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Milwaukee Road Trip: Speed Queen, Zaffiro's, Leon's, Bella's Fat Cat, Kopps (long)

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Milwaukee Road Trip: Speed Queen, Zaffiro's, Leon's, Bella's Fat Cat, Kopps (long)

Kenny from Rogers Park | Mar 28, 2004 12:19 PM

Made the trip from Chicago to Milwaukee yesterday to see the Art Museum, visit a massive, labyrinthine, multi-level used bookstore (Downtown Books, 327 E. Wisconsin Ave., excellent selection of general fiction/literature, science fiction, African-American, American Sociological Documents, and much, much more) and eat our way through town. Here's what my wife and I sampled:

Speed Queen Barbecue, 1130 West Walnut--While much has been made of the "dangerous" surrounding neighborhood and the "tough" crowd lingering nearby, my wife and I thought the area pretty tame when we stopped in around 1:30 on a Saturday. The neighborhood definitely seemed economically depressed, but as with much of the rest of the city (at least yesterday and in previous visits), there just wasn't much action around SQ. And, getting to SQ is really easy, given that it's less than 1/4 of a mile off the highway.

As for the food: My wife ordered barbecued pork on a bun, and I had the outside shoulder and regular shoulder combo dinner. My wife was unimpressed with the barbecue sandwich, which had a different taste, texture and sauce than the shoulder meat. I agree with her opinion of the sandwich--it was nothing special. Now the shoulder meat was an entirely different story altogether--it was very, very good, a great combination of tastes and textures. As with many previous posters on SQ, I especially liked the outside shoulder meat, which was crispy, chewy and presented a highly concentrated smoky flavor. I could've eaten at least another dinner's worth of the outside shoulder. Softer, more tender and less smoky than the outside shoulder, the regular shoulder was also very good, just not quite as richly flavored or as toothsome as the barbecue essence represented in the exterior meat. One final pleasure of SQ was the mop of bread at the bottom of the styrofoam container. Left there to soak up the meat juices and sauce, the wonder bread sponge was a true guilty pleasure.

Now, many claims have been made about the quality of SQ's barbecue--the Sterns and Chowhound posters have, for instance, ranked SQ among the country's greatest barbecue stops. While I have not sampled most of the country's legendary barbecue offerings, I have tried a great variety of excellent barbecue prepared in myriad styles in Arkansas, Virginia and North Carolina. In my opinion, Speed Queen, though very good, does not quite rank with the very best places I've encountered. SQ is excellent, and I will definitely be back, but I wouldn't rank it among the "best of the best". My wife was less impressed, even after freely sampling my far superior order.

Zaffiro's, 1724 N. Farwell St.--Zaffiro's opened in 1954, and this tavern has an old school, working class vibe that identifies it as a thriving remnant of Milwaukee's once vigorous industrial landscape. I liked the atmosphere here--the crowded, dark bar area, the friendly but no-nonsense hostess and waitresses, the overall utilitarian feel of the place that makes many of my frequent dining choices in Lincoln Square worlds apart, not just down the highway--and the pizza was good, too. As advertised, the crust is crisp and almost paper thin. My wife enjoyed the crackery shell of a crust, but I would have preferred it a bit more chewy. The sauce displayed a decent balance between sweet and tangy elements, though it was somewhat saltier than we like, and the cheese was just average. I liked Zaffiro's nicely flavored house made italian sausage. Individually, none of the pizza ingredients stood out that much, but as with many good pizza places, Zaffiro's demonstrated some pizza alchemy, making the finished product reach a level of distinction much greater than its individual parts would suggest. The throwback cultural element to Zaffiro's mandate a return visit as much as the good, but not great, pizza.

Frozen Custard at Leon's, 3131 or 3119 S. 27th Street near St. Luke's Hospital, Bella's Fat Cat, 1233 Brady Street, and Kopps, 5373 N. Port Washington Rd., Glendale--My wife and I are true frozen custard fiends and rarely make a trip to Wisconsin without making multiple custard pit stops. Despite our great love for the creamy goodness embodied in this gift from what surely must be a benevolent deity, we had never sampled the custard at two renowned establishments, Leon's and Kopps. Kopps, of course, has a regional and even national reputation, and so we entered the stunningly antiseptic, almost post-apocalyptic Glendale location with extremely high expectations. And they were not disappointed in terms of the custard, although the bad sci-fi movie aesthetic dampened what should have been a joyous moment. Kopps' custard, in our estimation, is all that people say it is, and more. The custard, so dense it is mechanically extruded in slabs resembling fresh masonry work rather than gelatinous or liquid streams, is firm, toothsome and pervasively creamy. My only complaint is that the custard has a vaguely artificial aftertaste that is probably the result of a stabilizer....Much more welcoming than the dystopian atmosphere of Kopps was the ideal drive-in aesthetic of Leon's, another of Milwaukee's links to a distant but still palpable past. The custard here is not quite as dense as at Kopps, leaving it closer to soft serve in terms of mouth feel, but it, too, maintains a pervasive creaminess that allows it to rival Kopps in overall quality. Like Kopps, Leon's seems to attract a devoted following from a variety of age groups, ethnicities and social classes. While Leon's doesn't have the national reputation of Kopps, its product, atmosphere, and loyal customer base make for a combination that merits more discussion on this board......Also sampled yesterday was the custard at Bella's Fat Cat on Brady near Zaffiro's. While I had no expectations for this place, I left fairly impressed. The custard here is extremely dense and creamy--perhaps a bit too dense, in my opinion. Nevertheless, the excellent texture and creaminess of the product would place it among top-tier custard joints if it weren't marred by a strong, odd artificial taste. Despite this problem, the Fat Cat is a good source of custard. But there seem to be many such places in Milwaukee, and my wife and I hope to uncover additional spots in our next Milwaukee trip.....

Overall, we enjoyed all of the food sampled and especially look forward to return visits to Kopps and Leon's. I also can't wait to try Speed Queen again.

By the way, for a city of its size, Milwaukee seems very much like a ghost town, lacking major centers of activity as compared to Chicago. Is this impression accurate? The downtown seems a shadow of former greatness, the Brady street area was busy but small, and other neighborhoods seemed densely populated but similarly lacking in large-scale cultural and commercial activity....

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