Milwaukee’s appreciation of all things meat has opened the door to many fine burger specimens – 24 of which you’ll find here. What makes a great one? It’s not just the superiority of the patty and the expertise of the cooking. It’s also the quality of the bun. Many burgers have been dragged down by the weight of a subpar bun.
Evolution has taken burgers far from their American cheese and fried onion beginnings. A classic, old-school burger can be a beautiful thing. But a growing number of chefs are taking things into their own hands, not just gobbing on unexpected ingredients, but taking the process of meat-grinding, bun-baking and even condiment-making into their kitchens. Hot? Definitely. But we won’t keep you. You have a lot of burgers to eat.
JAKE’S BURGER 18905 W. Capitol Dr., Suite 110, Brookfield, 262-781-1110 // Burgers $6.95-$12.95.
It was a lickety-split restaurant turnover. After closing Haute Taco, Jake and Karen Replogle were a few weeks later bunning up patties, lending Jake’s name to quickly remodeled digs. All the burgers – the patties are made of ground short rib, brisket and sirloin – are cooked sous-vide (low and slow), then finished off on the flat-top, ensuring that each is cooked to medium temp. Although there’s a basic number called Just a Burger, these babies are anything but: Brie truffle cheese (truffle oil, too), port-caramelized onions, oven-roasted tomatoes, arugula and others. Toppings that’ll spoil you. Points also earned for the homemade pickle coins and chewy toasted sesame-seed bun.
THE RUMPUS ROOM 1030 N. Water St., 414-292-0100 // Burgers $14.50.
Joe Bartolotta, czar of Milwaukee’s most diverse restaurant conglomerate, gets his burger notoriety from Northpoint, the group’s answer to fast food. But it doesn’t paint the full picture of Bartolotta burger-hood. The Rumpus burger gives your hands a welcome workout, keeping the thick, juicy patty together with melted cheese, homemade pickle coins, Russian dressing and a Sciortino’s bun.
OSCAR’S PUB & GRILL 1712 W. Pierce St., 414-810-1820 // Burgers $5-$7.25.
Mexico native Oscar Castaneda honed his flipping and topping skills at Sobelmans, then opened this near-National Avenue joint in 2011. His bun-rockers are topped Oscar style. He does the Big Aloha (with ham, havarti, avocado and pineapple) and the Big Foot (blue and Boursin cheeses). Although both are luscious, neither compares to the Big O, an Angus beast that goes for maximum height thanks to chipotle jack cheese, Gouda, bacon, jalapenos and chorizo.
STACK’D BURGER BAR 170 S. First St., 414-273-7800 // Burgers $10-$14.
Vertical is the direction in which a burger moves. This Fifth Ward force takes the notion of layers well beyond the prosaic. It’s a little like Joan Rivers’ face. More, apparently, is better. But a few qualities stand out here – the ability to build your own burger from oodles of ingredients, and the Stack’d options for gluten-avoiders and vegetarians.
BEST BURGER DEAL
Tuesday (5-10 p.m.) is Burger Night at SKIPPY’S BURGER BAR (113 Green Bay Rd., Thiensville, 262-512-1240). For just one buck, you get a patty and a soft, average bun. Toppings like cheese, tomato, jalapenos, pickles and mushrooms are a quarter each. (Bacon or a fried egg, 50 cents each.) But even with the add-ons, you get a decent burger for $2.50 or $3. You could spend more than that on your sides! Potato chips ($4) and hand-cut fries ($3) come blazing hot from the fryer. Drink purchase necessary. Burger night runs through Labor Day.
SOBELMANS Five locations // Burgers $8-$14.
Not so long ago, Dave Sobelman’s burgers were an enjoyment limited to a former Schlitz tavern in the Menomonee Valley. Mr. Sobelman’s subsequent conquests include a corner building on the Marquette University campus. It goes without saying that Black Angus – a one-third-pound patty on a Breadsmith roll – is the sought-after beef here. The burger can be had 12 ways – mushroom and Swiss, patty melt, etc. – but the Loser Burger’s triad of fried onions, Colby cheese and Nueske’s bacon is a goody.
PALOMINO 2491 S. Superior St., 414-747-1007 // Burgers $10-$13.
