Beyond the usual 'burger bar' label
Refinement, rock 'n' roll mingle at Three Aces
More than bar food: The most striking dish at Three Aces is the braised pork shank. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)
No place in Chicago makes me feel more like a geezer than Kuma's Corner, Avondale's beloved thrash-metal burger bar. Every visit requires weighing the benefits of a supremely delicious burger versus the realization that Father Time is cruel and unstoppable. During one meal I offhandedly grumbled about the noise and crowd. Seconds later, I realized: "Uh-oh, I have become that person." By being in the space, I felt guilty disturbing Kuma's stasis of skull-crushing awesomeness.
In the same way I've graduated from Pantera to the Numero Group catalog, so too can my affection for dimly lit burger-centric rock 'n' roll bars. While Kuma's will always occupy a special place in my ear canal, Three Aces is more in line now with my kinder, gentler, lowball glass-swirling identity. The restaurant describes itself as "The Italian countryside meets the American farmhouse in Keith Richards' basement bar." Typically, I find the "(cultural reference A) meets (cultural reference B)" device lazy and inaccurate, but with Three Aces' self-description, it's right on the money.
My first trip to Three Aces came shortly after the restaurant opened in October 2010. It didn't leave so much as a dent in either direction. Nothing coming out of the kitchen was bad, though two weeks after that meal the only dish I remembered ordering was the french fries with Bolognese sauce.
But last September, Three Aces reappeared on my radar. The restaurant captured the coveted People's Choice crown at the Hamburger Hop competition in Millennium Park. I once judged this event, and believe me, to stand out from a crowd of 15 worthy burgers is a majestic feat.
Three Aces executive chef Matt Troost did so by taking the direct route: beef, bacon, cheddar, aioli, pretzel bun. Troost could have scored easy points with add-ons such as foie gras or smoked brisket; instead he works within those five base components, making clever tweaks instead of larding on. Which is to say, the flavors of the Ace Burger are straightforward and conventional, but it's in the top five percentile of what's possible within those flavor choices.
Here's a burger where beef is showcased as prominently as Tyler Perry in a Tyler Perry movie. The beef comes from Central Illinois meat purveyors Slagel Family Farms, where it's dry-aged for 25 days before shipment. The process imparts a concentrated flavor that underscores beef as Beef, a vaguely truffled taste especially noticeable when the burger is ordered medium rare.
With bacon, Troost points out a potential downside with the standard strip model: Sometimes, overzealous eaters take an enthusiastic but hasty bite that pulls out the bacon all at once, leaving the rest of the burger tragically bacon-less. I appreciate Troost finding a solution to a nonproblem. He grinds his house-cured hickory bacon and slow cooks it with cider vinegar, fennel and sugar, creating a sweet bacon jam. "I want bacon with every bite," Troost explained. This is a decent man.
The kicker? Troost packs bone marrow into salt, and after several months of curing, uses that now-meaty salt to season the sandwich.
My preference still lies with griddled thin patties, like the ones at Schoop's or Au Cheval, but the Ace Burger is very good for its genre — the double-fisted, gaping jaw, pray-for-forgiveness-after-consuming category. Little Italy agrees too. The $13 burger outsells everything on Three Aces' menu, with 550 out the kitchen each week during its high summer season.
Fine, so you're a bar with a good soundtrack, and you've built some buzz around your burger. People compare you to Kuma's Corner — not the worst way to market yourself in a crowded restaurant field.
"I can't tell you how many people say, where are the wings, the cheesesteaks and the big bowls of spaghetti," Troost said. "There's a lot of misconceptions."
Troost, 34, moved to Chicago in 2008 to cook at The Peninsula hotel, and later at the Lakeview Italian restaurant Fianco. When that shuttered less than a year later, Troost got in talks with an owner who took over a Bar Louie space on Taylor Street.
Troost wasn't interested in Buffalo wings or nacho sameness — he pitched a menu of house-made pastas, charcuterie and bold, meat-heavy dishes. The owner was sold. Two years later, Troost equates his current position with "hitting the jackpot."
I really don't recall much of my first visit . But I do remember the breakfast ribollita (a Tuscan bread-vegetable soup, $10) from several weeks ago: A gentle swirl of the spoon released the yolk from the poached egg into the tomato-bacon soup, turning spoonfuls silken and creamy.
I remember how the gnocchi ($16) bore a chewier bite and nuttier taste from the use of rye flour, necessary in the presence of heavy elements like braised oxtails and mushrooms. I for sure remember how that oxtail braising liquid reaches levels of extreme beefiness, tasting like sauce that was reduced in the pan for a week.
The pattern I sense is that Troost's adheres to a classicism evident of his fine dining past, with flavors as subtle as brass knuckles to the face.