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Tangy Barbecue in the Fast Lane

Speed Queen remains a Milwaukee carryout favorite

Oct. 4, 2016
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It’s clear as soon as you walk through the door at Speed Queen Bar-B-Q (1130 W. Walnut St.) that this is a place without pretension or pomp. Betty Gillespie founded the restaurant in 1956 and quickly built a reputation based on the family sauce recipe and her fast and friendly service—a courtesy that eventually earned her the nickname “Speed Queen.” Gillespie, who passed away in 2010, moved into the present-day location in 1975 and the building maintains a clean and simple setup that sets the focus squarely on the food. Although about 10 booths line the small dining area, the twin order/pickup windows and lack of flatware show a clear tendency among diners to carry out. And, with a wait of about five minutes during a mid-afternoon visit, it is apparent that the speed that made Betty Gillespie famous has not been lost with time. 

Speed Queen’s menu, as it should be at any good barbecue spot, is simple. Dinners and “family feasts” are available with ribs, tips, shoulder, sliced beef, turkey and chicken, with dinners ranging from $10-$12 (the slab and tip box orders are $20-$22) and the feasts, which feed four to five, ranging from $40-$50. An all-week fish fry offers catfish or perch in sandwiches or meals ($6.90, $11.36). Fried chicken wings are also available in five- or 15-piece meals ($8.72, $19.62.). “X-tras” include yams, mixed greens, black eyed peas, mac ’n’ cheese, and red bean and rice and run from $3-$4 for a side serving to $5-$7 for a pint. Family-size servings are also available. 

If you expect much more than meat when you order one of Speed Queen’s dinners, you better place a few orders off the “x-tras” menu. If you are disappointed with the meat when you order a dinner, you have no business eating barbecue. Slow-cooked over hickory charcoal and sticks of applewood, the ribs are a thorough delight, with ample meat that pulls nicely from the bone and a good char that gives it a bit of crunch. The rib tips are just as good, tender, smoky and certainly not too lean. The famous Speed Queen sauce was plentiful, but not overwhelming, with a rich tanginess that complemented the meat very well. The only other pieces of the dinner were two pieces of white bread—nearly the exact amount needed to sop up the extra sauce—and a small cup of coleslaw. Still, I didn’t feel cheated on the dinner. It had a heft that immediately indicated I’d have leftovers (they didn’t last long).

Milwaukee is somewhat thin on long-established barbecue spots and Speed Queen definitely now has some worthy competition in town, but for frill-free classic ribs and more, 12th and Walnut is your destination.

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