Milwaukee: Improved, but Still Bland Burgers at Cafe Hollander
2608 N Downer Avenue, Milwaukee WI 53211 (map); 414-963-6366; cafehollander.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A popular spot with great sides and drinks, but the burgers are pretty bland
Want Fries With That? Yes, they're better than the burgers. Make sure to try one of their dipping sauces, like the sriracha mayo
Price: Cafe burger, $11.95; Monk burger, $13.95; cheese curds, $7.95; dipping sauces, 75¢ each
My history with Café Hollander is a rocky one. I reviewed them previously, many years ago when they first opened, for a local weekly paper. The verdict back then was not good; in fact, it was the only restaurant I had to revisit to give them a second chance. But, not long after those visits, they replaced their chef and since then I've only heard good things about them. I figured it was about time to give them another shot—this time for burgers.
As you'd expect, things have improved over time, or else they probably wouldn't still be in business. The meal overall was respectable—even if it wasn't very memorable. The burgers were probably the least enjoyable part, unfortunately, though they were far from the level of bad I had experienced years ago.
Both burgers I tried suffered from a strange affliction. They were salty and bland at the same time, like there wasn't enough flavor in the ingredients themselves. They ended up tasting flat, and I found myself reaching for the fry-dipping sauce to smear onto the burger.
Because of this weird black hole of flavor, the Monk burger is your best bet. It's got a lot of umami going on, with sautéed mushrooms and an aged Chimay cheese (which the menu states is made by Trappist monks). There were big hunks of portobello, maybe some shiitake, but I didn't find any oyster mushrooms that are supposedly in the mix. The cheese was fantastic, like a cross between a nice sharp Swiss and cheddar, and there was a lot of it.
Even with the toppings, there was no getting past the overcooked beef. Despite ordering it medium, it was firmly in well done territory, with just a little hint of pink here and there. It was dry, probably not helped by the 85/15 mix. The only real flavor I picked up in the half-pound patty was from the grill. It wasn't offensive, it just wasn't worth the calories. At least the toppings were pretty good.
I can't really say the same for the Cafe burger. The patty was a bit juicier since it wasn't as overcooked, but the burger was brought down by bland toppings. The ale-braised onions only tasted of flat, wheaty beer, and the bacon didn't seem like it was smoked, only cured. It was cooked well and crispy, but I hardly knew there was bacon on the burger.
Sides and apps were both better than the burgers. Cheesecurds were made with white cheddar and retained a nice sponginess to them, something I like because I know it's a real curd and not just a chunk of aged cheese. They were served with marinara, preferable to the typical ranch.
For a Belgian-style bar, I'd expect the fries (frites!) to be very good. They're made from frozen and were thinner than I was expecting, but they had their skin on and were perfectly crunchy and seasoned. I ordered a couple dipping sauces to go along with them, a roasted garlic aoili and a sriracha mayo, made in-house. Both were very tasty and helped out the bland burgers a little.
While Cafe Hollander is much improved since my initial visit, it's still got work to do on the burgers. But, between the apps, fries, addictive dipping sauces, and amazing drinks (try the pear ginger old fashioned!), I can understand why they're still in business.
About the author: Lacey Muszynski is an editor, freelance writer and restaurant reviewer from Milwaukee, WI. When she's not burgerblogging on AHT, she might be updating her food blog, making fun of the Food Network, or wondering what her art degree has to do with all of this. Her idols growing up included Martin Yan, Chairman Kaga, and whoever was on Great Chefs, Great Cities that day.