Milwaukee’s Six Great Ethnic Eating Strips
“Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now!” implores Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) before some tasteful profanities, and in the middle of raining bloody ax murder upon an unsuspecting Jared Leto. Dorsia, as it happens, is the name of the new restaurant taking over the lease of Mimma’s Cafe. Which means the longstanding pasta emporium, largely credited with establishing the neighborhood as a dining destination in the ‘80s and a reminder of the quarter’s Italian heritage, is being replaced by a name inspired by every frat bro’s second favorite movie (behind only Boondock Saints).
In the process, a classic, with a perfectly situated mid-strip spot, will join the likes of Cempazuchi, Bosley on Brady, the real Glorioso’s and, soon, around-the-corner Trocadero, as victims of the mysterious restaurant death panel that might make a long time Milwaukee-observer ponder: what’s happened to Brady Street?
There’s still foot traffic, and really nothing to complain about at Easy Tyger or La Masa. But, looking around, seeing the Whole Foods-ification of Glorioso’s, the rock n’ roll rehash of Angelo’s Lounge, hearing the names of Sinatra-soundtracked Brady Street Sicilian joints of a longgone yesteryear - Cataldo’s, Tarantino’s, Joey’s, Giovanni’s - it’s hard not to get a little nostalgic for the old standby strip. Or, at the very least, the idea of the old standby strip: The kind of immigrant row with whiffs of an old country, like De Niro setting up shop in the Lower East Side in Part 2. With a sense of neighborhoody appetite buzz, single-item specialists, familial business secrets, and many dining options far from Jack’s American Pub (actual name). If you stick to the main drags of Milwaukee food now - monied Milwaukee Street, hip KK, new and whitewashed ‘Tosa North Avenue - it’d be easy to wonder: Did such strips ever even exist?
It actually takes a bit of poking around the Milwaukee fringes, a bit more gas money. But a little searching can still yield little enclaves, unexpected bands, and classic ethnic eating cluster streets that really should be setting property values.
6. 2nd and National
Yes, everybody knows about Walker’s Point, Milwaukee’s little Brooklyn. With tattooed chefs and their fetishistic food, and low rent former warehouses becoming small plate destinations. There’s Braise and the Noble. The great and nearly indistinguishable 3 M’s (Morel, Meraki, Movida). The friendly, delightfully greasy, curd-crushing Camino. The delicious and miraculous melting pot that is still Steny’s. The old zapato comfort of Cielito Lindo. But what many may miss, maybe unless you happen to be lucky enough to occasionally await the 15 bus southbound on 1st and Bruce, is the confluence of cooking smells from the Walker’s Point Plaza that is a bit like walking through the halls of an overcrowded apartment building in Queens at suppertime. Indian, Mexican, and Greek, side by side, wafting, offer a delicious gastronomic cloud possible. A little fish, some lamb, ghee, fry grease. Despite all the offerings - Cafe India, Taco Bandito, Gyro Palace - being just decent, it’s the American experiment come back to life. Plus, it’s part of a Mobil gas station lot, with a liquor store built right in. It’s actually a magically utilitarian corner, and a manifest of the truest kind of melting pot.
5. Layton Ave
The proximity to the airport makes for apt appetite takeoffs - really toward all points. But one should start with Pho Hai Tuyet, a onetime fast food spot hastily rejiggered as a Vietnamese joint. There’s a bountiful menu, all kinds of pho, noodle and rice dishes, and many dishes that start with the letter ‘X’. But there’s only one bahn mi, and only one necessary. It’s certainly the best sandwich of its kind, or maybe any kind, in Milwaukee. The big French bready beast is remarkably consistent, always put together with love and a liberal topping hand, with a subtle sauciness, gigantic fresh jalapeno slices, not too much carrot wedgery, and a garden of cilantro. It’s such a construct even mediocre meat would round out the package. Yet the bit-sized pork scrags are always tender, moist, indefinably, piggily perfect every time.
Kim’s Thai applies near the same care to chicken. Curries and fried rice dishes abound here, with customized spice levels, and careful crisp all around. But it’s the house specialty - chicken wings stuffed with minced chicken, vegetables, noodles and cilantro that defy reason with good taste, or maybe vice versa.
Also down the block are Bangkok House, Ramallah Grille, Pho Cali, etc, seemingly for good measure, for helping prove the hypothesis that the best food in most towns resides within a tortilla’s toss of the airport.
There’s Oakland Gyros for something completely different, the greasy standby at once a reminder of college drunken munchies, and, something still exotically Mediterranean. Or, at the same end of the caloric spectrum, but of a time continuum so different it feels cultural, is Nite Owl. It’s a burger joint comfortably situated somewhere between early Eisenhower and American Graffiti, all grease and meaty, onion-y, soft white bun satisfaction. A bit closer to the here and now is Martino’s, the only even semi-legitimate offerer of Chicago’s every-corner Italian Beef sandwich. Like embracing a fear of flying, it’s important to remember you only live once, so, get it dipped - the entire beef and pepper and mozz brick quick-bathed in au jus, then appearing like a glistening meat sponge on your tray.
As long as you’re this far off any kind of sensible diet wagon, why not embrace the buttery gluttony of our very own Culver’s? No matter how far your appetite travels, it’s nice to know you can still go home again. And home tastes like stomach-regret - but the worth-it, Grandma’s-griddle kind.
4. South 27th Street
You wouldn’t think it, what with the car dealerships and wide boulevard of suburban traffic and glaring hints of Chili’s country, but from Grange-ish down to College, behind the 27th Street scenes exists a lamb-scented mini Middle Eastern row. Al-Yousef boasts two massive spinning shawarma's, a sizzling flattop, and subsequent smells of a back alley food bazaar. The beef kofta kebab is a saucy, spicy Turkish sort of burrito, chock with garlic-y meat, pungent juices, snappy vegetables, and thai hot sauce, the whole thing grilled for good measure and impossible to leave the parking lot without tearing through the butcher paper for. Then there’s Holy Land, with arguably the best hummus in town, and falafel reminiscent of street cart-Istanbul. Amanah Food Market is the spot for Arabic bread and hookah and tobacco needs. And, again, of course, kebabs.
If you’re looking to go further, much further, east, you’re already right there. Pho Viet yields massive bowls of luxuriant pho. Or you can get adventurous in your own kitchen. Pacific Produce is next door, and provides the refrigerator-list necessities: rambutan, durian, jackfruit, dragonfruit, frozen frog, duck heads, duck eggs, and, yes, if you want to be boring, fresh fish.
3. 13th & Oklahoma
It says it all that this humble Morgandale strip could lose so much and still offer everything. Recently departed is Christie’s, Jason Christie packing his bags for sunnier pastures, bringing with him meal memories from a place that was nothing short of a miracle of corner bar, mom-is-cooking charm. Also gone are the best asada tacos in town from Los Altos de Jalisco, in the sadly shuttered Mi Super Foods.
But what remains makes amends in quality and quantity. JC Kings, a solid but jokingly-painted taqueria, is maybe most distinct for its ability to combine delicious and disgusting within just a single bite. Try a half, or really a quarter, of any of the gluttonous torta breeds that marry the likes of ham, mozzarrella, pineapple, or, maybe chicken, chorizo, and hot dog? If such a meat massacre isn’t for you, just walk a few blocks north or south. Tortilleria El Sol brings a similar vein of bang for your buck, with massive sacks of delicate corn tortillas for at-home taco forays.
