Wedl's Hamburger Stand in Jefferson
Since we've been having summer-like temps since March, early June seemed more like mid- July, or August (?). Even so, just like every year, I feel the summer slipping away already.
I've tried making a summer list for the past few years, of classic, probably nostalgic, summer activities that I have to indulge in before Labor Day, or at least by the actual end of the season. Like, go to the Dells, or, have a picnic by the lake, or play croquet in the park. Some years, I come up with a very long list. Some items get crossed off; some linger and end up on the list the next summer.
One that's been hanging out on the list for a few summers is "Go to Wedl's Hamburger Stand in Jefferson."
This pretty much falls under the category of "Go to a drive-in," of which there are few in these parts (well, there's Sonic). More authentically, there's Mullins' Drive-In in Fox Lake, one of the last with car-hop service, which is worth the trip.
Wedl's caught my attention after it appeared in George Motz's book Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 100 Great Burger Joints. It shows up there as Peterson's Hamburger Stand; Motz writes that Bill Peterson bought the stand in 2002 and that he was the seventh owner. The stand has been around mostly in the same form since 1916 when it was started by a man named August Bergholz.
For more on the history of the hamburger stand, see this article from the Daily Jefferson County Union.
Despite moving on to being called Wedl's after Rick Wedl bought the business in 2006, the stand and the hamburger frying method described in the book remain the same. The meat is ground and seasoned in-house. It's prepped in small balls. Then the person inside the stand at the big diner-style griddle flattens each ball down with a spatula into the grease and fries them up at time of order. These hamburgers are sometimes described as "sliders" and the $1.75 price tag (for a single-patty cheeseburger) may convince you that you'll be getting a mini-burger, but I didn't find the burger to be what I would call a slider; just a regular fast-food style burger (as opposed to a thick pub burger).
The stand is really a stand, about the size of one of Madison's food carts. The small building is easy to see at 200 E. Racine St. (Hwy. 18 as it goes through Jefferson). Inside, there's little more than a grill and a counter and an ordering window. A shelf with standard condiments, including Wedl's house sauce and a jar full of pickles, hangs outside the pick-up window.
Next door is a building where you can sit to dine; you can order inside too, and menu items other than burgers are made inside and brought out to you. Ice cream and malts are available, too. In back of that building is a pleasant patio with picnic tables. Obviously, though, if you're making the pilgrimage to Jefferson, you should order at the stand window.
Motz doesn't actually say much about the taste of the burgers in Hamburger America; other than that, the bun is standard soft-white-and-squishy and the seasoning in the meat blend "tastes peppery." In 2008, Eat Wisconsin visited Wedl's and proclaimed the "juicy, perfectly seasoned" burger as "one of the best burgers I have had in a long time." The blog also recommended ordering the cheeseburger with the fried onions and skipping the crinkle-cut fries in favor of an order of onion rings. So I was prepped.
I recently stopped in at Wedl's on my way back from the Kettle Moraine. Everything was just as described, although the stand seemed to have gotten a paint job since the photograph was taken for the Hamburger America book. The people working the stand are very nice (tip 'em, it's hot in there) and it's easy to witness the method -- the grillmeister takes the burger balls and flattens them down on the grill. I was however somewhat alarmed by the amount of grease on the grill.
Your order comes hot off the grill, and that's an understatement. Even after I pulled the burger apart to slather on some Wedl's house sauce and add some pickles, it was far too hot to eat. Let it cool down so the flavor comes through more.
Yes, I agree that whatever seasoning that's used in the burger is a little peppery. The overall burger is also very salty and, of course, greasy. The patty's not crispy at all. To me the major drawback to the burger patty is that it ends up rubbery, and feels more steamed than fried. The house sauce, tomato-colored but thinner than ketchup, mixed in with the cheese and the fried onions and the overall Wedl-burger flavor, so I couldn't distinguish exactly what it was bringing to the table. It's not really spicy (that I could discern). The onion rings were nicely battered, very crispy, and, like the burger, extremely hot.
Worth it for a summer pilgrimage? Yes, but it's the overall experience and not the burger per se that will probably make this a fun outing for somebody looking to indulge in a little nostalgia this summer. Combine a trip to Wedl's with something else in the area (it's about 35 miles from Madison) -- like a trip to the Kettle Moraine, or Jefferson's Highway 18 Drive-In (the movie theater kind) or even, if this is your thing, the big outlet mall in nearby Johnson Creek.