“What does ‘au cheval’ mean?” asked one of my guests. “Does it mean the patty’s made of horse meat?”
“It means ‘on a horse,’” I replied, “and designates the French practice of putting a runny fried egg on top of a sandwich, steak, or just about anything.”
“So the egg is supposed to be the horse?”
“No, the hamburger is the horse, and the egg is the jockey.”
Au Cheval is also the name of a nouveau Chicago diner with a very famous hamburger that has recently touched down in Tribeca. It’s the work of Brendan Sodikoff’s Hogsalt Hospitality, a fantastically diversified restaurant group that boasts around 18 restaurants, coffee shops, markets, bars, and food courts, often in combination. Located mainly in Chicago, the group also has an encroaching presence in New York, where its 4 Charles Prime Rib has been popular, serving high-end steaks and also introducing the city to a burger that Sodikoff insists is not the Au Cheval, but made a decent replacement anyway. Now, that preening burger has an entire restaurant dedicated to it.
The location is obscure. Walk down Canal Street past counterfeit purse hawkers, then take an abrupt turn into Cortlandt Alley, a narrow thoroughfare over which ancient buildings with metal shutters loom. It’s the rare downtown Manhattan street still thronged with small garment factories, where the sound of sewing machines clatter during the daytime, as ramshackle trucks load garment racks. At night, the street is darkened, with Au Cheval identified only by a tiny, nearly unlit sign. This is one deserted alley you might hesitate to walk down late at night.
Inside, the retrofitted warehouse is very Chicago, with high ceilings, darkened woods, bare brick walls, cast-iron columns, and a clubby atmosphere — channeling some long-ago Midwestern steakhouse. On your right upon entering, a coffee bar greets you, with oddities like a “military latte” ($5.95, a gritty and awful combo of matcha, espresso, and hot cocoa); a dining room, long open kitchen, and tables seating 90 or so appear on your left. Ahead is a greeter, who remains cheery in a Midwestern manner as she is assailed by New Yorkers hoping to get seated in under three hours.
The place claims to be a diner, much the same way M. Wells Diner once did, so the opening hours begin early by Tribeca standards at 10 a.m. and extend far into the night. If you want to be seated immediately, you’re well advised to go precisely at 11 a.m. on a weekday, as I did on my second visit. Last weekend during the day, the line was reportedly more than 70 people deep, and quoted waits went up to four hours.
Not since the introduction of the Shack Burger in 2004 has a hamburger attracted so much attention. The architecture is remarkably similar. The bare bones Au Cheval burger boasts two 4-ounce beef patties, with American cheese melted over the top of each, on a mayo-slathered brioche bun with thinly sliced pickles for $17. But nobody orders it that way.
Who wouldn’t want a couple of thick planks of black-pepper bacon ($4.50), amounting to a single slice? And a perfectly fried egg ($2), the jiggly yolk about to explode, laid over the top? For an extra $2.50, you can double the number of patties, bringing the most extravagant version of the Au Cheval burger up to $26.
Alas, the burger meat isn’t the kind of aged ground steak you may have been dreaming about. On the two occasions I tried the burger, one time the patties had been cooked to near grayness; the other, they were a nice medium-rare in the middle but still didn’t display much flavorful sear. Indeed, the meat is not the point of the Au Cheval burger.
It’s all about the glop. The 4-ounce patty ploy is something of a trick, allowing this high-priced burger factory to not offer a burger cooked to a desired level of doneness. The over-the-top juiciness is instead provided by multiple slices of melted American cheese, raw egg yolk, lardy bacon, and a very, very generous slobber of mayo. Bite into it, and the thing oozes and drips and then floods your plate with oily fluid. It’s really too much, which is why I recommend the pared-down $17 burger. You’ll find it juicy enough, even though the juiciness doesn’t come from the meat.
In fact, the mayo that washes over the burger characterizes other dishes, too, enveloping the menu in a blanket of white. A perfect garlic aioli comes with the metal cone of really good skin-on french fries ($8). The wonderful chopped chicken livers, furnished with greasy, griddle-cooked toasts, arrives with garlic butter, which might as well be aioli. Given that the toasts have already been smeared with fat, and the livers are super rich, you won’t quite know what to do with the butter.
The equally great hash browns with duck-heart gravy ($14.95) drips with a cream-colored bechamel, which reads as a flatter mayo. The dish is highly recommended, so good you’ll be remembering it fondly days later.
And finally, the bologna sandwich comes with so much thick mayo you can barely make out the meat. In spite of that, it’s the best bologna sandwich you’ve ever tasted, with an astonishing quantity of thin sliced meat. (Au Cheval makes its own bologna, smoothly textured and garlicky.)
There are a couple of outright duds on the menu. One is a version of Korean fried chicken called General Jane’s honey-fried chicken ($18.95), which comes with four wet, rolled-up washcloths right on the plate, as if you should eat those, too. Dotted with sesame seeds, the bird is way too sticky and sweet, and the wings haven’t been articulated, so your cheeks will get smeared as you try to eat around the angles. The other dud is the menu’s sole concession to the world of vegetables, a salad of the usual baby lettuces so boring that you won’t eat much of it despite your virtuous intentions.
Ultimately, this is transgressional cooking, intended to flout all the nutritional rules with which we’re constantly bombarded. But more important than that, it’s a real slice of Chicago, much more so than deep-dish pizza, and for that I am really glad. In its emphasis on the consumption of meat without the encumbrance of vegetables, and in its obvious affection for offal like bone marrow, duck hearts, and chicken livers, Au Cheval is reminiscent of the heyday of the Union Stockyards, which were Chicago’s identifying feature beginning in 1865. They served to symbolize the city for a century, and not just in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
And so, my friends, scurry down Cortlandt Alley for a gussied-up bologna sandwich or a serving of duck heart hash, and find yourself in a throwback version of Chicago, if only for an hour or two.