So I found myself with a weekend alone as the family ditched me for a trip to Fargo. That meant I was finally able to dust off my unkept chowhound promise to drive 5 hours to Milwaukee for no other reason than to eat a sandwich at Jake's Deli. (See my post from March 1, 2004).
Cutting to the chase, after a long night of driving in the pitch black, rainy night and a glorious night of uninterrupted-by-wailing-infant sleep, I rolled out of the rack and left the hotel at 10:45 to stuff myself at Jake's. Since I had a crisp newspaper to read, I decided to get the table service.
As the spoon dipped into my matzo ball soup (I wouldn't recommend) for about the second time, I hear a plainly familiar voice. I peer up and there's Bud Selig, Commissioner of Baseball and Jake's regular, chit-chatting with someone at the next table. Anyway, his presence there on the day of World Series Game 1 wasn't that big a deal, but I noticed on the way out he was carrying two bags of food packed to the gills, and was accompanied by at least one employee with two other packed-full bags. Fast forwarding past my meal to paying, I say to the counter guy: "The Commish sure had a lot of food...what does he do with all of it?" The counter guy says, "I don't know. That's something I never ask. I just take the money and give him his food" as though Bud was some kind of mafia Don who did this frequently.
Anyway, as Bud kind of reminds me of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, I had visions of him in a cavernous office picking away like a bony-faced vulture at his bags of Jake's sandwiches, occasionally tossing a scrap to whoever is his version of Smithers. As I watched the game that night, I was hoping between pitches they'd flash to a shot of him gobbling at a corned beef sandwich. Some day I'd like to solve the Milwaukee Mystery of what happened to those bags of food.
Speaking of food: The corned beef at Jake's was as good as ever. Fatty, hand-sliced thick, served on fresh rye with good deli mustard. Perfect as far as I'm concerned, and a steal for less than $6. As I alluded to, I also started off with soup -- a plain broth with a single large matzo ball which tasted OK, but was bone dry in the middle. I gathered that, being early, the matzo ball hadn't had enough time in the broth yet. Either that, or there wasn't enough oil or schmaltz. Maybe both.
Since I've savored the corned beef twice now, I decided to grab a pastrami sandwich to go. I recently read an astute comment regarding Jake's, and delis as a whole, by G Wiv on the LTH Forum: "It's funny how Deli's never seem to be able to get both pastrami and corned beef just-right. Jake's pastrami is good, their corned beef great." I recognize the same phenomenon -- the pastrami was far better than anything available here in MSP, but was a step below the gold standard, Katz's in NY. That said, stating "a step" vs. "steps" should be read as a huge compliment. I never got my car into Drive -- the sandwich was downed in front of Jake's before I left.
1634 W North Ave
After that, I was inspired to familiarize myself more with Milwaukee, using food as a landmark. I crossed town to Benji's, another highly-regarded deli up in the Shorewood area. I was a bit concerned seeing the increasingly chainy feel of the neighboorhood as I drove north on Oakland Ave. You could still smell the drying masonry on most of the brand-spanking new Starbuckses, Qdobas, Chipotles etc. Thankfully, Benji's building has so far escaped the wrecking ball and rests cockeyed in a strip of shops out of view from the mainstream.
And good thing too. The food there is very good although the corned beef sandwich isn't quite on par with Jake's. Similar to a decent sandwich, good blintzes are hard to find in Minnesota. Benji's were very good. I was doing a lot of eating on Saturday, so I left a lot of tempting menu items untried at Benji's. I'll definitely go back, and feel OK recommending the place based on what I tried (and saw others eating) if you're in the area.
Benji's Deli and Restaurant
4156 N Oakland Ave
Leaving Benji's, I almost ran my car into a sign for a place called "OzPies Australian Meat Pies". I thought to myself, "what the hell is an Australian Meat Pie?" but after just downing two meals at Jake's and one at Benji's, I started heading north on Oakland. Of course that changed as I watched the big green OzPies sign disappear in the rear view. My curiousity easily overcame my lack of willpower (and the pleas of my stomach to please stop eating), and I made the U-turn back to find out what an Australian Meat Pie is. To make a long story slightly less long, it's like a little 4-inch x 4-inch pot pie. The crust was very flaky and light, but stood up to the dense meaty filling without a plate or tin-container. You can get all sorts of fillings -- beef, beef with mushrooms, chicken curry, and a list of others, including daily specials. Another remarkable, excellent discovery and a place I wish was right by my office. Oh...they're about $3 each -- great for a quick snack.
4170 N. Oakland
If you have ANY Polish blood in you, the sleepy part of Milwaukee that is St. Francis/Cudahy is a must-visit on Sunday morning (and probably any other day of the week). Head straight for Polonez Restaurant on S. Packard Ave.
From what I know, this place is no secret to the Milwaukee dining scene, but it is a local treasure. The Sunday brunch was like a scene from my grandma's dining room growing up, and the food cooked with the same amount of care and attention. The highlights from Sunday were the deviled eggs, sliced pork roast served cold, a superb sausage (I'm just guessing, but tasted like potato sausage), cheese blintzes, pierogi, smoked salmon, some attractive pastries and my favorite, the Bigos, which is a stew of sauerkraut and bits of different meats and sausage.
All of this in a setting reminiscent of a warm church hall, and with live polish dance and polka music to boot. Everybody in there appeared to be a regular customer. Even if you aren't (like myself obviously) the treatment by the Burzynskis, especially charming and pretty server Maria and her mother/hostess/owner Aleksandra, will make you feel like you are.
4016 S. Packard Ave
St. Francis, WI
Milwaukee continues to amaze me as a great chowhound destination. For such a plain ol' town with absolutely no chow publicity or reputation, there are dozens of compelling restaurants with impossible-to-find foods. I don't know if Milwaukeeans know how good they've got it. For every place on the list that I DO get to, I see five others while driving around that I have to try "next time".
Footnote: If you live in, or are visiting Milwaukee, make a stop at the "America's Black Holocaust Museum". Very fascinating place.
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