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Culver’s ButterBurgers: True Taste of the Midwest

By • Jul 17th, 2011 • Category: Burger Blog

I admit to having an unusual affinity for chain restaurants that I don’t have regular access to. In-N-Out, Jack in the Box, White Castle, Smashburger, and Whataburger: when I see a place I don’t have at home, I automatically assume awesomeness. And during my frequent trips to the Midwest to visit family, I’ve always been a little bit fascinated by Culver’s.

According to the signage, the chain is famous for two things: ButterBurgers and frozen custard, which is really just half a step away from regular oldĀ  “burgers and ice cream.” But it’s just different enough to leave me wildly intrigued. So while I was “back home again in Indiana,” I made it a point to finally satisfy my Culver’s curiosity.

Culver’s started in 1984 in Sauk City, Wisconsin as a family business. Craig Culver grew up in a restaurant family, and spent four years after college at a McDonald’s learning the biz. When he, his wife, and his parents went in on a former A&W root beer stand and started cranking out “ButterBurgers” and frozen custard, it was an instant hit with locals. Now, 27 years later, Culver’s can be found in 19 states, including patently un-Midwestern locales like Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming.

The butter burger itself is the stuff of Wisconsin legend, with most sources pointing to famed Solly’s Grille in Milwaukee as the inventor. There are countless methods for infusing buttery goodness into a cheeseburger, and everyone seems to have their favorite. At the very least, most places slather the cut bun halves with obscene amounts of butter before either griddling the buns or simply placing a hot patty in between to let it do the melting. Some places put butter in or on top of the patty itself before cooking. Many places also fry the burger in melted butter. The result is often a burger literally dripping in liquefied gold that leaves a telltale puddle on your plate.

The fast-food version served up at Culver’s is a picturesque thing of beauty. The patties of never-frozen Midwest-raised beef are clearly hand-formed, with an irregular shape that the clown, king, and pigtailed girl could never duplicate. The burgers are made to order, resulting in a server having to walk your order out to you, either in your car or at a table. (My location featured a big-screen TV and a stacked-stone fireplace, giving it a kind of ski lodge vibe. Not exactly the essence of Indiana, but definitely the kind of place where I could happily hunker down and wait out a snowstorm.)

The gorgeous crusty char on each thin patty peeks out from between its lightly buttered and toasted bun, with genuine Wisconsin cheese (cheddar on the original Recipe No. 1, American on the Recipe No. 3 shown above) draping over in all the right places. I also sampled the current LTO, the Smoky Cheddar Bacon & Mushroom ButterBurger-Double (Recipe No. 80), which was superb, despite the less-than-photogenic cheddar oozing out the sides.

To be honest, my palate couldn’t pick up a distinctive butter flavor, but with everything else about this burger being so nicely done, it didn’t really matter. I’d confidently put this up against just about any other fast-food burger out there.

Culver’s sides deserve special mention, too. Their standard fries are crinkle-cut “for superior dippability,” and the onion rings don’t hit the fryer until after you order them. And although more and more joints are including sweet potato fries on their menu, this was the first time I’ve ever seen them in matchstick size. It totally works. But the real star of the sides show at Culver’s are the deep-fried cheese curds (Recipe No. 7). Cheese curds (bite-sized chunks of soured milk produced by the cheesemaking process) are something of a delicacy in the Midwest, Canada (where they appear in poutine), and especially in Culver’s home state. The chain gets all of their curds (both yellow and white cheddar) from a single family dairy in Stanley, Wisconsin. They’re breaded and then fried… and are truly the snack food of the gods, right down to the defining “squeak” when you bite into them.

The chain takes great pride in their fresh, carefully-sourced ingredients and exclusive recipes (as evidenced by those recipe numbers that litter the menu). They even brew their own root beer, on tap and with a homemade taste that makes it unquestionably better than major brands like A&W or Barq’s.

And then there’s dessert. Culver’s specialty is frozen custard, which is just like ice cream… but with eggs added to the mix, and made fresh throughout the day. In addition to the usual flavors, Culver’s goes the extra mile by offering a new Flavor of the Day… every single day. You can grab a by-the-month menu card (with a different lineup for each location) to help you plan your visits accordingly. July’s flavors for my location included Bonfire S’mores (7/2), Double Marshmallow Oreo (7/13), Andes Candies (7/16), and Chocolate Covered Strawberry (7/21). Go with cones, dishes, and sundaes, shakes, malts, or concretes that can include a variety of mix-in ingredients. After a Midwestern feast of butter burgers and fried cheese curds, a Cookies & Cream concrete and a root beer float were the perfect cappers.

Yeah, count me as a rabid Culver’s convert. Just keep it out of my neck of the woods so it can stay that way.

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