If you’re looking for a restaurant to be your gateway into the growing world of plant-based eating — one that transitions seamlessly from in-person dining to takeout — Naperville’s Empire Burgers is bound to be a worthy start. A blend of upscale cooking and innovation that skillfully delivers both flavor and sophistication, it’s the ultimate place to find the veggie burger of your dreams.
With the coronavirus situation being so unpredictable, many avid restaurant-goers — like myself — prefer the option of enjoying a five-star meal from the comfort of our homes. But, unfortunately, the reality is that most takeout meals won’t be able to emulate the experience of dining in public: the buzzing chatter of a nearby table, the endless possibilities of what to order, the hungrily staring at food brought out of the kitchen. Let’s be honest: we all miss it.
One restaurant, though, that has gone above and beyond in setting the bar for what this new normal should look like in terms of takeout, is Naperville’s Empire Burgers. Situated on the bustling banks of the DuPage River in the heart of downtown, Empire is one of the most popular spectacles of the Naperville dining scene. Famous for their large selection of nearly a dozen different burgers — each crafted with a curated selection of cheeses, sauces, and toppings — the takeout experience is enough to rival in-person dining at any of the area’s best restaurants.
The ordering process is actually quite easy: simply choose what you’d like to eat through their website and pick it up a quick 30-40 minutes later at the restaurant. The burgers are each available with your choice of either a traditional beef patty, veggie patty, or the impossible burger (a meatless patty scientifically engineered out of plant based protein), although both the vegetarian options do cost you a couple bucks extra. They come in a matte-lack styrofoam box with no superfluous packaging or fancy detailing; the focus is truly on their heavenly burgers.
The first burger that we decided to try was the the Cartel: a Mexican-inspired burger with pimento cheese, chipotle mayo, corn fritters, guacamole, and a black bean patty. Although these toppings may sound outlandish at first, this burger is a true testimony to the idea that experimentation can be delicious. The immediate contrast between the darker, earthier tones of the pretzel bun and vibrant hues of the guacamole and cheese is quite visually appealing, although some might find that it is a little messily put together. The actual bun is quite fluffy and offers a more complex, sweet undertone that helps to balance the stronger flavors of the dish. Chipotle mayo is liberally spread onto both buns, keeping them moist and succulent despite the fact that they’re not being eaten fresh.
The black bean patty is perhaps one of the stars of this burger — offering a balanced flavor profile of savory and umami notes paired with a satisfying mouthfeel: chewy, yet full of texture. This patty is also the perfect canvas for the tanginess of the pimento cheese, brightness of the guacamole, and crunchiness of the corn fritters to shine and bring this dish to life. The corn fritters, specifically, offer a welcome break in texture to the creaminess of the other toppings, the sweet pockets of corn bursting with paprika and black pepper in every bite. There’s a certain smokiness and richness to this burger that while you don’t expect, keeps you coming back for another bite.
The next burger on your plant-based path at Empire should be the Sophia Loren: a caprese-inspired burger with artichoke pesto, balsamic glaze, and fresh mozzarella. Named after Sophia Loren — a famous Hollywood actress known for embracing her Italian heritage and cuisine — the sandwich itself may be less visually appealing than The Cartel since most of the toppings are hidden underneath the bun, but there’s no shortage of flavor in this elegant burger.
The pretzel buns are quite moist and springy, while still offering the burger some body and preventing it from becoming soggy. The impossible burger patty — which has become a very popular meat-alternative — is liberally seasoned with oregano and garlic and masterfully seared to golden brown perfection. Coupled with the rest of the toppings that just set this burger apart from the rest of Empire’s menu, this dish is more of an experience than a simple meal. As the rendered fat spills out from the burger’s pink center and combines with the herby tanginess of the pesto and rich sweetness of the balsamic reduction, you can’t help but roll your head back in satisfaction. This burger is truly otherworldly. With the creamy, fresh mozzarella adding this welcome break in texture and the marinated tomatoes just setting this burger over the top, there’s no denying Empire’s culinary prowess.
Other noteworthy burgers and sides at Empire include their Dirty Chips (thinly sliced potatoes that are fried and topped with buffalo glaze and blue cheese sauce), the Vegetariat (a black bean burger with spicy avocado aioli and fried onion straws), and the Key West (a burger with maple bourbon glaze, pineapple, and a garlic aioli).
With a sophisticated approach to casual dining and food that tastes just as delicious as takeout, Empire accomplishes what it sets out to do: bring a little class and innovation to the streets of Naperville. Between the endless selection of burgers and thoughtful inclusiveness for those looking to venture into the world of plant-based eating, Empire Burgers is sure to be a must-visit for many.
Empire Burgers is located at 48 W Chicago Avenue in Naperville. Learn more by calling 630-355-9000 or visiting empireburgerbar.com.
Aryav Bothra is a food critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl