15375 W. Greenfield Avenue, New Berlin WI 53151(and 7 other locations) (map); 262-432-3000; charcoalgrill.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Ground in-house burgers you top yourself with a visit to the fixin' bar. No amount of fixins can save these crappy burgers, though
Want Fries With That? Both the frozen waffle fries and sweet potato fries were undercooked, but they were still better than the burgers
Price: Buffalo burger, $7.99; Brooklyn burger, $8.95
When I walked into Charcoal Grill, everything was how I remembered it from my childhood: a big wood-fired oven and rotisserie, a burger fixin' bar for all your topping needs, and a woodsy decor complete with antler chandeliers and bird feeders outside the windows. The buffalo burger was still on the menu, and there was a note under the "Burgers" heading that said all burgers were ground in-house daily. I didn't remember that, but I probably wouldn't have paid attention to something like that over a decade ago. Perhaps I'd better ask whether the buffalo meat is also ground in-house. The server tells me it's not. Well, it's worth a shot anyway; it used to be so good...
...And that's where I made a huge mistake. Actually, walking in the restaurant at all was the first mistake, but I was still enamored by the memory of the bison burgers I used to eat here with my father when I was a kid and teen. At the time they seemed exotic, and they were delicious, as were the beef burgers. Now, all these years later, I wonder how the restaurant is still in business.
There's really nothing redeeming I can say about the buffalo burger. The biggest problem was the texture, like it had been frozen and thawed too many times. It was mushy and stringy, like someone had put the meat into a blender before forming the patty. The taste was just as bad: slightly freezer burnt with a disconcerting sweetness. It barely tasted like meat at all. I had ordered it medium rare since buffalo is much leaner than beef, and it was cooked past that, but honestly I don't think temperature mattered one bit in this case. The bun matched the weird squishy texture and deflated as soon as I bit into it. No number of runs to the fixin' bar can save this burger. It was the complete opposite of the burger I remembered.
The Brooklyn burger, a special for September, was described as a grilled reuben with a burger patty. It was better than the buffalo, but not by a whole lot. The beef was ordered medium but cooked past well done and had almost no seasoning. It was chewy and tough and could have fooled me that it was ground in-house. As for the toppings, the Swiss cheese wasn't melted, there was barely any sauerkraut, and there was no sauce of any kind. The corned beef was dry and lacked much flavor other than salt. The marble rye was good, but it was really the only flavor you could pick out of the entire sandwich.
Sometimes, these blast from the past restaurants haven't changed a bit and live up to your memories. Charcoal Grill isn't one of them, for me. They have a great location with scenic grounds and views, and perhaps they still have some redeeming menu items. But I wish I had never gone back—or more accurately, I wish they hadn't changed.