Chain Reactions: Culver’s

Culver’s ( is a fast food chain that was founded in in Sauk City, Wisconsin, in 1984.  I tried it on a short trip to Wisconsin over 20 years ago, to visit the weird, wonderful, and uniquely American roadside attraction The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  Now we have multiple Culver’s locations across Central Florida, and since I am obsessed with regional restaurants and food trends, I appreciate having more options to choose from, chains or not.

Culver’s is famous for its frozen custard, “ButterBurgers,” and breaded, fried cheese curds.  But even though the ButterBurgers are above average fast food burgers, my wife and I usually return when we’re in the mood for delicious fish, hand-battered and deep-fried.  Culver’s has the best fried fish of any fast food restaurants, and better than a surprising amount of seafood restaurants and Irish and British pubs we’ve been to.

Specifically, they serve North Atlantic cod, which you can get as a sandwich or as a dinner with two or three pieces of fish.  Sometimes my wife and I will split a three-piece North Atlantic cod dinner, which comes with fries, cole slaw, and a roll, but you can select two sides of your choice if you don’t want fries (standard crinkle-cut fries) or cole slaw.  Ring the Alarm!  Culver’s has excellent onion rings, with beer batter coating similar to the battered cod filets.  They are my favorite fast food onion rings.  They are considered a Premium side, so you have to pay a small upcharge for them.  DO IT!

Here’s a close-up of the battered fish from a different visit.  It will make you say “Oh my cod!”

As great as the Atlantic cod is (and it is), Culver’s brings out a different battered, fried fish once a year for a limited time: Canadian Northwoods walleye, which is a very light, buttery fish.  Even though this sandwich is $7.99, which seems expensive for fast food, it is worth every penny.  I added the creamy, crunchy cole slaw on top of the sandwich, too:By the way, the Culver’s website says the tartar sauce includes olives, capers and sweet relish!  I would not have guessed olives or capers, but they list the ingredients right on the peel-off lid of the little dipping cup.

That walleye doesn’t look that different from the cod, but trust me, you could tell the difference in a taste test.  The sandwich comes with a bit of lettuce and tartar sauce underneath the fish, and the bun is buttered and lightly grilled like all Culver’s sandwich buns.  That’s always a nice touch.   

I already said that I think the ButterBurgers are just okay, but Culver’s amazed and astonished when they came out with this limited-time special: the “Curderburger.”  It is exactly what you think — a burger served on the typical bun (buttered and lightly grilled, thank you very much), topped with a “cheese crown.”  Yes, that is a giant breaded and fried cheese curd patty, and it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.  (Because “SWEET DREAMS ARE MADE OF CHEESE!”)

Here’s a cross-section, with melty, molten cheddar cheese curd leaking out of the fried patty on top of the burger.  You probably shouldn’t eat more than one of these a year, or the Curderburger could become a Murderburger.  Luckily, it is a limited-time menu item. 
I should note that back in the ’90s, my brother and I were enamored with a similar decadent burger from the late, lamented chain restaurant Bennigan’s, the “Wheelhouse burger,” topped with what was essentially a mozzarella cheese stick in patty form instead of stick form.  And I have to give a shout-out to Orlando’s beloved Se7enbites, the Southern restaurant and bakery where Chef Trina Gregory-Propst created the Italian Stallion burger, topped with tomato jam, pesto aioli, and a mozzarella cheese plank.  But I digress!

This is my wife’s favorite Signature side, the pretzel bites, which you have to pay a $1.50 upcharge for if you get them in a combo with a sandwich or a dinner.  But again, like so many things at Culver’s, they are totally worth it.  The outside crust is lightly crackly and crispy and buttery and salty, and the inside is pillowy soft.  They come with a little dipping cup of Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce for dipping, but they don’t need anything — and I say that as someone who always likes dipping things in other things. 

In fact, I tried a few of the different dipping sauces with onion rings, as you can see.  That’s the Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce on the left in the unlabeled cup.  The Boom Boom sauce is a little spicy and surprisingly thick and heavy, but the creamy, tangy Culver’s Signature sauce SLAPS.  Those are both recent discoveries from my last trip, and I would definitely get that Signature sauce again.

George’s chili is considered a Signature side too, so you have to pay a $1.50 upcharge for it as well.  I always love chili, and if it’s offered on a menu, I will always try it.  The website boasts that this is “medium-spicy” chili con carne, but keep in mind this is a chain restaurant from Wisconsin, and I found it very mild.  It is made by simmering ground beef (the same stuff the burgers are made of, naturally), diced tomatoes, dark red kidney beans, peppers, onion and celery, and a “secret blend of peppery spices.”  With Culver’s always making a big deal about its Wisconsin roots and all its great cheese, I thought the chili could really use some shredded cheese or the cheddar cheese sauce on top to melt into it. 

I appreciate fast food restaurants that don’t just offer burgers and chicken, but have all kinds of odd, offbeat options.  You may have already noticed Culver’s is cool like that, but they even have a pot roast sandwich made with hand-shredded braised chuck roast.  I have a deep, abiding love of slow-braised and stewed meats, cooked until they are moist and tender and falling apart.  Too many people under-season their pot roast and dry it out, to the point that you can chew it forever and nothing happens, but not so with this sandwich.  It was a tasty, savory alternative to the standard burgers and fried fish, and I would definitely get it again some time.

In addition to the ButterBurgers, the frozen custard is a big draw at Culver’s and a major part of its brand.  It is my wife’s favorite part — even more than the fish.  She usually opts for the chocolate custard with chunks of Butterfinger candy swirled in, but this time she got it with some chocolate syrup, pecans, and a cherry on top. 

I’ve been sitting on this review for the better part of a year, waiting for the triumphant return of Culver’s lemon ice, a summer treat that sadly disappears for the rest of the year.  Summer is my least-favorite season here in hot, humid, sticky, sweltering Florida, but I do love all the sweet, cold, refreshing drinks and treats that come out in the summer.  My favorite is Culver’s lemon ice — in this case, a strawberry-mango lemon ice cooler, which is real slow-frozen lemonade swirled with real fruit.  It is definitely a dessert, not as wholesome and nutritious as a smoothie (although smoothies are also high in calories and carbs), but I love ’em.  Culver’s actually has lemon ice smoothies as well, where they mix the lemon ice and fruit with their vanilla custard, but I like them more tangy and acidic and less creamy.  I drank a fair bit on the drive home before I could take this photo, but they really do fill the cup all the way up.  I’m trying to avoid sweets and desserts and sugary sodas, but I can see enjoying a few more lemon ice coolers before the summer of 2023 ends.

The thing on the right is a chocolate custard with M&Ms mixed in — my wife’s choice, of course.

So that’s Culver’s.  They take longer to prepare your meal than most other fast food establishments, and cost considerably more, but you pay for quality, including fresh food cooked to order every time.  I must admit I always look askance at the receipt on every trip to Culver’s and think “REALLY?”  But the two kinds of fish (the cod and limited-time walleye), the onion rings, the pretzel bites, and the lemon ices never disappoint, and my wife loves that chocolate custard too.  Anyone who has ever read my food blog knows that I don’t consider myself too cool or too sophisticated to enjoy fast food.  I am neither an elitist nor a health nut.  Culver’s is definitely well above average for fast food, so give it a try if you haven’t already.  And if you have, what are YOUR Culver’s favorites?


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