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Jucy Lucy aka Juicy Lucy may be best cheeseburger in America

Chicago Tribune 1/20/2022 Louisa Chu, Chicago Tribune
Brad Wahl, owner of The Junction Diner in Forest Park, where the Juicy Lucy cheeseburger is delivered via a train track. © Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS Brad Wahl, owner of The Junction Diner in Forest Park, where the Juicy Lucy cheeseburger is delivered via a train track.

The Jucy Lucy may be the best burger in America. Also known as the Juicy Lucy, the cheese-stuffed burger was invented in Minneapolis nearly 70 years ago.

It’s an ideal convergence of beef and cheese. Yet the iconic cheeseburger remains relatively unknown. Untouched, the burger appears modest by modern standards, no toppings stacked sky high. Yet it belongs in the culinary realm of Chinese xiaolongbao soup dumplings and even the Chicago-style stuffed pizza (on the rare occasions when the latter is done right). They’re technical marvels, barely containing their deliciousness within.

Legend has it that two South Minneapolis bars claim to have invented the iconic cheeseburger. I discovered that’s not quite true after visits last fall. Only one clearly stakes the claim, while the other concedes it’s the customers who’ve fought its case.

Matt’s Bar in the Corcoran neighborhood is known for its deliberate misspelling of the dish, a historic holdover from a printing error.

“A Jucy Lucy is a burger that was created here by Matt Bristol in 1954, the year he opened,” said Amy Feriancek, general manager. “He and a few locals were here on an afternoon when it was slower, and he created this wonderful burger.”

Juicy Lucy at Lucy’s in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, their take on the cheese-stuffed burger that two Minneapolis bars claim to have invented. © Louisa Chu/Chicago Tribune/TNS Juicy Lucy at Lucy’s in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, their take on the cheese-stuffed burger that two Minneapolis bars claim to have invented.

Bristol’s daughter, Cheryl Bristol, ran the bar from 1984 until 1998, when Scott and Cathy Nelson bought the business.

Feriancek has worked at Matt’s for 23 years. “A lot of people tell a lot of different stories, but this story I actually heard from Matt,” she said. “He unfortunately passed away in 2014, but I still know his wife, Donna.”

At Matt’s, the Jucy Lucy ($8.95) has a crust that conjures a seared dry-aged steak. Not even the warnings for what lies within prepares you for the molten American cheese magma that pours out with a bite.

Three miles south on Cedar Avenue, the 5-8 Club in the Nokomis neighborhood has been continuously operating since 1928, originally as a speak-easy during Prohibition. While its claim to the cheese-stuffed delicacy is perhaps less concrete, its fan base certainly isn’t.

“According to our customers, somebody at the 5-8 Club invented the Juicy Lucy back in the 1950s,” said Jill Skogheim, president of the 5-8 restaurants. She said the identity of the original owner is also unknown.

Charly's Burgers in Chicago's Cragin neighborhood serves up their take on the Juicy Lucy burger, which two bars claim to have invented in Minneapolis. © Louisa Chu/Chicago Tribune/TNS Charly's Burgers in Chicago's Cragin neighborhood serves up their take on the Juicy Lucy burger, which two bars claim to have invented in Minneapolis.

The 5-8 Club expanded over the years, with four locations now in the Twin Cities region. They still stuff their original burger with American cheese. In 1996, the 5-8 Club added Swiss, pepper jack and blue cheeses as variations.

Brudder's Bar & Grill in Chicago's Old Irving Park neighborhood shows off its take on the Juicy Lucy. © Louisa Chu/Chicago Tribune/TNS Brudder's Bar & Grill in Chicago's Old Irving Park neighborhood shows off its take on the Juicy Lucy.

The classic 5-8 Club Juicy Lucy ($12.25) looks like a big, thick contemporary burger, complete fries and coleslaw on the side. The oozing experience feels more subtle, with the melted cheese melded into the beef fat.

What’s most surprisingly overlooked with the Jucy Lucy and Juicy Lucy conversations focused on cheese has been the absolute importance of fried onions on the burger.

At Matt’s Bar you can watch the transformation of dehydrated onions into bits of blackened gems on the tiny grill in front. By the way, they cook Jucys for 7½ minutes on each side. Your burger will take about 20 minutes from the time you order until a paper-wrapped package hits your table.

“We offer fried onions, which is the natural way of having our burger,” Feriancek said. “But we also offer raw onion and a slice or two or three of dill pickle. Simple, plain, but very, very delicious.”

The 5-8 Club offers raw or fried onions too, though theirs lean into a softer, sauteed state.

Juicy Lucy at 5-8 Club in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of two bars in the city that claims to have invented the cheese stuffed burger © Louisa Chu/Chicago Tribune/TNS Juicy Lucy at 5-8 Club in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of two bars in the city that claims to have invented the cheese stuffed burger

“It’s a kind of a naked burger with pickles and your choice of onions, but the fried onions and pickles would be the No. 1 way to go,” Skogheim said. “I’ve seen more than a few times where a server’s like, ‘They want and lettuce and tomato?’ Because that takes away from the cheese experience.”

There’s no judgment if you want to add ketchup or mustard, but unlike a Chicago-style Big Baby double cheeseburger, you’ll have to add the condiments yourself — Minnesota nice does have its limits.

“When people ask for lettuce and tomato, there is sometimes some judging,” Skogheim added with a laugh.

Matt’s and 5-8 are so different and both merit their own accolades. Perhaps that’s how they can maintain a friendly rivalry.

“We started something and obviously many, many people have followed after,” said Feriancek back at Matt’s Bar. “And good for them. We’re happy for them, too.”

