1900 W Saint Paul Ave, Milwaukee WI 53233 (map); 414-931-1919; milwaukeesbestburgers.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Large, superb burgers on even better buns. Lost Food Wars, but have won numerous "Best Burgers in MKE" awards over the years
Want Fries With That? Fries are light and airy. For a real side dish, get a bloody mary!
Price: Loser burger, $7.50; double Sobelman burger, $9.25; Bloody Mary, $7.50
Even though their URL milwaukeesbestburgers.com might be a tad presumptuous, Sobelman's bar and restaurant is anything but. It's an homage to its blue collar neighborhood, just south of downtown in the Menomonee Valley, but you'll find suits, factory workers and Marquette students all elbow to elbow for what I believe really are some of the best burgers in the city.
Open in 1999 by husband and wife team Dave and Melanie Sobelman, Sobelman's has been in the spotlight because of a recent airing of the Travel Channel show Food Wars. Sobelman's was pitted against AJ Bombers, and AJ Bombers won. So what was the response from Sobelman's? Embracing their "loser" status by putting the Loser burger permanently on the menu. You can even buy a "Loser Burger" t-shirt for the bargain-bin price of only $5. That's a lesson in humility (and marketing).
Is the Loser burger really worthy of such a demeaning moniker? Not in the slightest. It's 1/3-pound of black angus beef—as are all of Sobelman's burgers—topped with Colby cheese, Nueske's bacon, and onions fried in butter. The patty is griddled and nicely crusty with a bold, savory flavor. There's no option for how you'd like your burger cooked, and this one came well done. It was a bit dry, but the toppings added enough moisture that it wasn't a major problem. The cheese is ample and perfectly melted. The onions are finely diced and mingle well with the cheese, which holds them in place. I like the fact that they're diced—it makes it easier and potentially less messy to eat. There are two slices of Nueske's bacon, a Wisconsin brand that is well-known in the state for its smoky flavor. It's cooked just right for my tastes, rendered slowly so it's not fatty, and crunchy, but not shatteringly so.
And then there's the bun. The best burger bun in Milwaukee, hands down. I really don't think there's any comparison. They are buttery, towering and soft, but not so soft that they fall apart or crumble. The top is brushed with egg wash, so it gets ever-so-slightly crusty when baked, and leaves a high-gloss shine. They taste every bit as good as they look.
The signature burger is aptly called the Sobelman burger. We ordered a double. Two 1/3-pound patties topped with three cheeses (American, Swiss and cheddar), bacon, fried onions and jalapeños. Cheese lovers, this is your burger. The American gives that classic, gooey texture, and the Swiss and cheddar add a sharp flavor. Once again, the onions are diced, though not as finely as on the Loser burger, and the pickled jalapenos are diced and fried with the onions. There is a little heat, but not much. The bacon, unfortunately, is not Nueske's. In fact, compared to the Loser burger, the bacon is fairly pathetic. It's thin, limp, relatively flavorless and reminds me of pre-cooked bacon. Ask to swap the bacon out for Nueske's!
The beef on the Sobelman burger was juicy but not greasy. Strangely enough, one patty was close to medium, while the other was well done. We may have just lucked out with the medium patty because the norm seems to be medium-well. As with the Loser burger, the bun was outstanding and held up to the weight of the meat and toppings. Two minor complaints: The cheeses on the top patty weren't completely melted. Perhaps that's a symptom of it being cooked medium—less time on the griddle compared to the other patties. There were also no pickles in the tray, something that supposedly comes with every burger.
Fries are included with every burger. They're light, not greasy, and moderately crispy. A good accompaniment, though nothing to write home about. Appetizers are run-of-the-mill fried bar food, so if you're looking for something different, fresher, or just plain liquid, go with a Bloody Mary. Served in a handled mason jar with a chaser of Miller, they're heavy on the Worcestershire, celery salt and Tabasco. Best of all, they're served with what could be considered a small appetizer, including a peel-and-eat shrimp, chunk of spicy summer sausage, Colby cheese, celery stick, pickled asparagus, and various other fresh and pickled vegetables. No wonder you get a plate with your drink.
Sobelman's is a down-to-earth, neighborhood establishment that has a loyal following. Management is transparent and humble, right down to the Loser burger t-shirts and the CCTV screen at the back of the restaurant showing a live view of the grill in the kitchen. There's a few consistency issues, but even taking those into account, the burgers are top notch. Losers? I don't think so. These burgers are winners.
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