How Vanguard Makes Bay View Great
Top things to eat at hipster hot spot
It’s nearing bar time, circa early 2014, and Bay Viewers are tricking themselves again. Kicking home, up and down and around the KK corridor, straggling from the bars, self-assured in their neighborhood’s hip superiority, smug in their copious nightlife it-ness, content in being the unquestioned new center of Milwaukee cool. Telling themselves Jimmy John’s will be fine, just fine, to top off the night, quell the late night munchies. Sure, it’s deli meat and mayo and much too much shredded iceberg, and you may be subsidizing the business’ namesake’s Rhino-hunting habit in the process. But you can get some chips. And they come fast. Or else, there’s Toppers, who actually attempts to earn appetite dollars with the slogan, “We come fast no apologies.” (Ignore the shoddy punctuation and the Trump-ish kicker of that proclamation, and consider a national pizza slinger using an ejaculate double entendre to entice orders). Only a handful of old-schoolers and Edward Hopper fans seem to have discovered that past the watery coffee, congeal-y soup, and plastic-wrapped bread, the patty melt at greasy spoon Midwest Diner is not so bad.
In hindsight this all reeks of blind, boozed desperation: An unwillingness to see the fault in the stars of one’s own neighborhood. And underneath is the fact everything Bay View strives to be—funky, bohemian, foodie—was de-legitimized, was made to feel small town, by the fact there was nothing to eat late. Those pre-Vanguard nights often felt more like something out of Cormac McCarthy than Williamsburg, when hungry out-of-town guests had to occasionally have it explained to them, with shoulders shrugging, that a frozen Orv’s sausage pizza from the gas station on Oklahoma was the best dietary bet.
Now, after 1 a.m., with a piping beer brat in front of your face, with corner grill-masters pressing more homemade sausages with those handled weights, fastidiously assuring the level of snap and ooze, overseeing the steam and meat waft, with ‘nother round’s streaming from top shelves, with the cacophony of sizzling flattop and whiskey and “Soul Train,” it’s hard to recall such anemic times.
Of course, in the two years since opening, the simple sausage shop and watering hole has become far more than just a late night appetite answer. It has become a bit of fun and funky everything. A place locals stop for a drink, or a French fry-sided bender, or a Huey Lewis-soundtracked Packers viewing. A joint where there might be a one-off fried chicken blowout on the patio. It’s a restaurant that dresses up as another restaurant for Halloween. They might have live polka on Sunday, or a surprise comedy show on their own birthday. You can match shots with a tattooed bartender while you wait for your grub, or just grab a meaty lunch to go. Simply, Vanguard is Bay View’s missing piece.
But when you’ve snagged a prized bar seat on a hungry Friday night, it’s not about the spiritual situation of the restaurant, the spot in the cosmos of South Side gastronomy. Rather, how does one act when the menu goes down? Should you get a “styled” or a “classic”? A “sausage by city”? What does the hot sauce go on? What if so much meat in link form makes you insecure? While we’re not shrinks, we do have some recommendations.
Sure, regulars will be quick to bemoan the exclusion herein of personal favorites. Certainly “where the F is the Salazar!?” comments will be rife. (The pineapple automatically disqualifies it). And we know that many get off on some kind of kinky combination—we understand, the Hungarian, Pittsburgh style, is a fav, a discovery of diligent menu research. But this isn’t about a personal trip, your tubed meat fetish. Rather, here is the conclusion of two glorious years of jeans-unbuttoning, staying-up-late hard work, and an objective ranking of the top things to eat at Bay View’s best spot.
6. A side of hot sauce
Aside from “barbecue” and maybe “homemade,” there is no greater food misappropriation than “Buffalo style.” It comes in salad form at Chili’s. Your mom always orders one in “wrap” configuration at the local gastropub. You can get it in a bag of Combos. It’s beginning to lose meaning. It’s beginning to be forgotten that the actual bloodline, the greatest flavor export of the city of Buffalo, is the subtle amalgamation of Frank’s Red Hot sauce and butter. Here the proportions are just so, the viscosity just right: sinewy but bold, enough to coat fries but slick enough to slither around buns, seeking crevices for later tongue surprise. It is a sauce spicy and smooth, tangy and buttery, perfect on anything on the menu or in a cup to go—to up lame meals unfortunately not taken at Vanguard. There is something boldly simple that is corollary to the spot’s own distinct personality, yet it remains Western New York-authentic. We’d be willing to gamble the legitimacy therein has something to do with one of the proprietors often found behind the bar, the one with the Sabres hat, or sometimes, the Buffalo Bisons hat.
5. Buffalo Poutine
Speaking of Buffalo, such a neighborhood watering hole-and-grub joint should rightly fry some wings. They don’t, while the inclusion of poutine would seem to evoke groans from anyone leaning so American traditional. But then there’s this cross-border cultural melange: a steaming paper cup of thin fries, crispy chicken bits, zesty hot sauce, and bountiful blue cheese, sided with a suddenly-enticed guttural need to stab with a fork. The nugget-sized chicken is fried smart and crisp—the satisfaction approaching properly done, little-seen-around-these-parts wings. The blue cheese is bracing, pungent—reeking of a high quality assurance not readily found in such bar fare. And then there is the sauce. It’s called “red hot gravy,” and it’s the best thing, since, well, the above. Actually, it’s just a thickened version of said hot sauce, with all expressed attributes plus a silky consistency like the honey of the devil. Everything coalesces into a delightfully messy medley—a dish decidedly not chicken wings, but not quite poutine, either. Instead it’s a kind of inspired take of fat guy fusion.
