Oscar's Pub and Grill
1712 W. Pierce Street, Milwaukee WI 53204 (map); 414-810-1820; oscarsonpierce.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This new restaurant is making hefty, flavorful burgers with creative toppings
Want Fries With That? Hand cut fries are great as long as they're crisp. Sweet potato fries are stand-out with cinnamon and chipotle
Price: Big O burger, $7.25; Big Aloha burger, $6.75; sweet potato fries appetizer, $3.50, as a side, + 50¢
Notes: Wings fans, head over on Thursdays for 25¢ chicken wings night; the wings have crispy skin and you get four sauces to choose from.
I often get asked if I visit a restaurant multiple times before writing a review. The short answer is no; Serious Eats doesn't have an unlimited budget to send freelancers over and over, and that's ok. But there are times when I've already been to the restaurant where I'm reviewing a burger because—don't be too surprised—I enjoy eating out.
When I heard about Oscar's Pub and Grill opening up in March, I was excited to check it out and see if it was worthy of a review. All signs pointed to good burgers, especially the fact that owner Oscar Castaneda and his wife, Elisabeth, have both worked at Sobelman's, one of the best burger joints in Milwaukee. Couple their restaurant experience with free ping pong (yes!), super welcoming staff, and ultra cheap prices, and I was hooked after my scouting visit.
That's not to say that there haven't been some growing pains, as with almost all new restaurants. There have been some inconsistencies that appear to stem from who's cooking on any particular day. But overall, if Oscar's irons out a few minor issues, they'll be an easy contender on the Milwaukee burger scene.
My favorite burger, the Big O (I assume that stands for Oscar...), has a slew of Mexican toppings that all work well with the half-pound Black Angus beef patty. Ground chorizo, bacon, fried onions, and pickled jalapeno slices are held in place with chipotle jack and smoked gouda cheeses. The chorizo is spicy and only slightly greasy, and there's just enough that you taste it, but not so much that you can't taste the burger patty as well. The bacon is smoky, but it gets lost among all the other powerful flavors. I'd almost rather save the calories and order it without.
Served on the side of the Big O is housemade guacamole. I'd call it pico de gallo with some mashed avocado to hold it all together. That's not to say it's bad, as it provides a much needed freshness to cut through the richness of the toppings. I'd love a big bowl of it with tortilla chips.
The Big Aloha burger is topped with ham, Havarti, and pineapple and avocado slices. Mine also came topped with a bit of a sweet barbecue sauce—not a bad addition, though it's not listed on the menu. There's some debate about whether pineapple is a good burger topping, but I tend to like it. In this case, the fruit is griddled, giving it a deep caramelized sweetness. The ham is nothing to write home about, but the Havarti and avocado offered creaminess.
The beef on the burgers has a nice crust from the griddle and arrives anywhere between medium and well. A choice of how you'd like your burger cooked would be welcome. Even still, the beef is flavorful and relatively juicy (depending on its level of doneness).
Holding everything together is a great pillowy bun—not unlike the one at Sobelman's—made by Wild Flour bakery. It was disappointing on my latest visit that the buns were grilled almost to the point of being burnt, a mishap that could have ruined the entire burger if the buns had been left on the heat a few seconds longer.
All burgers come with hand-cut fries topped with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. They have great flavor, but sometimes arrive a bit soggy. Similar to the buns, they were overcooked on one visit, but were still better than most frozen fries. Oscar's also has fantastic sweet potato fries—crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and sprinkled with a smoky-sweet combination of cinnamon and ground chipotle chiles that really makes them stand out. Skip the chipotle aioli sauce that comes with them though—it tastes flat and appears to have been squeezed out of a bottle. I preferred to scoop up some of the guacamole with them.
New restaurants sometimes struggle, but Oscar's seems to be doing well. It feels like a neighborhood tavern where the owner makes a point to shake everyone's hand and the bartender knows the regulars. With a large outdoor patio and fire pit being built for summer, I can see this place only becoming more popular. I almost don't want to expose a favorite hangout, but these burgers probably wouldn't have been secret for very long anyway.