View the mouth-watering outtakes from our Best Ethnic Dining photoshoot here.
The requests come to me every few months. Tourists are planning a trip to Milwaukee – the “Milwaukee” projected in TV reruns of shows like “Laverne and Shirley” – and they want to experience the city’s Gemütlichkeit by visiting one of our legendary German restaurants. Where can they find this perfect immersion in Teutonic charm?
I usually tell them to head south of the Hoan Bridge to a restaurant that stepped out of time called Three Brothers. The restaurant is Serbian, not German, but it represents Milwaukee’s respect for Old World traditions as much as any German restaurant ever has.
Milwaukee has for so long been associated with the early German and Polish settlers that it’s easy to think those ethnic groups still dominate the cuisine. The truth is that German cuisine is no longer dominant, Polish never really was, and Italian is now immersed so deeply into American culture that it’s no longer considered ethnic by most people. My apologies to Jacques Pépin, but French gastronomy, too, has passed over into the land of mainstream food.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s melting pot has grown to include sizable Latino, Asian and Indian communities. Our ethnic restaurants are no longer overshadowed by schnitzels and Bolognese. Now, it’s tacos, tostones, samosas and pad thai. (Milwaukee has one of the state’s largest communities of Hmong refugees, mostly from Laos. I find sparing examples of Laotian cuisine at Asian restaurants like Mekong Cafe on 59th and North, but thus far, no local establishment serves exclusively Laotian food.)
Beyond the strong Hispanic and Asian threads running through this list of the area’s best ethnics, you’ll find plenty of other exotica – specialties that belie Milwaukee’s rep as a beer-and-brat town. Feast your eyes – and your palate – on Malaysian roti canai, Venezuelan arepas and Ethiopian doro wot. If your culinary travels have led you to, say, Indian or Cuban food, perhaps it’ll push you deeper into those menus to discover dishes you’ve never tried before. Be adventurous, and you’ll find Milwaukee’s dining scene will reward you.
What do Malaysians eat? First, a little geography. Malaysia borders Thailand and Indonesia in Southeast Asia. The cuisine is influenced by China, India and the islands surrounding Malaysia. When you dine at Mr. Wok, you will notice this culinary overlap. The restaurant offers little atmosphere: a boxlike strip-mall space features simple tables, a lunch buffet and a flat-screen TV showing images of white-sand Southeast Asian beaches. The buffet is an homage to China. But I cannot – will not – stray from the Malaysian food. It’s too fresh and good.
When an order is up, the server exits the kitchen door with a flourish carrying boat-shaped plastic plates. I return to the same pan-Asian dishes time and again, because they’re reliably good: flat, thick pad see ew noodles in a gentle-handed sauté; sweet, spiced Malaysian curry chicken; and spicy pepper-salt fish with lots of sliced jalapenos. And I love the roti canai pastry – a rich, flaky Indian pancake served with a thick curry that tastes like savory pumpkin pie filling. The pastry, a popular morning-to-night snack in Malaysia, is marvelously done here. $7.25-$14.95. (Silvernail Plaza, 2128 Silvernail Rd., Pewaukee, 262-521-9780)
