In this series, we’ll be hiking the burger trail to find the latest, greatest and most delicious burgers in Milwaukee. Click here for an explanation of the criteria used to rate each burger. Where have we been? Check out the complete catalog of burger reviews here.
City Lights Brewing Co.
2200 W. Mt. Vernon Ave., (414) 436-1011
Since opening in 2017, City Lights Brewing Co. has made a home for itself in the ever-evolving Menomonee Valley and offering a second life to the Milwaukee Gas Light Building, an historic gem featuring a variety of elements created to meet the specifications of Alexander Eschweiler’s original architectural drawings.
In addition to creative brews like Coconut Porter, Mexican Lager, and seasonal picks like Beach Bum hazy ale, City Lights also serves up a selection of house hard seltzers in flavors like blueberry rooibos lemon, dragon fruit strawberry and hibiscus key lime. Even better, you can enjoy them all on the brewery’s expansive beer garden style patio, a spot which Matt Mueller identified as one of his favorite patio hangs last summer.
An accompanying food menu features a variety of beer-friendly snacks (hummus, cheese curds, Bavarian pretzels), sandwiches and specials including Tuesday tacos and Friday fish fry (beer battered cod or hand breaded perch) with fries, house slaw, rye bread and tartar sauce.
I’m such a big fan of a great smash burger, with its hallmark thin profile – still juicy inside, but nicely browned on the outside – and the essential craggy, crispy caramelized edges that eat like salty meat candy. So, I was excited to see that City Lights had one.
The City Lights’ Smash Burger features two seared beef patties topped with American cheese and house made pickles. Optional additions include lettuce, tomato, onion and house sauce. Can substitute pepper jack or Swiss cheese. Gluten-free bun available upon request. Served with fries for $12.
I ordered mine with lettuce, tomato and onions. If you like mustard on your burgers, the creamy, mustard-forward house sauce will fit the bill.
The Smash Burger came out of the gate looking pretty darn hot (and it wasn’t just that it was a 90-degree day). It was tall and cheesy, with great color from the tomato and deep green lettuce. The bun was shiny and the burger patties beckoned with their glistening, caramelization
The bun looked great. It was glossy with a golden brown top and seemed to be appropriately sized to offer a decent meat-to-bun ratio. It also had enough heft to hold up to two patties worth of beef. But it wasn’t perfection. The exterior of the bun had maybe seen a bit too much air, as it had started to get a bit dried out on the exterior. And opening up the burger, I was surprised to find the cut sides entirely untoasted, a little detail that’s nonetheless key to a stellar burger.
On the burger side, I’m going to say right off the bat that the beef was delicious. It was beautifully seasoned with a robustly beefy flavor. It was juicy enough that it held its own without the need for condiments and just fatty enough that it had all the indulgence of a well prepared burger. And it had a good amount of contact with heat, enough to give the exterior of the patty the caramelized flavor that only comes from a good solid Maillard reaction. Absolutely delicious.
But was it a smash burger? Almost. It had definitely been given solid time in contact with the hot grilling surface, hence the beautiful caramelization. But the patty was still thicker than might be ideal, and it possessed none of the deliciously crisp craggley edges that are a signature of the ideal smash burger.
Scoring on this was a tough call. On the one hand, the burger was delicious. On the other hand, its execution fell short of the smash burger promise that well could have earned it a perfect 10.
I’ll give it to this burger in the toppings department as well. The lettuce was fresh and green, the tomato thinly sliced and flavorful. And the onions were chopped, so although they were raw, they weren’t overpowering.
The cheese was beautifully melted and there was more than enough to go around, but not so much that it overwhelmed the beef. And the house pickles had a nice classic flavor -- not too vinegary or salty – with the perfect acidic pop to balance things out. All the better, even without condiments, the flavor profile was balanced and satisfying.
Smash Burger talk aside, this was a pretty stellar burger for the price. It was meaty, the ingredients were fresh, and the flavor profile was pretty spot on. So, in the end, there’s no need to snark about its $12 price tag, which also included some pretty tasty seasoned fries.
The City Lights Smash Burger was delicious, but just a smash short of greatness.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.