Milwaukee: Drive-Ins Big Star and The Spot Dominate Kenosha Burger Scene
Big Star vs. The Spot
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: The Spot and Big Star have similar burgers, but The Spot wins with better seared patties and better cheese
Want Fries With That? Choose Big Star's awesome cheese curds and The Spot's crunchy onion rings
Price: Big Star: double cheeseburger, $2.29; 1/2-pound cheeseburger, $4.60; cheese curds, $3.45; fries, $1.75. The Spot: Spotwurst supreme, $6.29; cheeseburger, $3.09; fries and onion rings, $2.39 each
The heyday of drive-ins may be decades in the past, but drive-in culture still flourishes in Kenosha, a far-out suburb of Milwaukee. There are at least four old fashioned burger drive-ins still operating, and most have been operating for over 40 years.
In most cases, the appeal comes from the throw-back car-hop service, nostalgia, and cheap-as-dirt prices. I enjoy all three of those, so I decided to visit two of the most popular drive-ins and see if the burgers stand up for themselves or if nostalgia carries most of the weight.
The first stop was Big Star. Their burgers come in various sizes, starting at the small size of about 1.5 ounces in the standard "hamburger" and going up to quarter-pound and half-pound patties. I ordered a double cheeseburger with fried onions ($2.29) and a half-pound cheeseburger with the works ($4.60).
The patties on the regular cheeseburger were pretty comparable in size to McDonald's, if not slightly smaller. There wasn't much crust or char on them, unfortunately, so they were a bit bland. Interestingly, the cheese they use is Cheez Whiz. It had the disconcerting tendency to disintegrate into vaguely creamy stuff and seemingly disappear into the meat while I was eating the burger. At least the fried onions had some nice caramelized bits and made the burger more interesting.
The works really did the half-pound burger in. It was a soggy mess, especially for eating in the car. The beef tasted the same as the smaller burger, just in larger quantity, which wasn't necessarily a good thing since it was pretty bland.
What stood out the most at Big Star was their fried cheese curds ($3.45). They were actual curds, so they retained their sponginess (really, the only situation where "spongy" is a complimentary food adjective). Fries ($1.75) were crinkle cut and really dried out. Definitely stick to the fried cheese. Their homemade root beer was also a little bland, just like the burgers.
Stop two was The Spot. Overall, I'd choose the Spot over Big Star. Their baseline single cheeseburger ($3.09) is more expensive than Big Star's, but it also has a larger patty.
The real standout of The Spot over Big Star was that the burger patties had a crust from the flattop. That added a lot or flavor—as did the salt they seasoned the meat with. American slices were the cheese of choice, and I found them to have a better texture than the Whiz. When I ordered my cheeseburger with onions though, I got raw, so if you want fried, be sure to specify.
One new special burger on their menu, the Spotwurst Supreme ($6.29), was composed of, as our car hop put it, "a brat patty, cheese, bacon, burger, bacon, cheese, bacony cheese burger brat." She summed it up nicely, really. The brat patty was seasoned aggressively and held its own against all that bacon, cheese, and beef. The bun held up pretty well, too. This is a monster sandwich.
Points for the sides goes to The Spot, too. Fries ($2.39) here were much better, though they lacked salt. Our tray was brought with a salt shaker, so it appears they let customers season themselves. Onion rings ($2.39) were delicious. The breading was super crunchy and the onion was soft enough that it didn't come out of the breading after one bite.
The root beer whirl is like a mixed root beer float, made with their homemade root beer. It was thinner than a shake but delicious anyway. They also make their own orange soda. It tasted like a Dreamsicle, heavy on the vanilla.
The Spot won this Kenosha drive-ins food war. Both have been around for decades, and Big Star was much busier than The Spot, so clearly people enjoy both places. I have a feeling they'll both be around for a long time.
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.