Years ago, the kitschy, rickety pale-pink vinyl booths at Phan’s Garden on 19th and National called to me for lemongrass chicken and warm bowls of pho (Vietnamese soup). It wouldn’t be unusual to see a room full of locals from the Asian community bent over bowls of this soup. Phan’s has been supplanted, for me, by another strip mall resident, Pho Hai Tuyet. Ambiance is not one of this compact restaurant’s attractions, but the food makes up for that. At one point, I thought the banh mi sandwich would be my trademark dish. It’s a fabulous hoagie of red (from the seasoning) pork, julienned carrots, cilantro, onions and chiles. But there’s also the comforting pho, which forces you eat slowly and carefully. It begins with a bowl of aromatic broth, noodles and choice of meat. The fun part is adding the loot that comes with it – bean sprouts, fresh basil, lime, green chiles and Sriracha (hot sauce). At a good Vietnamese restaurant like this one, each table is topped with four or five condiments, giving you control over the spices you add, which adds to the fun. Pho Hai Tuyet’s Bayside location (333 W. Brown Deer Rd.) opened in the fall. $7-$15. (3881 S. 27th St., 414-282-8041)
Job Chae at Seoul Korean Restaurant
Bibimbap achieves its full glory when you do some swooshing. Seoul Korean Restaurant’s rendition is a heated stone bowl of rice, beef, spinach, mushrooms and lettuce topped with a soft-cooked egg. I add bean paste and squirt hot sauce in a squiggly pattern before commencing the chopstick swoosh. The egg mixes into the sauce and continues to cook in the heated bowl. OK, time to eat. In between bites, there are sides to nibble on – fried seaweed, kimchi (pickled cabbage) and bean sprouts. This small, white-walled East Side spot served a lot of maki rolls when it was Izumi’s (which moved a couple addresses south). As Seoul, the bill of goods includes kimchi pancakes, Korean boneless short ribs (kalbi) and beef bulgogi stew. $6.95-$15.95. (2178 N. Prospect Ave., 414-289-8208)
Last winter, the modern, stylishly stark Nanakusa served its last Kobe sukiyaki and sashimi bento box. The pre-closing meals drew enough interest that owner Richard Kaiser said he was bringing the Third Ward restaurant back. It’s October as I write this, and the waving plastic kitty in the window still looks lonely. Nanakusa’s demise is a loss, certainly for Downtown and the Third Ward.
But Highway 100 is nothing if not balm for the wound. I go to Fujiyama for the warm towel prelude to the meal, artistry of the sushi chefs, and quality of the fish. Some diners come specifically for the gimmickry of having their food cooked on tables – built with large flat cooktops – by men wielding tongs they whip around like nunchucks. I have my own source of entertainment. The sushi chefs mix color like gifted oil painters. Biting into the fish – pieces of white and red tuna laid over slices of a rainbow roll – is like stepping out of a dreary Wisconsin afternoon into a sun-washed beach in Cabo. Some of my favorites: seared pepper tuna in a ground-pepper crust; shrimp dipped in golden, light tempura crunch; and sushi or sashimi in any colorful combination. $1.50-$30.95. (2916 S. 108th St., 414-755-1988; a second location at 17395D W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield, 262-796-1977)
Butter chicken. The first time it made a huge impression on me was at Brookfield’s now-defunct Saffron, whose murgh makhani, as it is also called, featured a sauce that was understated but complex and incredibly rich. (You can still find versions of this dish at places like the East Side’s Maharaja, but my memory prefers Saffron.) At another Indian spot of the past, Dancing Ganesha, I’d order crispy-crunchy Indian appetizers, beautifully spiced fish and vegetarian thalis (a hodgepodge of dals, chutneys, rice and bread served in creative ways). I miss feeling the push of the envelope. The current coterie of restaurants specializes in North Indian dishes – meats baked in a tandoor oven and puffy stuffed naan breads. South Indian cuisine is a little harder to find. That part of the country emphasizes vegetarian dishes – soupy dals, pancakes made out of rice, paper-thin crepes filled with spiced potatoes. Maharaja (which also has a couple of Madison locations) serves some of these South Indian dishes (uthappam and dosa). Locals can also get their fill of biryani (a casserole-like rice and meat dish), thick curries made with lamb or chicken (sometimes beef) and proteins baked in a tandoor oven.
