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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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AJ Bombers heats up the Madison hamburger field... sort of
Burger wars

Credit:Sid Richards

AJ Bombers, a Milwaukee-based burger joint celebrating "P-nuts, burgers and beer!," now has a branch in downtown Madison. These are not your rank-and-file burgers. The standard patty is a quarter-pound blend of sirloin, chuck and brisket, and diners can go big with up to a quadruple stack. Or upgrade to a grass-fed beef patty. Or substitute the Gahnzo patty, made from half grass-fed beef, half Nueske's bacon. Toppings include everything from the norm to peanut butter, which sounded like a craving my pregnant sister would have. Peanuts hit your table from cutesy World War II-style bombs, complete with nose art, flying overhead.

The Milwaukee location won the Travel Channel's Food Wars competition for Milwaukee's best cheeseburger; it garnered attention in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal as a Foursquare fledgling; and co-owner Joe Sorge cowrote Twitter Works: A Social Media Guide for Restaurant Owners. If you're even remotely plugged into social media, AJ Bombers will seduce you. The carnal pleasures of its frequent specials are evident from photos posted on Facebook and at its own "Burger Whisperer" site, where "you dream it up, we'll whip it up." I was hyped.

On my first visit, there was one overriding issue: The hot food wasn't hot. On a slow Packers game-day Sunday, mid-afternoon, this stumped me. On a second visit, the food was piping hot and well prepared - even memorable.

The first time around, our poutine - a basket of skin-on fries with gravy and cheese curds - suffered from gravy seized against the room-temperature fries, and the cheese curds hadn't been melted through. The sweet potato chips were stale and chewy. On the bright side, the onion strings with "magic seasoning" were delicately battered and tasty, even when slightly cooled. Same goes for the thin fries - fix the temp and these are good to go.

The burger patties are smashed thin on the grill and served medium as a default. The standard bun comes from Milwaukee's Miller Bakery; the spicy cheese bun from Madison's Stella's Bakery. It's great that these bakeries don't use preservatives, but on the first visit, the buns tasted distractingly of dry, out-going bread and weren't heated through.

Still, burgers are forgiving, and the specialty burgers do bring something fresh to the Madison dining scene with their whimsical fixin's. In particular, the Mad 'Sconnie with the beef-bacon Gahnzo patty, topped with more Nueske's bacon, bomber sauce (a ketchup-ranch blend), lettuce, tomato and fried pickles on a Stella's spicy cheese bread bun, has the makings of a killer burger. For more 'Sconnie, add cheese.

The substantial, flavorful black bean burger with specks of pepper was another I'd try again. If you like chunky peanut butter, give the Barrie burger a shot (and I do mean really like, because the peanut butter can overwhelm even its American cheese and bacon add-ons).

The famed Milwaukee burger on my table, though, wouldn't have passed for the burger I saw photographed for Food Wars. Double bacon, double Colby cheese - win-win, though neither was especially copious. The Schlitz onions were neither Schlitz-y enough nor cooked enough; they ate like fibrous white onion petals with slight char lines. The added mushrooms were also just past raw, but these would be easy fixes in the grand scheme.

For brunch, burger specials for the day included a turkey patty on cranberry focaccia with peanut butter hollandaise, bacon and an over-easy fried egg, which basted the burger nicely. I found the peanut butter hollandaise hard to detect (maybe that's a good thing?), but at any rate, this screams good hangover food for one of the nation's top party schools.

And then there was the chocolate chip cookie sandwich, which dwarfed the burgers. Burgers may be the highlight on the menu, but this was the highlight of my visit: two Frisbee-sized cookies, crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, with several scoops of soft vanilla bean ice cream nestled in between and your choice of caramel sauce or peanut butter.

My follow-up visit was stellar. My AJ Burger and fries came out fast and hot. I gushed over the juiciness of the burger; the bun was soft, warm and grilled to golden-brown on one side, a delightful confirmation that this place can, in its best moments, live up to the hype.

The service is chipper, energetic and, for a burger joint, sufficiently attentive. With the Plaza, famous for its basic but consistently crowd-pleasing Plaza burger, right across the street, and other burger spots near campus - Five Guys on State Street and the inimitable Blue Moon further down Old University - there's no shortage of competition. If AJ Bombers can manage to consistently stay on its game, it has the location, menu and star power to be a hot commodity.

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