Twenty blocks down the road, the sentiment seems mutual.

“It’s more a competition with the customers than it is the management or ownership,” said Skogheim of the 5-8 Club. “They do their thing, we do our thing.”

She does add a fact though.

Miguel Avila makes two “Juicy Lucy” cheeseburgers, stuffed with giardiniera and chihuahua cheese, at The Junction Diner in Forest Park on Jan. 5, 2022. © Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS Miguel Avila makes two “Juicy Lucy” cheeseburgers, stuffed with giardiniera and chihuahua cheese, at The Junction Diner in Forest Park on Jan. 5, 2022.

“The one thing that’s indisputable,” Skogheim said. “We were around longer than any of them.”

5-8 Club, 5800 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis; 612-823-5858; 5-8club.com. Matt’s Bar, 3500 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis; 612-722-7072 or 612-729-9936; mattsbar.com

For those not able to make the trek to the Twin Cities at the moment, there’s good news: In the Chicago area, you can find four takes on Juicy Lucys. Do note I didn’t include other cheese-stuffed burgers, notably the Ooey Gooey at Fatso’s Last Stand or the Inside Out Hackneyburger at Hackney’s. Otherwise, you can order a 5-8 Club Juicy Lucy kit via Goldbelly.

Here’s our guide to the Juicy Lucy in Chicago and the suburbs, listed in alphabetical order:

Brudder’s Bar & Grill

Technically it’s next-door sister kitchen Mudder’s that makes the best traditional Juicy Lucy in Chicago, with a side of deep-fried tater tots done right the Midwest way. The burger at this Old Irving Park neighborhood restaurant is the closest Juicy to the 5-8 Club style around Chicagoland, even offering your choice of cheese: American, blue, cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, pepper jack or provolone. It does come topped with lettuce and tomato by default though. Next time, I’ll try swapping the pretzel bun for a soft S. Rosen’s bun. I highly recommend splurging for sauteed onions, fried hard, for an extra $1.50. Do note you must be 21 or older to dine-in.

Jucy Lucy at Matt’s Bar in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of two bars in the city that claims to have invented the cheese stuffed burger also known as the Juicy Lucy © Louisa Chu/Chicago Tribune/TNS Jucy Lucy at Matt’s Bar in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of two bars in the city that claims to have invented the cheese stuffed burger also known as the Juicy Lucy

$11.95. 3600 N. Pulaski Road, 773-283-8700, bruddersbar.com

The “Juicy Lucy” cheeseburger, stuffed with giardiniera and chihuahua cheese, at The Junction Diner in Forest Park. © Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS The “Juicy Lucy” cheeseburger, stuffed with giardiniera and chihuahua cheese, at The Junction Diner in Forest Park.

Charly’s Burgers

Charly Magana, president and namesake of Charly’s Burgers in the Cragin neighborhood, used to be a butcher. “I always tried to experiment with different cuts, just trying to create different burgers,” Magana said. For his Juicy Lucy, he takes two 3-oz. patties, stuffs them with American cheese, and then adds more cheese on top, along with caramelized onions, whisper thin-sliced dill pickles and garlic aioli on a toasted sesame bun. But he’s planning to take his Juicy off the menu in a month or so, “because we’re short-staffed and just so many other reasons,” he said. You may be able to order it off the menu, based on availability. So hurry for one of the most beautifully made and lowest-priced Juicy Lucys I’ve seen anywhere. Do note they’re takeout only at present.

The “Juicy Lucy” cheeseburger, stuffed with giardiniera and chihuahua cheese, is served up at The Junction Diner in Forest Park. © Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS The “Juicy Lucy” cheeseburger, stuffed with giardiniera and chihuahua cheese, is served up at The Junction Diner in Forest Park.

2320 N. Cicero Ave., 773-887-5481, charlysburgers.com

Lucy’s

Damian and Jessica Warzecha didn’t name their shops in Humboldt Park and Uptown for the Juicy Lucy. Instead, they say the face behind the brand is a vintage pinup girl who is meant to represent a celebration of women’s liberation. She holds a burger, but the signature dish at Lucy’s has become a spicy fried chicken sandwich, one of the best around the city, according to my fellow food critic and fried chicken sandwich expert, Nick Kindelsperger. Their Juicy holds a Merkts-style cheese core reminiscent of The Wieners Circle’s famous cheese of choice, with a slightly spicy secret sauce on a soft brioche bun. It’s a bold, sassy and unique statement of a stuffed cheeseburger.

$10.95. 1043 N. California Ave., 312-675-8385; lucyschicago.com

The Junction Diner

“We’re an experiential restaurant with a 90-foot dining counter, where the food is delivered to you by a model G scale railroad train,” Brad Wahl said. He co-owns the family train-themed business with wife Kate Wahl. They opened nine years ago in Forest Park just west of Chicago. His first experience with the Juicy Lucy was memorable, but not in a good way — and that’s what informed his variation. “I burned myself pretty bad,” Wahl said. “That’s why we went with the Chihuahua cheese, which has a lower melting point.” The cheese also mellows out their other special and very Chicago-style stuffing ingredient: giardiniera. “It’s a ⅔-pound burger,” he said. “Served on a Turano brioche-style bun with lettuce, tomato and pickle.” This sturdy Juicy comes with your choice of fries or chips, but the menu doesn’t reveal the chips are fantastic, housemade, rippled potato chips you’ll want by the bag. Listen for the train whistle, which sounds every time an order leaves the kitchen. The little wheels are just too adorable.

$13.50. 7401 Madison St., Forest Park; 708-771-5276; thejunctiondiner.com

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