Order up for National Hamburger Day!

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

Fire up the grill and uncork the condiments. May is National Hamburger Month and May 28 is National Hamburger Day, a time when even the healthiest among us honor the great American tradition of meat and bread and a whole stack of condiments between them.

Many claim credit for inventing the hamburger, but one of the earliest honors goes to “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen. In 1885 he started selling meatballs tucked between two bread slices to attendees of what was then called the Seymour Fair, now the Outagamie County Fair, in Seymour, southwest of Green Bay. The Seymour Community Historical Society explains that Nagreen named his creation the “Hamburg steak,” a dish with which he felt the local German immigrants were familiar.

But as Nagreen first proved, hamburgers are as unique as the person who makes them. Cooks — amateur and professional alike — vie for the title of burger master (or mistress) by offering their own unique spins on an all-American favorite.

And we all have our favorite burgers, made in the style that we grew up with, or some exciting variation we discovered at a pivotal point in our life. To some burger lovers, more is less, while for others it’s definitely the bigger the better.

We polled some Wisconsin Gazette family and friends, asking them to conjure up their best burger memories. Hopefully, they’ll give you some better ideas about where to celebrate this May 28.

Grilling up a Milwaukee original

It was a brisk morning as the last of 2014’s snow melted when some friends and I decided to spend a Sunday enjoying brunch and then taking a trip to the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, aka “The Domes.“

After reading several “Best Bloody Mary” reviews, we were off to Sobelman’s Pub and Grill (1900 W. St. Paul Ave., 414-931-1919). The hunt was on for the greatest “bloody.” What we found with it was The Big SOB.

For $12, you can get a three-patty burger, which contains a mountain of American, Swiss and Cheddar cheeses, fried onion, bacon and diced jalapenos. The taste of the burger was juicy, each bite exploding with jalapeno flavor because they dice rather than slice the pepper. The different cheeses, melted and oozy over the patties, made the sandwich sharp and juicy. I ordered sweet potato fries as a side.

I was nervous watching my friends order but, once consumed, the burgers brought contented smiles to our faces. Needless to say, after reaching the Conservatory, I spent my time napping in the desert dome.

— Logan McDermott, account executive

Ramping Up a Classic

I’m not one for burgers with a lot of fixings. Give me a bun, meat, cheese, ketchup — maybe lettuce if I’m feeling healthy.

But I make exceptions when the mood strikes me, and there’s one exception that still stays with me. Ironically, it’s from a brat house, not a burger joint. The Milwaukee Brat House (1013 N. Old World Third St., 414-273-8709), to be specific, home to a variety of non-sausage items including a monstrous offering called the Wisconsin Burger. For $9.95, it’s a deal for its sheer size.

The Wisconsin Burger still fits my usual style of minimal toppings, but the ones it puts on its half-pound ground steak patty are perfectly selected. A slice of cheddar cheese, savory sautéed red peppers and, best of all, a hearty helping of Wisconsin cheese curds, so many they’re spilling out of the bun.

Making my way through that burger was like climbing a mountain — I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the proverbial top and I haven’t had the fortitude or fortune to attempt it again. But every bite was worth the journey.

Sometimes you aren’t looking for an everyday burger. You’re looking for an adventure.

—   Matthew Reddin, arts editor

Sweet, Savory, But Not Altogether Strange

May starts the season of road trips, and our first this year was to Wollersheim Winery just south of the Wisconsin River and a short 30-minute jaunt north of Madison. But before sampling the latest vintages, we stopped for lunch at The Blue Spoon Creamery & Café (550 Water St., 608-643-0837) in Prairie du Sac just north of the river.

Part of Culver Franchising Systems Inc., the Blue Spoon is a sort of uber-Culver’s, with creative cuisine, craft beer and an enviable wine list. That afternoon, one dish stood out from the intriguing menu — the Peanut Butter-Caramel Onion-Pickle Burger. A combination like that just begged to be tasted. At $8.99 with one side, it teased me out of my comfort zone.

We sat in anticipation on the Blue Spoon’s outdoor terrace overlooking the river and breathing the warm spring air, waiting for the burger to arrive.

The 7-ounce patty arrived on a whole grain bun spread with creamy peanut butter, topped with caramel onions and full-sized dill pickle spears and slathered in Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce. My side of choice was baked beans with fresh apple chunks.

My burger was both sweet and savory, with creamy peanut butter spread across an all-beef patty for a hint of sweetness and complexity. The caramel onions bridged the gap to the savory side, with the pickle spears adding a vinegary tartness to the flavor profile. The slightly spicy BBQ sauce held it all together.

The burger was moist and the bun was in tatters when I was done, but it was well worth the extra napkins.

—   Michael Muckian, food and wine writer/contributor

Short Orders

Next time you drive from Milwaukee to Madison, or vice versa, take the scenic route passing through Jefferson and stop at the legendary Wedl’s Hamburger Stand & Ice Cream Parlor (200 E. Racine Ave., 920-674-3637) The tiny, 100-year-old establishment is just an 8’ x 8’ shack with no indoor seating, but its burgers have put Jefferson on the nation’s culinary map.

When you think of Wedl’s, think sliders, but not the tiny White Castle variety. These are full-sized patties grilled in lard grease, which gives the meat a crispy edge. The burgers have a unique peppery flavor that is part of the stand’s secret preparation. Topped with fried onions and melted American cheese, you think you have died and gone to hamburger heaven.

Madison has many fine hamburger spots, but perhaps the most legendary is the Plaza Tavern & Grill (319 N. Henry St., 608-255-6592) just off State Street. The bar and restaurant is home to the infamous Plazaburger.

The quarter-pound patty is a fine start, but it’s the secret sauce, first created in 1964, that sets it apart. It has a base of mayonnaise and sour cream, but beyond that no one is telling what herbs and spices give its special character and zing. An authority no less than George Motz, author of the seminal book Hamburger America, suggests you order a side of fried cheese curds for the complete Plaza experience.

“So Jerry Seinfeld walks into a bar” is not the start of an old joke, but part of the lore of The Village Bar (3801 Mineral Point Road, 608-233-9956), an old farm house on Madison’s west side long ago turned into a bar that overlooks the first fairway of Glenway Golf Course. What’s more, the celebrity sighting is true.

The story goes: Seinfeld, in town in 2005 for a sold-out show, hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take him someplace for a really good burger. The driver had a particular liking for the Village Bar and dropped him off there. Reportedly, Seinfeld became a fan.

The burgers arrive medium-well on a soft bun that can be upgraded to a more substantial Kaiser roll for an extra charge. Topped with Swiss, American, brick or pepperjack cheese, the burgers actually do seem to melt in your mouth. Add some very crispy fries on the side and you have a classic American meal.

— Michael Muckian

How will you celebrate National Hamburger Day? Share your favorite burger spots or burger recipes on our Facebook page.