About 35 years ago a double cheeseburger known as the Big Baby was introduced at Nicky's, a small Greek-owned diner on Chicago's southwest side. Its popularity spread and there are now dozens of places serving almost exactly the same burger under the same name. I think it's safe to say that a good many Chicagoans are unaware of this indigenous Chicago hamburger style.
I have to admit I'm not sure precisely where and when the Big Baby originated. I spoke with quite a few people and got quite a few different stories, not all of them consistent. It seems that during the 1960s a Greek gentleman named Nicky opened a number of hot dog and hamburger stands on the southwest side. Eventually he sold them and returned to Greece. The stands that still bear his name (and their many offshoots) continue the Big Baby tradition.
If Nicky's Drive In in the Gage Park neighborhood wasn't the first to serve Big Babies it was certainly among the earliest. It opened in 1969 as a little diner on the northeast corner of 58th and Kedzie, a block north of the Colony Theater and the original Gertie's Ice Cream Parlor (actually it started a little before that but was bought by its current owner in 1969). In 1981 it moved across the street to its current larger quarters on the southeast corner of 58th and Kedzie. Originally it had a simple yellow and white keystone-shaped sign but the new sign (a more stylized keystone) features a distinctive turquoise and pink combination and the interior has plenty of the same colors. The menu contains many of the Chicago fast food standards such as hot dogs, gyros, ribs, and Italian beef but the Big Baby remains Nicky's signature item. I assume the Big Baby was a response to McDonald's hugely successful introduction of the Big Mac in 1968.
Basically a Big Baby is two griddled beef patties with cheese on a toasted sesame seed bun. It comes dressed with mustard, ketchup, dill pickle, and grilled onion. Upon ordering, the grillman slaps down two one-sixth pound patties onto the griddle and prods them a bit with the corner and edge of the spatula as they cook. The bun is placed alongside on the griddle to toast and catch 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 melting of the cheese. The bottom of the now-toasted bun gets squirts of mustard and ketchup, then 3 or 4 dill pickle slices are laid on. The burger stack is crowned with a tongful of pre-made grilled onions, transferred to the waiting bun, and the whole assembly is wrapped in a sheet of plain waxed paper. The price at Nicky's is $2.19 or two for $3.99. Not an elegant burger but greasy and good in a reassuringly old-fashioned way.
I certainly don't mean to suggest that Nicky's was the first to make a double cheeseburger with grilled onions but they seem to have defined the style, coined the name, and spawned a host of imitators. A manager at Nicky's who has worked there for decades says there are now 40 or 50 places, almost all on the southwest side, serving Big Babies. That seems a bit high to me but it might well be true. When your eyes are trained, the area around Midway Airport (and beyond) seems to be crawling with Big Babies.
Popper's, about a block south of Bobak's and a little north of Midway, has a turquoise and pink sign and interior and serves a pretty faithful rendition of the Big Baby. It's not surprising that the original owner, Anthony Vassiliou (the "AV" remains on Popper's sign), used to work at Nicky's. Like many competitors, they undercut Nicky's price but use smaller one-eighth pound patties. A Big Baby at Popper's is $1.79.
Anthony's, on 63rd at the southeast corner of the airport, is almost a carbon copy of Popper's (itself a copy of Nicky's). This is Mr Vassiliou's current business; one of the many signs inside Anthony's informs us that they are no longer affiliated with Popper's. Their Big Baby is virtually identical to Popper's but costs 10 cents more. No substitutions, no exceptions.
Over on Pulaski, next to Las Islas Marias, is a hamburger stand called Jacky's. They serve one of the cheapest Big Babies around for $1.69. It doesn't quite have the authentic Big Baby taste but it's a heck of a deal. Reportedly Jacky's is run by a relative of the Nicky's owner.
Nicky's of 58th and Kedzie now has two other locations, one in Cicero and another in Alsip. There are quite a few other now-unrelated hamburger stands that go by the name Nicky's and serve Big Babies. The original Nicky's discusses the problem of the "other places" on the back of their menu and has changed their name to Nicky's—The Real McCoy.
On 47th Street a mile and a half north of the original Nicky's is another Nicky's, without any turquoise and pink but with Big Babies ($2.39). These are made much the same as the originals but in addition to the standardized toppings they are dressed with shredded lettuce and a slice of tomato which just seems wrong. This Nicky's has an old yellow and white keystone-shaped sign, like the sign at the old 58th and Kedzie location before they moved and switched to turquoise and pink.
