Kuma's Corner has long been on my "restaurants to try" list. I've read countless reviews of this edgy burger joint that plays heavy metal/thrashing music incessantly, even upsetting some unsuspecting patrons with the fury of the music. (One reviewer that I follow talked about how he was heading into Kuma's one day and a family was walking out with a crying pre-teen boy, supposedly because of the loud music and atmosphere.) But their draw is their burgers. I put on a new dealer last year down the street on Belmont Ave. and one day I was driving out toward the Kennedy Freeway and I passed Kuma's Corner at the corner of W. Belmont and N. Francisco, just west of Elston in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood. (see map) I made a mental note to go back at some point. On a recent visit to Chicago, I had the chance to do just that.
Mike Cain is the man behind Kuma's Corner which he opened in 2005. Cain - an imposing figure of a man with a bald head and a long scruffy chin beard - decreed that his employees had to have tattoos or body piercings (or both) in order to work at the restaurant. He has since rescinded that edict, but it's that type of attitude that shapes Kuma's work culture.
Cain named the restaurant after his Akita dog, Kuma. Akita's originate from the mountainous regions in the northern Japanese islands and "kuma" means "bear" in Japanese. That's why the bear is in the Kuma Corner logo and pictures of bears are interspersed on the walls of the restaurants.
Kuma's Corner is known for it altruism in donating proceeds to groups and individuals in need around the Chicago area. However, the restaurant is not without controversy. Last year, they introduced a burger with the name "The Ghost" (more on the names of burgers in a moment) that featured an unconsecrated communion wafer on top of the burger. They had done similar burgers in the past, but this time the Archdiocese of Chicago caught wind of it and denounced the burger.
The Ghost Burger at Kuma's Corner - a beef patty with braised goat shoulder, topped with white cheddar cheese, a ghost chile aioli with a red wine reduction sauce - and the communion wafer. (Pictured courtesy NBC5)
Through their Facebook page, Cain and his director of operations, Luke Tobias, said that the burger was not intended to offend anyone saying that it was not "a commentary of religion or as an attack on anyone's personal beliefs." The burger was named and designed to pay homage to the Swedish theatrical metal band Ghost B.C. whose members wear monks robes and the lead singer wears a priest's robe and a skull mask over his face.
Kuma's Corner offered a donation of $1500 to the Catholic Charities of Chicago, but they organization said they didn't want the money. However, Luke Tobias said that the $1500 check they sent had, indeed, been cashed by the organization. Earlier this year, Time Magazine named the "Ghost" burger as one of the most influential burgers of all time. Not bad for something that was just going to be the "burger of the month" at Kuma's Corner.
It's that type of edge and attitude that has shaped Kuma's Corner over the years. If you're easily offended and not willing to look past the controversy, then stop reading this. Don't go to Kuma's Corner. You won't like the place. It's not for you. But me - I'm someone who laughs at the politically correct society we've allowed to grow around us. It takes a lot of offend my sensibilities. I knew what I was getting into by going to Kuma's Corner. And I didn't care about the edginess, attitude or controversy. I just wanted to try one of their burgers.
I was able to find a parking spot in front of Kuma's on Belmont. It was just after 2 p.m., but the place was nearly full. It's not a big place - the tin-ceilinged dining room probably seats 60 to 70 people with table and bar seating. I was greeted by a young lady behind the bar when I came in. She invited me to sit at the one available seat at the bar even though there were a couple two seater tables open. She had an interesting nom de guerre - Gator Bait. It made me chuckle.
Now, there were people from different walks of life in the place. There were the normal urban hipsters, the tatted-up and pierced up girls with pink hair, the 30-something young ladies who looked like they had just come in from the northern suburbs, working class guys, guys in coats and ties and me - a salesguy in jeans and a sweater. Just a quick look around told me that I may have been the oldest person in the place, but maybe not.
The music that was playing wasn't obtrusive. It was definitely heavy metal music, but I wouldn't call it loud. It wasn't offensive or anything like that. I'm sure as they get deeper into the night, the music gets a little louder.
"Gator Bait" asked me what I wanted to drink. I looked through the beer list and Kuma's Corner definitely has a beer list. There are no major domestic or imported beers available - only craft or microbrewed beers, both domestic and imported. I settled on a Lagunitas DogTown American Pale Ale.
