Between Nick's stealth BYOB(un) mission a few years back and my recent visit for a cheezeborger, cheezeborger, cheezeborger (translation: triple cheeseburger), we thought we had nailed down the definitive word on Billy Goat Tavern coverage here at Serious Eats. But there were a few straggling considerations we felt we couldn't ignore.
The first is obvious: what if you don't want three hamburger patties on your burger? There are, after all, people who prefer not return to their desk in physical pain after lunch. The second is an oft-mentioned, but never fully substantiated, secret of the Billy Goat experience: the "kids' bun." George Motz wrote about this (really, just a regular old white hamburger bun) back in 2009 as an alternative to the house Kaiser roll. It's the default bun for junior Goatlets, but apparently burger purists can order one too, if only they know to ask. It was clear that there was more work to be done on the Billy Goat front.
But first, let's back up to just what makes Billy Goat worthy of all this attention in the first place.
The thin, preformed patties aren't smash burgers, but they sear beautifully, take a covetably crisp crust, and beg to be stacked. This isn't to say the meat is flawless; these are fast food burgers after all, and the crumbly lean and woefully unsalted (as in no salt whatsoever touches them!) patties taste beefiest when compounded in triplicate.
My plan of attack for a comprehensive Billy Goat experience required two consecutive days of tastings. Since I only had my lunch hour and one trusty sidekick for each outing, I figured this would be the closest I could get to side by side comparisons without keeling over on the spot. Day One would be devoted to the Kaiser Roll, with Day Two to focus on the Kids' Bun.
The Kaiser Roll: Go Big (But Not Too Big)
Billy Goat's menu lists Singles, Doubles, and Triples as the burger options. But it turns out you can also order a Quadruple if you ask nicely. I went with one of each. Unless you say otherwise, the burgers will come out on Kaiser rolls.
Nick was right about the Single ($3.30), which is simply overwhelmed by the bun. However, the lack of balance is oddly appealing, in a lighter fluid soaked charcoal summer BBQ kind of way. Not appealing enough to order again, though.
The Double ($4.50) is twice as good as the single, but the meat still gets lost in the bun.
With only two thin patties and a single slice of cheese sandwiched between, bread and condiments dominate, leaving your mouth dry and begging for one of the house beers. Maybe that's why the grillman is always saying "double much better."
As we suspected, the Triple ($5.65) is the Kaiser bun ideal. Three patties stand up, nay complement, the bready roll, and two slices of cheese add just enough richness without overwhelming. This would be great the day after a hard night of drinking or as an afternoon fortification leading into one.
I thought the Quadruple ($9.00) could be the One True King, but unfortunately, the balance was totally off. Dense bread, four patties, and only two slices of cheese—doesn't that cutaway look angry to you? It sure tasted angry, and we quickly left it to stew on its own.
Not only was the balance off, but the Quad also offered a taste of what was to become a recurring problem: Billy Goat's lack of patience with custom orders. Not only did they look at me like I was crazy when I ordered four patties on one burger, but they charged me for two double cheeseburgers for the pleasure. Even if the Quad had been life changing, I can't imagine actually shelling out for one again at that price.
The Kids Bun: Did Somebody Say McDonald's?
The guy at the register recognized me the second time around, so he hardly flinched when I ordered a Single, Double, and Triple, all on "kids' buns." Since the Quad was such a disaster on the Kaiser, I shuddered to think what it would be like on an even less substantial base. That question is best left to the masochists in the audience.
As soon as I saw the buns, I knew I was going to be happy with this round. Rather than being the sesame bespeckled ones from George Motz's blog post, these were straight up white buns, S. Rosen (of poppy seed hot dog bun fame), to be exact. They sit on the grill just long enough to pick up a little color and become warm and pillowy.
There's no way around it: these burgers bear a striking resemblance to the ones served under the Golden Arches. This is most apparent on the Single ($3.30), which sports a great meat-to-bun ratio and a crumbly, unseasoned patty—just like the ones Ronald serves. Topped simply with a dab each of ketchup and mustard, a smattering of chopped raw onion, and two pickle slices, I was looking around for the PlayPlace as I bit into this one.
