Talking with Chris at Ultra Fidelis in Milwaukee about burger joints in the area, he suggested I find a place that had just opened nearly three years ago - Oscar's on Pierce. He boldly told me that it was the best burger in Milwaukee and that they had a great selection of beers. After a morning meeting in Milwaukee before heading to Chicago, I sought out Oscar's on Pierce to see if what Chris said was true.
Oscar's on Pierce is not to be confused with Oscar's Frozen Custard, a burger and custard shop with two locations in Milwaukee. It is owned by Oscar Castaneda, a native of Mexico, and his wife, Elisabeth, who hails from Vienna, Austria. Oscar made his way from his hometown south of Mexico City to Milwaukee and eventually worked for another very good burger place in Milwaukee - Sobelman's (click here to see my review of Sobelman's). It was at Sobelman's where he met Elisabeth. Oscar eventually went to work at The Wicked Hop in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward entertainment and restaurant district. Wanting to own their own bar to offer great burgers and a great selection of beers at a reasonable price, Oscar and Elisabeth found a nearly 100-year-old building in the Mitchell Park neighborhood of Milwaukee and transformed it into what would be Oscar's on Pierce. They opened in mid-March of 2011 and have become a solid neighborhood burger joint ever since. They built an outdoor patio on the back of the building and every once in awhile they'll have bands and music out back in the warmer months.
Oscar's goes by many names - Oscar's on Pierce, Oscar's Pub and Grill, Oscar's Bar and Grille - but no matter what you call it, it's pretty much the same place. Most of the locals refer to it as Oscar's on Pierce, although their Facebook page is under Oscar's Bar and Grill, the same as what is on their logo. Oscar's is located - of course - on Pierce Street, a block north of National and a block west of S. 16th St. (see map) There's a good sized parking lot to the east side of the building and more parking available up and down Pierce. I got there during the lunch rush on my visit and I was able to get a parking place just below the outdoor patio.
The place was understandably packed. I found an open seat at the bar and watched the bartender - who looked almost eerily similar to the actor Tim Robbins - make a number of Oscar's signature Bloody Mary's. They start with a homemade bloody mary mix (and vodka, of course), then add in everything but the kitchen sink - celery, pickle, olives, fresh mozzarella balls, lime and lemon wedges and then, surprisingly, a thick strip of crisp bacon. The bartender was an artisan making the six or so Bloody Mary's for a group. But it also meant that he was getting backed up for drink orders. When he finally extracted himself from the Bloody Mary's, he finally got over to me and asked what I wanted to drink. They had a fine selection of bottled and beers on tap and I ordered a glass of Anchor Steam. He asked me if I wanted a menu and I said I did. He handed one to me when he landed my beer in front of me and he said, "My name is John. I'll be back with you in a minute."
There are two areas inside Oscar's on Pierce - the bar area has a handful of tables and a long "L" shaped bar that seats about 15 people. Antique tin tiles are on the ceiling with antique style lamps hanging down. There's a small dining room in the back that features a number of tables. Oscar's probably seats 60 to 70 people inside their building.
All the burgers at Oscar's feature a half-pound of premium Black Angus beef. Chris had told me that their signature burger - the Big O - was the one to get. It's a burger topped with smoked gouda and chipotle jack cheese, then topped with hickory-smoked bacon, fried onions and jalapenos, and served with a side of housemade guacamole. It sounded very interesting, but it also sounded like there would be a lot of different flavors that would mask the taste of the beef. I looked for something that wasn't quite so "busy" for my burger.
The Big Gringo featured a burger topped with American and white cheddar cheese with bacon. The Big Foot was topped with Boursin and blue cheese. The Big Aloha was topped with ham, a pineapple slice, havarti cheese and a slice of avocado. The Big O was a little more expensive than the others - $7.25 versus $6.75 - very reasonable, indeed, for the type of burgers they were. And if you didn't want an eclectic burger, you can get an Oscar burger for $5.00 and an Oscar cheeseburger for $5.50.
What I settled on was the Big Hondo - a half-pound burger patty topped with Swiss cheese and sauteed mushrooms. I asked John if I could get bacon on it, as well. "No problem," he replied. Handcut French fries came with the burger, but John wanted to know if I wanted to substitute them for their parmesan/garlic fries. Knowing I had a couple meetings scheduled later in Chicago, I should have said, "No!" But I ended up going the parmesan/garlic fry route. I knew I wasn't going to have many.
About 20 minutes after I ordered my burger, it was brought out to me. The buns at Oscar's are made by the Wild Flour Bakery, a local bakery/cafe in the Milwaukee area. The crown of the bun was sort of crisp and crunchy, but was soft inside. It was chewy, but not too chewy where it detracted from the taste of the burger. Two strips of thick hickory-smoked bacon were laid across the top of the patty that was swimming in Swiss cheese. Fresh sauteed mushrooms rounded out the toppings on the burger.
The burger was very good. I could get a good taste of the beef which tasted fresh and flavorful. The combination of the bacon, Swiss cheese and fresh mushrooms were a winning taste sensation. The burger, for me, was a little overcooked and didn't have that juiciness that look for in a good burger. But it was still very good.
The fries were lightly sprinkled with parmesan cheese and they did have a garlic taste to them. It wasn't overpowering in taste. But, as I said, I only had a half dozen or so of the fries. I was more interested in finishing the burger.
The lunch crowd had filtered out as I was working on my burger. John came over and asked if I wanted another Anchor Steam. I told him, no, I was fine. He said, "You know, my girl friend and I are going out to the Bay Area in January. We have some friends out there and we like to head out there from time to time. I called the Anchor Brewery, I don't know, a couple weeks ago, and asked if I could get a brewery tour. You know what they told me? They said their brewery tours are sold out into March!" (This was in November when I was there.)
I told him of the time that Cindy and I were in San Francisco around 15 years ago and I called the brewery up and wanted to get a tour. They pretty much told me the same thing - the tours were sold out weeks in advance. I told John, "I grew up in the hometown of the then-owner of Anchor, Fritz Maytag. He was the grandson of the guy who founded the Maytag washer machine company. I tried telling the lady on the phone that I was from Fritz Maytag's hometown of Newton, IA and that didn't matter a bit to her."
John laughed along with me and said, "She wouldn't have cared if you were the President of the United States. You weren't getting in!" His quick smile and outgoing nature made him a natural to work the bar at Oscar's.
So, is it the best burger in Milwaukee? Man, I've had some very good ones at Sobelman's, Matty's, Jake's Burger, Stack'd Burger Bar, and AJ Bombers, to name a few (click on the links to take you to my reviews of these Milwaukee burger joints), all of which have probably passed the venerable Solly's in what I thought was the best burger in Milwaukee at one time. (I do need to make a return trip to Solly's for a more in-depth review on the place.) The burger at Oscar's was very good, don't get me wrong. I would have no problem recommending the place and I would go back for a Big O burger at some point. I don't know if I can call it the best burger I've had in Milwaukee, but it's gotta be damn close.