MILWAUKEE -- Although our business is searching out unique regional specialties wherever we travel, our hobby is hamburgers. No matter how remarkable and exotic the local culinary passion might be -- from Santa Fe's carne adovada to southern Indiana's turtle soup -- you can be sure that if you are in America, there are innovative and interesting culinary twists on the hamburger somewhere nearby; and it is our pleasure, between sampling the regional trademarks, to find those burgers and to eat them.
In and around Milwaukee, for example, the great local flavors include wursts and sausages of every kind, sour-crusted rye bread, schaum tortes (meringues loaded with freshly made custard) and wondrous German, Czech, Polish and Serbian dishes found in few other cities in America. Milwaukee and vicinity also happen to be hamburger heaven.
Who could resist one that is served wrapped in blue paper inscribed, "Hamburger, pickle on top: makes your heart go flippity flop"? That's the way you get them at Kewpee Lunch, a 1920s-vintage hash house down in Racine, where the counterman starts with a sphere of beef about the size of a Ping-Pong ball and mashes it down on the grill, cooks it until it is crusty-brown, then heaps it into a toasted bun with the works.
And how about Moss Bros. on West Capitol Drive in Milwaukee, where the specialty is a "maniac burger," a quarter-pounder for which the works includes a big glob of sharp Dijon mustard? And the Nite Owl on Layton Avenue, where the menu assures customers that the jumbo burger is the "largest postwar burger in the area"? We also like Solly's Sliders on Port Washington Road -- diminutive disks of burger meat secreted inside a tangled heap of stewed onions and served on French bread. And, too, there is the Centurian burger at Century Hall on North Farwell Avenue, where the beef comes topped with cheese, bacon, tomatoes, onions, mayo, lettuce, steak sauce and green olives. Whew!
One of the memorable burger-eating experiences in the area is at Jessica's Drive-In Custard Stand, which until last year, when Jessica bought it, was known as Al's. Dine in your car at Jessica's -- its out-of-the-way location across from Mitchell Airport has made it a favorite spot not only for chowhounds but for daters who want to be alone with each other and their burgers. Jessica's patties are dished out at many places in the area -- awash in tides of butter. (Wisconsin is the Dairy State.) They are modest-sized, sizzled to luscious perfection on the grill, then heaped into a toasted sesame seed bun along with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and grilled onions. What makes these glistening buttered burgers especially excellent, aside from their low price (just over a dollar), is the fact that you can get them with a tall, foamy chocolate malt made with superb custard.
It was the custard as well as those great, buttery little hamburgers that put Jessica's into our little black book of favorite eating spots. A local passion, custard is like ice cream but better: plusher and creamier (generally made from higher-butterfat cream), served just soft enough so you can swirl into it with a spoon. Other than in a malt, the way to taste it at Jessica's is in a sundae or a banana split topped with strawberries and chocolate or hot fudge, or in a four-star turtle sundae with hot fudge and caramel, or in a pig's dinner known as the Jessica's Special, billed on the sign behind the serving counter as "lots of creamy custard, your favorite topping, roasted pecans, cream cherry." To be honest, we never tasted a Jessica's Special. We were too full up on those swell buttered burgers.
Dairy state buttered burger
Serves 4 to 6.
1 pound lean ground hamburger meat
condiments to taste
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 to 1 cup chopped onions (optional)
Fashion hamburger meat into 6 round patties no more than 1/4 inch thick. Dust with salt.
Prepare the insides of the tops of the buns with whatever condiments you want on the burgers. Spread bottoms of buns with 1/2 tablespoon butter each. On a grill or in a heavy skillet, melt 3 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. If you want grilled onions on your burgers, toss in onions and cook until just barely soft; then scoot onions to side of pan. Fry hamburgers on both sides until cooked to desired degree of doneness, about 3 minutes total for quite rare up to 6 or 7 minutes for well-done. Move hot burgers onto prepared bun bottoms so that heat from burger melts butter on bun. Serve immediately.
Jessica's Drive-In Custard Stand, 524 E. Layton Ave., Milwaukee, Wis. 53207; (414) 744-1119.