On the Burger Trail: Cheeseburger at Nite Owl
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.
Nite Owl Ice Cream Parlour & Sandwich Shoppe
830 E. Layton Ave.
There's something special about seasonal fare. Asparagus tastes best during the two to three weeks when it's fresh and local. Citrus fruits shine brighter in the winter. And the first burger of the spring or summer at Nite Owl is rock-solid proof that "absence makes the heart grow fonder."
But Nite Owl is about more than just burgers. It's about nearly 70 years of Milwaukee history. Once upon a time, the once-aptly named drive-in was open until 2 a.m. During that bygone era, car hops in poodle skirts took your order and waited on you through your car window.
But, despite the fact that times change, the carhops are no longer around and Nite Owl's hours are no longer fit for night owls, this Milwaukee staple still retains plenty of its old school charm. Today you can order from the exterior walk-up windows and chow down in your car.
Or you can venture inside, place your order at the counter and take in all of the venue's retro charm. That includes checkered cafe curtains, black and white tile flooring, a few snug booths and tables surrounded by red-seated diner chairs. Even the walls are a treasure chest of fun finds.
Among the vintage signs that decorate the walls you'll find a "Hoover for President" as well as a sign advocating "Zeidler for Mayor." Even the door dons a license plate proclaiming: "REPEAL 18th Amendment." In fact, it's sheer entertainment to glance over the newspaper clippings, photographs and paraphernalia, if only to realize how much history is evident in the space.
On our visit, I ordered the cheeseburger with "the works." At $4.50, it comes topped with ketchup, mustard, fried onions and pickles. Krinkle cut fries will run you an additional $2, and onion rings are $3.50.
It's good to note the Nite Owl is cash only; but if you've forgotten your 10-spot, there's an ATM at the gas station next door.
Burgers and fries are delivered to your table neatly wrapped atop an old school metal green tray with a faux basket weave pattern along its sides. Frills are sparse. But, unwrapping that burger is like hitting gold as the smell wafts upwards and your eyes fall on its "jumbo burger" glory.
The bun is soft but sturdy. And it's just dry enough that it does a great job absorbing both the generous condiments and the juice from the burger itself. It also knows its place, so it takes a back burner to the burger, as a good bun ought.
The hand-formed burger is thick and juicy and delightfully imperfect. You might find wobbly edges or strange holes. But neither will detract from its flavor, which is meaty and irony. It's not particularly well-seasoned, but it's been nicely griddled.
The works gives you a generous dose of ketchup and mustard (maybe too much for some, though I thought it was well balanced). There are sweet, soft, fried onions and an impressive stack of cheese which melts thoroughly and eagerly right down the sides of the burger. All in all, a solid cast of characters.
Value is everywhere at Nite Owl, and that includes their $4.50 cheeseburger. That's about 79 cents more than what you'd pay for a quarter pounder with cheese at McDonald's. What matters even more is that this burger blows McDonald's (and a lot of other places) flat out of the water.
Don't miss the opportunity to make a trek to Nite Owl during its operational months. After all, the burgers are delicious and the nostalgia is sweet.
Nite Owl is open seasonally (spring through fall) Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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