Years ago when Cindy and I first started to date, she used to tell me of family outings to Prairie du Chien, WI and the highlight was to stop by Pete's Hamburgers, a small trailer that served steamed burgers. Cindy and I were in Prairie du Chien about 15 years ago and we stopped at Pete's to get a burger. While I'd never had a burger that was literally boiled on a flat top grill in water with onions, I wasn't overly certain that I cared for the taste at first. After having a Two Mits burger in Elkader - which does their burgers in the same fashion as Pete's - I knew I was hooked. The burgers are moist and juicy, and have a great taste to them.
It had been years since I had a Pete's burger and I happened to be driving through Prairie du Chien from LaCrosse just before the noon hour earlier this summer. I decided to stop at Pete's and get a burger.
There's a long and storied history regarding Pete's Hamburgers, a little place on Blackhawk Ave. in Prairie du Chien just across the street from the somewhat famous Stark's Sport Shop (see map). (Stark's is well-known in NE Iowa and SW Wisconsin as a place where hunters and fishermen can get all their supplies - including liquor.) Back after the turn of the 20th century, Pete Gokay was a member of the Prairie du Chien volunteer fire department. The fire department would hold fund raisers and events and Pete was on the food committee. He was in charge of cooking hamburgers and when there would be a lull in the action, he would put the cooked burgers in a pan simmering with warm water and onions to keep them from drying out from overcooking. When people began to ask for the burgers that Pete had in the pan rather than the ones hot off the grill, he knew he was on to something.
The Foley brothers who ran a saloon in Prairie du Chien knew that Pete Gokay was on to something, as well. They asked Pete to cook his simmered burgers on weekends and holidays. On nice days, Pete would cook his burgers outside the Foley Brothers Saloon at a table he had set up. The burgers - and Foley's - would soon become a big hit with people in and around the Prairie area.
Along with his brother in-law, Jack St. Jacque, Pete went around to county fairs, street carnivals, auctions, wherever large gatherings occured just to sell his simmered hamburgers. By this time, Pete was using a special spice concoction that he'd add to the water before placing the burgers and onions in with it. Finding that moving around his cooking "box" was a little too cumbersome, Pete decided to stay in one place to cook his burgers - right next to Foley's Saloon at the corner of Blackhawk Ave. and Beaumont Rd. in Prairie du Chien. In 1942, Pete custom built a trailer that was placed at Foley's. It turned out to be a convenient way of preparing, cooking and serving his hamburgers.
A few years later, a man from Elkader, IA who was a loyal customer of Pete's Hamburgers thought this type of burger would go over well in his hometown. He convinced Pete to sell him his trailer, but Pete relented only after he built a newer - and bigger - trailer for his Prairie du Chien location. The trailer that went to Elkader was the forerunner of Two Mits.
In the mid-50's, Foley's had sold out and Geisler's Restaurant opened in their old building. Pete Gokay (pictured at left) had a fall out with the new owners and he moved his trailer to the present day location at 118 W. Blackhawk on a site that is owned by Stark's Sport Shop. Pete ran his stand for over 60 years before dying in 1972. His son, Bob, ran the stand until he passed away three years later from cancer. Bob's wife, Phyllis, continues to run the stand today with the help of her 8 grandchildren. Just as it was years ago, Pete's Hamburgers is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from sometime in May thru the summertime and into the early fall, starting at 11 a.m. They stay open until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and until 7 p.m. on Sunday.
Knowing that lunchtime crowds can get pretty big around Pete's, I was sort of pleasantly surprised to see that there were just two people at one of the two windows that are on the side of the Pete's trailer. The menu at Pete's is pretty basic - burgers, no cheese; pop, chips, and bottled water. I made the mistake of ordering two with cheese from the lady and she curtly, but pleasantly informed me, "No cheese!" She did ask me if I wanted onions on them and I said, "Sure!"
People generally line up before Pete's opens at 11 a.m. and they were already cooking up the second batch of the day on the old grill that has the burgers on one side and the onions on the other. A thin layer of seasoned water simmers the burgers on the flat grill with a ridge around the grill to keep the water in. The burgers literally suck up the seasoned water making them moist and tender. The seasoning is there to help bring the flavor back to the burger that is cooked out in the simmering process.
Pete's had tried to do other things in the past like chicken, barbecue and hot dogs, but it's been their tried and true burgers that have kept them open for years. Two Mits in Elkader has cheese for their burgers, and they also sell brats and hot dogs. Actually, the hot dogs at Two Mits are very good.
After serving up the burgers, wrapping them up in wax paper and putting them in the sack, I got a bottle of water to go along with my meal. At $3.50 a burger and $1.25 for the water, the bill came to $8.25. The burgers are pretty small and not as good of a value as you may get elsewhere. But it is Pete's and it's a pretty famous place in the region, especially with the history behind the place.
I took my two burgers back to the car and made sure that I laid out my "smeg towel" that travels with me to sop up any juice that comes off the burgers before it hit my shirt and pants. With a little ketchup and mustard on the burger along with the simmered onions, it's not much to see for a burger. And because the meat is simmered rather than fried, there's no marks on the hand-pattied burger.
While I'm almost certain there's probably not a lot of difference between a Pete's and a Two Mits burger, the Pete's burger seems to be a little drab in flavor. Oh, you can't deny that it's juicy, moist and tender. But like boiling any meat, you do lose some of the taste of the burger. The seasoning helps to bring back some of the flavor, as do the onions. I'm not saying that the taste is bad - it's not. It's different from a grilled burger and one that does require a little getting used to.
I guess the big difference - to me - between the Pete's burger and the Two Mits burger is the cheese. The cheese on top of a Two Mits burger really livens up their burger. It really helps the overall taste and that's why I've given it an honorable mention on my Best Burgers List. Without the cheese, I'm not certain that a Two Mits burger would taste any differently than a Pete's burger.
Still, Pete's is still one of the originals and as they like to tell people there were there long before McDonalds, Burger King, Dairy Queen or any of the other national or worldwide hamburger chains. People around NE Iowa and SW Wisconsin have long believed that a Pete's burger is the best and have thought so for over 100 years now. It's an acquired taste, for sure, but there's also something magical with a slice of Americana about Pete's Hamburgers. If you're ever in Prairie du Chien - or even in the NE Iowa/SW Wisconsin area - on a summer or early fall weekend, you have to stop at Pete's at least one time.