But for its freshness and that pop of spiced flavor, my money these days is on Royal India. The chicken tikka masala – for which England, a country known for great Indian food, takes credit – is at its richest, sweet-spiciest. They use the tender thigh meat. The garlic-stuffed naan is terrific – tender and chewy, the garlic strong but without too much pungency. My favorite biryani combines chicken, lamb and shrimp. The servers at Royal also couldn’t be friendlier. $9.95-$16.95. (3400 S. 27th St., 414-647-9600)
For vegetarian Indian food, I head to the dining room in the back of a funky grocery/variety store called Indian Bazaar. You can pick up a Bollywood movie on DVD and a good 99-cent samosa. The dining room, in the wallpapered back corner of the store, is far from fancy. But a little window from the kitchen will pop open, and your order, hot as blazes, will slide out. Amazing! The menu is a 50-some-item, veg-friendly whopper. My picks: masala dosa (rice crepes stuffed with potatoes and onions), gobi Manchurian (deep-fried cauliflower), vegetable korma (cream sauce) and a delicious mashed eggplant dish called bagara baingan. 99 cents-$7.99. (5254 S. 27th St., 414-325-6480)
“Rodizio” is the term for the kind of service offered in a Brazilian steakhouse. At a rodizio, it is not a matter of delivering a plated filet mignon to the diner. No, no. Briskly and adeptly, servers dressed as gauchos – Brazilian cowboys – present sizzling roasted meats on skewers as long as a baseball bat. A knife appears almost out of nowhere, meats are carved effortlessly, and a couple of pieces gently land on your plate. For señores and señoritas who like meals with girth, Sabor Brazilian Churrascaria is the ticket. The 5-year-old restaurant has a Latino leaning, balanced with Milwaukee’s love of zero portion control.
The rodizio is a two-part meal. The first course is unlimited access to the salad bar – two sides of a buffet table loaded with crudités and little hors d’oeuvres. The second course enables you to indulge, again without a cap, to the meat service. It is not light. Choices range from bacon-wrapped chicken breast and hunks of juice-dripping top sirloin to seasoned pork loin and linguica, a rich Brazilian sausage. You think that’s it, but it’s not. Servers bring soup (excellent roasted vegetable cream), a basket of cheese puffs, buttery whipped potatoes, rice, black beans cooked delectably in bacon (and, I’d guess, lard) and plain white rice. The sheer gluttony of it reminds me of a Monty Python sketch. Dinner: full rodizio $48.50; first course only $32.50. (777 N. Water St., 414-431-3106)
The door to the kitchen is affixed with an incongruous Wall Drug sign; my table is beneath a potted tree of Jack and the Beanstalk proportion. Singha Thai has changed little (save, perhaps, the height of that tree) in 23 years. Owner Noi Vechsathol sits stoically at a table facing her audience. Diners could spend an hour deciding what to order. The menu is close-to-200-items lengthy, and it still offers some of the best Thai in town. I like to start a meal with tod mun (spicy fried fish cakes with cucumber sauce) and tom kha gai (smooth coconut milk soup with chicken and mushrooms), then proceed to the house specials for salty, crispy shrimp. For curries, I like the Massaman – which weaves cardamom and cinnamon through its coconut milk sauce. $7.95-$21.99. (2237 S. 108th St., 414-541-1234)
If there’s one dish that dominates – or even defines Thai cuisine for the American palate – it’s pad thai. Historians of gastronomy speculate that Vietnamese traders may have brought these ubiquitous stir-fried noodles to Thailand. Whether or not that’s true, the noodles have been an omnipresent street food in Bangkok for eons. In Milwaukee, pad thai is often presented as a soupy mess of noodles in red, ketchup-laced sauce. The dish should really be drier – the tamarind, lime juice and fish sauce moistening the noodles but not turning them soggy. I’ve become very particular about Thai noodles, and the way I most like them treated is at the East Side’s Thai-namite. It’s considered elegant to serve pad thai as an omelet – the noodles wrapped in a veil of fried eggs. Thai-namite does a nice, not-too-dry/not-too-wet version of this, calling it “wrap-a-pad-thai.” A problem I often see is overcooked noodles, which this place tends to refrain from doing with its pad see ew (flat rice noodles) and “drunken” noodles, which are nicely firm and superbly bouyant. $9-$17. (932 E. Brady St., 414-837-6280)
