Regional food specialties
- Exploring the Hmong, Laotian, and Indonesian Eats of WI
We've spent the last 8 years featuring some of the signature eats from the state of Wisconsin and today we introduce another. When the topic of food in Wisconsin is discussed immediate thoughts are brats, fish fry's, cheese, and beer which is a meal in of itself for many residents in-state. If you're talking with someone like me you'll get the topic of Burgers, Kringle, Whitefish Livers and so on. But the relatively unexplored cuisine of the state takes place within a few communities with a presence of Hmong people and also the Lao people. More on each in this round-up of some of the best places to eat these peoples family recipes. It's a few years in the making so I hope you enjoy.
Racine has quite a few worthy eating options and a recent one that popped into my radar is a Laotian Thai place downtown. It sits right on Main street not far at all from Kewpee. I stopped in a few months back when I noticed the Lao part of the description and said what the heck even though I just had a double Kewpee with cheese. There's a few family recipes worth ordering. The first being Mom's Laotian Egg Rolls. They're served longer than most, so two is more like four. Stuffed with chicken and other regional seasonings these are some of the best egg rolls I've ever tried.
Mom's Laotian Egg Rolls
Under the 'Specialty' section of the lunch menu is a Laotian Chicken Noodle & Fresh Vegetable "Salad". I use the quotation marks because as described on the menu this is "Breaded Deep Fried Chicken Breast with lemongrass, noodle, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, mint, peanuts, bean sprouts and spring roll sauce. Served with homemade egg roll." It's also described as "My moms favorite dish" and it sounded damn good so that's what I got.
Laotian Chicken Noodle & Fresh Vegetable Salad
As you can guess it was damn good and if all salads tasted like that I'd be eating greener a whole lot more. There's a few other Lao specific plates on offer like the grilled chicken with sticky rice. Marinated over night with lemon grass, garlic and house spices, I didn't find it as comforting as the salad but it's still respectable dish I'd be satisfied with eating. Nice neighborhood spot.
Grilled Chicken with Sticky Rice________________________________________________________________________________
First things first there is no place like this in Chicago, or any other parts of the country with the exception of the Twin Cities. Hmong-Americans are the largest ethnic group of Asians in Wisconsin. They were allies of the United States during the Vietnam war but their path to freedom goes all the way back to the last century. According to a 2010 Census there are about 50,000 Hmong people living in the state. Most are based around metro Milwaukee and this market is where they shop.
Food Stall at Phongsavan Market
My guy Peter from LTHforum does a good job summarizing the entire market experience and I agree with him about the atmosphere. It's a cool place to spend an hour or so browsing around the many tents offering anything from Hmong Movies on DVD to food and fresh produce. Browsing the meat department brought attention to a company called Mekong Sausage out of Mosinee, WI that supplied everything from Hmong chickens (Confucian Style) to Hmong smoked beef, Hmong Ginger sausage, Laotian sausage and some other treats I wont be eating like bile. Still no new development on the expansion they're supposed to make but it's for sure worth a stop for those in town.
a look around
From the meat department
In the back of the store sits a food court with some really interesting options. One stall features a bunch of treats and one of the goodies is stuffed chicken wings. These are jammed with the same glass noodle mixture that goes into the egg rolls. Hmong Sausage and Ribs are also worth trying but the best place there might be the papaya salad booth where they'll pound out a fresh one to your liking. They have Hmong style, Laos style and I believe Thai style. It's as close to SE Asia as you'll get in Wisconsin, and maybe even the states. Seems like a world away from downtown Milwaukee.
Stuffed Chicken Wings, Hmong Sausage, Ribs, Pho,________________________________________________________________________________
There's no specific Hmong restaurant in MKE but there are Thai places owned by Hmong people that feature dishes from that background. Thai Bangkok is a restaurant that has a couple Hmong dishes on menu. The Ntses Tuav Kua Txob or "Spicy Crushed Fish" is interesting. It's fried golden brown catfish crushed with lemon grass, ginger, scallions, Thai basil and chili. It was cool hearing the sizzle of the frying fish and then the pounding of this dish in the kitchen while it was being made. It came out looking almost like tuna fish from a can. But there were bits were you could see it was clearly fresh fried and then minced catfish. It wasn't bad but not one of my favorite "salads" ever. It was missing some sort of juice to make it a little less dry from all the shredded ginger. But I'm no expert.
Ntses Tuav Kua Txob or "Spicy Crushed Fish"________________________________________________________________________________
Flirty Momo (RIP)
Popular Food Truck usually found downtown on Weekdays
Unfortunately this top notch food truck seems to be no more. A couple years ago they were spreading the holy word of momo. Momo is short for momocha and they're a traditional delicacy in far away South Asian places like Nepal and Tibet. I know there's one or two spots in Chicago putting out chicken versions but since I left Madison I've been hankering for some good beef ones. The people driving Flirty Momo were making their Himalayan dumplings from scratch and using spices and other stuff shipped in from Nepal. Several fillings were offered but like I said, a now gone place in Madison made the best beef ones and I've been itching for them ever since.
Moo-La-La Momo (Beef)
You know that itch you sometimes get in a hard to reach place, when no one else is around, that annoys so much you're actually willing to walk up the stairs to get the back-scratcher just to rid it? Eating these felt like scratching that itch. I love dumplings and these were some of my favorite. Both in style and flavor. The homemade spicy tomato dipping sauce was just fantastic with the beef mixed with hints of ginger, curry powder and other unknowns imported from halfway across the globe stuffed inside some dough. They were so good we each took an order to go home with. Equally as delicious later that evening. They have a few sides options if you want but other than those, just momo. The proprietor appreciated our interest so much he comped an order of the spicy peanuts. In a city where there's some really good snacks to pair with your beer, these might be the best. Forgot to ask what they were tossed with but plenty of cilantro, acid and spice made this mix addictive. Favorite food truck I ever ate from. Does anyone know what happened to them? I need to find out.
