With all due respect to Mom’s apple pie, there is no question that when it comes to a food item that’s synonymous with the U.S. of A., it’s the burger. While the hamburger is indisputably ours, the term likely comes from the Hamburg meat sandwich hailing from Germany. Interestingly, the German word burg translates to fortress or castle. How apt is that descriptor for this pop culture phenomenon?
This integral part of our American cuisine can come many ways: patties smashed thin (“smashburger”) or formed thick, doubled or tripled up, and topped with almost anything (but often cheese). Some combination of ground beef is standard, though great bites come from patties of vegan or vegetarian origin, too.
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Here we’re highlighting 16 burgers available in Milwaukee – some buzzy, some classic, some under the radar – in four carefully considered categories. They might be a first-time sensory experience or a chance to revisit an old favorite after some time away. All are available for carryout (some for delivery, too), and really what is better than getting that bag of burger goodness, the beefy aroma filling the inside of your car?
These picks form the field for our Burger Bracket, a tournament-style beef-off in which you can vote your favorite in each matchup to glory. Fun – and delicious? You bet!
KOREAN BBQ BURGER
Crave – the strip-mall joint in Shorewood – is almost completely devoted to burgers. Treat that common case of the patty-bun doldrums with their Korean BBQ burger ($7.50). Holy cow, is it tasty! The one-third pound Angus patty is cooked to a juicy medium, and the toppings – American cheese, spicy mayo, BBQ glaze, kimchi and cabbage slaw – sends it home. It’s tangy sweet with a lip-tingling effect from the fermented cabbage. The bun? Sturdy but tender. (3592 N. Oakland Ave., 414-204-8778)
Elsa’s specializes in thick, cocktail lounge burgers – quite different from its sibling Kopp’s. What I like about these burgers is the lightly charred exterior, each bite revealing the soft, pink innards and releasing rivers of juice. This rendition, Las Brisas ($15.50), is like a trip to New Mexico, all soused up with Monterey Jack, jalapeños, salsa, avocado and raw onion. (833 N. Jefferson St., 414-765-0615)
THE MERRIMENT BURGER
When you’re eating a Merriment burger, it’s like you can tell the person who made it loves burgers, too. They take it all very seriously – the homemade milk bun, the beef ground in-house, the house-made pickles, plus applewood smoked bacon and creamy-zingy “social” sauce ($16). Simple but elevated ingredients. (240 E. Pittsburgh Ave., 414-645-0240)
THE BIG GRINGO
This creation brings together two of the best ingredients ever to land on a burger – cheese (two kinds: white cheddar and American) and thick, hickory smoked bacon ($7.75). Like all of Oscar’s hefty productions, this one leads with 8 ounces of juice-dribbling beef, which along with the shiny topped crusty carb foundation makes for a delectable challenge for the jaw. But hey, you’re up for it. (1712 W. Pierce St., 414-810-1820)
This homegrown favorite was the source of recent controversy when owner Karl Kopp changed a key ingredient: the bun. The change – to a Peter Sciortino Bakery roll – yielded a fluffier, more substantial support system for the patty. Not a bad move at all, since the old bun turned mushy so quickly. I’m a Kopp’s burger loyalist. One of the main reasons is the consistency. It brings me back to teenage summers downing burgers and shakes outside the Port Washington Road location and watching the endless cars drive in and out of the wraparound parking lot. The patty is never dry, and you can customize your burger ($4.40) any way you like. I love pickles, fried onions and mustard. (Three locations, kopps.com)
Give up the bun – at least once – for chewy, buttery and crusty-grilled marble rye. You will not regret it. Mazos goes traditional with its patty melt – a thick, juicy hunk of ground beef (with an excellent ratio of fat) topped with melted double Swiss cheese and caramelized onions ($8.75, includes two sides). This delectable time warp combines the best of the burger and grilled cheese worlds. (3146 S. 27th St., 414-671-2118)
But it’s really a winner. Featured on a 2010 episode of Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” (where it lost to a creation from AJ Bombers), this specialty has become a permanent fixture on the menu. The hearty blend of tender beef is slathered with colby jack cheese, fried onions and smoked bacon and slid inside a solid bun ($9.50). (Four locations, sobelmanpubandgrill.com)