Seven years have hardly dampened the draw of Milwaukee Street’s Cubanitas. On an average night, the decibel level reaches that of a San Juan nightclub. Patrons order mojitos (moj-tinis, too) and guacamole with long, curled plantain chips under the crystal chandeliers. The Caribbean sister to owners Marc and Marta Bianchini’s Osteria del Mondo – which is closed while the Bianchinis build a new location – is the only solid choice for a proper Cuban sandwich – the tangy flavors of mustard and pickle melding into the good chewy, pressed bread – and one of the most recognizable of dishes: ropa vieja (saucy, tomatoey shredded beef with onions and bell pepper). Black beans and rice are the traditional accompaniment. Also delicious is the roast pork with boiled cassava and Saturday morning’s Spanish tortilla – a potato omelet. You will not be understarched here. $7-$14. (728 N. Milwaukee St., 414-225-1760)
Leo Maris Montes has an infectious smile. It appears while she builds a sandwich with a fresh-baked corn-flour cake called an arepa. Or when she loads a brown paper container with shredded flank steak, cheddar cheese, black beans, rice and sweet fried plantains. That combination of ingredients goes by the name Pabellón. It’s a specialty of Montes’ native Venezuela and one of her signatures at Café Plaza Venezuela, an unassuming quick-service spot devoted mostly to breakfast (Spanish tortillas) and lunch. An arepa is first pan-fried then baked. It looks a bit like an English muffin. Sliced open and stuffed with chorizo, chicken, beef or veggies, it makes a sandwich into a little Venezuelan feast. Swipe the sandwich with a touch of parsley-cilantro mayo. Another reason to smile: the cafe’s quesillo – Venezuelan flan. Open until 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. $4.50-$9.75. (530 E. Mason St., 414-220-5120)
Suckling pig at three brothers.
Some of what puts the “extraordinary” in ethnic dining is the idea that the cuisine may be on the endangered list. I’ve worried that three brothers, which truly qualifies as a unique experience, might join that list. Happily, the next generation of Radicevics – the offspring of founders Branko and Patricia Radicevic – are keeping this thoroughly unmodern restaurant alive. (Patricia continues to cook alongside her children.)
Just as there’s comfort in my mother’s old Irish Belleek and her dog-eared cookbooks, the mismatched table lamps, dusty back bar and vintage Schlitz globe tell romantic stories of nights long ago. A chipped dinner plate is charming in this setting, not exasperating. If, over time, you find your own signature dish among the Serbian sausages, stuffed peppers and roast suckling pig, it’s unlikely the dish will be retired. I like that. After sliced, dry rye bread is relegated to crumbs, you might try a half-carafe of the affordable house white wine with your Serbian salad, a mix of chopped onions (predominantly, I warn you), red and green bell pepper, and grated Serbian cheese. Reliable entrée choices: beef burek, chicken paprikash, roast lamb shank and beef goulash. $15.50-$22.50. (2414 S. St. Clair St., 414-481-7530)
As far back as 1995, locals looking for refuge from chop suey or sweet and sour chicken found enlightenment in the “secret” Chinese menu at Fortune. (If there could just be a moratorium on white, cornstarch-thickened sauces and soggy vegetables, I might feel a little less depressed about the local Chinese restaurant scene.) Fortune’s other menu – not to be confused with the American menu, bearing such commonplace items as crab Rangoon and egg foo young – still is the one game in town for food that pushes the envelope a bit. Jellyfish? Deep-fried pork intestine? Duck feet with Chinese mushrooms? Don’t be shy. Fortune will open your eyes, if you let it. I’m not a big fan of duck feet – or those from other animals – but I love duck breast, thigh and leg. Other duck desires: the roast half duck and eight-treasure duck (duck stuffed with rice that includes shrimp and pork). $5.25-$14.95. (2945 S. 108th St., 414-328-9890; 5512 S. 108th St., Hales Corners, 414-529-9988)
