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Real Simple
Zak’s Cafe in Walker’s Point has built a following for cuisine that’s homey and down-to-earth but not dull.

Pan-seared Panoply The scallops in citrus beurre blanc with blood orange drizzle.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

In metropolises, “living large” is a 500-square-foot apartment, and restaurant pretentiousness is a $175 burger or a three-hour wait for a table. In low-key Milwaukee, establishments with practices remotely similar would be greeted by a resounding “no freaking way.” A $25 burger is pretentious! A one-hour wait is pretentious…

The reward for keeping uppity at bay in Milwaukee, including belt-loosening portions and prices that won’t jeopardize a home mortgage, could be a full dining room. Consider, then,
Zak’s Cafe, a 1-year-old joint on red-hot South Second Street. It opened without the fanfare of a big-name chef or a high-profile owner in an attractive old Cream City storefront saved from the sands of time (character provided by exposed brick and wooden beams, along with local art).

Doug Konzak (he is Zak, by the way) came to restaurant-owning fairly late in life, after a career in information technology. It wasn’t until earning an executive MBA five years ago that he contemplated giving the restaurant business a shot.

If the North Dakota native’s business smarts went into choosing the location, he’s one savvy dude. A bit north of major Second Street dining players Crazy Water and Braise, Zak’s resides closer to the new Clock Shadow Creamery building, home to Purple Door Ice Cream (scoops of which are served on Zak’s dessert menu). The space was rehabbed to include a mezzanine dining room as well as the smattering of tables and bar seating on the first level. Diners lounging at its sidewalk tables might exchange greetings with revelers careening from bar to bar on the Pedal Tavern, but Zak’s seems far enough from National Avenue to keep its location unobtrusive. For now, anyway, street parking isn’t a nightmare.

The menu doesn’t require a culinary dictionary or magnifying glass. There’s no pork belly. Not a hint of bone marrow. It’s simple and accessible – hearty, homestyle cooking, Konzak calls it – where entrées include soup or salad.

When a weekday breakfast calls, Zak’s responds to the SOS (until 3 p.m.) with build-your-own omelets, brioche French toast, sweet potato hash, pancakes, lobster eggs Benedict and breakfast burritos ($5.99-$12.95). The pancakes have a happy trace of buttery crust from the griddle, and the hash browns maintain a golden crispy crunch, marrying well with eggs cooked sunny side-up or a poached egg dripping its creamy yolk over an English muffin topped with spinach and grilled tomato (eggs Benedict Florentine). The burrito is a filling bundle, indeed. Cut it in half and out spills scrambled eggs, sausage or chorizo, peppers and cheddar. Nothing finishes off a burrito like guac, pico de gallo and sour cream, all in plentiful supply.

Following the same riff, when dinner rolls around, there are no games. It’s steaks, ribs and chicken, fish and seafood, a duck breast, even a few things like meatloaf, mac and cheese, a burger and an ahi tuna sandwich. The homier the item, it seems, the better.

When a three-pack of sliders calls, I listen. You can mix and match these mini burgers: ahi tuna, barbecued pork, cheeseburger and Cubanos ($9 for three; $12 for four). I mix. Each two-biter comes on a chewy, toasted little bun. The cheeseburger – endowed with the smoky flavor of applewood bacon – is for the well-done meat crowd. (The tiny hunks of beef cook up fast.) My favorite is the medium-rare grilled tuna given the parting gift of arugula and caper remoulade. The ahi also makes a swell sandwich (lunch or dinner) on a toasted kaiser bun alongside a pile of Asian slaw ($11.95).

Zak’s meatloaf is a respectable staple from the comfort food compendium. Soused in sweet ketchupy barbecue sauce ($13), its crust laced with a trace of charring, the two slabs of ground beef constitute two meals, unless your stomach knows no bounds. Flecked with minced onion, the loaf is smooth, soft and rather delicate. It partners well with the cheese-topped scalloped potatoes.

The citrus beurre blanc offers richness and a solvent to sop up bites of baked potato, but the amount of it (a pool) is just too much for the slightly overseared scallops ($18). The trout comes from Wisconsin’s Rushing Waters farm, the filet treated at Zak’s in an understated way – dredged in breading, pan-fried and served with brown butter sauce ($15). Satisfying, not fancy.

During our arid patch of summer, Konzak was building a raised patio in the adjacent vacant lot and hoping to open it in August. Rollout date made or not, Zak’s al fresco dining on the sidewalk was no arduous substitute for a patio. It allowed a singular immersion in the neighborhood vibe. A neighborhood that is vibing Zak’s.

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