From Cheese Curds To Custard, Which Signature Food Originated In Milwaukee?

May 20, 2016

Trying a city's signature foods is a must for visitors and locals alike. In New Orleans, you'd probably be on the search for a beignet; in Philly, a cheese steak; in Texas, barbecue. So, what's Milwaukee's?

Tom Targos of Salem, Wisc., took that question to WUWM's Bubbler Talk and asked: "Chicago has deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs ... but what are some of the foods or dishes with a genesis in Milwaukee?"

Cranky Al's in Wauwatosa displays their Badger Smoked Ham sign.
Credit Michael McNamara

He had a few guesses, including hot ham and rolls, because he saw signs for this all over the city when he would visit, or perhaps beer and cheese soup.

To find the answer, WUWM turned to Lori Fredrich, the food and dining writer for OnMilwaukee. She is also the author of Milwaukee Food: A History of Cream City Cuisine. Fredrich noted that Tom's suggestions are all good ones, along with "dairy anything that we can kind of attribute to Wisconsin." She added that, "a lot of people think it's about beer, it's about custard, it's about cheese curds, it's about bratwurst."

She says, however, that most of the foods that people typically guess did not originate in Milwaukee. Sausages are a German dish, and it seems that the first custard was eaten on Coney Island. "We took [these dishes] and laid claim to them, but those aren't things that necessarily originated here," she assesses.

Glen Fieber sits at his restaurant.
Credit Maayan Silver

Instead, Fredrich explains, "one of the things that has originated in Milwaukee is the concept of the butter burger."

Now when you think of butter burgers, I'm sure Kopp's Frozen Custards' huge butter burgers or Culver's, who actually trademarked  the phrase "ButterBurger," come to mind.

However, Solly's Grille, located on North Port Washington Road in Milwaukee, is known to be the first place that really took that and ran with it, Fredrich says.

Solly's grill-master, Glen Fieber, is the heir apparent to the butter burger legacy. Fieber's step-father, Kenneth Solomon, "Solly," opened the restaurant 80 years ago. Solomon "loved butter on his burger, so he went with the butter burger," Fieber explains.

91 year old butter burger aficionado, Dr. Pete Shelkun, at Solly's Grille.
Credit Maayan Silver

"Around the same time that Solly's launched their burger in 1936, Kroll's in Green Bay also started making butter burgers," Fredrich says. "And the trend spread from there, throughout the state. By 1950, Kopp's launched their custard stand, where they also served jumbo butter burgers. And by 1984, Culver's launched in in Sauk City, Wisconsin."

Today, Solly's currently offers burgers "without butter, medium butter or regular butter, and we have people who actually come in here and order extra butter." Fieber says that the butter is "sweet and creamy, but you gotta watch out for your ties, because it'll get your ties all greasy."

While sitting at the restaurant's counter top, retired dentist Dr. Pete Shelkun said, in response to being asked whether he eats the butter burger, “absolutely! It maintained me for 91 years, why would I stop now?”

It turns out that our question asker Tom Targos has indulged in a butter burger before and found it to be an appropriate answer. “Goes great with a beer, which explains probably why it’s a Milwaukee tradition. I’m not surprised.”

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