Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Eating BIG Milwaukee Pt. 3

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

- More Eating and Drinking in MKE

It’s been quite a while since I checked in with a report from the Brew City aka Cream City. But I’ve visited plenty of times since then so it’s time for a new roundup on what’s good in what I like to call my “favorite Chicago suburb” which is a slight joke but it’s proximity to here makes it my favorite spot to spend a day within two hours of Chicago. I’ve always considered Milwaukee a mini Chicago or a little sibling of sorts since it’s so similar to the Chicago I remember as a kid. But Milwaukee is less gentrified and less developed in terms of new buildings replacing old ones so it really does bring back memories of the Chicago where there was a tavern on every corner and such. Plus it sits on the same lake so lots Milwaukee's lakefront is similar to Chicago right down to the rich peoples suburbs being north of the city. There's no spot outside of Chicago I feel more at home in than Milwaukee. 

Sights from Milwaukee 

I’ve been visiting Milwaukee for more than 20 years so I’ve watched it grow in many different ways. One of it’s biggest changes for the better seems to be it’s food and drink scene which has always been fun from an old school perspective but in the last decade or so has grown into a full fledged scene that features all sorts of new and interesting things that would seem way out of place 20 years ago. I ranked it the 5th best food city in the Midwest (behind Chicago, Detroit, MSP, and St. Louis) but I also said it’s got the best chance of rising bc it’s always getting better. Just like Chicago, Milwaukee is at it's best over summer and into the Fall with it's many farmers markets, festivals and something Chicago doesn't have, it's beer gardens. So, just in time for Summerfest, here's where to eat in MKE. 

Sights from Milwaukee

Allie Boy’s Bagelry & Luncheonette

Good bagels in Milwaukee?!?! Yeah I think so though I'm by no means an expert in bagels (only New Yorkers can be, right? ;) but on a serious note this spot is all about it's bagel sandwiches which are something I don't always enjoy as a bagel isn't always a great vessel for a sandwich. But the Reubeneski is an exception. It's their ode to the Reuben in bagel sandwich form. It's made with brined and smoked pastrami brisket, melted gruyere, special sauce with caramelized onion, house kraut and dill. Served on a pumpernickel bagel. Allie Boys makes for a great way to start your day in MKE. 

The Reubeneski at Allie Boy's Bagelry

Riley's Sandwich Co. 

One of the best steak sandwiches I've had in some time came from this friendly neighborhood establishment in Shorewood. It's owned by a couple who share a love for dogs and sandwiches. The space is canine friendly so don't be surprised to find a dog taking selfies inside. The sandwiches will also surprise, particularly the steak offerings which are all made with a wonderful medium rare sous vide beef tenderloin that works particularly well in sandwiches due to it's tenderness. The signature offering is the Steak Kensington which is made with slices of tenderloin, a housemade horseradish spread plus mushroom, onion, and cheese on a perfectly sourced roll from a local Italian bakery. 

The Steak Kensington at Riley's Sandwich Co. 

Sweet Basil 

Lao Sausage is taking over the cheese and dairy state in ways the bratwurst did previously. Traditionally called Sai Oua or Sai Gok it’s become a dish that many Americans are introduced to Lao food through and it’s the perfect introduction to what Lao food is all about. They always come bursting with all the flavors and aromatics that make Laotian food so sensational. What I really love about Sweet Basil's Lao sausage offering is the option to add a flight of Jeow sauce in three different styles. They include 1) Jeow Bong: Thick Laotian chili paste made with sundried chilies, galangal, garlic, and other ingredients commonly found in Laos. 2) Jeow Mak Len: A Laotian tomato dipping sauce, similar to a salsa. Tomatoes, chilies, and onions are grilled, then mashed with a mortar and pestle into a potent sauce seasoned with lime and cilantro. 3) Jeow Som: A liquid dipping sauce with sweet, sour, and citrus flavors. All of them pairing perfectly with both the Lao sausage and an order of sticky rice.

Lao Sausage with Sticky Rice and Jeow Flight at Sweet Basil

Chicago (and the Midwest in general) doesn't have a ton of Portuguese restaurants. So I'm always intrigued whenever I find one. A 2019 trip to Portugal was memorable and I kind of fell in love with the food while there. Amilinda is located in downtown Milwaukee and calls themselves a Spanish / Portuguese inspired spot. They have entrees like Piri Piri Chicken so it's definitely got some very Portuguese dishes on offer. The chicken is what got me in but my visit was two years ago. I checked the menu and the chicken remains so that's cool. We enjoyed our visit and would go back.

