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[Photographs: Lacey Muszynski]

Frozen custard isn't a novelty in Milwaukee, it's a way of life. So much so that it can be hard for someone who grew up here to comprehend that places without custard exist, let alone grasp that large swathes of the country may not even know what it is.

Though you might consider it a member of the ice cream family, frozen custard contains more butterfat and more egg yolk solids than its cousins (a minimum of 10% and 1.4%, respectively). The resulting mixture is made in special freezers designed to whip very little air in the base. Then it's extruded and served immediately, at a higher temperature than hard-pack ice cream. The result is a dessert that's denser, creamier, and softer than your standard pint.

Custard stands typically have at least three flavors offered on any given day: vanilla, chocolate, and a flavor or two on rotation. If you're in the mood for custard, it's pretty typical to check the flavor forecasts (flavor of the day schedule!) of your favorite stands and pick out the best. At the end of the day, you'll be hard-pressed to find bad frozen custard in Milwaukee—atmosphere, flavor varieties, and souped-up specials are what separate the wheat from the chaff. Here's a rundown of the very best.

Most Historic: Gilles

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It makes sense to start with the oldest custard stand in Milwaukee. Gilles opened in 1938 on the city's west side, in the same location where it stands to this day. It remains the preferred custard spot for local high school students and neighborhood residents. In fact, I spent many an hour sipping on Oreo shakes after school. Once you get done vacuuming up the super-thick concoction through your straw, you'll find big chunks of custard-soaked cookie at the bottom of the cup—my very favorite part! It's a tiny space with only three or four tables inside, so most people eat outside or in their car, even in winter.

If you need more substance to your meal, try a Gillieburger, which is more like a sloppy joe than a traditional burger. There's also a rotating sandwich-of-the-month menu that includes specials like pork chop sandwiches and Western burgers. And if someone asks whether you want one of Those Things, your answer should be a resounding, "Yes!" Because Those Things are deliciously creamy custard cookie sandwiches covered in a crackly chocolate shell. Gilles is also one of the few custard stands that sells custard pies and cakes, perfect for birthdays and holidays.

Old-School Drive-in: Leon's

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Leon's opened a few years after Gilles, in 1942. But despite its younger age, most consider it the quintessential old-school custard stand—unlike the thoroughly modernized Gilles, the drive-in still retains its old sign and neon lights. The custard here is spectacular and always tops the polls in "best custard" contests. It's one of the city's richest custards, thick and remarkably dense, but never too firm. Leon's sticks with classic flavors; on any given day, you can get chocolate, vanilla, butter pecan, and one special. The latter rotates between strawberry, raspberry, mint, maple walnut, and my personal favorite, cinnamon. Try getting a scoop of cinnamon and a scoop of chocolate together—like Mexican style hot chocolate, the spicy cinnamon custard adds rich complexity to the simple, sweet chocolate. For a nostalgic one-two punch, get a burger at Mazo's across the street.

For Hot Fudge Sundaes: Kopp's

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Leon Schneider, owner of Leon's, helped Elsa Kopp start her own custard business, and Kopp's was born in 1950. There are three locations around the city now; together I'd say they reign as the custard king of MKE. Theirs is by far the richest, most flavorful vanilla custard in town—a fact that became increasingly apparent as I tasted my way through other stands. They also offer two flavors of the day, which are always fun and creative. Pictured above is the Sprecher root beer float, made with the locally produced and universally beloved Sprecher root beer. Other flavors of note include grasshopper fudge, Snickers chunky cheesecake, macadamia nut, and German apple streusel. But if you're a fan of hot fudge sundaes, this is definitely the place to go all out: the fudge is thick, deeply chocolaty, and slightly salty, making it a perfect foil for the sweet vanilla custard. It can also be blended into the best shake you've ever had!

Awesome Waffle Cones: Oscar's

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Oscar's hasn't been around as long as the other big guys, but after 30 years the stand is still going strong. There's a lot more indoor seating here, which makes it an ideal destination come winter. New York Cherry blends halved maraschinos into vanilla custard. The super sweet fruitiness of the cherries actually cuts through the rich custard nicely. It's not fancy but it's super fun: Kids will certainly love this flavor, as will adults who always wanted more than one cherry on their sundaes. Oscar's Delight—a blend of vanilla custard, pecans, and chocolate flakes—is always a popular choice, should you want something a bit more grown-up. But whatever flavor you order, make sure to get it in their homemade waffle cone. They're always fresh and crisp, and sometimes yours may still be nice and warm from the iron.

For Puppy Chow: Pop's

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You'll find Pop's further afield, in Menomonee Falls. Don't let the strip mall façade fool you: once you step into the tiny space, the bent cane chairs and antiques lend it a warm and inviting appeal. Pop's operates a little like a classic soda fountain joint, with lots of sundaes, shakes, malts, and custard sodas to choose from. It's a pretty extensive menu for such a little place, including the ubiquitous butter burgers (so named for their decadently buttered buns) and fish fries—a plate of fried cod and French fries.

This is the only place that I've ever seen with a puppy chow-topped sundae, so...I obviously had to try it. You wouldn't want to feed this to your dog, though—puppy chow is a Midwestern treat of crispy cereal coated in peanut butter, chocolate, and sugar. A super-rich and thick peanut butter sauce holds the puppy chow on, so you may also want to order a glass of milk or water to wash this one down.

Cream Puff Craziness: Robert's

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Robert's is the local custard hangout in Germantown, a suburb northwest of the city. It's the swankiest custard stand I've ever been to, with a fireplace, carpeting in the dining room, and flowers on the tables. It must be working for them, because it was crowded even on a weekday afternoon. Cream puffs are a local favorite—they're massively popular at the state fair—and Robert's gilds the lily by sandwiching creamy vanilla custard and hot fudge in between a tender cream puff shell. Pâte a choux is light and airy, making it a perfect complement to dense custard. They make up for the lack of whipped cream in the filling with a very generous topping of it, instead.

Best Outdoor Seating: Georgie Porgie's

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Head down to the south suburb of Oak Creek to hit up Georgie Porgie's, a super kid-friendly burger and custard joint. The inside is a lot smaller than it seems at first glance, but during the summer they set up a great patio space in the parking lot out front. Heavy wood tables and built-in banquettes are fully enclosed by matching tarps with clear plastic windows that can be rolled up or down depending on the weather. There are even ceiling fans, giving the patio a semi-permanent feel. The flavor of the day, salted brownie, wasn't what I was expecting—namely a chocolate base packed with brownies and some salt—but it sure was delicious. It's a bit like a Take 5 bar: vanilla custard, brownie pieces, salted caramel, and crunchy pretzels are combined for that satisfying, oh-so-addictive salty-sweet combo. The photo above is what you get when you order two scoops—talk about bang for your buck!

For Great Custard Anywhere: Culver's

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Just because it's a chain doesn't mean they don't still have delicious custard. Plus, with so many locations in other parts of the country, Culver's has made it a lot easier for people outside of Milwaukee to get their hands on good custard (and I'm all for spreading the custard love). Each location has different daily specials, so if you're lucky enough to have a couple near you, you'll have your pick of the litter. Shakes, especially the blueberry, are super-thick and packed with fresh fruit flavor. If you have a picky eater in the family, get them a concrete, where you can pick exactly what goes into the custard. Of course, you can't pass up their freshly made butter burgers made with crisp smashed patties or the gooey fried cheese curds, either. I think it's safe to call Culver's Wisconsin's favorite fast food—an honor they've decidedly earned.

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