Going the other way, El Tucanazo may remain quiet king of that elusive “authentic” label - the colorful counter-and-three-table joint offering a deep menu of rich sauces, tender meat, and enough character that a native of the Mexican state of Hidalgo told us it’s the spot that most reminds of home. There’s also Taqueria Arandas, Mexican run-of-the-mill in the best sense - comforting and bustling, with piping, grease-saturated and cilantro-popped tacos, lots of perfect bases for that ubiquitous southside Milwaukee sauce that is the creamy jalapeno emulsification. When you realize the amount of protein herein, know that Bombay Sweets can level out the most stubborn of no-fun diets, offering strictly vegetarian Indian fare. Two kinds of saag can distract from lack of meat.
2. Silver City
The most concentrated sliver on the list, Silver City lets you go from Thai Bar Bar-B-Que, with impossibly juicy chicken, meatballs, curries, volcano sauce spice, Milwaukee’s best pho bowls of deep mid-winter comfort, to Fiesta Garibaldi’s Chicken Palace - in just a block’s time. The latter is a shabby, corner, yellow-coated Mexican fast-food joint, with a logo bearing slight resemblance to Gus’ Pollos Hermanos in “Breaking Bad.” Not the spot you’d expect one of the only salsa bars in town, with five distinct varieties and three chopped pepper and onion options. Chicken is the namesake protein specialty, and it’s offered every way. But the most intriguing delivery option is the tlayuda, essentially, a Mexican pizza, not readily found about town, here folded up in it’s own crisped, crunchy flat bread crust, with melty cheese, avocado and every tangible south of the border satisfaction Taco Bell looks like it has on commercials when you’re drunk. Wash it all down with a mangonada, and wonder why you’ve never heard that word before. Or how beautiful it is to combine mango sorbet with tamarind sauce, lime, and spicy chili powder.
For the less pepper-inclined, there’s the Puerto Rican La Isla across the street. But the area is most notably Asian forward. Along with Thai BBQ is Thai Lotus, Bamboo, Vientiane. Instead of your usual crab rangoon, these are the spots to try duck, to try lad, to try larb. Speaking of which, there may be no greater gastronomical disparity than the off-putting sound (aka ‘larp’, aka ‘laab’), unappealing description (it’s meat salad), and the delicious reality. The national dish of Laos busts with cilantro, mint, lime, green onions, and big spice. And, at Vientiane at least, tripe.
When it’s all over, let the friendly blues joint Mamie’s offer up a domestic brew as digestif. Or, right your Shanghai-ed intestinal ship with a three-buck cheeseburger.
1. Lincoln Avenue
It’s almost too much: between 5th and 20th a gritty narrow strip deliciously echoes San Francisco’s Mission, Chicago’s Pilsen or Little Village, and at once boasts the carnitas and top notch salsas of Don Lucho; the maritime aesthetic lunacy and seafood fare of both Fiesta Garibaldi and La Canoa; the massively comforting papusas of El Salvador; porky takeout Cuban sandwiches from El Rincon Criollo; the old school, family-style Mexican diner and professional Mariachi-style karaoke singers at Tres Hermanos; the churro, bollillo and holiday-time tamales of Lopez Bakery; another Arandas location; another La Salsa location; the occasional food truck or two. At 20th, where you’d hope to maybe arrive at some sort of Pepto dealership, you’ll only find the best of them all, El Tsunami. The tiny new spot with the open kitchen slings some of the deepest salsas, maybe the juiciest pastor, the most consummate of Mexican grandmother sauces - Veracruzana, diabla, mojo de ajo. Get any on a whole snapper, filet, shrimp, octopus. Then just sit and spoon the fallout with chips, as the waitress take a carcass away, and you await a stomach-settling horchata to go, giving thanks to be part of the country not so inexplicably afraid of the other.
Like all good food tours, this is the one to leave an open mind pondering, maybe recalibrating pending and future real estate searches. Or at least it’s a happy, non-healthy, full-gut reminder that it’s fine to leave Brady and the bunch, for the usual drags to become, to un-become, to re-become, what they may. The curious and inspired can always drive a few blocks west, get out of normal routes and big-deal new openings, embrace the other side of the wall, and the real buffet of options available.
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