TV today: ESPNEWS, 4:10-4:30 EDT as part of the Insider segment with Jerry Crasnick.
Radio: Northsound 1380 AM, Everett, Washington, with the Fish, 5:30 pm PDT. Also, ESPN 540 Milwaukee, Wednesday, 11:15 am CDT (streaming available online).
I have to say that I underestimated Milwaukee, figuring I was headed into a culinary wasteland filled with fat people who eat brats and drink pale beer all the time. It was actually one of the best eating towns I’ve been to all year, especially in the very funky area between Brady Street and North Street west of Prospect, which is definitely where I’d live if I moved there and could stand winters cold enough to turn your testicles necrotic.
First meal might have been the best – lunch at Cempazuchi on Brady Street. It’s sort of an upscale twist on Mexican food, with a heavy dose of authentic Mexican dishes mixed in. I started with the sopa de lima, a clear soup with chicken, lime juice, and tortilla strips, and then ordered the pork “torta,” Cempazuchi’s term for an unusual sandwich on pan frances with avocado, jalapeño, and onions. Both were phenomenal. The soup had just the right balance of acid, salt, and a touch of heat, and had obviously been assembled seconds before it reached the table. The sandwich was filled with pulled pork, apparently smoked properly since it wasn’t dry and didn’t require a sauce, and came on soft bread that had been sliced and grilled. The sandwich also came with a half-hearted garden salad with sliced radishes and an indeterminate white dressing. The meal starts with two salsas, one that was “peanut-based” that had an odd texture (shocking), and another with roasted tomatoes and garlic that was too thin but had a great smoky flavor.
Saturday’s breakfast was at Beans & Barley, a combination café and natural foods store just off North Street. There was no pork on the menu, so my EMPT included chicken sausage, which was cooked to death and mostly inedible. Everything else was excellent, particularly the breakfast potatoes, new red potatoes sliced and roasted with rosemary. The café serves Rishi teas (rhymes with “chichi”), but their only black tea is Earl Grey. It comes in a big ceramic pot with a strainer inside filled with loose tea, but it was already dark and bitter the moment it reached the table, meaning that it had been brewing too long. The properly-made scrambled eggs and the amazing potatoes still make it worth a trip.
I hit up a reader suggestion for Saturday dinner, Pizza Man, across the street from Beans & Barley. That’s where I had my lone beer of the trip, an ale from New Glarus with a fruity taste and medium body; I prefer darker beers, so this probably wasn’t the best choice, but it was their only local beer on tap. For dinner, the pizzas looked like they had the proper crust but were overtopped, so I went with one of the recommended specials, wild boar ravioli in a marsala sauce. The ravioli were excellent; I’ve never had boar before, but the flavor of the ravioli was very much like bacon. The sauce, on the other hand, was bitter with a pretty clear note of alcohol, meaning that it wasn’t cooked enough. The dish came with this amazing light garlic bread, not greasy at all and perfect for absorbing sauce, if you wanted the sauce absorbed. Pizza Man also has a huge wine list, and the décor – Old World Dungeon – reminded me of a place my wife and I visited in Siena almost ten years ago, an upscale “medieval” place called Il Gallo Nero.
Milwaukee being the center of the frozen custard world, I had to make sure to hit a few spots while I was on the ground. (Frozen custard is a style of ice cream that relies on egg yolks for texture, as opposed to “Philadelphia” ice cream, which contains no eggs and uses more butterfat.) Of the three places I tried, Gilles, Leon’s, and Oscar’s, Gilles wins the overall prize for the best combination of flavor and texture. All three places had very smooth custards, and Leon’s probably was the smoothest of all but both the chocolate and vanilla were timid, particularly the chocolate. At Gilles, I went with the flavor of the day, “turtle,” which had caramel and pecans mixed in and maybe a tiny bit of fudge. The vanilla flavor still came through in the custard, and the texture was just a shade below Leon’s. Oscar’s “mud pie” – allegedly mocha custard with hot fudge and Oreo knockoff cookies – had the worst texture, just slightly icy, and the knockoff cookies weren’t very good, but the custard did have a strong chocolate flavor.
I also approve of the Milwaukee Public Market, which is a fairly small building that houses maybe a dozen merchants, from a produce stand to a real fishmonger to a spice house to a few stands selling prepared foods. If I lived in Milwaukee, I’d be there all the time. The coffee-shop in the Market, the Cedarburg Coffee Roaster, roasts at least some of its coffees right there at the stand, which was a positive sign for their espresso. A double espresso macchiato (they don’t sell singles) runs $2.75, and while the beans were obviously fresh, the espresso was underextracted, resulting in a powerfully sour shot; the most likely explanation is that the barista used more grounds than necessary for the pull. It was a waste of what I think was pretty good coffee.
I also went to The Soup & Stock Market and ordered a bowl of their chicken and dumpling soup, which included real hand-made dumplings (obviously pinched out of dough by an actual hand) and was based on their own homemade stock (available frozen for purchase if you don’t want to make your own stock at home). The soup was very good, if just a little underflavored, filled with dumplings and chicken and vegetables; the stock was a bit on the light side, but it had the great mouth-feel you only get from soup made with stock. The soup also came with a hunk of a pretty amazing dense white bread. I also bought a bottle of Haley and Annabelle’s Vanilla Root Beer, brewed by two girls aged 10 and 5, with proceeds going to their college education fund. It was at least solid-average, better than any national brand, with a dark color, deep root beer flavor, but probably a little more sugar than I’d like. It’s behind, say, Thomas Kemper’s (my gold standard), but I admit I was sucked in by the story and the cause.
The one dud meal was breakfast at Miss Katie’s Diner, an old-school greasy-spoon near Marquette’s campus. Absolutely everything was drenched in butter, and I don’t mean that in a good way. The hash browns were soggy from frying in so much grease, the toast was buttered so heavily that I could see through it, and the eggs ended up sitting in the grease that was on the plate. There were definitely better options out there for Sunday breakfast.