The Double ($4.50) causes the stars to align. I like a quarter pounder (or, ahem, double quarter pounder) with cheese as much as anyone, but more often than not, it's a double cheeseburger (or two) that gets my vote when I'm swinging through Mickey D's: it's cheap, filling, and very satisfying. This is that burger, though I guess if we're being technical, the single slice of cheese makes it a McDouble.
Like the Quad on the Kaiser roll, the Triple ($5.65) upset the kids' bun balance. It certainly wasn't over the top out of control, but if you're going triple, you might as well get it between buns that can handle the heft.
The Condiments: Load Up For Free
When I talked about how great the patties are, I was being a little generous: condiments are where Billy Goat actually shines. You have to dress the burger yourself, but that's actually a boon if you don't mind rolling up your sleeves.
Thick ridge-cut and crisp, with a strong dill flavor and plenty of pucker, the pickle slices are some of my favorites anywhere. The relish is sweet like the neon variety served around town on hot dogs, but with a subdued hue. The small size of the chopped raw onion means that they slightly steam between the hot meat and buns, lessening their bite. And the sliced raw onion might be the best part of all: the large, thin disks ensure a sharp allium bite with each mouthful.
I didn't know about the caramelized onions until the grillman flirtatiously offered some to my wife on a previous visit. They're rich but oily, without any salt to speak of. Still, they add pleasant texture and a bit of sweetness to the burger and are definitely worth batting your eyes for.
Between the bready bun and the unseasoned meat, condiments are essential at Billy Goat. I messed with different combinations, but burger nirvana is really up to you. My ideal setup for the triple on a Kaiser roll consists of ketchup and mustard on both buns, caramelized, raw chopped, and raw sliced onions, dill pickles, and relish. In short, everything.
The same rules as above apply for the double on a kids' bun: the more patties you pile on, the more toppings the burger can support/require to get some needed moisture into each bite. Here on the double, the tried and true McDonald's formulation worked great.
Messing With Success: Just Add Bacon
Confident that the Triple on Kaiser and Double on a Kids' Bun were the two best ways to enjoy Billy Goat, I decided to end the experiment with a little lily gilding. As great as the condiments are, dry burger patties are still dry burger patties. Absent additional cheese, these burgers are still lacking in flavorful fat. Enter Bacon ($1.65).
The Double with Bacon on a Kids' Bun ($6.15) transforms your McDouble into a Wendy's Double Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. This was my go to for a number of my formative years, so I wasn't complaining.
The Triple with Bacon on Kaiser ($7.30) is as over the top as you can get at Billy Goat without asking the grillman to start sandwiching patties between grilled cheese sandwiches. Meaty, rich, and still somehow balanced, this burger is a testament to the hardworking Kaiser, which apparently will take just about anything you throw at it. Challenge accepted?
Nine burgers and two days later, I now feel confident to speak definitively on the Billy Goat. The hard truth: judging by taste alone, these are not destination-worthy burgers, and the blame lies with the lean, under-salted, and crumbly patties that they're slinging. Stacking and judicious condiment usage helps, but there's only so much lipstick you can put on a cow.
However, taste alone does not a dining experience make, and I can't think of many places with as much, ahem, atmosphere as Billy Goat—even the above ground Wells location. If you've never been, it's a definitive Chicago experience, and if you work nearby, it beats soulless neighbors Poag Mahone's and Franklin Tap by a long shot.
Honestly, the real problem with much of this information being useful in the wild comes down to cost. As I mentioned above, Billy Goat doesn't take well to custom orders. This makes ordering a burger on the kids' bun or adding bacon problematic: there's no discount for the less filling former, and they charge you the price of a side order for the latter. To be blunt, add bacon to your Triple on Kaiser, but be sure to do it on Fridays when the triples are $4.20 a piece. If you're only hungry enough for a McDonald's style burger, take a hit on ambiance and eat one a few blocks away. You can swing by with your change for a beer at Billy Goat. Better fries and a beer to wash it all down? That's the best of both worlds.