If Bay View has a Southern-fried corner, it’s where South Superior hits East Russell: the seat of Palomino’s dining domination. But not everything here is as country as a bowl of grits. The patties are pure Wisconsin grass-fed beef, best enjoyed (by this palate) medium-rare and dressed Haymaker style, with Swiss, mushrooms, onion strings and horseradish sauce. You’d also do well with the Blue (cheese) Pig burger. Also awesome: Two sides and one dipping sauce come with each burger. A perfect moment to introduce your beef to the tots with Pinky horseradish sauce.
HONEYPIE 2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-489-7437 // Burgers $14.
It’s blasphemy, some people will tell you, to eat a burger with a knife and fork. I say it’s not only acceptable, it’s sometimes unavoidable, particularly with a burger like Honeypie’s – a third-pound of lean beef from Wisconsin’s Rare Earth Meats, not topped with but rather smothered in American cheese, caramelized onions, spicy mayo, the obligatory bacon and an egg cooked sunny side up. Messy? You betcha. But no complaints here.
MASON STREET GRILL 425 E. Mason St., 414-298-3131 // Burgers $10.50-16.
A restaurant can fall back on one burger, as long as that one burger is exemplary. The Pfister Hotel’s fine dining joint came up with its equation for the consummate burger – Muenster cheese, honey-glazed onions and house-made burger relish. It glitzes up the 10-ounce patty with a tangy sweetness and comes with terrific, well-seasoned frites inside a stainless steel cone.
DR. DAWG 6969 N. Port Washington Rd., 414-540-0400 // Burgers $4.99 and $6.99; sides and some toppings are extra.
Do not be fooled by the presence of the doctor’s last name. Dawgs – excuse me, hot dogs – are the bread and butter of this bright-colored, quick-service operation. David Ross, the doctor in question, provides a damn good burger – a Niman Ranch patty (your choice of one-third- or two-thirds-pound) on a soft brioche bun. Great char-grilled flavor and a nice variety of add-ons. Doll it up with caramelized onions, Danish blue cheese, beefsteak tomato and no-bean chili.
MILLER TIME PUB Hilton Milwaukee Hotel, 509 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-271-2337 // Burgers $9-$12.
In the Popeye comic strip, Wimpy said, and I quote, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” What about two, or even three burgers? Twenty creations make up Miller Time’s “craft” burger list, which would surely send Wimpy, if we could see him now, into a tizzy. I’ve pulled many a flavorless, unripe tomato off a burger. So the burger with a thick, juicy-as-Niagara-Falls beefsteak tomato almost makes me ditch the patty. Almost. I also must give a shout-out to the Brew City, which hits every base with Merkt’s cheese spread, horseradish ale cream and onion strings.
KIL@WAT InterContinental Milwaukee Hotel, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave., 414-291-4793 // Burgers $10.
The textures and colors of this hotel restaurant are a modern contrast to a two-fister I have no problem ordering again and again – the double-decker Classic Big Boy burger (which gained fame at the old Marc’s Big Boy restaurants). It is fast food redux at its finest. Two patties, shredded lettuce, Thousand Island dressing, a soft sesame-seed bun. The accompanying frites are addictively crisp but not as flavorful as the truffle fries – an at-no-charge upgrade.
HOOLIGAN’S SUPER BAR 2017 E. North Ave., 414-273-5230 // Burgers $8-$9.50.
Many years ago, I watched a local band perform at Hoolie’s, the members using the bar as a stage. I reminisce about this as I eat my Beelzaburger, but not for long. Because the Beelzaburger lulls me into a chipotle pepper cheese spread stupor. The mix of bacon, cheese spread, pepper jack cheese and jalapenos works so well together, there could be an old shoe on the bun, and I wouldn’t notice. Another char-grilled charmer: the Hooli-Burger with cheddar, bacon, mayo and BBQ sauce.
TRISKELE’S 1801 S. Third St., 414-837-5950 // Burger $10.50. Cheese, an extra 75 cents.
Walker’s points is the hottie of hot neighborhoods. But drive south of Greenfield Avenue, on Second or Third streets, and it turns residential and slightly off the grid. It’s among the narrow little houses with colorful lawn art that Triskele’s offers its simple, fresh, comfort style of cookery. The menu has changed seasonally since it opened in 2007, but the grilled third-pound burger has never taken a hiatus. It shouldn’t. It starts with a golden toasted bun, which supports a delectable, juicy, third-pound Angus patty topped with romaine and Roma tomato and, if you’d like, cheese. (For me, Gorgonzola!) Chef/co-owner JoLinda Klopp serves it with super chile powder-seasoned fries, salad or the often-stellar soup of the day.