A mile west, on Pulaski is another Nicky's with an identical yellow and white keystone-shaped sign. In addition to the old sign there is newer pink and blue neon to make it look a little more Nicky's-like. I asked if they were related to other Nicky's and before I could finish my sentence they answered no. The Big Baby is pretty much the same as at the 47th Street Nicky's.
On Archer beyond Midway there's another Nicky's also with a yellow and white keystone sign but its shape and typography are a little different. The workers wear red T-shirts with white lettering and there is no pink or turquoise to be seen. The requisite pictures of Greece hang on the wall. This Nicky's serves a classic but smaller version of the Big Baby (without lettuce or tomato).
There's another Nicky's on the southwest corner of 35th and Western but it has a plain rectangular sign, seemingly unrelated to the others. They serve a standard small version of the Big Baby.
A mile west on 35th is yet another Nicky's but it doesn't serve a Big Baby. Instead they offer a Mama Burger! This truly disgusting creation is heavily dressed with a cheap tartar-sauce-like sandwich spread that makes me shudder to think about. Could the Mama Burger be the missing link between the Big Mac and Big Baby?
Nicky's Grill on Western at 103rd in Beverly also sells what they call a Big Baby but here the patties are cooked on a gas-fired grill rather than a griddle. It is also dressed with lettuce and tomato. This is the most expensive Big Baby I sampled at $2.89 and also the least like the original, though not a bad burger at all. As an aside, their Italian beef was specifically recommended on Metromix but it's a very poor rendition.
Farther south on Western at 115th is still another Nicky's and of course they serve a Big Baby. Although cooked on a griddle, it comes dressed with lettuce and tomato. Yes, there's a picture of The Parthenon on the wall.
I haven't explored the suburbs much but when I heard that Kings and Queens in Berwyn changed its name to Nicky's I couldn't stay away. Sure enough Big Babies are on the menu ($1.79) and The Parthenon is on the wall. They're dressed with lettuce and tomato but are probably the best of that subgenre. The owner, Nicky (but not the original Nicky), used to own the Nicky's at 115th and Western and the one on Pulaski.
One of the northernmost Big Babies I've noticed is at Mickey's in Oak Park. It is the cheapest Big Baby I've encountered, a special at $1.25, but is a Big Baby in name only for it lacks cheese. In its place, the grilled onions are inserted between the two small beef patties. To get what sounds like a Big Baby you need to order a Big Mickey.
There are burgers called Big Babies in Greektown at Mr Greek but they're not very Babylike. The bun is barely toasted, cheese is on top of (as well as between) the patties, there's lettuce and tomato, but worst of all no grilled onions, only raw. Again, not a bad burger but it's no Big Baby.
With those cheeseless and grilled-onionless exceptions, I have yet to come across a Big Baby that doesn't have a griddle-toasted sesame seed bun, condiments on the bottom, cheese between the two beef patties, and sauteed onions on the top. That seems to be the sacred formula.
I'd love to hear about other Big Baby experiences. Does anyone remember Big Babies from the 1960s or '70s? Was there somewhere featuring them before Nicky's at 58th and Kedzie? How far north and east can Big Babies be found?
Finally, I'd say the Big Baby from Nicky's at 58th and Kedzie, if not the best of the bunch, is probably the one to try first for an idea what a Big Baby is like. It's certainly not the city's best burger but is an interesting little piece of Chicago food history.
Nicky's—The Real McCoy
5801 S Kedzie Av
Also at 11524 S Pulaski and 2400 S Cicero
5341 S Archer Av
4720 W 63rd St
5415 S Pulaski Rd
3140 W 47th St
10255 S Western Av
Nicky's Drive Through
11500 S Western Av
Nicky's Hot Dogs
6142 S Archer Av
Nicky's Carry Out
3501 S Western Blvd
Nicky's Carry Out
1734 W 35th St
Nicky's System Inc
4601 S Pulaski Rd
Nicky's Drive Through
7025 W Roosevelt
525 N Harlem Av
Mr Greek Gyros
234 S Halsted St
Last edited by Rene G
on September 22nd, 2005, 4:56 am, edited 1 time in total.