the best burger in Champaign-Urbana, none of us would have arrived at our final list. It's so easy to get stuck in a pattern; we know what we like, and we eat it, because when you are eating a meal like a burger, comfort is the name of the game.
But we knew we were missing a few and more. And, sheesh, were we right. Suggestions poured in from a Facebook post, and we set out together and ate dozens of burgers. Burgers we thought that would definitely make the list got nixed, and burgers we'd never tried scaled the ranks. We judged them, based on a wide range of technical and not so technical details: Bun, condiments, temperature, presentation, cheese, meltiness of said cheese, texture, you name it. We gave it point scores, and whittled it down, week by week, burger by burger.
We ate the same burger at every restaurant: Cheeseburger (American cheese when available), with ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickle for those of us who wanted it.
We created criteria to define how we got to our top choices. First, the burger has to be served in Champaign-Urbana-Savoy. Nothing from Mahomet, nothing from Tolono. Nothing from anywhere else except Champaign-Urbana-Savoy. Then, we decided that it has to be regularly available and consistent. Random specials, and odd changes to a recipe disqualified a few of them from the top spots. Finally, it couldn't be a corporate chain — that was hard for us, because we all agree that Meatheads should probably be on this list, somewhere, and in some fashion. That is, indeed, a very good burger.
Today, we will alphabetically list some burgers that we liked, but didn't necessarily love. They are all totally worthy of your order.
And on Thursday, we'll reveal our Top 8.
For us, this is a showcase and a reminder of just how lucky we are to live in the kind of community that has this many options, and truthfully, even more than are listed here.
A few years ago, Bacaro starting doing a casual Friday lunch. Every week the menu was different, but pretty much all of the lunches were good. More recently, Bacaro has streamlined Friday lunch service to burgers or a Chicago-style hot dog. This is undoubtedly easier on the restaurant, and, I’d argue, easier for diners to remember Bacaro as a Friday lunch option.
The Bacaro burger is $13, and comes with a fancy soda and house made fries. It’s a double patty with mixed greens, cheddar, tomato, and onion. The bun is nicely toasted, which is important. However, the meat was a little too greasy, and the bun sort of fell apart. As a sandwich (that is, stuff between two pieces of bread), it isn’t structurally sound enough to contain all of the ingredients. Despite this, the flavor is quite good; you can actually taste the cheese.
At $13, this is one of the more expensive burgers we sampled. It does come with fries and a soda, which makes is an expensive value meal. Though this is not an article about fries, Bacaro’s fries are really good, and help round out the meal.
While burgers may not be a go-to item at Black Dog — it is, after all, a barbecue joint — once in a blue moon it is worth forgoing your typical smoked meat order and giving one a try. The burger is decently sized, yet not overwhelmingly huge, and the bun is buttered and grilled perfectly with just that little bit of crispiness around the edge. As we mentioned above, we kept our burger orders simple and streamlined. However, what is extra great about a Black Dog burger is your topping options. If you’re looking to put yourself into a meat coma, you can add either smoked pulled pork or sliced brisket on top. What is most appreciated, however, is the fact that you can put any of BD’s lovely sauces on it. If you are a burger topping purist you may balk at this, but just try it. Milo’s Mustard is the bomb. Note: You may notice the absence of burgers on the regular menu at the Champaign location. The restaurant wanted to place more focus on their 'cue items, so they created a separate burger menu that is not automatically given to you. It’s there, but you have to ask for it.
THE BREAD COMPANY
Urbana’s The Bread Company is known for a few things (lemon garlic greens, pizza, fondue), but burgers aren’t really it. So we were surprised when Bread Co. was recommended as a delicious burger provider. The burger is only available at lunch, but it’s available at every lunch. There is a different gourmet burger each day. On our most recent visit, it was a double smash burger with chipotle-garlic-bacon aioli and brie, this burger looked and tasted good. Our biggest complaint was that the bun to bite ratio was off, resulting in the use of the fork, which is undoubtedly always a bummer.
The superior quality of meat and condiments make The Bread Company’s burger a solid lunch contender. The rotating toppings coupled with the bun quality pushed this burger just outside of our top list. At about $9, it’s not too expensive, either.
Ah, Courier Café. We were hoping this burger would be in our top picks. Courier is a sentimental favorite, and sometimes nostalgia skews one's thinking a bit. It’s been around forever — well, 40 years, which feels like forever in a transient community such as this one. With a reliable menu that has not really changed much through the years, the burgers are a fixture on the menu. The day we sampled the burger was not the best version of it that we’ve ever had, which is unfortunate, because it’s typically great. One of the things that makes it great is the bun. The “bubby bun” is made in house, which made it stand out amongst the other buns in this experiment. So while this burg didn’t crack the top list, we still wanted to give it a nod. An order of a burger, fries, and a shake in a cozy booth at Courier will give ya some warm fuzzies.
With all due respect to Murphy's Pub (their burger is solid), no burger in Campustown matches what Joe's has to offer. Joe's genuinely has an amazing burger selection, and even though our list sticks to the basics with burgers, this doesn't even venture into the depths of what their burger menu has to offer. They certainly get crazy with their menu. All that said, their cheeseburger is traditional style, and while the ratio of burger/condiments/bun isn't the greatest, that doesn't mean that this thing isn't delicious and worth eating. Joe's burger is one that you might consider a "day ender" — after eating it, you will be in a coma because of how massive they are. We all have those days where this is the choice you make, and you love it while it is happening.
Timpone's is such an underrated gem in Champaign-Urbana that it is no surprise that literally almost everyone we spoke with about our burger quest didn't know the restaurant served a burger. But here are the facts: it's only available during lunch, and sometimes, it's not even available then. We decided that its lack of availability disqualified it from being listed as one of the best burgers in town. That being said, if you can get it, it is an absolute delight. Chef Ray Timpone Jr. and Chef Jim Takantjas are two of the best in all of Champaign-Urbana, and their burger is no exception. With a simple bun, and a smear of housemade ketchup and mayo, it is an incredible lunch time meal in Campustown.
Here’s the truth: None of us have actually had Watson’s late night burger. It’s been recommended to us numerous times, and we want to try it. Unfortunately, we are all too old and/or too delicate to be consuming large quantities of meat after 9 p.m.
But we still thought it was worth a mention; if you have the constitution for it, go try one of Watson’s special late night burgs.
Smile Politely’s Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein.
Photos by Jessica Hammie and Julie McClure; Joe's Burger photo courtesy of Daily Illini's Lily Katz