Of all the amazing places restaurateurs extraordinaire Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro have opened, Fuel Cafe, their first born, is definitely the one I frequent the least. There really isn’t any conscious reason for it. I’ve been there before, and I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s just whenever I’m sitting around with friends, searching our minds for a place to eat, it never comes up. But last night, as I was eating at another Johnson/Montemurro joint – Bel Air Cantina – something clicked. So, today, I rounded up the usual suspects, and we braved the cold to check it out.
Stepping into Fuel Cafe is like stepping back in time to Comet Cafe circa 2000. At least it’s what I assume Comet was like before the redesign – high school me was always too intimidated to wander in. And while Fuel, too, got a little bit of a spit polish a few years back, it still very much retains the gritty, worn-in feel it’s long had. Water is still self-served in a dingy, orange Igloo cooler. The booths have a homemade roughness and are surrounded by mismatched chairs. The front windows are obscured by DIY music fliers. And the walls are covered in vintage photos of café and motocross racers (a love of Johnson’s). It’s a mishmash of colors, textures and styles (the ceiling even boasts metallic gold molding) that all somehow works together. It’s an aesthetic that has to come together organically – there’s no forcing it.
The (Not Really) Sloppy Salami
My good friend Nick and I grabbed a sunny table by the window and began to dig into the menu. We sat in silence as we waded through it – this thing is dense. Almost every option has at least half a dozen ingredients and each thing sounds more delicious than the last. After a few minutes passed I flipped the menu over and stared in horror at even more choices. Panini Sandwiches. Mexican Selections. Soup & Chili. Breakfast & Bites! Thank god we were waiting on two more people.
The menu at Fuel is both eclectic and narrowly focused. It’s narrow in that it’s almost entirely sandwiches (save for a soup of the day and a few burritos and quesadillas, though those are essentially sandwiches anyway). It’s eclectic, however, in what they stuff these sandwiches with. (Sadly, the spaghetti and meatball Panini appears to have been given the axe, a shame I never got a chance to try it.)
The VLT Supreme (Vegan BLT)
There are, of course, your classics: your BLT ($6.25) and your Cuban ($7.95). But from there they go crazy. The Happy Cow! ($7.25) combines turkey, Swiss cheese and cucumbers with cream cheese and orange marmalade. The Tacon ($7.75) goes heavy with bacon, cheddar and Sriracha mayo and then lightens things up with sliced green apple and cucumber. There is a similarly brilliant balance in the BLT Supreme (bacon, lettuce, tomato, green apples, cucumbers and Sriracha or wasabi mayo; $6.75). The menu relies heavily on Sriracha mayo and green apples to give its sandwiches that little something extra. And it truly is an inspired combination. The green apple (and cucumber, for that matter) cut through the heat and fattiness of the spicy mayo. Sandwiches that would otherwise be rich and heavy are made much more palatable by that simple addition. Bravo.
Asher, my spicy food-obsessed brother-in-law, ordered the Sloppy Salami (a name I’m not ashamed to say we snickered over, $7.95) and immediately proclaimed it his most favorite sandwich ever. It stuffs Genoa salami, hot Italian peppers, red onion, provolone, cream cheese and spinach into a French roll and then presses the whole thing within an inch of its life. This thing was seriously thin (I’m talking maybe half an inch) and cracker crispy. His future-wife, Kayleigh, ordered the PBAB (peanut butter, apple and bacon; $5.75) and said it’s something she would make if she were stoned (not that she ever does that – she doesn’t). But I figure that’s a pretty strong compliment. While the sides are a little limited for my taste, it’s hard to complain about seasoned El Rey chips – I ordered a side of Awesome Sauce (a vegan red pepper aioli) for dipping, and I strongly recommend that.
The Tacon with a side of Awesome Sauce
As we finished our meal and sat there, our table littered with napkins and empty plastic trays, we wondered why we don’t come here more often. Looking over the empire Scott and Leslie have created in Milwaukee, it’s kind of awe-inspiring to think that it all started nearly two decades ago with this little rough-around-the-edges café in Riverwest.
Our August 2010 feature on Scott and Leslie (“Definition of Cool”) spoke of how the pair opened Fuel on a lark, fully expecting it not to last. But, today, it’s easy to see why it has. More than an effortlessly comfortable atmosphere, good, simple food or any amount of Sriracha mayo, Scott and Leslie, as Paul Miller, partner and co-founder of Alterra Coffee, said, “Have always known what is cool.” Sometimes it’s as simple as that.