Standing in front of Dairyland Old-Fashioned Frozen Custard & Hamburgers in Milwaukee, chef and co-owner Kurt Fogle tells me with a calm, matter-of-fact confidence, “Milwaukee is the center of the universe for quality cheeseburgers.” His Midwest politeness then kicks in and he quickly adds, “No offense to anyone else.”
He’s talking about cheeseburgers, but he could easily be talking about cheese curds, a signature side dish at the restaurant he co-owns with fellow chef Joe McCormick. “Kurt and I are cosmically aligned kindred spirits,” McCormick says.
The pair, both born and raised in Wisconsin, came up cooking in fine-dining restaurants in cities from Chicago to New York. After growing tired of working for other people, they returned to Wisconsin and to the popular foods of their home state: burgers, frozen custard, and fried cheese curds, all made with the best local ingredients.
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After experimenting with pop-ups and a food truck, Fogle and McCormick finally opened a permanent location at 3rd Street Market Hall in downtown Milwaukee in January 2022, with Fogle’s wife, Katie, and his cousin Brent on board as partners.
Their intention wasn’t to upend the foundation of a typical Wisconsin burger and custard shop but rather to increase its caliber. “We’re interested in digging deep and improving quality wherever we can,” Fogle says. “You know, you can only go to so many burger shops and just be disappointed. We both have this classical [culinary] training. So the burgers, the chicken tenders, the chicken sandwiches, the onion rings, the cheese curds—we give them the same attention and same level of work as we would in a fine dining restaurant. [But] no hiding behind fig jam and whipped Brie and caramelized shallots. None of it.”
Fried cheese curds are a customer favorite, more popular today, according to Fogle, than when he was growing up. While most restaurants buy frozen prebattered curds from big food-service distributors, at Dairyland they purchase fresh curds from the nearby Clock Shadow Creamery and then batter and fry them to order in their own house-made beer batter.
The goal, as McCormick says, is clear: “It’s gotta be a little salty, it’s gotta be crispy, it’s gotta be gooey, it’s gotta make you want to have another beer.”
Speaking of beer, it plays a key role in the cheese curd batter. “The best beer for this application is actually the cheapest, worst beer you can find,” McCormick says. “[Cheap beer is] actually very well balanced. There’s not one overpowering flavor in it, but it gives a nice, clean, bright, sweet, malty character. And there is just a little bit of hop bitterness, just enough to give you that beer flavor.”
Also in the batter: flour, cornstarch for crispiness, paprika for color, salt, and baking powder to help the crust puff slightly as it fries.
Fogle and McCormick freeze the fresh curds before frying to help them melt at a more measured pace. When an order comes in, they toss the curds in just enough batter to barely coat them. “We don’t want to actually eat a lot of extra batter. It may not seem like it’s fully coated, but you’ll see it’s going to puff up [while frying] and make a nice shell,” McCormick says as he drops a batch into the fryer. He lets them fry undisturbed for the first minute to allow the crust to develop and to prevent the curds from “coming out of their clothes.”
The curds emerge from the fryer as golden-brown nuggets with little pockets of cheese oozing through tiny pin-size holes in the coating. “Everything’s nice and melty,” McCormick says. “It’s the deceptive simplicity. Everything is simple on its surface, but it takes more than just slapping [together] some beer and flour and putting cheese in a fryer to make something really nice.”
McCormick says that growing up in Wisconsin, everybody had their go-to burger and custard shop, a place they frequented as a kid, a place that holds special memories. At Dairyland, he and Fogle hope to preserve that burger-shop legacy. “This is part of our culture and tradition. We think it’s worth celebrating and continuing. And it’s something for my children to have. A place [for them] to go and be like, ‘yeah, this was my place growing up.’”
It all comes back to a simple question, Fogle says. “What can we do as a result of our work that leaves Milwaukee, and Wisconsin, better than we found it?”