OK, the burgers - and sandwiches - on Kuma's menu are named after heavy metal groups. Such as the aforementioned Ghost burger, they also have burgers named after classic metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Iron Maiden, along with present day metal/thrasher groups. And some of the burgers were very interesting.
The ABSU had fried chiles, a red onion and avocado relish, fresh queso cheese, pepper jack and a green tomatillo salsa on top of the burger patty. The Kaijo (I believe they're a former metal band from Chicago) had onion straws, bacon and blue cheese crumbles. The Neurosis was topped with Swiss and sharp cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms with a horseradish mayo sauce. Now, THAT sounded good! They also eclectic toppings such as bourbon poached pair slices, cherry peppers, herbed goat cheese, poblano corn relish and roasted peppers.
They also have sandwiches on the menu including the APMD (look it up here to see what it stands for) that was their version of a B.L.T. - 10 ounces of applewood smoked bacon, sliced tomato and lettuce topped with a Sriracha aioli sauce. The Pig Distroyer is Kuma's slow-roasted pork shoulder, shredded and topped with their housemade barbecue sauce. And probably the most healthy option on the menu (there's NO vegetarian options) is the Hatebeak - two chicken tender strips rolled in a spicy Buffalo sauce and topped with Monterrey jack and blue cheese.
In addition to their sandwiches and burgers, Kuma's is also somewhat famous for the "build-your-own" macaroni and cheese. They use three different cheeses to start - Monterrey jack, sharp cheddar and gouda - then they have a number of additives you can put in to personalize your own mac and cheese. They have andouille sausage, chicken, and bacon along with broccoli, green onions, roasted red peppers and a number of other food stuffs to add to the mac and cheese. Another popular dish is the Barbecue Pork Fries - a plate of fries topped with the shredded pork shoulder, the housemade barbecue sauce, shredded Monterrey jack cheese and green onions. That could be a meal that could feed two people.
But I was there for the burger. I was seriously looking at getting either the Black Sabbath - the burger is cooked in blackening spices then topped with their housemade chili, pepperjack cheese and red onion slices; or the Neurosis that I described above. But then I thought that I really wanted to have a burger where it wasn't so busy on the taste buds so I could enjoy the taste of the meat. I ended up ordering the Kuma burger - cooked medium - topped with sharp cheddar, bacon and a fried egg. I asked "Gator Bait" (I still chuckle when I write that) if I could get the egg over hard. She said it was no problem. Fries came with the burger.
It took about 20 minutes to get the burger out to me. The presentation of the burger was pretty impressive. It was a 10 ounce burger patty crowned with a pretzel bun. The burger was so big that it didn't matter what topping I would have gotten - it probably wouldn't have overpowered the taste of the burger patty.
The toppings included lettuce, tomato and onions - all of which I took off before I ate the burger. The egg was a perfect over-hard for me - I could just envision the yolk breaking all over and making the burger a yellow mess.
The first bite was wonderful. It was very juicy and full of flavor. I had ordered it medium, but it came to be more medium-rare than that. Certainly not a deal breaker, but a little more pink in the middle than I like. It was an excellent burger.
The fries that came with the burger were all right, but not a good complement to the burger. They had a sort of crispy/greasy quality to them, but I was doing all I could to finish the burger so I didn't concentrate on the burgers.
Kuma's Corner is one of the most blogged about restaurants in Chicago. I don't know if I added anything to what has already been written - either good or bad - about the place. Overrated? Some may say so. I didn't think so. It fully lived up to my expectations both in a culinary fashion and the fun and edgy atmosphere. I was excited to try Kuma's Corner and I'm excited to go back at some point to try another variation of their burgers. If you understand what you're getting into with Kuma's Corner - the edginess and attitude, the long waits at times (no reservations and people will wait up to 90 minutes for a table), and the metal music with your burger - you will like Kuma's Corner as much as I did.
(P.S. - About a year ago Kuma's Corner opened a second location - Kuma's Too - at the irreverent address of 666 W. Diversey (see map). You gotta love the somewhat twisted sense of humor of Matt Cain and his staff. Well, then again, maybe you don't.)