Finding Applewood Smoke is a game of hide-and-seek with the end reward being a seriously delicious burger. The restaurant is Highland Park’s best-kept secret. There’s no sign, no flashing lights, and no dancing burger marking its existence. The fast-casual joint is hidden in plain sight, housed in back of the Park Place Pub.
I walked into the pub on a slow Tuesday night. Five other patrons sat at the bar, drinking and watching Food Network. It was a straight shot from the door to Applewood Smoke, the kitchen a light at the end of a pub.
The menu is plastered on a chalkboard wall. It lists burgers, chicken sandwiches, wings, vegetarian options, and more. A surprising variety for such a small restaurant. I settled on the Bayou Burger (medium rare) with sweet potato fries and, the Vings (vegan wings) in sweet chipotle dust. Though Applewood Smoke and Park Place Pub share a building, they operate separately. I paid for my food, nabbed a seat at the end of the bar, and started a separate tab with the bartender.
Service was quick, even with a few takeout orders ahead of me. My burger arrived first, the open bun showcasing a picturesque drizzle of chipotle mayo. The Bayou Burger was dusted with Cajun spices and topped with grilled onions, a charred tomato, banana peppers, and pepper jack cheese. It was plated diner-style, in a plastic basket lined with checkerboard wax paper.
I’ve found that burgers often take one of two paths; either an eccentric, “gourmet” burger, stacked three patties high with everything but the kitchen sink, or the fast-food “burger,” a flattened, depressing disappointment. Applewood Smoke finds a middle ground, its menu a delicious bridge between the classic all-American burger and trendy, over-the-top creations.
My first bite was heaven. It was a superb blend of textures. The patty melted like butter with each bite. There was a subtle crunch from the toasted bun — in the sweet spot right before it started to char — the edges so crispy they were beginning to flake off. All of the toppings were cooked down, causing the burger to collapse in the best way.
The flavors were supreme. Acid from the banana peppers and tomato cut through the rich meat. The char added a bitter element, balancing out the sweet caramelized onions. It was chased by a smoky spice from the chipotle mayo.
My sweet potato fries were inconsistent. Some were delicious and crunchy on the outside and smooth on the inside. Others were underdone and starchy. The Vings were unexpectedly fantastic. Fried cauliflower was covered in a pancake-like batter and tossed in a great rub. They reminded me of food from a state fair, just toeing the line between wonderfully greasy and nauseating.
Truthfully, I expected mediocrity from a spot so unknown and mysterious. But Applewood Smoke proved me wrong, serving up one of the best burgers in the ‘Burgh with a side of secrecy.
1. Corona Santa
Imagine all your grandmother’s old, antique Santa decorations in one place. That’s how the Park Place Pub decorates for the holidays. My favorite was a toddler-sized, rosy-cheeked Santa standing next to a toddler-sized Corona.
2. Social media absent
Before I go to a restaurant, I like to stalk its social media. Applewood Smoke is practically absent. The most recent posts are from last year, they have no website, and even the Yelp reviews are infrequent. They’re a true, modern-day mystery.
3. Veggie options
Catering to dietary needs isn’t easy, but Applewood Smoke does it with ease. There are a myriad of vegetarian options beyond the typical black bean burger.