After Thanksgiving in Chicago I made a trip up to Wisconsin to research burger joints for the revised edition of my book. That's right, I'm already working on an edition that, if the publisher accepts the project, will include an additional 50 burger spots across America.
While doing PR for the book back in May, I ended up on talk radio in Wisconsin. The DJ surprised me with a segment of her show dedicated to call-ins. "Go ahead, give us a call and tell George what he left out of the book!" Fortunately, Wisconsinites are very friendly as a whole so it wasn't really a roast. Instead, I was left with an enormous list of must-try burger joints from every corner of the state.
The plan was to hit 3 suggestions from that show on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I knew one was closed but I wanted to roll by and check it out anyway. The other 2 were Kewpee in Racine and Zwieg's in Watertown. I'll save the details for the book but give some broad strokes on the burgers here.
The Kewpee in downtown Racine was once part of a chain of midwest burger joints not unlike White Castle, White Tower, and its many impersonators of the 1930s (Kewpee of Lima, OH, one of the only remaining outposts, is in my book). I was glad to see fresh ground beef next to the griddle and even happier to see the griddle filled with burgers at 10am. Kewpee employs my favorite method for cooking burgers - the scoop-and-smash method. Ask for cheese and a slice is tossed directly onto the griddle for a few seconds before being transferred to a waiting burger. Genius.
A burger with everything comes with raw chopped onion, sliced pickle, ketchup, and just a little bit of mustard. When I asked owner and grillman Rick why the ketchup outweighed the mustard, he explained, "I've been adjusting the amount of condiments for years and lately it seems people want less mustard," and he shrugged. I think I know why - this thin-patty burger, with its toasted squishy bun, pickle, onion, and a large dollop of ketchup tasted exactly like a McDonald's cheeseburger, except of course, one made of fresh ingredients. It was quite tasty and I had another.
On the way out of Racine I spotted a bakery pushing the local favorite, the Kringle, a large, fresh baked danish. Naturally, I had to stop for one.
At Zwieg's (pronounced 'Zwigs') I met up with local expert burger taster Todd McIlwee. He arrived a few moments before me and secured, smartly, a spot at the counter directly in front of the griddle. Mary and Glenn Zwieg were behind the busy counter turning out burgers (lots to go) for the day-after Thanksgiving crowd. The burgers are cooked on a griddle that was "just replaced" in 1998 (10 years ago). "The old griddle was here for 50 years before that," Mary told me. I didn't really process the info until I spotted a framed news article announcing the big change.
The thin 3oz patties are best enjoyed in duplicate, served on a white squishy bun with grilled onion. Everyone it seems orders theirs with onions. My tasty double was gone in 30 seconds and my clothes smelled of onions for hours afterward.
Only a few miles away in the town of Lake Mills, WI, was a burger curiosity that I knew was closed but had to see in person. If there were an award for the burger joint open the least amount of hours it might be the American Legion Post 67 Hamburger Stand. This miniscule walk-up burger joint is only open, according to the neighboring diner, on Fridays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I did the math and that amounts to only 14 days a year. I sure hope I hit it right on my return visit next summer.
Wisconsin is a burger-proud state and I always feel welcome there. Who can say no to the endless quantity of cheese, beer, and bratwurst that make the state so appealing? Add burgers to that and I'm already dreaming of my return.