In my "Best Burger List - 2011", I have two Milwaukee area burger joints - Sobleman's and Solly's - on my Top Ten list. In the spring of 2009, upstate New York native Joe Sorge opened a new burger joint - AJ Bombers - along the restaurant row of Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Word quickly got out that this upstart burger joint rivaled - and possibly surpassed - the venerable Solly's and the established Sobleman's for the title of "Best Burger in Milwaukee."
I had not heard of AJ Bombers until I saw the Travel Channel program - Food Wars - that pitted AJ Bombers against Sobleman's for a "taste-off" for the best burger in Milwaukee. I was immediately intrigued and knew that I had to try AJ Bombers the next time I went to Milwaukee. I had my chance earlier this Spring when I was able to get up there and had time to stop at AJ Bombers for lunch.
Joe Sorge's family had been in the restaurant industry for a number of years before he went to Cornell to study hospitality management, specifically majoring in restaurant management. Upon his graduation, Sorge went to South Carolina and worked for a couple private hospitality companies and eventually for a House of Blues location. Sorge and his wife, Angie, moved to Milwaukee in 2000 and have opened up a handful of restaurants including Water Buffalo, Smoke Shack and Swig. Sensing a need for an eclectic and interesting burger joint, the Sorge's opened AJ Bombers at the corner of Water and E. Knapp (see map) in a building that housed the long standing bar, The Corner, but most recently housed a short-lived restaurant/bar, Water's End.
Earlier this year, the Sorge's partnered with Marcus Investments to help drive the concept of multiple locations for AJ Bombers and possibly their other restaurants. Marcus Investments also owns Zaffiro's Pizza, a place that I wrote about on Road Tips a couple three years ago (you can see my post on Zaffiro's here).
The Sorge's are also proponents of social networking and were one of the charter members of the foursquare network of bars and restaurants. foursquare is a mobile application that allows networked friends to easily find each other as they update their location. Joe Sorge has also co-authored a book - Twitter Works - that shows restaurants, bars and other small businesses the advantages of social networking.
It was just before 2 p.m. on a rainy afternoon in Milwaukee when I pulled up across the street from AJ Bombers. The main lunch crowd had dwindled down to a few late lunch stragglers such as myself and I took a seat at the bar. They do have an outdoor seating area around the back of AJ Bombers, but since it was raining, that was out of the question that day.
The interior of the place is what I'd have to call urban guerrilla chic. Loads of graffiti were on the wooden walls around the the booths. Exposed brick walls along with some interesting artwork - mainly bombs and bomber memorabilia - were throughout the place. Peanut shells littered the floor, courtesy of a large peanut dispenser located behind the bar. How they get peanuts to the table is another subject I'll examine in a bit.
The bartender came over and said, "Have you ever been to AJ Bombers before?" I said I hadn't and he said, "OK, let me show you how it works."
He pulled out a sheet menu that allowed the customer to check off the type of burger, what types of toppings, condiments and extras you would want on your burger. He pointed out the A.J. Burger - their basic 1/4 pound cheeseburger that you could order has a double, a triple or even a quadruple for those inclined to gorge on a burger. The bartender said, "For example, after you've picked out what burger you want, then you go down and circle what you want on it." The choices included jalapenos, a fried egg, avocado, peanut butter, fried onions - all of which were an up-charge anywhere from 50 cents to a buck and a half (for bacon). Curiously, there was a 50 cent up-charge for pickles. They must be pretty damn good pickles!
And because you can make your own combinations, they only have three different types of Angus beef burgers. They also had a "Stuffed 'shroom" burger where you had your choice of either a deep fried or baked portabello mushroom stuffed with cheddar cheese and placed on top of a burger. And they also had "The Milwaukee Burger" - a 1/4 pound burger with double cheese, double bacon and beer braised onions. More on that burger later on.
They also featured a couple of veggie-type burgers, turkey burgers, a chicken sandwich, a grilled cheese, and a hot dog on the menu. There were a lot of appetizers and sides such as their onion straws and their "gi-normous" fries. The bartender asked me if I wanted something to drink while I decided and I got a Miller High Life. AJ Bombers has a pretty good beer list, but I thought, "Well, when in Milwaukee, you've got to have a High Life."
I ended up ordering the fried "Stuffed 'shroom" burger with bacon and cheddar cheese. It sounded intriguing to me. The bartender said, "You want any fries with that? They're hand cut and they're damn good." I broke down and took the fries.
After I ordered, he brought over a small bowl of peanuts in the shell - sort of a signature thing for AJ Bombers. In fact, they have a pretty neat way to deliver the peanuts to people who are sitting at the booths next to the bar or to the front area for a waitress to pick up and deliver to a table.
Above the bar, they have three tracks with little "bombs" attached. The bartenders reach up and fill the top of the bomb with peanuts - or "p-nuts" in the vernacular of AJ Bombers - then they push the bombs down the track where they then hit a target with the nose of the bomb which triggers a drop door on the bottom of the bomb to let loose of the peanuts into a hopper that is attached to chute where the peanuts fall into a bowl at the bottom. And it's pretty loud when the bombs hit the target. The bartender did it for an unsuspecting couple sitting in a booth directly behind me and it startled the living crap out of the lady. She obviously wasn't expecting a loud "bang" over her head and then peanuts falling into a metal bowl next to her. The bartender had to apologize profusely to the shaken woman.
Here's a You Tube video of the peanut bomb delivery system at AJ Bombers in action -
After all that fun, my burger finally showed up to the table. It was adorned with this huge, deep fried, cheese stuffed portabello mushroom on top. Bacon and a couple slices of cheddar cheese were on top of the patty with a couple fresh tomato slices and lettuce lying underneath.
The burger had a lot going on in terms of taste. It had a great smoky, char-grilled taste to it, but it was far from overpowering. It was definitely a multi-napkin burger that oozed with cheese and pure beef juiciness. The bun was light and moist, but didn't disintegrate with all the cheese and bacon grease flowing with each bite. The bun actually helped with the overall taste of the burger. I've always said the key to a great burger is the bun.
Actually, the fried/stuffed portabello was a little overwhelming for the overall taste of the burger. I wished about half-way through the burger that I would have gotten the "Milwaukee Burger" - the burger that AJ Bombers came up with for their "Food Wars" battle against Sobleman's.
When "Food Wars" came to Milwaukee to see who would be judged to have a better burger between Sobleman's and AJ Bombers, to keep the playing field level both Joe Sorge and Dave Sobleman agreed to make their burgers topped with real Wisconsin cheddar slices (times two) and a double helping of bacon. In AJ Bombers and Sobleman's case, they selected Neuske's bacon - called by the New York Times as the "beluga caviar of bacon". Neuske's isn't available in stores, but you can mail order it or visit their company store in the small north central Wisconsin town of Wittenburg.
Both Sorge and Sobleman did up their burgers and a three-person panel consisting of the show's host Camille Ford, local food critic Kyle Cherek, and noted hamburger expert and author Josh Ozersky judged the burgers. Here is the final judging segment of the contest between Sobleman's and AJ Bombers -
While I'm not overly certain that I agree with their assessment, all I have to say is that it would be difficult to go wrong with either Sobleman's or AJ Bombers. Both are excellent burgers and until I have a chance to get back in to AJ Bombers and try the Milwaukee Burger, I'll reserve my own judgment. While the "Stuffed 'shroom" burger at AJ Bombers was very good, it masked the taste and overall quality of the burger. Cheese and bacon will help enhance the taste of a good burger, but the fried portabello mushroom was a little over the top in this instance. Still, I was overly impressed with AJ Bombers on my first visit there and can't wait to make it back again at some point.