In this series, Lori Fredrich is hiking the burger trail to find the latest, greatest and most delicious burgers in Milwaukee. Click here for an explanation of the criteria used to rate each burger. Where has she been? Check out the complete catalog of her burger reviews here.
Once again, it's been a hot minute since I last reviewed a burger for the On the Burger Trail series. Truth be told, after eating over 180 burgers, the series had begun to feel a bit stale. No longer inspired to find the next great burger, I decided it was time to take a pause.
But thanks to the rise of a few new burger joints, along with a renewed sense of excitement for indulging in beefy bliss, I decided to bring the series back for Dining Month.
Hot Dish Pantry is among the 60+ new restaurants that joined the scene in 2023. Born as a pop-up in January 2021, the restaurant got its start serving up Midwestern comfort food (pierogi, calzones, tater tot-topped hot dish) for pick-up or delivery. They got their feet wet as vendors in the 3rd Street Market Hall before opening their current counter-service restaurant on Howell Avenue.
Skim through the rotating menu of sandwiches (the Nashville hot pork tenderloin is fire), pierogi, shareable snacks, sides and desserts and you'll also find burgers. The first is the Lucy Goosey, a take on the classic Juicy Lucy of Minnesota fame. The second is a House Smash Burger, which has been tempting me for months.
Here's the menu description: crispy beef patty topped with American cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickles, mayo, yellow mustard and celery salt ($9) You can make it a double for +$3.75
I also added an order (it's a large, shareable portion) of house tots for $6.50.
The House Smash is a looker, from its golden bun straight down to its layers of lettuce, rosey fresh tomato and chopped onion. The melted American cheese is almost neon orange against the caramelized beef patty, which drapes down over a layer of pickles. A sprinkling of celery salt dusts the layers with its woodsy aroma.
I'm not sure I can give this burger extra points for the adorable seasonal bat pick that adorns the top of the burger (see photo above); but it at least deserves a mention, since it made me smile.
The brioche bun was golden and soft with a beautiful golden toast on the the cut sides of both its top and bottom. It was pliable with just enough heft to hold up to the burger and its toppings. As for its flavor, it possessed a subtle sweetness that complemented the salty, savory elements of the burger nicely.
The burger made the grade in terms of the oh-so-vital meat-to-bread ratio; even the single patty held up to both the bun and toppings without the need for a second. It had all the qualities of a classic smash, from its thin profile and caramelized surface to irregular shape which allows for edges that are crisped and meaty. I don't know how many irregular crispy edges it takes to make or break a smash burger, but what I do know is that the Hot Dish Smash Burger had just enough. When pulled from the burger, the edges were like savory, salty meat candy, while the remainder of the burger offered up just the right amount of tender meatiness for every bite.
A no-frills burger that's truly well-executed is a thing of beauty. But, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, it can be tricky to pull off. The fewer the toppings, the more the burger depends on the quality and flavor of the meat. And – when you look beyond the meat – the remaining ingredients need to be on par. They need to taste great and offer a balanced flavor profile.
The Hot Dish Smash scored well on all of those counts. In fact, as I bit into this burger, my brain immediately conjured the flavor profiles of the many classic cheeseburgers I've eaten.
The nicely melted American cheese added creaminess, salt and a boost of umami to the already flavorful burger. Crisp lettuce added freshness and texture; the nicely flavored tomato added a subtle fruity savoriness; and the mild onion added a gentle sweetness that complemented the robustness of the beef.
As for the pickles, they did their job nicely, offering a bright pop of acid (which helps balance all the meaty richness) and a lovely crunch with every bite.
I was surprised, at first, that the burger didn't have ketchup listed among the condiments. But, as I ate, I realized that the burger didn't need it. The combination of mayo and mustard tied everything together nicely, working with the tomato, onions and cheese to produce a truly classic burger flavor.
With prices as they are, it’s tough to argue with a $9 burger, especially when it delivers on the flavor front. If you value a burger by how much gustatory satisfaction it brings, the Hot Dish Smash is a clear winner.
If you're looking for classic, no-frills, big burger flavor in a smash burger package, you'll find it in the Hot Dish House Smash.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.