Portguese Food at Amilinda


I don't drink coffee so forgive me if I'm wrong but Milwaukee seems to have a really strong coffee scene. There's certainly alot of independent coffee shops and some of them do more than just caffeine. Interval was one that caught my eye due to it's food menu and also it's sleek space. It's a community driven spot with a small hyper-seasonal menu of Scandinavian-inspired plates and homemade pastries served throughout the day. We snacked on a variety of open faced sandwiches (Smørrebrød) on our visit which was a while back but it's a spot I've been meaning to get back to. 

Scandinavian Bites at Interval 

Triciclo Peru

This popular Peruvian restaurant grew into a full service spot from a small food cart that used to be found around town. They gained fame through their large Peruvian empanadas and now boast a full menu plus bar at their Washington Park location. I've tried their empanadas which are excellent and also their Peruvian home cooking in the form of Tallarin Saltado which is the same thing as Lomo Saltado except you substitute tallarin pasta for the fries. Included with the tagliatelle pasta is seared tenderloin, onions, tomatoes and a rich brown gravy. Peruvian food always tastes home cooked. 

Tallarin Saltado at Triciclo Peru

Buffalo Boss

It's not often spots from Brooklyn open up in Milwaukee like Buffalo Boss did when they signed up to be a tenant in The Sherman Phoenix complex. The marketplace / community center replaced a burnt out bank in a neighborhood that was in need of positive economic change. There's some cool stuff to be found inside this complex and most if not all of it is Black owned. Buffalo Boss sources organically raised, hormone-free and antibiotic-free chicken wings. They’re also do meatless Impossible Wings. Hormone free chickens means these wings aren't super sized which to me is a good thing. 

Buffalo Wings at Buffalo Boss 

Drift MKE

Fans of the Australian and Kiwi loved meat pie should head over to this mobile cafe for a taste of their New Zealand style meat pies. When I last visited it was parked right outside of the Public Market. I do love these as I learned from a trip to South Africa where they're also very popular. Over the last five or ten years they've become readily avail in North America too. Below is a delicious chicken curry pie.  

New Zealand Style Meat Pie at Drift MKE

Mazorca Tacos

Milwaukee has a good a low key taco truck culture. Not just trucks but there's lots of mom and pop spots worth checking out bc you never know what type of regional treats they might be making. There's also some permanent food trailers in Milwaukee worth seeking out and Mazroca Tacos at the Zocalo Food Park is worth finding. It's the city's first food trailer park ala cities like Austin and Portland. Mazorca is the anchor as this was once a lone trailer parked in a vacant lot as seen in the pic above. 

Tacos at Mazorca Tacos 

Tostadas By Maranta 

When in Milwaukee I like to keep my eye out for street food stands like Tostada by Maranta. They make "farm to table" tostadas. The current schedule can be found on their instagram. Ingredients are sourced locally and they make the tostada shells too. We tried a couple including a pork belly and a chicken, both stacked high and full of flavor. I'll be keeping an eye out for them on future visits. 

Tostada by Maranta 

Taqueria La Sieritta 

I was told this place makes some of the best tacos in Milwaukee and that would indeed be true. I say so bc they’d be really good in Chicago or anywhere for that matter. In fact there’s some great taco spots here just like there are in so many other spots in the Midwest. Tacos are the new burgers in that you’re never far from a good one. Crisp bits of steak and chunks of tender suadero pictured below.

Tacos at Taqueria La Sieritta 

Mae Velma's Corned Beef

As I've discussed in previous posts the corned beef scene in Milwaukee is first class. I think it's on a level all it's own due to the fact most spots hand slice a steamed product that resembles Texas brisket in thickness. The online reviews of Mae Velma's vary greatly but my visit was great. Their Rueben sandwich was perfectly constructed with thick and tender corned beef between nicely toasted bread. Even better is the fact you can use their drive thru to grab one. There's nothing like this in Chicago.  

Reuben Sandwich at Mae Velma's Corned Beef 

Damascus Gate Restaurant

One of my favorite streets to ride and or walk around is the Historic Mitchell Street which is rich with history, dating back to the mid 1800's. At one time it was known as "The Downtown of Milwaukee's South Side. Damascus Gate opened back in 2019 and it was the first Syrian restaurant in town when it did. It's operated by a family of Syrian refugees who were welcomed to Milwaukee by a local doctor of Syrian descent. It's been welcomed with open arms by all including the local Muslim population who frequented during Ramadan when a fixed price buffet featured all sorts of dishes you wont find anywhere else in the area but here. I visited on a quiet weekday so the menu was a bit more typical like a plate of mujadara which is a mixture of lentils and rice with fried onions on top. I always order this dish when I see it and it never disappoints. The falafel wrap was also really good. 