4. Duck BLT Sausage
Duck is fatty. Though it may in fact be “good” fat— something about the monounsaturated content. But we’re not math majors. And, either way, at Vanguard they mix it in the casing with bacon. And then top it with bacon. In fact the crispy finish of the scattered pork pieces are the perfect counter to the duck’s fatty, distinct ooze, with a hollandaise aioli slicking everything further for gullet entry. Speaking of gullet entry, a similar pig and fowl marriage exists in the Da Benedyk—a beefy bombast of pork belly and foie sausage, topped with melty white American cheese. But that seems an order only for when one is feeling Eddie Lacy strong. And to us, the BLT renders the most distinct sausage flavor on the menu. One complex enough for foodists to scrunch their eyebrow, rub their chin, wonder as to the coriander content or some such business. More importantly, it is a taste profile good and meaty and rich enough to somehow render shredded lettuce as useful, while he “T” part of BLT remains curiously absent. We’ll go the Larry David route and conjecture the letter actually stands for “Tremendous.”
3. Brennen Hintern Sausage
Yes, the Journal of Emergency Medicine recently reported on a man who tore a hole in his esophagus from a ghost pepper puree burger challenge, yet we stand defiant and firm by the fact that pepper spice is the gastronomic life-affirm equivalent of sky-diving, bungee-jumping, or whatever such helmet-requiring activities. And a bar stool is a far more comfortable setting for pushing boundaries. But be warned, everything about this sausage package bites back: there is habenero beer mustard, hot kraut and fried jalapenoes, all uniting and running amok like a mob with too many torches. The subtle cheddar river from the center of the cheese and jalapeno tube offers the only non-spice respite, as the toppings congeal further with time, dangerously, into a kind of molten kimchee. It’s a coating that slowly hits the back of the throat, then the sinuses. If you go too fast, begin to develop hiccups, it’s a sure sign your body is reacting properly to its environment and your choices. This is the one requiring no hot sauce. This is the one to make a forehead sheeny with post-coital glow, to render after-workout endorphins. This is the one to make you feel alive.
2. Thee Durty Burger
In the all night sausage party that is Vanguard, the sun of daybreak also comes in circle form: a burger. It starts with the bun, a brioche, which we think is French for “nap time.” Here it’s a big, pillow-fluffy meat bed, buttery and egg-washed, rich but tender. The velvet finish smooshes easily, showing finger imprints and flattening nicely, nailing an attribute so many Instagram-striving burger bars miss: this is an easily eatable package, consistent with big flavor packed in every nosh. But what of that flavor? A beer and sausage patty, charry, reddish with seasoning, crumbly, it is somehow a bit different than your standard beef burger about town. A bit better, really. Thoughtfully crisped bacon bits add to the crunch, generous pickle slices cut the brawn with acidity, and a humbly named “ok sauce” —a creamy, spice-flecked mayo-y spread—complete the experience. And somewhere in there, a thin layer of Velveeta, gummy and smacky, is lovingly blanketed across the meat. We defy anyone to find another menu, anywhere, with Velveeta in an ingredient list followed by a suggested beer pairing (Chimay Red). It’s a reminder to never take yourself too seriously, that chefs should get out of their own way, and that, sometimes, the P word—processed—is the way to go. Especially when meltiness and satisfaction are the goals.
1. Chili Cheese Dog
A further case against craft: here the least sophisticated sounding specialty item on the menu is the best. But upon closer reflection, maybe the goopified all beef hot dog isn’t so simple. Yes, hall monitors of gastronomy and readers of Saveur chastise any mention of cheese whiz. But here it’s homemade, svelte, real-cheddar tasty, and almost tempts an “artisanal” label. At the least it forms a most baller of two-on-tongue teams with the chili, which is basically Real Chili chili—beefy, tiny granules make up a tomato and meat smash that is impossibly salty and satisfying. There is a bit of Sloppy Joe-ish guilty, dirty pleasure, when you find yourself shoveling fallout scraps with already-greasy fingers toward your lips. The jalapenos kick it all toward 11, while one needn’t don’t worry about onions and such breath detraction, or even the subsequent, inevitable post-dinner toots—if you’re on a date at Vanguard it’s been decided you already are, or will be, quite happily married.
And maybe this is just our own practiced fatness talking, but the dog always seems pleasantly, surprisingly not too much. It’s a compact little number, gone in a few bites, leaving room for more beers, more food orders. Perhaps a soft pretzel? Maybe a side of bacon aioli-dipped fried cheese curds? Which, actually, come to think of it, striking against hoped for conclusion, might just be the best thing on the menu. And such is life and list-making: as liquid, as ephemeral, as all of Vanguard’s melting, oozing cheese.