AJ Bombers exploded to the front of the culinary scene in Milwaukee shortly after their opening in 2009. Although things like their WW2 bomb-inspired peanut delivery system made it an exciting place to visit, it was their award-winning burgers that first brought AJ Bombers, and their co-owner Joe Sorge, into the national spotlight. In 2010 they were featured in an episode of Travel Channel’s “Food Wars,” hosted by Camille Ford. They competed against Sobelman’s Pub and Grill with a burger comprised of beef, onions, bacon and Colby cheese. The burger from AJ Bombers won unanimously, crowning it as the best burger in Milwaukee (and now is officially part of AJ Bombers’ menu: The Milwaukee Burger).
Fueled by his successes, Sorge aimed his sights on Madison. Last Saturday marked the grand opening of the Madison AJ Bombers, and to commemorate the occasion, Joe Sorge decided to host another “Food Wars” style competition. His target this time was equally ambitious, as he called out Ian’s Pizza in a Late-Night Food Throwdown.
Ian’s Pizza was founded by Ian Gurfield on Halloween in 2001 and has been a Madison institution ever since. Their first store, on Frances Street next to Dotty’s, satisfies the late night cravings of UW students with their assortment of pizzas sold by the slice. Gurfield has since expanded to four stores, with one on State Street, one in Chicago and the most recent opening in Milwaukee on New Year’s Eve in 2009.
I met up with the Ian’s team as they arrived at AJ Bombers and learned what would be the layout of the throwdown. Each team would feature five dishes, with a twist. The last dish served from each team had to be one not featured on their menus and modeled after one of their opponent’s best sellers. Before the food was served, each team was equally confident. Joe Sorge, when asked about AJ Bombers’ chances against Ian’s just laughed declaring, “We guarantee victory!” And when asked if they were worried considering AJ Bombers’ recent Food Wars victory, Adam May, the spokesperson for Ian’s Pizza, said, “We’re not intimidated at all.” “Food Wars’” own Camille Ford was even on hand for the competition, and I was able to get her predictions. “Although I’m a little partial [she was decked out in a pink AJ Bombers t-shirt], I think Bombers is gonna take it,” she said.
The four pizzas that the Ian’s team featured leading up to the final round were the Mac n’ Cheese Pizza, the Chicken Cordon Bleu, the Florentine and the Smokey the Bandit. These were going up against four burgers from AJ Bombers: the Sconnie, the Barrie Burger, the Black Bean Burger and the Milwaukee Burger (the winner of the last Food Wars Challenge they took part in). The final round pitted AJ Bombers’ Mac and Cheese Burger, their take on Ian’s Mac and Cheese Pizza, vs. Ian’s Pizza’s Mad Sconnie Pizza, their take on AJ Bombers’ Sconnie Burger.
Rather than their usual patty (a blend of ground chuck, top sirloin and brisket), the Mac n’ Cheese Burger consisted of a patty that was half grass-fed beef and half bacon. The patty was topped with Nueske’s applewood-smoked bacon, a serious serving of mac and cheese and a little ranch and was served on a spicy cheese bread bun from Stella’s Bakery. The Mad Sconnie Pizza from Ian’s consisted of hamburger meat, maple bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, fried pickles, onion strings, cheese and their homemade ranch. Both the pizza and the burger were purer forms of Wisconsin decadence than I had ever tasted.
Other parts of the challenge that stood out were the Barrie Burger and Sconnie Burger from AJ Bombers, and the Smokey the Bandit and Florentine pizzas from Ian’s. The Barrie Burger has peanut butter on the bun to add an interesting twist, and the Sconnie Burger is topped with fried pickles that added a nice crunch. The Smokey the Bandit pizza features bacon, cheese, barbecue sauce and chicken and is one of my favorites at Ian’s, while the spinach, tomatoes and feta cheese of the Florentine pizza was welcomingly refreshing.
In the end, it’s hard enough to compare similar food, let alone things as different as pizza and burgers. Each restaurant had proven to me that they are undeniably expert at their craft. It seemed that people agreed, because no official winner of the challenge was announced.
For my part, I’m going to declare the real winner of last night’s challenge as the City of Madison. Because with the addition of AJ Bombers, it has gained another restaurant that – like Ian’s Pizza – prides itself on great food made from locally sourced ingredients.