I finally made the pilgrimage to Kopp's in Milwaukee for butterburgers and custard. The experience was intense. This post covers more of the mood of the place than the quality of the food, which has been accurately and abundantly described by those before me. My initial impression of this place--I visited the Greenfield location--is that it's what I imagine a fast food place created by a partnership of Heaven's Gate cult members and German automotive engineers might be like. A previous Kopp's poster correctly remarked that the building appeared to be the former home of a bank branch. Not the strip mall and modest stand-alone bank branches of today, but the 70's-era stone aggregate-veneered shrines to groovy capitalism, where Zsa Zsa Gabor would make appearances and smiling stuffed lions would be dispensed with cheerful enthusiasm. It's an enormous space completely devoid of the usual trappings of burger joints. The vast area behind the counter is occupied overwhelmingly with food-making machinery and clean-scrubbed teenagers. The former is gleaming, soulless and organized. The latter are gleaming, soulless and clad in clean white shirts, black bow ties and perfectly creased white paper hats. Rather than conjuring images of 1940's-era soda jerks, the ensemble has more in common with the attire favored by followers of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. After an unsmiling yet efficient female employee guided us toward the right side of the 200 foot long counter to order our burgers first, the organization began to make more sense. With custard of such pristine quality, planners had smartly separated the hot food preparation function from the custard-making function to keep from tainting it with the smell of grilled onions and fried beef patties.
I ordered a double with everything plus grilled onions, fries, onion rings and a single vanilla scoop and proceeded to wait alongside one of the stone pedestal stand-up tables, a small collection of which passed for the only interior dining area. Wishing to freshen up while waiting, I was directed by another pod person--er--employee OUTSIDE the building and around the back to the service station-style single-serving bathrooms. At the front door on my way back in, I looked down into the front courtyard dotted with stone benches and trees where I imagined a previous generation of bank tellers might have once gathered at break times to smoke Newports and share stories of Knack concerts attended. The early spring chill left no clue as to whether the space would, on warmer days and nights, be peopled with Kopp's customers happily hardening their arteries one spoonful at a time. That image did little to dispel the bizzarro-world feel of it all, particularly when peering up into the imposing black Kopp's sign with its stark white military stenciled lettering.
With number called, I grabbed my hot food, shuffled down to the custard sector for my scoop and headed for the safety of my car. Preparing to eat, I noticed at least seven other separate diners eating in their cars. I suspect that when one is eating butterburgers and 16% butterfat frozen custard with any regularity, the privacy and anonymity that a parking lot affords might be of paramount councern.
The burger was fine, but not my ideal. The patties were too big--soft and heavy, but redolent of fresh beef. The overmelted cheese, ketchup, mustard and pickles had intermingled to become a single, though not unpleasant condiment, especially with the addition of perfect sweet grilled onions with just the right amount of caramelized edges. The bun was up to the task of supporting the considerable payload within, but was otherwise unremarkable. I prefer thin and crisped beef patties, cheese slices with some visible structural integrity and the cool-crunch counterpart of fresher condiments like lettuce and tomato, a burger type at which places like Culver's excels.
The fries are fresh cut, with the attendant sogginess and mealiness that the style invites, but with superior potato flavor. I believe an earlier poster had also advised to order the fries crisp--something I wish I had kept in mind. The O-rings were glorious sweet onions with a sturdy and crunchy golden shell.
The custard was the best I've ever had. Better than Leon's, better than Drewes, better than anything.
Those were the takeaways--the perfect custard and the otherworldy and vaguely unsettling vibe of the place. The people who opened this location in particular are either aesthetic design geniuses or completely insane. Whatever the case, I'll be back. See you in the courtyard this summer.
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