Who needs Cupid’s arrow when you have Solly’s spatula?
[Editor’s Note: We asked the UpNorthNews team to send a valentine to Wisconsin, telling us something you really like about living here. Jonathon Sadowski put on some miles… and some calories.]
Wisconsin sure loves its cows. From heifer to holstein to hamburger, there’s not a phase of life (or death) that Sconnies fail to find bovine enjoyment.
So maybe it’s fitting that our most grotesque act of cattle appreciation combines no fewer than three different bovine products. I’m referring to butter burgers, of course — the artery-clogging combination of butter, cheese and ground beef. Butter burgers have been made famous by the now-national restaurant chain Culver’s, which actually takes it fairly easy on the butter. The ooey-gooey, melty goodness has spread as far as Florida, Arizona and Texas, but it all starts back here in America’s Dairyland, nearly 90 years ago.
While it may be the most recognizable around the country, and perhaps even in Wisconsin, Culver’s “Original ButterBurger” is anything but the first. That title is disputed, belonging to one of two greasy spoons: Solly’s Grille in Glendale and Kroll’s in Green Bay, which both date back to the 1930s. Culver’s didn’t come around until 1984, when the first of the company’s 700-plus locations opened in Sauk City.
Solly’s, a Milwaukee-area staple that has carved out a spot for itself in the worldwide hamburger mythos, is pretty unassuming. The 26-seat restaurant sits a few miles north of downtown Milwaukee, right next to Sprecher Brewing Co. A burger and soda will put you back less than $10.
I don’t eat nearly as many burgers as I once did, but as a native of southeastern Wisconsin — where butter burger madness is at its strongest — I felt an almost religious calling to Solly’s and Kroll’s.
Glenn Fieber, Solly’s current owner and stepson of Solly himself, treats his step-dad’s creation with the same sort of reverence. The recipe hasn’t changed one bit since Solly’s doors opened in the summer of 1936. Cooks still serve up a burger made from real Wisconsin beef, smothered in stewed onions, draped in cheese and drowned in a heap Wisconsin butter (“Of course, Wisconsin butter is the best butter,” Fieber adds almost reflexively).
“You put those items and it’s just like a piece of music,” Fieber says, motioning with his hands like a conductor. “It sings when you take a bite.”
Growing up in Racine, I’d heard the legend of Solly’s but had never been. I always got my butter burgers from Kopp’s or Culver’s. Those establishments certainly have their place, but there’s something so pure about Solly’s butter burgers. Each ingredient in Solly’s burgers plays into each other: The cheese mixes with the onions, which in turn marinate the patty; the butter seeps through the patty and soaks into the bun, cradling the whole sandwich and coating it with a fatty film.
Yet as if to remind the consumer of their own impermanence, Solly’s burgers require a cooldown period. The sheer amount of butter — I’d wager two to three tablespoons — made me groggy for a full day. And I just had the normal cheeseburger.
Fieber had the kitchen staff whip up a “cheesehead” to show me just how deep the rabbit hole goes. He added the cheesehead to the menu during the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI run. It has a two-thirds pound patty with mushrooms, stewed onions, raw onions and three cheeses, and butter, of course. And don’t forget the foam cheesehead and jumbo onion ring served atop the formidable tower.
A little more low-key is Green Bay’s Kroll’s. There are two locations — east and west — and neither share an owner. While Harry and Caroline Kroll, the founders, first started serving food in 1931, it wasn’t until they opened Kroll’s on Main Street in 1936 that their version of the butter burger was born. Somewhere along the way, the business split, and Kroll’s West eventually opened. It now sits right across from Lambeau Field.
But Kroll’s East, the original, remains. Just like Solly’s, Kroll’s East is unassuming. One could easily mistake it for a typical diner. And to a degree, it is. You won’t find Kroll’s East in national travel guides or hamburger documentaries like Solly’s, but it’s still a local legend in Green Bay. And it may well have beaten Solly’s to the butter burger punch, though the timeline isn’t clear on which place started serving the butter burger first.
Kroll’s burger comes wrapped — not on a plate — and is served with ketchup, pickles and raw onions in addition to butter. The bun is a firm toasted semmel roll, which holds things together nicely. It’s a totally different style to Solly’s ocean of grease with just four main components on a soft bun.
And indeed, Kroll’s is a less extreme version of a butter burger. There’s just a pat of butter on it, but it’s still an authentic step up from Culver’s light bun brushing. Kroll’s certainly has its merits over Solly’s. Restraint is the biggest one. I could actually fathom having two Kroll’s burgers less than a week apart (not that I’d recommend that, but this is Wisconsin, after all).
All of this is to say, Wisconsin butters my buns. There’s so much I love about the state, but the butter burger is the most iconic to me. It’s the great equalizer — it doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity or working-class average Joe. Everyone can sit down, dig in and get a little greasy.