Syrian Food at Damascus Gate 

Taqwas Bakery and Restaurant 

You can find another Middle Eastern gem down in Greenfield not far the airport. Taqwas Bakery is ran by a woman from Jordan, the restaurants namesake, who opened the place in 2020. The centerpiece of the inside is a beautiful brick oven where savory pastries like beef fatayer are made. These came straight from the oven making them one of the most satisfying Middle Eastern snacks I've come across. We also tried the Falafel, Arayes, and Diwali. All of the freshly baked stuff was outstanding but the diwali (grape leaves with meat) seemed to be a few days old with very little taste or texture.

Jordanian Food at Taqwas Bakery and Restaurant 

House of Papaya

I've featured the former iteration of 5EXEN when it was known as Phongsavan Market. It's the main marketplace for the areas Hmong community which is a group of people that traditionally lived in Laos, Vietnam and China and are an ethnic group, not a nationality. Both Milwaukee and the Minneapolis areas have Hmong communities and places like 5EXEN Market is where many will shop. It's always switching up as far as ownership and layout but the last I visited they had just opened a new food court in the back. There was room for maybe 6-8 stalls but only half of them were open on our visit. We tried a bunch of the typical Hmong snacks like the chicken wings stuffed with glass noodles and the sausage and such. Plus a extra funky bamboo salad that got funkier with each bite. 

Hmong Food at 5EXEN Market 

Three Brothers 

I used a trip up north to watch the Cubs as an excuse to finally check out this James Beard ‘America’s Classic’ award winner in Milwaukee. There’s tons of old school spots up here and I’ve been to most of them but Three Brothers was a spot always left unchecked with each passing visit. Located in an otherwise residential part of the Bayview neighborhood is one of the best kept Schlitz Tied Houses left. The triangular spit of land was purchased by the Schlitz Brewing Company in 1897 for $250 and the building was built shortly thereafter. An immigrant from Yugoslavia named Branko Radicevic Sr. bought the building and moved his tavern popular for Serbian food and culture here in 1956. The Three Brothers name was chosen bc Branko wanted his three sons to eventually run the place. Three Brothers is still in the same family today and as you can see very little has changed. No cheese curds or Spotted Cow to be found here but they do make a bangin’ Burek. The house specialty is Branko’s wife’s recipe and it takes an hour to bake so don’t plan on getting in and out if you’re dining in. It was a warm day on our visit and the Croatian salad was a great start. It’s made with finely diced tomato, onion, and green pepper mixed in a special dressing and topped with Serbian cheese. Burek comes in one size and your choice of beef, cheese, or spinach. I could only eat one slice but damn it was delicious. I need to revisit on a crisp October night when the smell of sarma is in the air.

Serbian Food at Three Brothers

Zaffiro's Pizza

Zaffiro's was basically the first spot I became a regular at in Milwaukee. Not in the sense of a local but of a visitor in that I've stopped in regularly over the years. Not every trip but often enough. It's in my opinion the second best tavern thin pizza not just in Wisconsin but anywhere (I put Wells Brothers in Racine at #1). They've been open since 1954 and I haven't found a thinner sausage pizza anywhere. 

Sausage and Half Giardiniera at Zaffiro's Pizza

Leon's Frozen Custard

Last stop? Leon’s. More times than not this is the spot I hit before heading home. Unlike other custard stands it’s open year round. Another thing that sets them apart from all others is their Spanish Burger. What’s that you ask? Well it’s kind of a cross between a loose meat and a Sloppy Joe. It’s not quite as dry as a loose meat but also not quite as wet as a sloppy joe. It’s somewhere in between and they’re better than any loose meat or Sloppy Joe that I’ve ever tried. Why is it called a Spanish Burger isn’t quite known but it could be related to the “Spanish Dogs” of Indiana which you can read about HERE. They cost like $2.50 each which is a pretty great deal in todays day and age. I like to get a couple with a cherry phosphate float. I think it’s important to note that the owner of this longtime stand (est. 1942) was in the news a couple of years ago for making his staff communicate only in English even though many of the employees and also the customers speak Spanish. It’s a bitch ass move but it’s his business and it happens to be the type of spot that people from all walks of life enjoy so I figure it’s just a case of an old man that just doesn’t get it but I fault no one that wants to avoid Leon's bc of it. 

Spanish Burger at Leon's Frozen Custard 

Click HERE for a google maps guide to the spots featured in this post


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