I've been reviewing burgers on Serious Eats for about four and a half years now, and I've learned many things along the way. First and foremost is that Milwaukeeans are passionate about their burger allegiances. A few of my posts have sparked heated debates. Second, Milwaukeeans love their butter burgers. So much butter! And third, Milwaukee's got a lot going for it on the burger front, with new burger-specific restaurants opening each year. It's burger heaven.
These ten burgers all fit nicely into their own categories, which is usually how I approach answering the dreaded question, "What's your favorite burger in MKE?" My answer is always the same: it depends on what kind of burger you're looking for. So here's my Top 10 in no particular order because there's no way I can choose just one favorite.
Best Diner Burger: North Avenue Grill
I swooned over the fried onions on North Avenue Grill's half-pound burger. When even the onions make you this happy, you know the rest of it has to be pretty good, too. The thick patties are cooked to temperature by the owner of this tiny diner, who is also the head cook. You can tell he takes a lot of pride in his food and cooks with a ton of love. Don't skip the crunchy, heavily seasoned french fries either.
Best Steakhouse Burger: Mason Street Grill
Milwaukee has a ton of steakhouses that almost all offer a burger. My favorite is Mason Street Grill, whose burgers feature supremely flavorful patties ground from hanger steak. You'd be remiss to order anything above a medium. Being cooked at a high temp gives the patties a great char while remaining solidly medium in the center.
They no longer do the Sunday night burger and beer special I reviewed, but they still have burgers on their everyday menus. They also get extra points for offering Muenster, the most underrated burger cheese, as a topping.
Best Upscale Burger: Jake's
If you want to splurge a little bit, do it at Jake's. The owners also own a steakhouse, so they know their beef. The burgers are almost comically large, but don't let that fool you into thinking they're gimmicks. Almost everything is made in-house, including the delicious pickles. The loosely packed patties are a super juicy mix of short rib, brisket, and sirloin. Even the lettuce is impressive: Boston lettuce holds up to this massive burger, unlike insipid iceberg.
Best Fast Food Burger: Dr. Dawg
Just because they're better known for their Chicago-style Italian beef and hot dogs doesn't mean Dr. Dawg doesn't have great burgers, too. They're one of the few fast food outlets where you can get your burger cooked to less than well done. The beef is hand pattied from Niman Ranch beef and starts falling apart by your last bites. I'm also enamored with their homemade rosemary garlic fries and the buffalo-like Dawg sauce.
(Honorable mention in the fast food category goes to Kopp's. It's a Milwaukee institution, but I know that not everyone is as nostalgic about their burgers as I am.)
Best Drive In Burger: Nite Owl
Nite Owl is a super quirky spot that's been around since 1948. They close all winter, and they close for the day when their beef is all gone, usually between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., so you better get there early. The key here is to embrace the well done patty, because sometimes, well done is ok. These burgers have been popular for over 60 years, so they must be doing something right. The beef is fresh and hand packed with a ton of nooks and crannies for the double layer of American cheese to ooze into. Wash it down with a malt, naturally.
Best Bar Burger: Oscar's Pub and Grill
There are a bunch of neighborhood bar spots with a similar burger + Bloody Mary format in MKE, and Oscar's is my favorite. They're the relatively new kid on the block, but they feel like they're been around much longer than a few years. Their half-pound burgers are always juicy, especially when topped with chorizo, smoked gouda, bacon, onions, and jalapeños, as the Big O is. My personal favorite lately though is their mushroom Swiss burger, topped with the thickest fresh mushrooms I've ever seen on a burger. Their homemade fries set them apart from other bars, and their Bloodies are fantastic.
Best Downtown Burger: Elsa's on the Park
Part of the local Kopp's burger family dynasty, Elsa's has my favorite burger downtown. The posh bar serves half-pound sirloin burgers that you can top with any or all of their cheeses. Be still my heart! They provide lots of other topping options, but for a Wisconsin classic, just let the beef and five cheeses work their magic together. Everything else is just distracting.
Best Old School Burger: Mazos
Nite Owl isn't the oldest burger place in MKE; that award goes to Mazos. These folks have served up burgers to the working class south side since 1934. There's nothing fancy about this place—there are only two cheese choices (Swiss and American) and nothing more than bacon, mushrooms, and a few veggie toppings to choose from. But they've been around so long because they're doing everything right, including the homemade sides like baked beans and chili. Bonus points for being right across the street from Leon's Custard, the perfect dessert.
Best Mass Appeal Burger: Culver's
I'm a sucker for smashed burgers, and the Wisconsin-based chain Culver's does them pretty darn well, especially for a pretty large national chain. Unlike my other picks, at Culver's you can experience Wisconsin's butter burger first hand. There's always a crisp crust on these burgers, and the buns are grilled with just the right amount of butter, though "the right amount" can vary by location. I was a little hard on them in my review, but I've eaten there many times since and haven't encountered the same problems. I've developed a new problem, though: now I crave their burgers.
Best Burger Night Deal: Benno's
Wednesday nights are the best time to visit Benno's. You get a third-pound burger for $5, including two big ticket toppings like bacon, cheese, and fried egg, plus as many veggie and sauce toppings you want. They don't cheap out and use frozen, pre-made beef patties, either—they're hand formed, completely irregular, and cooked to medium-well, then nestled in a Milwaukee hard roll bun. With all those free toppings, you need that substantial, crusty roll to hold everything together. This is the same kind of burger your grandma used to make, and it's pure comfort food in a bun. Grandma probably didn't have 30 beer taps to wash it down with, though.
Bonus Best Madison Burger: Tipsy Cow
Ok, so this one isn't in MKE, but I did a few reviews in Madison and they deserve some love, too. My favorite in the city is Tipsy Cow, especially their pimento cheese-topped special. They make thin smashed burgs with super crunchy, well developed crusts on fluffy white buns. Add some homemade pimento cheese spread made with five-year cheddar and it's a huge winner. Round out your cheesy meal with some fried cheese curds just the way they should be—spongy—or chili cheese fries.