Before the violins begin their high-frequency hum and adjectives denoting yumminess spill in every direction, let us first pause and consider the evolution of our ethnic dining scene. Many years ago, immigrants from Germany, Poland and other parts of Europe influenced many things in this town, including what we put in our stomachs. That pattern changed as newcomers from Asia and Latin America settled in local communities. What you’ll find in this package of global greatest hits is indeed a healthy yield of edible finds from Latin and Asian quadrants. The old immigration patterns are no longer reflected, by and large, in the great ethnic food found here. But wait, German food fans: Schnitzel heavyweight Karl Ratzsch’s has a new owner who plans to bring classic German cooking back, better than ever. Also in the works is a Scandinavian-themed bar-restaurant. Ken McNulty, co-owner of this venture as well as of Wisconsin Cheese Mart, doesn’t wax blindly optimistic about his culinary choice, which reflects his wife’s heritage. Plus, who doesn’t want lefse and open-faced sandwiches called smorrebrod? It’s a fine time to eat globally in Milwaukee. And now it’s time to show you how.
9039 W. National Ave., 414-327-1600
The moniker refers to owner/chef Maritza Paz, whose vision of Peru is filtered through the lens of West Allis. The homey, glowing space is a beacon on National Avenue. Restaurants on the coast of Peru serve ceviche (raw fish marinated in lime juice) with sweet potatoes and corn, unlike the Mexican versions that include tomato, and Chef Paz follows Peruvian tradition here. In the beef stir-fry lomo saltado, you see the influence of China. And it comes with French fries! Peruvian is considered one of the great fusion cuisines. This is a deserving place to start experiencing it.
Order: empanadas, ceviche, lomo saltado, tacu tacu
2501 W. Greenfield Ave., 414-671-7118
Festive but without the clichéd, sombreros-on-the-walls tchotchkes. The old Schlitz tavern bones still have so much character. Meat-eaters are gifted the food of their dreams, since this place excels with pork (in a very spicy pozole) and mixed meats, as in the molcajete de carnes.
Order: pozole, menudo, pork in green sauce, molcajete
2316 S. Sixth St., 414-645-1768
The dome of St. Josaphat Basilica is visible through the windows of this “pupuseria” – a restaurant that serves the thick, cornflour flat cakes traditional in El Salvador. They’re scrumptious, chiefly when tasted with salsa and tangy cabbage slaw. Also important to try are yucca con chicharron (fried yucca with pork) and the traditional pollo encebollado, a fancy way of saying chicken with fried onions.
Order: pollo guisada, yucca con chicharron, pupusas
901 S. 10th St., 414-647-2266
The handsome old art deco wooden bar in the dining room is a tease. Tables are pushed next to the bar top, so there’s no bar seating at all. But it provides scenery, as does everything your server brings to the table. Guadalajara’s solid quality shows in the little things – chips, salsa and extra-creamy guacamole.
Order: pico de gallo, gorditas, sopes, bistec en chile arbol, caldo de camarones
1820 S. 13th St., 414-672-0200
Anything a potato can do, a plantain (green banana) can do better. That’s surely the rubric in Puerto Rican cuisine, where the fruit is cooked and served in ways savory, but sometimes sweet, too. This welcoming South Side venue of generous portions doesn’t let up on the starches or tender slow-roasted pork shoulder (known as pernil).
Order mofongo con camarones (fried plantain balls with shrimp), roast pork, tostones
3447 W. Forest Home Ave., 414-383-3040; 6000 W. Burnham St., 414-546-1197
Burnham Street balances carryout with a functional seating area. Forest Home – the interior with walls like a log cabin – has comfortable booths and a bar that dispenses margaritas. The quality-to-cost ratio for the food is high, and the staff is muy friendly.
Order: tacos, camarones a la diabla, huaraches with chorizo, tortas
Taqueria El Cabrito
1100 S. 11th St., 414-385-9000
A bustling two-room enterprise with walls the color of sunshine and a ceiling painted to look like a cloud-speckled blue sky. The server delivers a bowl of pickled vegetables, along with chips and salsa, and pretty much anything stuffed inside a tortilla is recommended, and that includes goat meat.
