Tasty burger stops: going beyond Seymour

 

A 15-year-old boy flattened a few meatballs near the Seymour horseracing track in 1885, and many lives have not been the same since then.

Charlie Nagreen from Hortonville gets credit for inventing the hamburger sandwich – made from “Hamburg steak,” which he sold at the fairgrounds for more than 60 years. People in other states have tried to tug at this title, but Seymour fights back or simply ignores them.

The latest ammunition is a proclamation from Gov. Jim Doyle, announcing Seymour as home of the hamburger. Oklahoma’s governor issued something similar in 1995. Akron, Ohio, hosted the first National Hamburger Festival in 2005. Seymour just finished its 19th annual Burger Fest.

While historians bicker, we’re looking for the ketchup and having a nice lunch. We love a good burger, and finding the meat on a menu is no challenge.

Everybody has her own version of what makes a burger perfect. For me, a buttered Sheboygan hardroll, charbroiled meat, dark brown mustard and thin slices of mild onion make the difference.

You can get that at Chester’s Drive-in in Plymouth, where the carhops are likely also high school cheerleaders. It is all-American dining, in a small-town setting, but other settings are more dramatic. Consider these extremes.

Mickey-Lu’s Bar-B-Q, on U.S. 41 in Marinette, turns into a swirl of neon at night. The little box of a burger joint opened in 1942, and owner Chuck Finnessy still uses the original bun and meat recipes.

On the menu are eight sandwich choices, nothing unpredictable, except for maybe the fried egg. Prices recently were raised, to a whopping $1.60 for a burger, $1.10 for an ice cream sundae, 50 cents for 12 ounces of pop.

A burger weighs less than a quarter-pound, but Chuck wouldn’t size it any other way.

“We make them so they taste right,” he says, of his flame-kissed charcoal grilling. “This is the size they need to be.”

The business has outlasted seven bakeries and is loyal to local vendors: Brandon Meats in Green Bay, Stephenson Bakery in Menomonee, Joe’s Cheese House and Hoppy Dairy, both in Marinette.

“If I need something and it’s late, I’m not going to get help from a guy down in Milwaukee,” says Chuck, who took over in 1988. He is 50 and loves what he does.

“We have three or four generations of customers in some families,” he says. “It’s a very special place to a lot of people, and that makes it rewarding to me.

“I’ve had people bring in their grandchildren and tell them ‘when I was your age, my grandmother brought me here.’ That shared touchstone means something.”

Countertop jukeboxes play three songs for a quarter: “Louie Louie” to “Sugar Sugar” to “Wooly Bully.” A framed 1955 menu shows 30 cents for a hamburger, 25 cents for a sundae. Décor seems untouched from the same era.

Mickey-Lu’s stays open until 12:30 a.m. during summer but is closed on Mondays. Business begins at 9 a.m. and, yes, burgers are sold that early.

But so is the Porterfield Special: ham, egg and cheese on toast. “You have to know about it to order it,” Chuck says. It was named after the hometown of the waitress who created it.

Mickey’s Bar-B-Q is at 1710 Marinette Ave. For more: 715-735-7721.

In the Fox Valley, Ardy & Ed’s Drive-in is within eyesight of Lake Winnebago and U.S. 45, on the southern outskirts of Oshkosh. It has been in business since 1948; a blast of orange signage suggests that it used to be an A&W, which the owners confirm.

Ardy Davis, whose husband Ed Timm died in 1979, recalls peeling and blanching 100-pound sacks of potatoes. “You’d have to make them every day,” she says, of the French fries, which remain on the menu, but now they come frozen, bagged and precut.

What makes Ardy and Steven Davis’ drive-in unusual is the roller-skating carhops. “Their idea,” Ardy says, and it came up after the parking lot turned from gravel to blacktop in 1985.

The girls, “even the little ones,” will deliver seven or eight mugs of root beer at a time, Ardy says, with amazement.

It is not unusual for ’50s and ’60s music to play in the background. Customers can order indoors, too, but the diner-like seating is minimal – and it’s more fun to watch the roller queens at work.

“A brat patty – now that’s Wisconsin,” a friend from Minnesota remarked, when scanning the menu. “And when’s the last time you saw a pizza burger at one of these places?”

The latter is a burger filled with mozzarella and topped with pizza sauce.

Sandwich buns come from Schoenberger’s, a local and longtime bakery. Ice cream was locally produced, too, until the company was sold to Manitowoc’s Cedar Crest.

Ardy & Ed’s Drive-in, 2413 S. Main St., typically is open from March 1 to Oct. 1, but it closes on Sept. 23 this year. For more: www.foodspot.com/ardyandeds, 920-231-5455.

We haven’t visited – yet – but know that Rudy’s Drive-in, 1004 La Crosse St., also sometimes has skating carhops. For more: www.rudysdrivein.com, 608-782-2200.

Last, a good word for a burger that doesn’t involve meat. The Walnut Burger has been served at the 1871 Trempealeau Hotel, near the Mississippi River, since 1986.

Made with ground California nuts, with tamari adding a delightful flavor to the meaty mix, the burger has gotten so popular that it’s also sold in frozen four-packs at grocery stores. Retailers include Woodman’s Markets and natural food stores.

The Walnut Burger’s addition to the menu was a (successful) attempt by owners Jim and Linda Jenkins to introduce vegetarianism and widen food choices for their overnight and other customers.

Also on the menu are Walnut Balls, an appetizer that resembles meatballs. It is served with salsa and honey mustard sauce, for dipping.

The business is a logical stop for bikers on the Great River State trail. The sleepy town rocks when the hotel schedules music. A large lawn and screened porch overlook the river.

Want more than a meal? The Trempealeau Hotel, 150 Main St., Trempealeau, has rooms, suites and a cottage for rent. For more: www.trempealeauhotel.com, 608-534-6898.