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Photograph: Martha Williams

The burger that ate Chicago

The South Side gave birth to the Big Baby cheeseburger, but who's the burgerdaddy?


Ask anyone in the city about Chicago-style hot dogs and chances are they'll be able to rattle off the canonical list of toppings as well as provide their opinion about where to get the best. But ask the same question about Chicago-style burgers and you'll likely be met with a blank stare. Other than "cheezborgers" at the Billy Goat, there's no style that's commonly associated with our city.

RECOMMENDED: Best burgers in Chicago 

But about 35 years ago a double cheeseburger known as the Big Baby was introduced at several small, Greek-owned fast-food joints on Chicago's Southwest Side. According to Jim Lilas—owner of Nicky's on Archer Avenue—around 1967, a Greek guy named Nick Vaginas (yes, that's his real name) opened the joints, then sold them and returned to Greece. But the restaurants that still bear his name, and their many offshoots continue the Big Baby tradition. There are dozens of places, still mostly on the Southwest Side, serving almost exactly the same burger under the same name (see "Whining for a Big Baby?" for a sample). When you're looking for them, the area around Midway Airport (and beyond) seems to be crawling with Big Babies.

The concoction isn't complicated: When you order, the grill man slaps down two one-sixth–pound beef patties onto the griddle and prods them a bit with a spatula as they cook. A sesame seed bun is placed alongside on the griddle to toast and soak up a few spatters of fat. When the patties are almost done, a slice of American cheese is placed on one, and the other patty is put on top to hasten the melting of the cheese. The bottom of the now-toasted bun gets squirts of mustard and ketchup, then three or four dill-pickle slices. The burger stack is crowned with a generous pile of grilled onions, transferred to the waiting bun, and the whole assembly is wrapped in a sheet of plain waxed paper.

Certainly Nicky's wasn't the first in history to make a double cheeseburger with grilled onions, but it seems to have defined the style, coined the name and spawned a host of imitators. The genealogy of the establishments selling Big Babies is twisted and tangled, and the story depends on who tells it. Some of the stands were founded by Nicky himself in the 1960s and now are run by early associates. (These include the Nicky's at 61st Street and Archer Avenue, 58th Street and Kedzie Avenue, 47th Street and Kedzie Avenue and 46th Street and Pulaski Road) Others, such as Anthony's and Popper's, were started later by former employees. Aside from these, the rest going by the name Nicky's have no direct relationship to the original but make use of a locally known name and product.

But if you're talking to Jim Maneri—the long-time owner of Nicky's-The Real McCoy at 58th Street and Kedzie Avenue—he claims he's the one who coined the name Big Baby back when he opened his place in '69. "Sure, other people have made a double cheeseburger, but it was my family who was sitting around talking one night and decided to call it the Big Baby," he says. "And then I had people who worked for me, knew my style, went and opened their own places, calling themselves Nicky's and serving Big Babies. We're too small to go after these guys legally but it doesn't really matter because we invented it and, of course, we're still the best." And just to stand out from the "other guys," Maneri added "The Real McCoy" to the name of his business in the mid-'80s.

But that doesn't deter more Nicky's from popping up. Take Nicky's Grill on 102nd Street and Western Avenue: It was opened eight years ago by Paul Kostopanagiotou, whose father has owned one of the original Nicky's for the last 30 years. While Kostopanagiotou's joint is basically a cousin twice removed, he banks on the confusion to boost business, saying "Nicky's has a good name on the South Side." But his Big Baby tinkers with the sacred formula by including lettuce and tomato, because, as he claims, "more people ask for it." Maneri, on the other hand, takes a dim view of such practices: "Lettuce and tomato have no business on a Big Baby. It's the grilled onions, that's what makes it."

More extreme variants are rare but can be found. Nicky's in Berwyn serves up a staggering variety, including the Western Big Baby and a gyros-embellished version. These are tasty in their own way, but not for a purist in the steamy, greasy, tangled world of the Big Baby.

Whining for a Big Baby?

Who knows which of these spots begat Chicago's most-imitated burger, but when we're talking about a double cheeseburger, how could you go wrong?

4720 W 63rd St between Kilpatrick and Keating Aves, 773-585-7180
5415 S Pulaski Rd between 54th and 55th Sts, 773-767-7676
Nicky's Carry Out
3501 S Western Blvd between 35th St and 35th Pl, 773-847-6391
Nicky's Carry Out
1734 W 35th St between Hermitage Ave and Wood St, 773-254-7852
Nicky's Drive Through
11500 S Western Av between 115th and 116th Sts, 773-238-2855
Nicky's Drive Through
7025 W Roosevelt Rd between Wenonah and Wisconsin Aves, Berwyn, 708-484-5550
Nicky's Grill
10255 S Western Ave between 102nd and 103rd Sts, 773-233-3072
Nicky's Hamburgers
3140 W 47th St between Troy St and Kedzie Ave, 773-847-4026
Nicky's Hot Dogs
6142 S Archer Ave between Mason and Austin Aves, 773-585-3675
Nicky's System Inc
4601 S Pulaski Rd between 46th and 47th Sts, 773-523-4555
Nicky's - The Real McCoy
5801 S Kedzie Ave between 58th and 59th Sts, 773-436-6458
525 N Harlem Ave between Ontario and Erie Sts, Oak Park, 708-848-3333
Mr Greek Gyros
234 S Halsted St between Adams St and Jackson Blvd, 312-906-8730
5341 S Archer Ave between Keating and Cicero Aves, 773-585-5260

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