ORIGINAL BUTTER BURGER
The year 1936 was a big one for the butter burger. Coffee shop owner Solly Salmon was topping off his patties with a pat of butter that melted and dribbled down the sides. In Green Bay, Kroll’s Hamburgers was doing the same thing. Who served it first is up for debate, but Solly’s contribution to the lore and popularity of this drippy, oozy wonder is undeniable. Solly’s Original Butter Burger is still a marvel, simple as it is: a quarter-pound of ground sirloin cooked on the flattop, topped with stewed onions (which intensify the beef flavor), capped with a generous blob of our dairy state’s finest and served inside a fluffy bun ($5.55). Grab some napkins and eat fast – the juices will be running everywhere! (4629 N. Port Washington Rd., 414 332-8808)
Double or Nothing
I’m fairly certain executive chef/co-owner Dane Baldwin would face a mutiny if he ever decided to take his tribute to the Big Mac off the menu. The effort put into this triumph is evident in every component – two carefully cooked prime beef patties; layers of American cheese, pungent pickle, red onion, lettuce and tomato; tangy homemade Thousand Island dressing; and a fresh, crispy toasted bun ($14). It’s exquisite from first bite to last. (815 E. Brady St., 414-800-5816)
DOUBLE NAUGHTY ANGEL
They had me at “brioche bun.” Seriously. So many places don’t put enough effort into their buns, so to speak. But this pillowy sleeve is buttered, toasted and stands up to the messy-delicious mix Don’s piles inside it. And that’s two smash patties dolled up with melted American and Thousand Island-like Naughty Angel sauce ($7.95). Adding “the works” ($1 extra) provides the cool crunch of lettuce, tomato and pickle. This is a mad-hot good modern diner burger. (1100 S. First St., 414-808-0805)
I’m about to tell you to do something that might give you the meat sweats for a week. But it’s so good. This 72-year-old trip into the way-back machine features beef ground in-house daily and when they run out, they close. This means your burger is irrefutably fresh. Spring for the double – with each patty wonderfully juicy and an inch thick – and you won’t need to eat again for maybe another 48 hours. Draped in American cheese, topped with whatever you like and set inside a tender bun, it’ll set you back just nine bucks. (Open March to November, 830 E. Layton Ave., 414-483-2524)
HAMBURGER WITH CHEESE
Oh, but it’s so much more than its name. The main event is two juicy 3 ounce smash patties. Then, side notes of American cheese, balsamic caramelized onions and what they call “fancy sauce,” which is a little tart and a little sweet ($15). The patty is framed by a beautifully toasted, buttered bun strong enough to absorb all these precious juices without getting soggy. (234 E. Vine St., 414-763-3021)
The Chain Gang
The signature food item from this Sauk City-based custard franchise is juicier than your average chain burger, maybe because the top bun gets a lop of butter before meeting the patty. The meat has a delicate crust and doesn’t seem to be overhandled. All in all, pretty solid ($3). (culvers.com)
The upside: You can add unlimited toppings, and even the basic burger is a double. The downside: You really need them because the burger itself is underseasoned and on the dry side. And while I like a good sesame seed bun, this one quickly gets soft and gummy. ($7.85) (fiveguys.com)
For the quality and value, this smashburger-style number is the best fast food chain burger you can get in MKE – albeit at just one location, in the Third Ward. It’s all in the details – the tender, juicy patty with a perfect, crusty exterior, a buttered, toasted potato bun, and that smooth, piquant ShackSauce. The one drawback to these patties is their size. For maximum satisfaction, make it a double ($8.29). (shakeshack.com)
THE OUR BURGER
Boston-based and founded by chef Paul Wahlberg and his Hollywood famous brothers Mark and Donnie, Wahlburgers has two area locations – Third Ward and The Corners of Brookfield – where the beef patties are substantial (at least one-third pound) and come topped with the signature Wahl sauce, a blend of ketchup, mayo and sriracha. The Our Burger ($7.75) has the classic toppings of processed cheese, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, pickles and the tangy Wahl sauce. It’s cooked to order (I chose medium) and juicy, and the bun is a tender, strong support. It just isn’t flavorful, and I expected much more. (wahlburgers.com)