You could argue that the falafel sandwich is to the Middle East what pad thai is to Thailand. An oversimplification, yes, but one with a grain of truth. Falafel – balls of deep-fried, mashed chickpeas – is a tasty, quick, satisfying fast food. It doesn’t need a sit-down restaurant to succeed. I like my falafel sandwich fresh, soft and as unsaturated with grease as possible – and also with some bite to it. Yum Yum Cafe – a former Boy Blue ice cream stand converted to fast-food Middle Eastern joint – does exactly that. This great cheap eat is 12 inches of foil-wrapped flatbread filled with tender falafel, tangy tahini sauce, cucumbers and bright-pink pickled vegetables. And it’s all of $3.65. (4125 S. Howell Ave., 414-489-7200)
Middle Eastern is possibly more equated, locally, with a carryout container, falafel being a prime example. But linen napkins and silverware at Ethan Allen-inspired wood tables have their place. The best illustration is Casablanca, which crafts terrific renditions of lamb kifta and chicken sumac, and operates in a street-smart American way. Friday night’s hook is live belly dancing. Other evenings center on half-price bottled wine and live flamenco guitar music. I don’t know that I’d care a whit about that if the food weren’t also good. You don’t need to be a vegetarian to jones on Casablanca’s lunch buffet, which puts veggies in combos you didn’t think possible. The seasonings in this cuisine – cinnamon, sumac, garlic, cumin and others – give the food its distinctive sweet, savory, sour and tangy flavors. After an appetizer of beef-stuffed grape leaves or the sampler platter with hummus and tabbouleh, it’s a straight road to seasoned, rotisserie-cooked lamb shawarma, and the Middle Eastern version of comfort food – couscous vegetable stew. $4.95-$19.95. (728 E. Brady St., 414-271-6000)
When Old World Third Street still included the African Hut as part of its melting pot of eateries, I loved watching first-timers to the restaurant with leopard-print wallpaper discover the tactile nature of the cuisine. You were encouraged to use your hands to pick up bits of stew and grains, dipping your fingers afterward in a bowl of fresh water. It was freeing. African Hut’s owners were Nigerian, and while the cuisine emphasized stews, the starch was rice and farina. In Ethiopian restaurants – and Downtown’s Alem Ethiopian Village is a great example – the starch is a wagon-wheel-sized sour crepe called injera. This pancake – made of three grains, including the unfamiliar teff – doubles as the plate. If you were to order the beef tibs (cubed meat cooked with onions and pepper) and doro wot (a stew of chicken and hard-boiled eggs), you’d rip off a corner of the injera and dip it in or wrap it around hunks of the stew. But there’s also no shame in using a knife and fork, which Alem offers without ceremony. Lamb and tilapia feature in the mild stews as well. And close to a dozen are vegetable-based, which I think go particularly well with the injera. The best: fasolia (string beans with potatoes and carrots) and yater alitcha (soft, mellow, cooked split peas). $8.50-$19.75. (307 E. Wisconsin Ave., 414-224-5324)
el Farol makes a valiant, albeit low-budget, effort to give the dining room the feel of a courtyard, decking it out with a fake roof, trailing vines and lanterns. Diners enter the grocery store half of the business and take an immediate right to get to the booths and tables. The cuisine of this Caribbean island nation was influenced by many other countries – Spain and Africa included. And you probably couldn’t go to a native home or restaurant where you wouldn’t eat plantains and rice and beans. Puerto Rican cooking incorporates a set of spices – a sofrito. It’s a blend of a lot of ingredients, such as tomatoes, peppers, cilantro and garlic. It seasons, for example, the tiny meat-filled pastries called pastelillos. What El Farol excels at are basic, homey dishes: roast pork (pernil asado), Puerto Rican yellow rice with pigeon peas, and fried plantain patties known as tostones. Another interesting use of plantains is mofongo – a mound of mashed, deep-fried, heavily garlic-infused green bananas the size of a softball. $8-$12. (1401 W. Washington St., 414-647-1899)
Paella at Antigua
The local Hispanic community offers such a wealth of basic and fusion Mexican cuisine, it’s impossible to pick one restaurant or two as superior to all the rest. Here are my picks for top tacos, guacamole and six other eats:
