Elsa's on the Park
833 N. Jefferson St. Milwaukee WI 53202 (map); 414-765-0615; elsas.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Supremely juicy, delicious, and cheesy half-pound burgers await you at this somewhat upscale restaurant named for the founder of Kopp's
Want Fries With That? The fries break the monotony of eating the burgers—that's about it
Price: Cheeseburger, $10.50; Burger add-ons: bacon, $3.50, lettuce and tomato, $1.50; Buffalo wings, $10.50
If there were a king of burgers in Milwaukee, Karl Kopp would would be the front runner. He owns two of the Kopp's locations—a burger and custard stand all Milwaukeeans are very familiar with—which were founded by his mother, Elsa. Karl Kopp's reign doesn't end there, however, and many people might not realize it.
Elsa's on the Park (Cathedral Square Park, to be exact) is what happens to Kopp's burgers when they grow up. The sit-down restaurant is more sophisticated, the burgers are bigger, and, not surprisingly, so are the prices. But most importantly, the burgers are out-of-this-world good. There's a number to choose from, like an au poivre-inspired peppercorn-crusted patty with burgundy sauce, but I stuck with relatively plain cheeseburgers to get a good taste of the classic.
Under the cheeseburger listing, the menu states: "One or all of the following cheeses: American, Swiss, Wisconsin aged white Cheddar or Colby." All of the following? Be still my heart! As our waitress put it, when I asked about the option, "This is Wisconsin, after all." I thought Sobelman's had some cheesy burgers, but this one takes the cake. The cheese is served under the 1/2-pound ground sirloin patty like a gooey little cushion. In every bite you could taste the cheese, with the sharp cheddar and Colby standing out and the American blending perfectly with the sharper cheeses. Truly a cheese lover's burger.
The hefty beef patty was easily able to stand up to all that cheese. I ordered it medium, and it was slightly overdone, but still had a bit of pink in some spots. Didn't matter one bit, however, as it was extremely juicy and succulent. The cheese created a barrier between the juices and the bottom bun, preventing a total soak through. The beef was high quality, loosely packed, seasoned well, and had a nice crust around the edges. No hint of freezer or irony taste anywhere.
Fried onions were a good addition. They were diced finely and very sweet. Bacon, good old Neuske's brand, was crisp and generous with four slices. Lettuce and tomato, though an extra cost, were fresh, with two of the ripest tomato slices I've seen since last summer. The beef and cheeses are so good, however, that I'd recommend limiting the extra toppings to let the flavors shine through. The bun was golden toasted, slightly dense and had a slight crust, something you don't normally get on hamburger buns.
Burgers are all served with, according to the menu, "eight fries." Besides being completely strange, it's also completely wrong, as there were more than eight waffles fries in each of the burger baskets. Even if there were only eight, it would have been fine since they were undercooked and underseasoned anyway. A place like Elsa's really should be making their own fries. A small selection of fruit (melon, grapes) and veggies (radish, carrot) come with all burgers and are an upscale touch.
I've heard a lot about the wings at Elsa's, so I decided to give them a try as I've reviewed wings at other locations for AHT in the past. In a nutshell, these were mediocre, and did not live up to the hype, especially for the price (a dollar a wing—really?). They were small without much meat on the bones, and could have been crispier. The sauce was standard, and the (again, mediocre) fries seemed tacked on to make the whole thing seem more worth the price. I'd eat them again, but only if someone else ordered them.
When our check came, we were a little confused that it was handed to us in a folded postcard from Arizona. Later, in researching this review, I realized that the postcard was from one of Elsa's sister locations, AZ88 (with another location in New York City, Bar 89). Kopp's burger empire keeps growing, and with burgers this good, you should hope he decides to open one near you.