Milwaukee: What's All the Hype About at AJ Bombers?
1247 N Water St., Milwaukee WI 53202 (map); 414-221-9999; ajbombers.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: More memorable for being trendy, crowded and winning Food Wars than for having a good burger. Bring a Sharpie to make your mark on the booths or walls, and your iPhone to make your mark on their Twitter page.
Want Fries With That? Sure, if you can get them hot; they're hand-cut and seasoned
Price: Bomber Burger, $7.50; Organic Grass-fed Beef, $3.50 per patty; sides, $2-$6
Joe Sorge, owner of AJ Bombers and a number of other restaurants in Milwaukee, has written the book on social media marketing for restaurants. Literally—the book is called TwitterWorks. As a result of his efforts, AJ Bombers has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity among 20- and 30-something Milwaukeeans who happily tweet and check-in from the restaurant. There's even a TV above the bar that often displays a live Twitter feed, just in case you can't go more than an hour without checking to see what the Internet is saying about the restaurant, or you want to see your @ up on the bigscreen. It's a very savvy use of social media, but I've often felt that aggressive marketing is just that: aggressive.
Couple the marketing with an appearance—and win—on the Travel Channel show Food Wars and that makes for a rabid, competitive fan base. People who love Bombers would seemingly die for it, and those who dislike it... well, I haven't heard much from them, so I can only assume they have been swallowed up and silenced by the media machine. But when there's a wait for a table on a Monday night, you figure the food must be great. All the hype had my hopes up for a great hamburger, but an ubiquitous online presence does not a good hamburger make.
First, a warning: Do not go to Bombers if you have a peanut allergy. Peanuts are free and plenty, a nice gesture, but the shells all over the floor make for a slick walk to your table. I can only imagine what that's like when the snow starts falling and there's water tracked in on people's boots. And if you're seated at a booth across from the bar, your peanuts will be delivered in an overhead contraption that will slam into the "Drop Zone" above your table and down the tube into the bowl. Cover your drinks; peanuts usually go flying all over the table. Our server asked if we wanted any and we replied we didn't. However, five minutes later, someone who appeared to be a manager sent peanuts anyway, and on to my lap they went.
Ordering is done on printed order forms, one for each person. Pens (along small board games to pass the time) are supplied at the table to fill them out. When your server collects your orders, he or she will go over your order to make sure it's correct, a nice touch that makes it seem more full service and less DIY.
I ordered the Bomber Burger, their signature burger, according to the menu. I opted to swap out their regular 1/4-pound beef patty for a 1/4-pound organic grass-fed one. Along with the patty, the burger came with a fried or grilled portobello mushroom cap stuffed with cheddar and Meunster cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, American cheese, and their version of Thousand Island dressing.
In theory, a fried, cheese-filled giant mushroom cap on a burger sounds like a fantastic idea. In execution, it was lacking. The mushroom was too big, in fact, and while crispy, it was also very greasy. The muenster cheese was stringy and mild, but you really can have too much of a good thing. Between the grease from the mushroom and the three melted cheeses and the mayo-based sauce, the puny bun really stood no chance, even toasted as it was. It turned into a hot mess before I finished taking photos.
The grass-fed beef, however, was incredibly fresh, rich and tasty. I compared it to the regular beef of my companion's burger, and the difference was enormous, though both were slightly dry. I would absolutely recommend spending the extra $3.50 to upgrade your beef. In order to match the size of the mushroom cap, though, the patty was squashed super thin, even thinner than the tomato slices. It was made with the smash method on a griddle, so it had a nice crust, but patties that thin are almost impossible to cook medium, as the menu states the burgers are cooked. The beef was dwarfed by the mushroom, cheeses, and other toppings in size and flavor, all of which were almost twice the diameter of the weak little bun. Bombers offers the mushroom cap filled with cheese as a vegetarian item without the beef, and that would definitely be the way to go if you prefer mushroom over meat.
My dining companion ordered the day's special, the Fatboy Burger. It had a 1/2-pound patty stuffed with pepperjack cheese, topped with bacon, grilled onions, BBQ sauce, peppers, lettuce, and tomato. The pepperjack was almost non-existent inside the burger, and there were no peppers of any kind on the burger at all. The onions, while grilled lightly and buttery, were all over the place and made eating the burger, even cut in half, a slippery proposition. Somehow, the bun didn't hold up very well in this case either, probably because the stuffed burger was shaped more like a meatball than a patty.
Sides are all ordered separately. We got fries, fried cheese curds with chipotle ranch dip, and buffalo chicken eggrolls. The fries, while hand-cut and seasoned with herbs, were delivered barely warm. The flavor was there, but the texture was not. I imagine if they were fresh and hot, they'd be delicious. They come in two sizes; a small is enough for one person. The cheese curds, a Wisconsin tradition, were undercooked and also delivered lukewarm. Nothing special there. The buffalo chicken eggrolls, however, were the one standout of the meal. They appear to be run-of-the-mill Chinese eggrolls, but when you cut in to them, they ooze with cheddar cheese, chopped chicken and buffalo sauce. They come with ranch or blue cheese (or both, as we got). If you enjoy buffalo wings, give these a try.
Now, back to the hype and cliquey internet following. I'm just not sure why it's so popular. It wasn't terrible, but it was definitely not very good, either. The only saving grace seems to be interaction with customers, whether it's on Twitter or Facebook, the DIY ordering system, or the graffiti-covered booths and walls. In that sense, Bombers excels. And maybe, instead of amazing burgers, that's really what people are craving from a restaurant.