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The tastiest ‘Corner’ in Chicago

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

The tastiest ‘Corner’ in Chicago

The WISCH LIST

July 10, 2010

It’s estimated that more than 6,000 restaurants dot the streetscapes of Chicago, so to truly “taste” the city you need to do a whole lot more than spend an afternoon in Grant Park each summer.

However, one only has so much time – and allotted calories.

To use both wisely, it’s worth taking a trip to the city’s Avondale neighborhood, home to a wildly popular burger joint that offers truly unique eats and an unrivaled edginess.

Kuma’s Corner, located on the corner (duh) of West Belmont and North Francisco avenues, isn’t just a restaurant.

It’s an experience.

And, last week, to navigate it for the first time, I brought along with me a tour guide: My 24-year-old buddy Danny, who likes to say that he’s been keeping me in the loop on all things burgers and hot dogs since 1986.

It was last summer that Danny turned me on to Hot Doug’s, Chicago’s hot dog hotspot where devotees regularly wait more than an hour just for a fancy frankfurter.

This time around, I asked Danny to show me Kuma’s, which with its cult following and quirky fare can be considered Hot Doug’s hamburger counterpart, albeit with one big difference.

Its devotees regularly wait more than two hours to eat.

“It’s not always that long,” Danny explained as we stood on the sidewalk outside Kuma’s, biding ours. “A couple times, I’ve gotten here on a Saturday right when it opens at 11:30. But then you’re inhaling a massive burger at 11:45 a.m.

“The rest of your day is shot.”

Established in 2005, Kuma’s Corner is actually celebrating its fifth anniversary today with a block party (trust me, you’re better off visiting another time). And since opening, it has become famous both for the taste of its giant burgers and the fact it names them after heavy metal bands – an edgy trait complemented by Kuma’s hipster clientele and a wait staff that features more tattoos than an NBA roster.

“I always feel like the least cool person here,” Danny said.

Glance over the menu and you’ll see an array of burgers such as the Judas Priest (bacon, bleu cheese dressing, apples, walnuts and dried cranberries) and the Pantera (roasted poblano pepper, bacon, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, house-made Ranchero sauce and tortilla strips) that are billed as the best in Chicago.

“It they aren’t,” Danny said, “I don’t know what is.”

On the Tuesday evening that Danny and I visited Kuma’s, our wait for a table (a half-hour) was short by its standards. In the summertime, Kuma’s back patio is opened, which was where we sat after slipping past the restaurant’s stunningly small grill (hence the lengthy waits).

Sitting outside offers a more serene atmosphere than Kuma’s cozy interior, where diners squeeze around tables and along the bar, serenaded by a steady stream of heavy metal tunes.

“My mom likes coming here, not because she enjoys heavy metal music,” Danny explained. “But she can tolerate it, because the food is so good.”

Which was why I came. And as a Kuma’s rookie, I chose to indoctrinate myself with the Kuma Burger, an enormous hunk of juicy ground beef served on a pretzel bun with bacon, cheddar cheese and a fried egg.

Yes, an egg.

Danny, meanwhile, chose the Lair of the Minotaur (you can’t get that at McDonald’s), a burger featuring caramelized onions, pancetta, brie and sliced bourbon-soaked pears.

Our meals were a mess, but truly wonderful ones. And I left Kuma’s convinced that the restaurant’s wait, indeed, is worth it.

But bring a book.