Butter Burgers at Kopp's in Greater Milwaukee: A Worthy Precursor to Sensational Custard

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

Kopp's Frozen Custard

7631 W. Layton Avenue, Greenfield, WI 53220 (map); 414-282-4312‎; for all locations visit kopps.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: The burgers are Exhibit A in the "butter makes everything better" argument, but it's the custard that makes me return every time I go to Milwaukee
Want Fries With That? Give or take. The skin is on, which is good, but these frozen fries are not bursting with potato flavor
Price: Cheeseburger, $3.60

When 18-year-old Elsa Moll left Munsingen, Germany, for the United States in 1929, it's safe to say she had no idea that she would give birth to an American institution. But when her husband's Parkinson's disease left him unable to work, Elsa, whose last name was now Kopp, had to support the family. And so it was that Kopp's Frozen Custard was born in 1950.

Since its founding, Kopp's has been known for its custard and its butter burgers. And while the custard is unquestionably the shining star, the burger is also a mandatory part of any visit. They're not fancy, nor is there anything revelatory about the quality of the meat or the cooking method, but Kopp's butter burgers are delicious and a worthy main course for someone gearing up for one of the best frozen desserts to be had anywhere.

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The patties, which are made daily from never-frozen sirloin, weigh in at a little over a quarter pound. They are griddled in a fashion one would expect of a cheap fast food restaurant: quickly, very thoroughly, and without enough heat to give the patty a good sear. The buns, delivered daily, are no better than grocery store buns, but they serve their function well. So how does overcooked beef on a mediocre bun transform into a delicious burger? One word: Butter.

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After each burger is done cooking but still hot off the griddle, whichever teenager dressed in all white is manning that station puts a nice pat of butter on top of the sizzling patty. In the less than a minute or so from the time the butter is added to when the burger is handed over and unwrapped, the butter is usually not very visible. But one bite into these large, well done but surprisingly juicy burgers makes clear that the butter is doing its job; the beef is seriously delicious.

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The lone strike against my burger on this visit was the bacon. That's not to say the bacon was bad—it's from Nueske's, one of the country's best producers. But much like my beloved blue cheese, the extra flavorful Nueske's bacon needs to be paired with at least a half-pound or so of beef to avoid overpowering the beef. One bite of the bacon cheeseburger and it was clear the bacon had to go. Of course by "had to go," I mean had to go in my belly, just separately from the burger.

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The fries are the only disappointing food I've had at Kopp's. They're not terrible, but these skin-on previously frozen pieces of potato look far better than they taste. There's just not a whole lot of potato flavor to them. As a general rule, it's a good idea to sacrifice fries for dessert, but at Kopp's doing so is a no-brainer.

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While the butter burger is very good and certainly worthy of a trip to Kopp's on its own, it is the custard that elevates the place into the upper echelon of food destinations. The reason frozen custard is so good is that, like gelato, it has a lot less air than most ice creams, which results in a richer, denser frozen treat. Further contributing to the amazing silky texture is the fact that it is never stored at sub-zero temperatures. In fact, that temperature issue is my grounds for calling BS on the Serious Eats crew declaring Shake Shack vanilla to be better than Kopp's. That said, I think that the group found the frozen solid, shipped-in Kopp's chocolate to be better that the fresh, hand delivered Shake Shack version shows just how good Kopp's is.

Further adding to the legend of Kopp's custard is that it's perennially selected as Milwaukee's favorite, a particularly impressive feat given that the city is surely the nation's custard capital. Kopp's is not the oldest custard stand in Milwaukee—that honor goes to Gilles—but Elsa Kopp is widely credited for pushing flavors in addition to basic chocolate and vanilla. These days, Kopp's offers the two basics every day along with two different flavors of the day.

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On my visit, the two flavors of the day were Grasshopper Fudge and Maple Syrup & Pancakes. While the vanilla and chocolate are both exceptional at Kopp's and are probably the best bets for people making their first visit, I almost always end up with one of the flavors of the day (check out their Flavor Forecast). Usually, that still leaves a hard choice for me because both specials are so appealing and eating two scoops after a butter burger would make me feel a shade bad about myself. On this visit, any such problems were solved when a friend agreed to share both special flavors.

Kopp's is known for using high quality ingredients, so I was surprised that cheap fake maple syrup went into the custard along with the nice pieces of fresh pancake. By general ice cream standards, the maple syrup and pancake was delicious, but by Kopp's standards, it was not very good. The Grasshopper Fudge, on the other hand, was exceptional. The creamy, rich yet surprisingly delicate light mint custard went perfectly with the nice hunks of fudge mixed in. I was tempted to buy a container to go, but when I realized I'd probably eat the whole thing by the end of the night, I thought better of it.

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