In the end I suppose our tour of Milwaukee was less "Best of Milwaukee" than "Things GWiv has to go back to Milwaukee for." My wife mentioned where we were going to a friend who lives there and she said hmm, we usually eat ethnic food, not cheeseburgers, I thought Mike was the real foodie....
But while I'm sure there are good Thai, or Greek, or whatever restaurants in Milwaukee, and indeed I saw a whole funky area (Brady Street) that looked worth exploring, for still having a leftover counterculture flavor that Chicago's Old Town hasn't had in 15+ years, there probably isn't a burning reason for a Chicagoan to hit the road to have those experiences. On the other hand, three of the four main stops I was along for wound up being highly distinctive and not-to-be-had-in-Chicago experiences (and I understand that others stayed longer and took in another excellent one, the pizza place Zaffiro's). Plus the fun, of course, of hanging out with fellow LTHers, though as usual when I had my kids along, I was only half part of any adult conversation and gave off, I'm sure, an air of permanent distraction. So anyway, here's Milwaukee for Chicagoans who definitely want experiences they can't have here:
I have to admit to serious disappointment that my image of Solly's as a genuine diner experience was blown to bits by this brand new gingerbread house on a dully modern commercial strip. (Apparently the original location was abandoned when the neighborhood went south; then, bizarrely, this building was moved a couple of miles when a highway wiped out its spot.) It was only slightly improved by the fact that the country-cute interior maintained the impractical diner-style seating arrangement, which made it look like a diner in some lady's living room:
But on to the food. GWiv was a bit apologetic about the butterburger after everyone had tried one and no one quite seemed transported by it. Yes, that's 3/16" of butter on the bun at right, not white cheese. I agree that it's the kind of thing you sort of need to grow up on to love-- which is by no means unusual in burgers, many towns seem to have an indigenous style which outsiders find weird. But I found the Solly's butterburger historically interesting-- basically an example of the kind of proto-burgers we talked about in the "30s style" thread which claim the title of "inventing" the hamburger, but use such different condiments from the classic mustard-pickle-onion that they don't really seem like hamburgers in the modern sense at all. Solly's I found to be a very German-American-tasting burger, between the hard roll-- "pillow" they call it-- the raw and grilled onions, and the brown mustard. (That is, according to GWiv, how to order one-- raw and grilled onion, extra butter, on a pillow.) I think I was the only one who would go back for this precise burger, but I would.
From there on to Kopp's, further up the same suburban-commercial strip. Another building whose charm was described by Aaron in an old post as being like a 70s bank branch, or by someone there as being of the "Park District Restroom Facility" school. Too bad because if you can blot out the dull building, the view behind the counter is quintessential 50s foodservice:
But are you there for the food, or to eat? This is 14% butterfat custard; as devotees of Scooter's (which was apparently modeled on Kopp's), my kids and I could taste both how close they came-- and why Scooter's stopped at 10% butterfat. I thought the vanilla was ever so slightly chemical tasting, but the chocolate I tried of someone else's was mousse-sublime. If I'm going back for a butterburger, I'll definitely pick up another 130 fat grams here.
Next was a bit of a comedy of errors; first Zaffiro's turned out to be closed for lunch on Saturday, even despite Gary's efforts to bang on the door and then sweet-talk them into serving people who had driven all the way from Chicago just for their pizza (no mention of our 3 or 4 other lunches, of course). Then (with Bob S. my victim) I got lost heading to Speed Queen BBQ, at one point we were even stuck in the middle of a funeral. By the time we got there I was, frankly, a bit resistant to the possible charms of Speed Queen, what with scuzzy characters hanging out in the parking lot and all:
Or the 70s orange-booth decor which qualified as anti-atmosphere:
But you don't go to BBQ joints in blighted neighborhoods for atmosphere, right? Right, but having done a fair amount of BBQ-making myself lately, I have to say that even pretty good restaurant BBQ doesn't do that much for me any more. Between my fresh-off-the-smoker ribs or someone else's sitting-in-a-warmer ones, I'll pick mine; and while Speed Queen's Carolina-style mustard sauce was quite good, their gloppy regular sauce reminded me of bad sweet-and-sour sauce in a Chinese restaurant. Okay, I didn't give this place a fair shake, I admit it. But I'm just out of the mindset of eating restaurant BBQ that is roughly as good as I can make myself. If I eat restaurant BBQ, I want to be humbled by the hand of a master.
Did I say atmosphere? Let's talk atmosphere.
I almost bailed with the kids before Jake's Deli, and only decided to go there because they didn't eat much BBQ. Boy I'm glad we did, because Jake's alone justified the whole trip. An old Jewish deli with by now a mostly black staff and clientele, this place was a winner on every level, a total-package delight: great corned beef and very good pastrami, nice fresh crunchy pickles (a little low on garlic to me, but very respectable), great we-decorated-it-once-in-1920-why-change decor, customers known by name. A place whose atmosphere hits you like the wall of corned beef steam that assaults you-- no, envelopes you like a grandma's hug-- the moment you walk in. Here's a few more photos, first, my pastrami sandwich:
The no-talking serious-corned-beef-eating society in session:
Liam educates Gary on some finer points of pastrami making:
And so ended my portion of the Road Trip; the others did finally get to Zaffiro's and who knows what else. But Milwaukee remains an underappreciated city for Chicagoans, full of wonders not yet claimed by urban renewal as so much of Chicago has been. For instance, who can resist thinking of another road trip when you see something like this?