Order: tacos with carnitas and chorizo; chicken soup; birria en chivo (goat stew)
Global Intel: In Mexico, a molcajete is a stone tool used very much like a mortar and pestle. In Mexican restaurants, a molcajete menu item refers to this instrument used as a cooking tool and container. It holds meats or seafood and vegetables, keeping the food bubbling hot.
Spanish | Portuguese
315 E. Wisconsin Ave., 414-369-3683
Gregory and Orry León had the concept for their restaurant a long time before they had a home for it. Gregory found an audience for his cooking (which has Venezuelan influences as well) through pop-up dinners. The couple settled nicely into this long, narrow, colorful storefront with a front-and-center kitchen that lets Gregory see diners eating seared sablefish with fried purple potatoes along with a glass of Portuguese red wine.
Order: The menu changes often but look for lomo (dry-cured pork loin), rabbit, sausage or the market vegetarian plate.
808 E. Center St., 414-455-3751
Riverwest’s little Italian place has evolved from just a charming one room replete with subway tile, old terrazzo flooring and church pew seating, to a second, back room with a wine bar, a handful of tables and a small patio. But the best place to sit is the four-person kitchen counter just inside the entrance. It’s where, on mad Friday nights, diners can watch the sauté pan-slinging cooks do their thing.
Order: penne salsiccia, gnocchi, spaghetti with bison-prosciutto meatballs
Le Rêve Patisserie & Café
7610 Harwood Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-778-3333
This 8-year-old is neither stuffy nor distractedly stylish, which makes it easy to focus on the important things, which, beyond a solid menu of French-influenced fare, include the glass-faced shelves of French desserts, chocolate-domed, meringued, moussed, ganached and crowned with color. If you can slip away from life on weekday afternoons, the tapas menu (3-5 p.m.) is $3-$6 of appetizer numminess, starring frites, foie gras mousse, steamed mussels and more.
Order: soupe a l’oignon, foie gras plate, bouillabaisse, canard à la bourguignonne
Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro
3133 E. Newberry Blvd., 414-962-6300
An impressive roster of chefs (to wit: James Beard Award-winner Adam Siegel, Mark Weber of the Pfister Hotel) have helmed the Lake Park kitchen and helped pave the way for its subtle but solid evolution. In recent years, the chef de cuisine isn’t a showy face, but someone “Lake Park Bistro-ed” to maximum effect, letting the restaurant, its food and aesthetic remain high-quality constants.
Order: foie gras poele, mussels and frites, duck two ways, sole Meunière
4016 S. Packard Ave., 414-482-0080
It takes effort to find Polish food, which is saying something in this melting-pot town. The Burzynskis used to serve pierogis, pork shanks and potato dumplings in a much smaller building a stone’s throw from St. Josaphat Basilica. The spacious Packard digs are perfect for watching the occasional Polish folk dancing and throwing down some Zywiec beer in the bar.
Order: pierogis, pork shank, potato dumplings, hunter’s stew
7616 W. State St., Wauwatosa, 414-771-7910
Restaurants like this Bartolotta oldie thrive because of consistency. Juan Urbieta, with 14 years as executive chef, keeps the dependable tenor of the kitchen. For diners who crave tried-and-true, there’s the regular menu. For those who want new, Urbieta puts it out there in the seasonal menu – from house-made pasta with Bolognese to wood-roasted veal rack in vodka-pancetta sauce.
Order: calamari, pappardelle with slow-braised duck ragu, chicken roasted brick-style, seasonal menu
2414 S. St. Clair St., 414-481-7530
Old world atmosphere, romance? The interior of this historic Schlitz tavern’s got so much of both. Branko Radicevic – one of the famed three brothers – died in late 2014. His wife and children keep those traditional recipes and ensure the room, with mismatched lamps and old Formica tables, feels like you’re walking into someone’s home to dine.
Order: Serbian salad, chevapcici, beef burek, goulash
Alem Ethiopian Village
307 E. Wisconsin Ave., 414-224-5324
There’s a syndrome related to eating Ethiopian food – whose bastion is the crepe-like pancake, injera. When you order a sampler of meat and vegetarian stews, the thick concoctions are piled onto a large pancake. More pancakes, rolled up like the morning newspaper, are also provided. It is a thing of extreme hunger-inducement. But this thing that happens when you eat with reckless abandon (as you should) is sudden stomach fullness. And yet, it’s all so worth it.
