Calling something the best is always a dicey exercise, especially when it’s something like a burger in a fairly good burger town like Madison. As Doug Moe of the Wisconsin State Journal says:
“Nothing gets the juices flowing like a discussion of who serves the best hamburger in Madison.”
In addition to the places Moe mentions, there is also strong competition from places like Brasserie V, Weary Traveler, Blue Moon, and the sentimental favorite, the Plaza Tavern.
However, The Old Fashioned, located within the shadow of Wisconsin’s state capitol in Madison, gives everyone a run for the money with their near perfect House Burger.
From their own menu, Old Fashioned describes their House Burger as:
“grilled over a live fire and topped with fried onions, Bavaria’s hickory-smoked bacon, aged Cheddar, garlic sauce and a soft-cooked egg on a buttered and toasted roll”
What makes the Old Fashioned House Burger perfect?
It starts with the burger itself, ordered medium rare. A sign of a kitchen that gets it right is one that can exactly split the difference between the slight pink of medium and the raw redness of rare to get the perfectly juicy middle ground, medium rare. At the Old Fashioned this means a flavorful char grilled crust on the outside and a rosy juiciness inside. The patty is well constructed of good quality beef, which means it’s not too crumbly or fatty.
The bacon is from Bavaria Sausage Kitchen, and its blend of smoke and sweetness tastes likes its just off the griddle, which means crispy on the edges and tender in the middle. How many bacon strips have you had on a burger that had the leathery toughness of being made hours (or days) before and then added just before serving?
Toppings are a matter of personal preference, and what goes on top of the Old Fashioned House burger will probably not make the day of the ketchup only crowd.
However, if you have a taste for a just right blend of onions and garlic on a burger, you will quickly realize that the Old Fashioned truly gets it. The grilled onions are all caramelized sweetness, while the garlic sauce is more of a flavorful presence than something that dominates the whole burger.
Other top burgers in Madison take different approaches to their signature toppings: from the Blue Moon burger, with its bleu cheese and chopped raw garlic, to Bob’s Bad Breath Burger at the Weary Traveler, which revels in being a taste explosion of garlic, green goddess dressing, and pickapeppa sauce: both are very enjoyable in their own rights, but both have a taste that dominates the burgers and that will live with you fragrantly for about 24 hours after.
Presentation is not something that readily comes to mind when talking about burgers. Most of the times, simply plating a perfectly balanced burger to show off the quality of its ingredients works best, like another candidate for the best burger in Madison, the V Burger at Brasserie V: a Highland beef burger piled high with crunch fried onions, white plate, and a professional looking steak knife to manage it.
At the Old Fashioned, the burger also came out perfectly on a buttered and toasted roll, but what takes their burger to the next level is a just done fried egg on top, with the sunny side quivering as it is placed in front of you on the bar. The yolk then mixes with all the good burger juices, along with the cheese and the garlic, to become a grown up sauce that rivals even the legendary Plaza sauce of the Plazaburger.
As with the burger, the Old Fashioned takes the humble Wisconsin special of fried cheese curds to the next level as well. Fresh to your table, they are almost light, as golden fried balls of mini melted cheese mouth explosions. The key is to eat them before they cool too much, otherwise they come back down to earth to be very good, but mortal, fried cheese curds.
The Old Fashioned also has one of the best collections of state beer, both on tap and in bottles, to go with anything on the supper club friendly menu.
The Old Fashioned is located on the Capitol square at 23 N. Pinckney St., and it’s phone number is 608-310-4545. No reservations taken however, and since it can get very crowded, especially with the Farmer’s Market crowd on Saturdays, plan accordingly.