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A smash burger with lettuce and a sesame seed bun sits atop a white plate on a wooded table next to a pink slushie drink
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

How Big Kids and its smash burger were born during the pandemic

Chef Ryan Pfeiffer and his team are serving one of the city's best burgers at Time Out Market Chicago.

Jeffy Mai
Written by
Jeffy Mai
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When the pandemic hit and the restaurant industry was forced to shut down, Ryan Pfeiffer knew he wanted to do something different. The former executive chef of Blackbird, the Chicago fine dining stalwart that shuttered in 2020, had already received one of the highest honors—a Michelin star in 2015—but was ready embark on a new venture. After discussions with friend Mason Hereford, the mind behind celebrated New Orleans concept Turkey and the Wolf, the two chefs decided to join forces.

“We did a lunch thing at Blackbird where he came up from New Orleans and we sold his sandwiches there. Then we just kind of talked about it after that. We’re like, ‘Hey, we should partner up and open a sandwich shop in Chicago,’” Pfeiffer recounts.

Adding to the challenges of launching a new restaurant at the time was, of course, COVID-19. Despite countless places struggling to stay afloat, Pfeiffer wasn’t deterred.

“I talked to Mason about it and we’re like, ‘You know, let’s just do it. We’re just sitting around right now. Try it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’”

Thanks to friends, Pfeiffer secured a home for the project in the space that previously housed Young American. And in October 2020, Big Kids was born. Appealing to nostalgia, the interior is decorated with ‘90s memorabilia while the menu features playful bites like the Amy N Nettie 5.0, a sandwich loaded with chicken tenders, tomato chimichurri, smoked paprika mayo, arugula and provolone.

The operation began as takeout-only, but it wasn’t long before Big Kids became a sensation. Not only were its sandwiches bold and unique, its social media persona was as well. This is also due to Pfeiffer, who runs the restaurant’s Instagram account, and his polarizing all-caps style of posting about everything from the day’s special to magic mushrooms.

“It gets people’s attention,” Pfeiffer says, laughing. “If you read something in caps it makes you kind of feel like you have to read it,”

Although the Big Kids menu is relatively short, it’s always evolving depending on what ideas the team has cooking. At Time Out Market Chicago, guests can enjoy the shop’s favorites alongside rotating specials not available at the original location.

“The menu constantly changes,” Pfeiffer explains. ”It ebbs and flows with the people that are working that day. We look at it as like a living organism.”

One thing that won’t be leaving the menu anytime soon, though, is the Shiddy Burger. It took a little trial and error but the recipe was perfected by mixing shredded cheese in with the ground beef before it’s formed into balls. As a result, the cheese gets caramelized when the meat is smashed onto the grill, giving it a crisp, lacy crust. The patty is dressed with American cheese, shredded lettuce and a Big Mac-esque secret sauce. And yes, Pfeiffer confirms that the burger’s name is a way of jokingly calling it bad.

Hailed by many as one of the best in Chicago, the burger was ironically not even offered when Big Kids initially debuted. Instead, it started off as a weekly special until its immense popularity couldn’t be ignored. Non-meat eaters aren’t left in the dark, either. The burger can be ordered with a veggie patty at the Market and the menu boasts a number of vegan options.

At the end of the day, Big Kids may be the brainchild of Pfeiffer but he stresses that everyone on staff plays a role in its success, especially the two-person team managing the Market outpost.

“We’re all Big Kids … we wanted to be able to create our own environment and make the food we like to make and be happy,” Pfeiffer says, adding, “Happiness is most important; it took me a long time to realize that but it’s possible. You just kind of pave your own way.”

You can try Big Kids' sandwiches and burgers at 2545 N Kedzie Blvd or inside Time Out Market Chicago.

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