Order: sambusa pastries, vegetarian or carnivorous samplers
7237 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-509-6014
Owner Yollande Deacon started cooking the foods of her native Africa after coming to Milwaukee to attend the MBA program at Marquette University. Friends were intrigued by Deacon’s seasonings, so she started a business. That enterprise expanded to restaurant size with the opening in 2015 of this destination for dishes from Africa and Jamaica (her husband’s homeland). The changing menu incorporates sauces, spices and sausages that she also sells on-site.
Order: braised oxtail, jerk chicken, egusi spinach stew
Global intel: Ethiopian food virgins may be reluctant to let go of the eating utensils when digging into injera and the traditional stews. But using hunks of injera to scoop up some saucy meat is the way the natives do it.
728 E. Brady St., 414-271-6000
2012 was the year the restaurant unveiled its second floor dining room and patio, making this the manse of Brady Street. Hookah smoke emits from lips, club music pulses from the sound system. And yet the cooks of Casablanca still manage to keep the focus on plates of voluptuous food seasoned with sumac, garlic, mint and coriander. Order stuffed falafel, lamb shawarma, vegetable couscous
2040 W. Wisconsin Ave., 414-935-1111
It’s easy, too easy, to miss this ground-level occupant of a building west of the Pabst Mansion. Devotees of delicacies from the Arabian Peninsula need to find Mendy. Owner Ahmed Yafai exits the kitchen with oversize circles of lavash cracker-like bread. We tear off hunks, wrap them around soft pieces of lamb and pop them into our mouths. Around us, diners push back from the table, crumbs of the bread scattered on the table, to smoke hookahs. The space is very modestly laid out, with grocery items haphazardly stacked near the counter. Don’t let it distance you from an unusual and worthwhile experience.
Order: salteh lamb with fenugreek, flatbread baked in a “tanoor” oven, shakshouka
Global intel: Fenugreek is a common seasoning in Yemeni cuisine. Cooks make a frothy paste from it called holba, which is traditionally served with lamb salteh. The paste is quite bitter, and a little goes a long way.
Jow Nai Fouquet
1978 N. Farwell Ave., 414-270-1010
The restaurant name seizes on three things – the owner’s son, a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées in Paris and the Thai island of Phuket. The words spill captivatingly off the tongue, just as a green curry – suffused with lemongrass, galangal root, coriander, cumin, basil and much more – slides easily down the throat. Former home of Abu’s Jerusalem of the Gold, this tiny corner locale is focusing these days on carryout and delivery services.
Order: tom ka, appetizer sampler, curries
Kim’s Thai Restaurant
938 W. Layton Ave., 414-282-8687
After outgrowing its digs at Pacific Produce market, Kim’s became the tenant of a bright, modern strip mall that enables it to serve smoking volcano dishes and whole fish at spacious booths. The space and room to flex its cooking muscle should help give this relative unknown the appreciation it deserves.
Order: stuffed chicken wings, panang curry, seafood asparagus
Koi Japanese Cuisine
552 W. Layton Ave., 414-481-2288
Layton Avenue just west of Howell might seem like a wasteland for good ethnic food. It is not. Koi is set circumspectly in a banal strip mall. But past the shaded windows and plastic lucky cats displayed near the bar, there is some of the freshest, most affordable sushi to be had, especially if you’d like to lose the crowds at Kyoto.
Order: gyoza, pepper tuna, tempura, sushi for two
Kyoto Japanese Food
7453 W. Layton Ave., 414-325-1000
Waiting, crammed next to others anxious to sink their teeth into a crab- and tobiko-topped Godzilla roll. That’s a common predicament at this Greenfield den of raw fish. But we wait because the payoff is exquisite. Sushi chefs wield their knives like quick-moving hand dancers. The flavors are so bright, the wasabi sharp, the pickled ginger fresh.
Order: sashimi à la carte; sushi bar appetizers like “dinosaurs eggs,” treasure island; maki rolls
2128 Silvernail Rd., Pewaukee, 262-521-9780
You are not here for the Chinese lunch buffet or regular menu items like chop suey and egg foo young. Mr. Wok’s claim to menu fame is its Pan-Asian track. Curries served with flaky rich flatbreads; noodle stir-fries topped with egg; meats cooked with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Co-owner C.S. Tan was raised in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Glimpses of Malaysian cuisine, influenced by many Asian and Indian culinary styles, come dazzlingly through in this modest dining room.