Spicy Peanuts from Flirty Momo________________________________________________________________________________
Walker Square Farmers Market
If in Milwaukee on a Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday (8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m) the Walker Square Farmers Market should be open. It features, at it's peak, about 20 + Hmong Farmers who sell their grown goods to others in the community. You can find some great chiles and tomatillos as well as whatever else is in season. All of the vendors were very welcoming and one described how she cooked the tomatillos which I bought a basket of for $3. I didn't quite catch what she was explaining on how she cooked them with chickens but judging by all the beautiful tomatillos each vendor had, I'm guessing there's some good Hmong home cooks that have incorporated them into traditional dishes.
Walker Square Farmers Market________________________________________________________________________________
Ono Kine Grindz
I've featured this authentically Hawaiian takeout shop before and you can read about it HERE. This is one of my favorite places to eat in Milwaukee. I realize Hawaiian isn't all that exotic but you wont find the food from the islands on offer everywhere. Especially excellent versions of it like the recipes featured at OKG. On a recent visit we loved the Kahlua Pork and also the Spam Masabi. Place rocks.
Spam Musabi and Kalua Pig________________________________________________________________________________
Next Milwaukee stop is a spot thats been serving a wonderful selection of Thai, Laos and Vietnamese Cuisines since 2008. You'll want to zero in on the Laotian part of the menu and Grandma Chanta’s Special which happens to be her old family recipe sausage. It's made with sauteed Laotian herbs and served in your choice of chicken or pork with steamed vegetables and an extra funky Laos style papaya salad. It definitely hits the spot. Milwaukee knows sausage.
Mama's Egg Rolls and Laos Papaya Salad
Grandmas Laotian Sausage
Because Madison is a large, international college town located in the state’s capital, students and residents of the area have embraced a lot of food choices beyond the Jimmy John’s and Five Guys restaurants found everywhere. In fact, Madison has some really good Southeast Asian food. You can find a couple of places serving the food of Laos. Lao Laan-Xang on Willy Street is one of my favorites along a world-class stretch of eating. The trick is sticking to the specialties of the house.
I have two go-to items here that are musts in my book. I dont always get the chance to stop thru here when in Madison but when I do it's hard not to order the Moak Pa which is a dish consisting of ground pork and catfish that gets mixed with Laotian herbs and spices and is cooked in banana leaves. Sticky Rice and Vegetables come on the side. It's a dish you wont find most anywhere else.
My other go-to menu item is one of the few vegetarian dishes I happily chow down. They make a squash curry soup with acorn squash, butternut squash, zucchini, Thai eggplant and basil cooked in a special house curry sauce with coconut milk. On a cold winter night its as comforting as it gets.
Squash Curry ________________________________________________________________________________
We don't have any Indonesian restaurants in Chicago, so this place up in Madison is a spot I liked to check out back when. As mentioned the University of Wisconsin has many exchange students and lots of them end up staying in Madison. The drinks here (and the obligatory happy hour) pack them in. Start out with an order of the Tempe Goreng – homemade cultured soybean cake fried in special Indonesian batter. Another great vegetarian option found in Mad Town.
Bandung offers an array of Indonesian dishes and kitchen creations such as the Indo Mac & Cheese, noodles drowned in a creamy red curry sauce that take on the same flavor profile as one of America’s favorite creamy pastas. But my favorite item on offer is the Krakatau. Lightly breaded chicken is served on a bed of steamed broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, onion, mushroom and bean sprouts and comes served served on a sizzling platter with a sweet tangy garlic sauce. It's got lots of crunch.
Kakilima Food Cart
The food carts of Madison are a integral part of the students diet. Many of them set up shop near the library. A handful of them serve Southeast Asian food including a couple offering Indonesian cuisine. I love the fried rice from Kakilima. It's nice and browned and comes with some funk flavor.
Mineral Point, WI
It's a husband and wife team behind the place and she's from Japan. So the article says they (Hiroko and Chris) "met in Sendai City, Japan, where Chris was teaching English and Hiroko was a cook in a hospital. She's a professionally trained chef, and together they opened a coffee shop that served homemade pizza as well as western breakfast novelties like toad-in-the-hole." The tsunami brought them to Southwest Wisconsin where the husbands mom lives. Eventually they opened Kusaka on Mineral Point's main drag.
As we enter
As the linked article mentioned they make their own noodles by hand for the ramen here. You can select from three different broths and get a nice sized bowl for a very fair price. The rest of the menu is pretty straightforward featuring many dishes Hiroko would make for herself on an off day.
The ramen was pretty good, noodles were firm though the broth wasn't all that strong. Nonetheless on a cold winter day I'd be happy to slurp it. For myself I got the Japanese pancake aka okonomiyaki. I said yes to to the bonito flakes on top and was very relaxed with my dish. Cool option for this cute little historic town to have. Check them out if you get a chance.
Okonomiyaki with Pork________________________________________________________________________________
337 Main St
Racine, WI 53403
6300 N 76th St
9112 W Brown Deer Rd
Milwaukee, WI 53224
Flirty Momo Food Truck (RIP)
Farmers Market at Walker Square Park*
1029 S 9th St
Milwaukee, WI 53204
*Hours: Tue, Thu, Sun 8 am - 5 pm
Ono Kine Grindz
7215 W. North Avenue
Wauwatosa, WI 53213
5930 W North Ave
Milwaukee, WI 53208
1146 Williamson St
Bandung Indonesian Restaurant
600 Williamson St
Madison, WI 53703
Kakilima Food Cart
148 High St
Mineral Point, WI 53565