If you’re an old cowhand on the Rio Grande nursing a plate of beef fajitas, I’d reckon there’s a Tex-Mex element. That’s just fine. Mod orange chairs and ESPN on the flat-screen denote some fusion in the air at Fajitas Grill. There’s also the smoke wafting from a pan of grilled meat. This warm East Sider lives up to its name, serving eight kinds of fajitas (steak with bacon? Smoky!). The meats are loaded with bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, and come with good pureed black beans, Cuban rice and pico de gallo. Delicioso. $7-$19. (1673 N. Farwell Ave., 414-273-1687)
If your idea of a taco is ground beef sprinkled with cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce, you might want to skip this category – or rethink your definition of tacos. Good, authentic Mexican taquerias (taco joints) will offer beef tongue and tripe as well as chicken, flank steak and pastor (seasoned pork). At Taqueria Los Comales, the savory protein sources come nestled inside double corn tortillas with onions and cilantro. $1.50 each. (1306 S. 16th St., 414-384-6101)
What’s lacking in many Latino restaurants is guacamole that, simply enough, tastes fresh. I search, seemingly in vain, for this. I’ve found it at Quiote Mexican Restaurant. It’s defined by light chunks of fresh, bright green avocado tossed with onions, lime juice, cilantro, plus a little jalapeno and tomato (no sneaky filler of shredded lettuce). It is served in a large stone bowl surrounded plentifully by chips. $6. 5814 W. Blue Mound Rd., 414-698-2708)
El Señorial doesn’t just serve muy bueno chilaquiles (heavenly shredded corn tortillas cooked with eggs and salsa), huevos rancheros (sunny-side eggs with ranchero sauce) and huevos con chorizo. It serves them all day! $6.95-$8.95. (1901 S. 31st St., 414-385-9506)
Salsa is a basic necessity in Mexican cuisine, and it can vary so widely – from watery, mild sauces to pico de gallo relishes to smoky salsas the texture of cream. Salsa is also a hotly debated food, much like pizza and fish fries. I have eaten many good salsas, and lately, my palate keeps returning to the vegetarian spaghetti sauce of salsas at Bay View’s Guanajuato (nicknamed “GTO”). If chips and salsa were a meal, I’d take this sauce of chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro – in its clingy tomato paste-like base – any day. $4.50-$6.50. (2301 S. Howell Ave., 414-482-2269)
When the door to Villa’s closes behind you, the Anglo world checks out for a while. A man, seated at one of the dining tables, fills small plastic containers with fiery, orange salsa. He watches what looks like the Mexican version of Jerry Springer on TV. A vociferous conversation, conducted completely in Spanish, goes on at another table. Wow, I say to nobody else but me, between bites of chicken huaraches. Huaraches? They are homemade corn tortillas – thick and soft – served open-faced with a smudge of refried beans, a generous topcoat of chicken breast, melted cheese, lettuce and tomato. There are other renditions of this homey, satisfying dish in town, but this is my favorite. $10.95 for four, which includes rice and beans. (2522 W. Greenfield Ave., 414-672-1943)
Fittingly named The Canoe (English translation), La Canoa emphasizes underwater delights. If you heart shrimp, you may fancy sautéed shrimp Veracruzana (in a tomato, bell pepper and pineapple sauce) or spicy diabla – the chile heat traveling from your throat to hairline. La Canoa, whose dining room is painted like a ship in a children’s book, serves langostinos (small lobsters), octopus prepared five ways, and whole red snapper – broiled and topped with diabla or chipotle sauce. When you pull hunks of fish from bone – a game of “Operation” – and pile it inside a corn tortilla, there’s no denying the body of water you’re sailing on is Mexican. $8.95-$26.95. (1520 W. Lincoln Ave., 414-645-1140)
Fusion Latin Cuisine
Antigua descends from an old Mexican place on Forest Home called El Rey Sol. Scan the menu and the Latin cuisines represented include Argentinean, Peruvian, Spanish and Cuban. I’m amazed by the breadth of the menu, which includes good, hard-to-find Spanish paella (meat and seafood versions), Yucatan-style shredded pork seasoned with achiote seeds, and a pleasing Peruvian beef and fried potato dish (its name: lomo saltado). $14.40-$32.95. (5823 W. Burnham St., 414-321-5775)