Gilles Frozen Custard
7515 W. Bluemound Road, Milwaukee, WI (map); 414-453-4875; gillesfrozencustard.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Oldest custard stand in the city, serving up fast-food style burgers that are at least better than the national chains
Want Fries With That? Fries were underseasoned, but rings were better. How about a side of custard instead?
Price: Double bacon cheeseburger, $6.65; Regular cheeseburger, $3.40; Fries and rings, $1.35-2.25; Regular slush, $1.75
Do you have a favorite hangout from when you were a kid or a teenager? Someplace where your parents took you after your softball game or where you went after school with your friends? To many teenagers in Milwaukee, myself included, Gilles is that neighborhood hangout. I'd walk there after classes, and invariably see plenty of classmates, some even working behind the counter.
Over a decade later, it appears things haven't changed much. When I visited, it was still packed with a steady stream of students, even though schools in the area let out hours earlier. Many people come to get frozen custard, but Gilles does a brisk burger and hot food business as well. Unfortunately, while the atmosphere hadn't changed much since my high school days, the burgers haven't fared so well.
The burgers are typical for Milwaukee custard stands: thin, griddled with butter and with a rather large diameter. We ordered a double bacon cheeseburger and a single cheeseburger with various toppings (nothing comes standard, but most toppings are free). Overall, the burgers just didn't seem very fresh. In both, the meat was underseasoned and a little chewy, without much beefy flavor. As is typical with custard-stand style burgers, the patties are well done, so I was expecting that, but these seemed a little drier than I remembered them being in the past. That did make for some great crusty brown bits around the edges, though.
Both the American cheese and the butter on the bottom bun made up for the dryness of the patty—at least a little. The double, with two slices of cheese, was plenty cheesy. The bacon on the double was a thin round cut, usually indicative of pre-cooked bacon. However, the flavor was much better than most of the pre-cooked bacon I've had with a nice smokiness. Two slices would have been appreciated. The shredded iceberg lettuce was a little brown around the edges and didn't add any much to the burger. Pickles on the single cheeseburger were tart but limp. The bottom half of the sesame seed bun got a little floppy from butter and pickle juice. Pretty mediocre all around.
Fries suffered from the same fate as the beef: way underseasoned. They were slightly undercooked and got even more soggy as they steamed in the paper cup. Onion rings were much better. They were extremely crunchy with a breading that stuck to the onion.
To wash everything down, I ordered a slush, something that I always used to get in high school. I was disappointed to see that my favorite flavor, blue raspberry, was no longer offered. Instead, I got cherry, and was pleased that the ice part of the slush hadn't changed. It's not airy and smooth like you'd get at a gas station, but a heavier, soupier version that makes a whistling noise when it comes through the straw. I'm pleased to report that, besides the flavor, the slush was just as I remembered. Don't drink it too quickly or you'll get a massive ice headache!
From what I can tell, Gilles is still as popular as ever. The burgers, while not as good as I remember, are still ok for fast food-style burgers, especially if they up the seasoning. They are the oldest custard stand in Milwaukee, so whether you go for burgers or custard, chances are they'll still be serving teenagers and families for many years to come.
Curious about their custard? Look for my milkshake review later this week on Serious Eats: Drinks.