In this series, we’ll be 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 have we been? Check out the complete catalog of burger reviews here.
Wisconsin Big Boy
N116 W15841 Main St., Germantown
This summer, when the news broke that Chaz Hastings and Scott Carleton would be bringing Big Boy back to Wisconsin after a 26 year hiatus, the excitement was palpable. The flagship restaurant opened July 21, 2021 in the former Jerry’s Old Town, offering up a menu of Big Boy classics, plus a few Jerry’s favorites (including mozzarella cubes, Bavarian pretzels, ribs and fish fry).
Of course, since every restaurant deserves a few months to achieve its stride, so I waited before venturing out to try their nostalgic burger. After all, I remember eating Big Boy Burgers from the Marc’s locations in the 1980s, and I was eager for those flavor memories to come bounding back to life.
Walking in, guests will note that the Germantown location is far more rustic than the diner-like family style restaurants that characterized the Big Boy restaurants of yore. But, thanks to myriad Big Boy statues (some classics, others custom), signage and paraphernalia, there’s no way to mistake the location for anything but a Big Boy (albeit more of a “supper clubby” one).
As for burgers on the menu, there are six including trademarked offerings including the Big Boy ($8.99), the Super Big Boy ($12.99), The Best Cheeseburger on the Planet ($12.99) plus a mushroom bacon Swiss burger ($12.99); The Brawny Lad (topped with butter and a slice of raw onion on a toasted rye bun, $9.99); and the Swiss Miss (topped with Swiss, shredded lettuce and tartar sauce on toasted rye bun, $9.99).
It only made sense to opt for the classic Big Boy featuring “two fresh seasoned beef patties with American cheese, shredded lettuce and our famous big boy sauce on a sesame seeded bun.” The burger comes paired with fries for $8.99, but you can upgrade to onion rings for +$2.99, which I did.
It also pays to note that you can try the Big Boy Burger topped three ways: with the Big Boy sauce that was used at locations in Michigan and Wisconsin; with tartar sauce, as found in Ohio; or with red relish and mayonnaise, as is found in California. My server didn't ask which I preferred, but I got the classic Wisconsin prep.
The presentation on the Big Boy Burger was fairly no frills. In fact, I’d describe the overall look of it as “neat,” with the little brown burger patties peeping out just slightly from the edges of the neatly stacked sesame seed bun and bits of fresh shredded lettuce and a slice of cheese (notably unmelted) rounding out the bottom layer.
The seeded bun was shapely, with all three layers stacked neatly one atop the other. Its texture was soft, if slightly dry, and there was just slight hint of brown at the edges, but not enough to consider it toasted. Unfortunately, the bun to beef ratio fell in favor of the bun, leaving the two very thin patties to fend for themselves amid three thick slices of bread. My guess is you could order the Super Big Boy to remedy this issue; but that shouldn’t be necessary.
The beef patties were very, very thin. They were slightly brown at their edges; but the color didn’t extend to the full patty, which was fully cooked, but relatively pale on both sides. That, in and of itself, eliminated the flavorful caramelization that accompanies well-prepared burgers. I did sense that the burger was seasoned; unfortunately, the flavor of the beef overall was flat and one-dimensional with the best bites taken from the caramelized edges to which a scant amount of grease still clung.
When I put the burger back together and tried it out as a whole, the flavor of the beef patties was largely overwhelmed by the bread and burger sauce, leaving the sandwich feeling quite unbalanced.
As for the toppings, the lettuce was crisp, fresh and nicely shredded. Meanwhile, the burger sauce was tangy, strewn with bits of pickle, and applied deftly; so you got a bit of its flavor in every bite. That was mostly good, though because the burger patties were so thin (and already overwhelmed by the bun), most bites tasted more of sauce than burger. As for the cheese, it didn’t fare well at all, as it was cool to the touch and virtually unmelted.
You don’t find many burgers for under $10 these days. But, as I’ve noted before, value isn’t simply a matter of price. In this case, even for the price, I wanted more from the burger - more flavor, less bread and definitely a lot more balance.
I’ve definitely eaten a few Big Boy burgers in my lifetime; but I’ve not been to a Big Boy restaurant in over two decades. Going in, I had high hopes that this burger would bring back all those nostalgic flavor memories. I was sad that it didn’t. Why? I can’t be sure. But, times have definitely changed; and it’s likely that my standards for burgers have changed as well.
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.