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.
Pilot Project Brewing
1130 N. 9th St., (414) 988-1551
We’ll keep this intro short and sweet. If you haven’t been to Pilot Project Brewing, there’s good reason to change that. First, the space is just gorgeous. It’s a bit loud, so maybe not the place to go for a serious chat. But it’s totally a fun hang with friends.
Second, if you love beer, they always have a great list from which to choose. If you don’t, they’ve got hard kombucha, wine, cocktails and a really nice showing of zero-proof options.
Third, if you love food, they have an ambitious, creative menu that’s pretty darn consistent. You’ll find the usual wings and beer-worthy snacks, but also great salads (the Green Goddess Mediterranean is lovely), sandwiches (Italian beef, meatball sandwich) and even offerings like risotto (currently “birria-style”).
I’ve heard great things about their Pilot Smash Burger as well. So I thought I’d give it a try.
Here’s the menu description: Chef Ryan’s 50/50 Wagyu beef and short rib blend, rose petal harissa aioli, tarragon pickles, provolone dolce cheese, heirloom tomatoes, and artisanal greens. Served on a pretzel bun with fries, chips or salad for $17. Add thick candied bacon for $2.50.
Yes, I added the bacon.
This burger is an impressive one in terms of its looks. It towers over the accompanying fries with its visible layers of sauce, greens, bright yellow heirloom tomato, thick-cut bacon and – finally – two provolone-covered beef patties. While I did wonder how I was going to fit this giant burger into my face, I looked forward to making it happen.
I’m torn on pretzel buns, largely because they don’t just sit back subtly and hold things together. They have a slightly more assertive flavor and a texture that can make or break a burger.
In this case, the bun was nicely toasted. It held together throughout my meal and – because it was thoughtfully chosen – it didn’t get in the way. Most importantly, the burger (and toppings) were still the superstars and did not get overwhelmed by the flavor and texture.
Great beef is at the heart of every stellar burger. And yes, the cuts of beef matter. The Pilot Smash has plenty of beefy flavor thanks to the combination of Wagyu (which lends a blast of umami and a tender butteriness) and short rib, which adds the perfect amount of rich tasting fat to the mix. Texturally, it was firm but juicy. Even better, the burger was seasoned just enough to underscore its meaty flavor.
Beyond that, if you’ve read my previous reviews you already know how much I love a good smash burger. But it seems they can be tough to deliver. Fortunately, this one meets the mark. My patties were beautifully cooked with great caramelization and some of the most gorgeous lacey edges I’ve seen. It’s exactly what I’m looking for when I seek out a good “smash”.
I’ll be honest, I’m skeptical when I read a list of toppings that’s 1) the least bit long and 2) a bit too fancy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned eating 180+ burgers it’s that great burgers don’t need frills to make them delicious.
First the good stuff. The heirloom tomato was fresh and flavorful. It was thickly cut and – in this case – that worked. You got good tomato flavor with every bite. The provolone was also a nice nod to the menu’s Italian theme. Its flavor was subtle, but contributed some umami and the cheese was melted beautifully over the patties, giving them a literal coating of cheese on their exteriors.
The tarragon pickles were delicious. The tarragon flavor too subtle to notice (unless you ate the pickles on their own), but they offered up that little pop of acid that burgers need to counter the richness of the beef and bacon.
In this case, the “artisanal greens” were arugula, and it was an excellent addition. They held up well through most of the burger experience and offered up a delicious peppery bite.
And the bacon? Firstly, it was delicious. It was thick cut, but also crisp, with enough fattiness to make it indulgent and adequate sweetness to give it a bit of je ne sais quoi. That said, the burger doesn’t need the bacon to be delicious. I ate half of mine with, and half without, and while it made the whole shebang meatier, I could go either way on it.
As for the rose petal harissa aioli… Let me start by saying that Harissa has been among my obsessions since I tried it for the first time at a restaurant in Tunisia 20 years ago. It has since made its way to the U.S. and I love seeing it on menus. In this case, the aioli was applied to both the top and the bottom bun. In most bites, I could tell that it was there. But – unless I tasted it on its own, which I did – its flavor didn’t come through as clearly as it should have.
Rose harissa is a lovely thing, but it’s trickier to use since its flavors are so subtle. In the best cases, the rose softens the already somewhat gentle kick of the chilies while offering a subtle floral quality to the spice blend. But here, those subtle floral notes were simply lost against the meatiness of the burger.
Generally speaking, the components worked together and the flavor profile was balanced. But I found myself thinking that there was just a bit too much going on, so some of the fussy items really did get lost in the shuffle.
This is undeniably the hardest category to rate, especially as we move through economic times that have come down hard on restaurants. Right now, a restaurant has to charge $17 for a burger like this (I’m leaving out the upcharge for the bacon, which is simply an added luxury).
Why? It's composed with mindful ingredients, a spendier burger blend, local items and a few fancied-up things that cost money (and labor) to make. It also comes with delicious fries. So I’m giving the Pilot Smashburger my blessing. Would I love the world to be a different, more affordable place? Sure. But I’d also like restaurants to charge prices that help them to survive.
If you’re looking for a big, well-executed smash burger with a few (fun) frills, head over to Pilot Project and try this one out.
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.