Order: rendang chicken, roti chanai, mee goreng
782 N. Jefferson St., 414-763-9378
[Ed. note: Peking House has since closed.] At first blush, the daunting menu is fairly easy to navigate if you want a Sichuan food experience. Skip over to the “house specials” and by all means order something that has a little chili pepper icon next to it. Owner Jessica Liang, who often sits at a table near the kitchen, can talk you through terms like “hong sue,” “dry braised” and “burnt spicy.” If you think one vegetable, stir-fried, can not a meal make, you’ll think again after coming here.
Order: Sichuan hot pot, “Happy” beef, dry-braised string beans, cumin lamb, ma po tofu
Pho Hai Tuyet
204 W. Layton Ave., 414-231-3201
Fans followed this noodle venture from South 27th Street to Brown Deer Road. Now the one-and-only location is this structure a stone’s throw from Mitchell Airport. Ignore the sticky floor and murky aquarium devoid of fish. This place doesn’t serve the variety of fillings for its banh mi sandwiches that Downtown’s Xankia does, but the singular, saucy charbroiled pork – layered with mayo, jalapenos, cilantro, carrots and more on a sizable French baguette – is mind-bogglingly delicious. Points still stack up for the delicately floral broths in the phos, rare steak and tendon my preferred variety.
Order: banh mi, beef pho
Rice n Roll Bistro
1952 N. Farwell Ave., 414-220-9944
In little more than a year, this house of Asian fusion (with an asterisk on Japanese fare) has erased the memory of prior-occupancy corned beef and burgers and fries. Rice n Roll co-owner Tony Kora has accomplished that with, among other sushi bar creations, the Komodo dragon spicy-tuna roll topped with whole baked unagi (eel). The kitchen chefs have also accomplished it with the sobering drunken noodle. Small, cozy and teeming with millennials.
Order: stuffed avocado; curry buttery dip; maki rolls; entrées like crisp fiery fish, Two Nations noodle, Green Harbor (katsu chicken in curry sauce with roti)
Vientiane Noodle Shop
3422 W. National Ave., 414-672-8440
You can’t really go wrong with a trip to Silver City, the neighborhood that encompasses 35th and National, a nerve center for Asian food. Inside Vientiane, your mind blocks out anything but portraits of Asian people in formal attire (of which this place has quite a collection) and the jarred and bottled seasonings on every table. Vientiane holds up to its Southeast Asian name, showing skill with noodle soups and Thai specialties like pad see ew. And the sauce served with its spring rolls – light, piquant and speckled with crushed peanuts – is the best in town.
Order: spring rolls, papaya salad, chicken or pork larb, pho, Thai noodles
711 W. Mitchell St., 414-672-7878
In Pakistani cuisine, meat takes the stage, with spices like cardamom, turmeric, mustard and black pepper having some fun on the tongue. Anmol is not shy applying flavor or heat, although some dishes are rather mild, thick stews of comfort food, ideal for sopping up with triangles of buttery naan. If you’re feeling intrepid (or just curious), there’s a boiled, fried goat brain masala.
Order: qeema (beef) samosas, garlic naan, mutton kahari, Anmol tandoori platter, haleem (beef-lentil stew)
3401 S. 13th St., 414-383-3553
When this magazine has fired up its periodic Cheap Eats story engine, Morgandale’s Bombay Sweets has been one of the first stops. You can build a very respectable meatless meal from the vegetarian platters, curries and rice specialties served at this simple showroom of sit-down-and-carryout foods. It’s also a hub for Indian snacks – salty and sweet, nutty and gooey, gelatinous and creamy and every mouth sensation in between.
Order: rava masala dosa with sambhar and coconut chutney, aloo paratha, chana masala
1828 N. Farwell Ave., 414-291-4000
Formerly a restaurant with two locations – including one on that boulevard of ethnic dining, Layton Avenue – the K2 people recently consolidated and keep their lamb vindaloo under one, East Side roof. Indian and Pakistani cuisines meld here, and while I don’t think the meat dishes are quite what they are at Anmol, there’s a nice gentle hand cooking the vegetables, which means marvelous renditions of aloo gobi (potato-cauliflower), chana masala and baingan bharta (roasted eggplant curry).