LULU CAFE & BAR 2261-65 S. Howell Ave., 414-294-5858 // Burgers $10.95-11.95.
Yeah, I like the LuLu ramen slaw and homemade potato chips, too – enough that you’ll meet the chips in “Sidekicks” (Page 44). For now, you need only think of the Half Pound Heart Attack burger. If the EMTs are going to come for you, it’s a good way to go out. Holy Gorgonzola and bacon!
HARRY’S BAR GRILL 3549 N. Oakland Ave., 414-964-6800 // Burgers $11-$15.
The bar that anchors southern Shorewood had a facelift last year, which resulted in a raised patio and a dining room that went the Dublin, paneled-wall pub route. I couldn’t see the Harry’s underneath until I fixated on the burgers. Yes, it’s the Harry’s of yore – juicy half-pound mess machines that will keep you busy for at least a half-hour. Suggested chew: the Portland Slider.
NORTHPOINT CUSTARD (2272 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr., 414-727-4886; Mitchell International Airport, Main Terminal) // Burgers $4.95.
Caveat: The Bartolotta-owned business is not a burger joint with a lineage, except perhaps in spirit. The lakefront location is now in its tenth season, but the tenor of the fare is classic. In its favor, NP uses a sturdy Sciortino’s roll (which lifts the quarter-pound char-grilled beef patty beyond the mundane). Toppings range from Merkt’s cheese and sautéed onions to avocado and sprouts. The white cheddar cheese curds are a treat of a side dish ($5.50). Lakefront location open May to (tentatively) September.
KOPP’S FROZEN CUSTARD Three locations // Burgers $4.30-$7.25.
A good test of this 68-year-old drive-up is to visit on a flawless summer weekend day. Naturally, the long lines are unwavering. But the movement behind the stainless steel counter and microphone (“Number 804. Red light…”) is unwavering, too. Efficient. Attentive. This is fast food, but with a high quality-to-price ratio. One of my favorite cheeseburgers – wide, thin and consistently good – and crisp, close-to-perfect onion rings.
SOLLY’S GRILLE 4629 N. Port Washington Rd., 414-332-8808 // Burgers $4.89-$10.99.
Religious zealots may talk about a transcendent experience known as the rapture. To patty aficionados, that is an eating experience known as the butter burger. The what? A burger finished off with a generous pat of butter, which, upon melting, uses the bun like a towel. Solly’s offers burgers with double patties and blue cheese, but there’s nothing quite like the Solly Burger — ground sirloin topped with stewed onions and drenched in butter. Watch those shirt cuffs!
NITE OWL 830 E. Layton Ave., 414-483-2524 // Burgers $3-$6.80. Cash only.
Grilled-cheese-and-a-Chocolate-Shake stands next to me. Double-Cheeseburger-and-a-Coke is few feet away. The carryout window at this 1940s drive-in is flanked by hungry eyes, all staring at the tattooed arms on the other side of the counter. When my order is up, the tatted man passes the grease-spattered white bag my way. In seconds, I’m blowing on a smoking crinkle-cut fry and ripping apart hunks of a thin but ample beef patty slathered in American cheese and mustard. Nite Owl also has a charming little dining room with a checkered floor and gingham curtains. It’s hard to pick a bone with that carryout window though. After securing your order, drive over to nearby Mitchell Airport Park and take in the awesome sight of aircraft landing and taking off. Open seasonally, generally late March to November.
MAZOS 3146 S. 27th St., 414-671-2118
American fries, applesauce, cottage cheese? These side dishes of a bygone era are still on the menu at Mazos, whose beginnings date to the 1930s. This tiny 27th Street building, like Leon’s Custard (its neighbor across the street), is an anachronism. It houses a small lunch counter with brown covered stools, shiny little wooden booths and framed images of celebs of the past like Elvis. You’re doing well if your hands are wrapped around a Burger Supreme – a soft, standard burger bun with a patty cooked through, capped with Swiss or American, crisp bacon, lettuce, tomato and Thousand Island dressing. You get two sides with your burger. I like the seasoned crinkle fries and soup of the day.