So I'll get straight to the bottom line. Any corned beef-eating person within a 30 minute drive of Milwaukee should be ashamed of themselves if they don't get to Jake's Deli at the corner of W. North Ave and N. 17th St at least once a month.
If you told me last Friday that a sandwich anywhere in the midwest, including Chicago, would hold its own against those found in the finest delis of Manhattan (Katz's being my favorite for the record), I would have laughed you off the planet. Anyone familiar with NY delis needs to get to Jake's and see for yourself. Surely someone in Milwaukee can back me up on this.
Jake's is a much smaller place than Katz's, but the era and style of the decor is the same -- there is no decor and certainly no "style". You walk in and there's an old soda fountain counter (appeared to be not in use any more) with about 10 faux, faux-wood booths probably salvaged from a 1960's Dairy Queen. Along the right side is a long deli counter and about 12 stools. Every inch of the place is packed with drooling people watching and waiting for their number to be called to order.
The ordering is simple. Corned beef or pastrami. Rye bread. Mustard, no mustard or an obscene amount of mustard. If you're feeling fancy, you can get the toasted corned beef with swiss. The rye is fresh (there's no time for this bread to get stale with the sheer volume of customers). The beef appears from underneath the cutting board, is sliced thick and piled high on the bread. The deli mustard is superb.
If you've been to Katz's you know what the tip jar is all about. The thought was on my mind as I ordered, but alas, no jar. I was thinking "yeah..only at Katz's". Out of the blue, the guy behind the counter stabbed a big extra slice and gave me a sample as he was finishing my sandwich -- I saw about 50 other people order the same corned beef sandwich and I was the only one to receive this gesture. It was really strange in a Twilight Zone kind of way. Of course, I immediately gave the man a generous tip.
Here's the kicker: this was lunchtime and I had just eaten 15 minutes prior at the Speed Queen up the road (that report next). As soon as I saw the inside of this place, I knew I had to stuff down a 2nd lunch. Thank God for granting me that wisdom, as I went back on Sunday for another sandwich and they were closed.
This is my chowhound promise: I *will* some day drive the nearly 10 hour round trip from Minneapolis to Milwaukee again, this time for no other reason than to eat a corned beef sandwich at Jake Levin's Delicatessen.
The Speed Queen
Back up a half hour. As recommended recently (thanks folks) and discussed before on this board, the Speed Queen merited a visit for BBQ. If I didn't have the Jake's-gasm to talk about above, I probably blab on longer about this place. It's worthy of its praise. The ribs (pork) were flavorful, meaty and satisfying. I also had "outside", which is the crispier outside of pork shoulder. This was also very good, although I think I would have liked less of the crispy parts and more of the meaty parts -- I think this ratio varies by luck of the draw. I totally missed the $2.50 "extra meat" option on the board until I was well into my meal and heard someone else order that...I probably should have done that with the shoulder.
The sauce (I had the "mild") was so good I even ate all 3 pieces of plain Wonder bread. All of the meat had a nice smoky flavor as expected. The cole slaw was laughable -- you get about two forkfuls in this teeny-tiny cup. But who cares -- slaw at this kind of place is so people can say they ate something from the "dairy" and "vegetable" food groups along with their 3.5 pounds of BBQ.
I'll shrug my shoulders and say "sure, why not" when people proclaim the Speed Queen one of the best BBQ places in the upper-Midwest. It beats the heck out of anything anywhere else I've been in a long time, but I need a bit more convincing before I go into full hyperbole-mode. I'll definitely go back there nonetheless and it's a great Milwaukee treasure.
The Philly Way
Traveling alone, I decided to pass on some of the other recommendations (The Social on 2nd, which I drove by). I figured I'd hit places my wife wouldn't want to go when I bring her to Milwaukee (which I will as I didn't get to the art museum and galleries around town). So I also ate at "The Philly Way" which is at Florida St. and S. 2nd St. in Walker Point (across the street from The Social). I'll admit to openly shunning "cheesesteaks" outside of Philadelphia, much like I shun deli sandwiches outside of NYC up until now. I went in resigned to ordering a Coke if it looked like crap, but the variety of Tastycakes on the counter convinced me this place had something of a clue. That, and one of the owners used to work at Pat's in Philly, (I'm in the "Pat's Camp" in the great Philly steak debate). The sandwich was good. It's been a few years since I've eaten at Pat's, but I thought this one was "close enough". If I were a Philly native living in Milwaukee, I'd probably go there just to reminisce, but if you haven't had a cheesesteak in Philadelphia, have that experience first. I did feel a bit strange not eating it standing out on the sidewalk.
There's a lot of talk about the Speed Queen and the neighborhood. Granted it was high noon on a beautifully sunny day, but I had absolutely no hesitation going inside, having lunch and lingering over the newspaper. I was there for about an hour (I read the paper "cover to cover") and wasn't approached by anyone "asking for money" (as debated in previous posts). I exchanged smiles with a cute kid, a grandmotherly-looking woman and a short conversation with a guy that wanted my Sports section. I felt as comfortable there as I would in any other urban area.
While close to Speed Queen, Jake's is in a much more financially-distressed neighborhood. Again, people were pleasant, especially the counter staff and enjoying the nice day. It's not every day that *I'm* the one that makes a place "diverse".
I mention this because a) a while back someone mentioned that they wouldn't go to Speed Queen because of the neighborhood and b) because if you avoid places because of some perceived "threat", you are selling yourself short of some great experiences, chow and non-chow. (On my way out of town I noticed the "African American Holocaust Museum" near Jake's. I wish it was open at the time, but I'll have to get there another trip).
Thanks again for the recommendations Milwaukee hounds!