Every staff member who hears the order is beaming with excitement. Chef Nacho Zagala hustles over to the table, still in his apron. He’s also wearing a bright smile. Moments later, general manager Jim Evans approaches quickly with the same thrill.
“You like it?” Zagala asks, extending his hand for a shake. He’s spilling over with joy because I ordered the cheeseburger, Campisi’s “secret” off-menu burger that’s been lurking quietly for decades. Zagala has been working the kitchen at Campisi’s for about 40 years, and the cheeseburger has been around for at least that long. Ask around and you’ll learn that it’s likely been there longer.
“It’s fresh beef. It’s not frozen,” Zagala says, still smiling. When Evans approaches, his voice booms; his enthusiasm is admirable.
“What was it — cheeseburger or hamburger?" He asks over the booth. “Somebody said you had a hamburger, and I had to come over.”
Sometime ago, Campisi’s had a couple of burgers on the menu: There was a “hamburger” and a “special hamburger.” The special burger meant you’d be getting a fresh patty. The hamburger 1.0 was a preformed, frozen patty. Now, any order of the double-secret probation burger — it’s not on the menu at any location — is, essentially, the same “special burger” you could have ordered way back when. Exactly how long has it been off menu? It's unclear. Yet it’s the same fresh beef blend, a simple 80 percent beef 20 percent fat, and it’s good enough that some staffers sheepishly admit they take handfuls of it home at the end of a shift.
Zagala seasons the patty, sears it on the flat-top until it’s capped with crust and adds American cheese. Hunks of iceberg lettuce, lightly dressed in oil and vinegar, and thick red onions sit under the burger, getting a nice bath in burger grease. I order mine with yellow mustard and diced jalapeños. The jalapeños are mellow enough that they won’t murder your palate but bright enough to add a wave of heat. A seeded bun, the kind you can get at the grocery store, is perfectly toasted.
My beef patty is cooked medium rare, and the dressed lettuce adds a pop. The tomatoes are rough: They’re under-ripe and nearly tough. The construction — beef patty balanced over thick onion, two tomato slices and a pile of jalapeños — allows for some sandwich slippage. My fries, crinkle-cut circles, needed to crisp for longer. Still, the beef juices roll into the onion and dill pickle slices, and it tastes like a satisfying, greasy spoon burger that you'll remember.
There’s probably no reason for a red checkered cloth, dimly lit Italian joint to have a juicy cheeseburger, but Campisi’s is owning it. You can even ask for the burger to be fire-grilled, not griddled. It's easy to like a neighborhood joint that offers such a thing. Especially one that’s been around since the late '40s.
Campisi's original location, 5610 E. Mockingbird Lane