At Travel + Leisure magazine in 2003, I pitched a story about my hometown of Milwaukee to the magazine’s Editor-In-Chief. I believe her exact response was: “Who goes to Milwaukee?” Uh, Harley riders and cheesemongers to start! Okay, perhaps they’re a bit outside of T+L’s demographic, but I was nonetheless given a page to amuse my Midwest pride.
Living in California now, I always enjoy a trip back to Wisconsin’s largest city to set my head straight (as long as it’s between May and October, ahem). Milwaukeeans bring a lot to the table: they have classic Midwest traits (down to earth, hardworking, hospitable) but they’re also informed, interested, and often activist. On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, I thought of Milwaukee more than once. Perhaps most endearing, Milwaukeeans have a vicious sense of humor about themselves (Cheeseheads and the pervasiveness of Big & Tall stores will do that to you).
My primary reason for returning was to attend the Packers/Vikings game at Lambeau Field (on the Bucket List for all natives), but I ended up having some amazing meals with pretty spectacular ingredients on the way. Plus, the weather was “perfect fall,” somewhere between t-shirt and sweatshirt, the tease before the cheek chap of winter.
Top of the list was dinner at Bacchus, the newest member of the Bartolotta family empire (full disclosure: I was a prep cook at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in 1997; at dinner parties, my Mom loved to tell people that I walked to work with a 9-inch knife). Bacchus is on the formal side, with starched white linen tablecloths, but the menu betrays its Milwaukee roots: Strauss Free Raised veal, pork belly, Wisconsin rarebit, and local cheeses. I also became rather smitten with their house anchovy-stuffed olive martinis.
Strauss Free Raised veal chop (half portion) with baby potato salad, mustard vinaigrette, and veal jus. Scrumptious.
Most Wisconsinites have no idea that their state exports the best veal in the country; the joke is that they export it because the notoriously cheap residents would never pay for it. (I once ordered fresh bratwurst to be delivered to New York City. When I said I’d pay extra for overnight shipping, the Wisconsin saleswoman tried to talk me out of it.)
We were staying at the newish boutique hotel, the Iron Horse, situated just south of downtown in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward, an industrial area that borders a cluster of surprisingly good Mexican restaurants (they certainly give San Diego a run for its money). The “motorcycle amenities,” racy depictions of women in repose, and austere decor make you wonder if Milwaukee’s most famous motorheads had a hand in its inception, but apparently the Harley Davidson Museum next door simply served as inspiration.
They had me at hello when they offered complimentary rum punch at check-in, and a Riverwest Stein to Andrew when he declined. I believe their reasoning was: “We like to get the party started on Fridays.”
Andrew wondered if we could get a replica for our wall in San Diego.
The next day we had Mexican food at Café Corazón in Riverwest. It’s a pocket-size house converted into a lively bar and restaurant with bright colors and Day of the Dead accents (though, never forgotten, three child-size Green Bay Packers helmets hung near the entrance). Corazón was very good, but as the plates arrived it made me think of the old joke that every Mexican entrée is made up of the same five ingredients (rice, beans, tortillas, protein, cheese) rearranged into various presentations.
That evening, I was looking forward to trying La Merenda, a casual tapas restaurant just a few blocks from the Iron Horse in Walker’s Point. Sweet Water Organics—a sustainable urban farming warehouse that grows tilapia and perch (think Friday Fish Fry), as well as various greens—supplies some of La Merenda’s food; Strauss Free Raised veal made another appearance with an osso buco and red pepper risotto.
Since we were a large party, our server suggested a parade of the chef’s tasting menu until we said the word. Highlights were squash ravioli in a butter sage sauce; crisp empanadas stuffed with Wilson Farms Meats pork and apples; spanikopita with a beet-yogurt tzatziki; chimichurri-marinated tenderloin served over mashed plantains; and a salad of arugula, gorgonzola, pine nuts, and balsamic dressing. The wine list was varied and affordable, and we kept a Grüner Veltiner and an Oregon Pinot Noir flowing, as well as a handful of microbrews.
Another great spot for a healthy lunch is East Side veteran Beans & Barley, where we enjoyed spicy peanut noodles and a refreshing salad of green apple, feta, red onion, and sliced red pepper.
And no trip to Milwaukee is complete without a stop at beloved local coffee roaster Alterra. (We had two pounds of beans, a t-shirt, and a mug in tow to California.)
And, oh yes, there was this:
Packers 28, Vikings 24. Our time here is done… until next year!