Order: bhindi (okra, tomato, onion masala), K2 grill platter, palak goosht (mutton on bone, with spinach curry)
2930 N. 117th St., Wauwatosa, 414-235-9220
The “garden” plot is the old Open Hearth, a Tosa steak-and-chops place that left behind a bar, gas fireplace and the coziest booths west of Highway 41/45. Owner Charnjit Bolla (a former partner in the East Side’s Maharaja) is the restaurant’s master gardener, you could say, and the garden is anything but small. Vegetarian dishes are an especially fruitful part of the menu.
Order: curd rice, goat curry, chicken tikka dosa, lamb biryani, gobi Manchurian
Global intel: What’s the difference between lamb and mutton? Lamb refers to sheep less than a year old. Mutton, commonly found on Indian and Pakistani menus, is the meat from the lamb’s aged counterparts.
Sauces of the World
Four local restaurants illustrate some of the vivid flavors you’ll find in ethnic cuisine.
Top left: The mafe, or peanut sauce, used to make the creamy, West African chicken peanut stew at Irie Zulu is also sold in a jar, stocked right on the shop’s shelves. (7237 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa)
Bottom left: The common gratis appetizer in Indian restaurants is the trio of chutneys – mint, onion and tamarind – served with peppery, wafer-thin papadum crackers. Ours are from India Garden. (2930 N. 117th St., Wauwatosa)
Top right: Ruben Sanchez, of Taqueria Buenavista, is anything but shy about spreading the gospel of the restaurant’s green salsa, which he says they just call Grandma’s Sauce. It’s a smooth, hot sauce served in a squeeze bottle. Chips also come with a chunky tomato salsa. (3447 W. Forest Home Ave.; 6000 W. Burnham St., and the Buenavista truck)
Bottom right: In Thai restaurants, curries are water- or coconut milk-based. In the latter category are yellow, green, red and massaman curries. Green chilis, sweet basil and kaffir lime leaves help develop the green curry’s hue. Here, from Jow Nai Fouquet. (1978 N. Farwell Ave.)
Head of the Glass
Some nonalcoholic drinks from “global” Milwaukee.
African restaurant Irie Zulu makes juices from ginger root and dried hibiscus flowers. The sweetness of the ginger juice (shown right) cuts out the sharpness of the root. (7237 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa)
Alem Ethiopian Village brews pots of strong Ethiopian tea, suffused with the biting flavor of cloves. Drunk without milk but with sugar to taste, the tea marries well with Alem’s thick, comfort food-like stews. (307 E. Wisconsin Ave.)
The rice milk-based horchata is liquid sweetness. Guadalajara steeps rice in whole milk and mixes it up with evaporated milk and plenty of cinnamon.
(901 S. 10th St.)
Some like their lassi salty. Some like it sweet. India Garden offers several versions of this yogurt drink originating in the Punjab region, including a very flavorful savory one with roasted cumin seeds, salt and black pepper powder. (2930 N. 117th St., Tosa)
Bread is a well-nigh universal starch. Here are four foundational global-food starches:
The wonderful thing about pupusas – the thick Savadoran cornmeal cakes – is that they’re filled before being cooked. One of the tastiest versions at restaurant El Salvador is pupusa revuelta, which is filled with cheese, pork and beans. (2316 S. Sixth St.)
Naan, the South Asian flatbread baked in a tandoori oven, is an essential companion for any saucy substance. And there are plenty of both naan (garlic or butter) and saucy substances at Anmol. (711 W. Mitchell St.)
Where would fromage be without a baguette? We wouldn’t like to know. This chewy-crisp cylindrical loaf comes from Le Rêve Patisserie & Café. (7610 Harwood Ave., Wauwatosa)
The best description for injera is a large, slightly sour, very porous crepe made from the grain teff. It’s foldable, rollable and dippable – all necessary characteristics for eating Ethiopian stews. At Alem Ethiopian Village. (307 E. Wisconsin Ave.)
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris.
Ann Christenson is Milwaukee Magazine’s dining critic. Write to her at email@example.com.