Des Plaines, out on the northwest corner of Chicago, is no culinary Mecca (How's that-three cities in one sentence! Not bad, huh?). I could cheat and call Chicago "my town", but then I'd have so many to choose from I'd never narrow it down to two. Besides, I like the challenge of finding two places worth mentioning here in Des Plaines.
Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of places to eat here. We've got a pretty nice steak place, a couple of decent red sauce Italian places, we just got a pretty good Teriyaki joint about two blocks away. There are at least three nice little taquerias, and one Salvadoran pupusa house, within walking distance of my home. There are probably another dozen Mexican restaurants, ranging from taqueria to white table cloth, within two minutes driving time. But, in spite of the abundance of south of the border grub, Des Plaines is better represented by a different genre.
You see, the very first Ray Kroch McDonald's franchise opened here in Des Plaines. There's even a museum near downtown, an exact reproduction of an old McDonald's stand with the walk up window, benches and tables built right in to the red and white check patterned outside walls, and the iconic golden arches actually sprouting out of the roof, front and back. Des Plaines is a Hamburger town!
Now I'm not cynical enough to suggest that McDonald's is a restaurant that best represents my town. I mention it only as a point of history and reference. The two places I've got in mind, if they'd had the same advertising and marketing budget, would have crushed McDonald's a long time ago.
The first place is The Choo-Choo in downtown Des Plaines. I've mentioned The Choo-Choo in a previous "Where Should I Eat" post. It is a small classically laid out diner; a long counter as the focal point, surrounded by booths on each side and along the front window wall. The gimmick here is a large scale electric train that runs around the inside perimeter of the counter. As you sit at the counter, the locomotive delivers your food carried in plastic baskets permanently mounted to multiple flat cars trailing behind. The counter waitress removes the food from the train and places it in front of wide eyed children of all ages.
The Hamburgers themselves are very good. They're made Steak N Shake style; a big meatball of raw ground beef slapped on the hot grill and mashed down as it cooks. Rough, ragged, crispy browned edges make this a rich flavorful treat. The burger is bigger than a typical Steak N Shake burger too. Fries are included making The Choo-Choo a good value as well.
The other Des Plaines defining place is Paradise Pup, a tiny free-standing shack on River Road just south of Oakton Street. While the name seems to indicate a Hot Dog joint, Paradise Pup has built their reputation just as much on their Hamburgers. In fact, a 2005 Chicago Tribune rating of the metro area's best Hamburgers included Paradise Pup as the only fast food place on the list! The normally long lines tripled in size for weeks after the article first appeared.
Paradise Pup's Burgers are in a different part of the spectrum from The Choo-Choo. These are thick 1/3lb. pub-style burgers grilled over an open flame served on a slightly chewy Challah style roll. Remarkably juicy, satisfyingly deep beef flavor, these Burgers stand up to the full compliment of condiments piled on the bun! Great seasoned fries or cheddar fries with Merkt's cheese, and real(mid-western)milk shakes too.
Next time you come to Chicago for business, when your plane lands at O'Hare, before you head into the city, cab on up to Des Plaines and visit Paradise Pup or The Choo-Choo. Des Plaines is a town with a great Hamburger heritage.