Milwaukee may appear to be the clumsy milquetoast in the crowd of American cities. But underneath the conservative suit and gray fedora of a seemingly traditional town lies our true identity. Best Of Milwaukee is an annual ripping open of Milwaukee’s button-down exterior. This year’s adventures reveal new and amazing feats: super-cooled beverages, an invisible man, a fantastic polka duo, flying furry companions, the ultimate villain turned good guy and much, much more. We’ve also decided that the time has come to unmask 10 of Milwaukee’s greatest superheroes by placing them into the new Best Of Hall of Fame. Up, up and away!
EDITED BY MARIO QUADRACCI
With Tom Bamberger, Sara Broderick, Kurt Chandler,
Ann Christenson, Jim Hazard, Bruce Murphy,
Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, JD Rinne and Julie Sensat Waldren
Cushiest Movie Theater
The cozy Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse in Wauwatosa makes it easy to cancel your Netflix subscription and actually go to the movies. Plush velvet couches and coffee tables offer all of the comforts of home. And there’s a bonus: the menu. Sure, the Rosebud serves the essentials: soft drinks, Junior Mints and hot-buttered popcorn but also draft beer, imported bottled beer, mixed drinks and wine (reds, whites or Sangria by the pitcher), pizza with garlic bread, cheeseburgers with fries, onion rings, nachos, corn dogs, chicken tenders, cheese cake and hot fudge brownies with ice cream. Pig out. Pull up a loveseat. Put your feet on the furniture. No one will mind. 6823 W. North Ave.
A delicate, more subtly flavored and smaller sausage, bockwurst is a versatile treat made of pork and veal flaked with parsley. You can’t beat Usingers’ version, a scrumptious old-world delight.
Wine List Descriptions
The wine list hits the table with a sonorous thud. Inside, pages upon pages of phonetically punishing offerings are convoluted further by descriptions that tell you only that you’re a cretin. Overwhelmed and under-informed, you end up picking a bottle based on price. It tastes like aspirin and finishes on the palate like thermonuclear war. But Balzac takes the mystique out of its well-appointed wine list by replacing the typical jargon with a sense of humor. Wondering what to start with? Well, “Your mom called” and said you should try the Argyl Brut. Looking for great food pairing? The 2003 Alta Vista Malbec is great with “beef, with a side of Fruit Loops.” Looking to get the party started? You can “dance” to the 2004 Lageder Pinot Grigio. 1716 N. Arlington Pl.
Walker’s Point’s new Intermezzo Wine and Martini Lounge features 100 cleverly named and masterfully concocted martinis. The long menu can be a bit daunting, however. Where to start? Ask mix master Mike Schnese to surprise you or go for his namesake martini. You won’t be disappointed. 703 S. Second St.
Most people opt for the guacamole at Habanero’s. How can you refuse? The server rolls a cart to your table, piled with color in many small bowls. Five minutes of performance art begins, as he/she mashes the avocado and various fixings together in a stone bowl. When the show is over, the stone bowl sits on your table, tortilla chips poking out of the lovely green dip inside. Worth a repeat performance at $7.95. 3900 W. Brown Deer Rd.; 869 N. Mayfair Rd.
What did one cheese plate say to the other? “You’re awfully stingy.” The problem with most cheese plates is that the food is gone in two bites – someone, in effect, cut the cheese. Not so with a Lagniappe -Brasserie cheese “ensemble.” Generous hunks of cheese – recently, French fol epi, Spanish manchego and Wisconsin blue – come with baguette toasts, nuts and fresh fruit ($7). 17001 W. Greenfield Ave.
Old New-world Drink
It’s reputedly the first cocktail invented in the New World, born in New Orleans in the 1830s. It’s the Sazerac, and if you have a library card, you’ll have some acquaintance with its devotees: Walt Whitman, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. But it’s not snob appeal that makes this a drink for the ages. It’s the dark, spicy blend of flavors – bourbon, anise, lemon, sugar and bitters – that, when made right, swim together in every sip. But where, north of Louisiana, to get this splendor in a glass? The best place is the Hotel Metro Bar, where your bartender will mix a drink in perfect harmony. 411 E. Mason St.
Malted Milk Balls
A light, crunchy malt filling encased in chocolate. You’ll find close to a dozen glass jars of balls lined up on the counter at City Market. They come in a kaleidoscope of colors and flavors – ultimate (two chocolate), mint, coffee and cream, s’mores, raspberry, Neopolitan. All munchable delights. ($5.25-$7.95). 2205 E. Capitol Dr.
Place to Buy Wedding Gowns
It’s not just the selection – more than 800 in stock from eight major designers – that attracts brides from Hawaii to New England to Cedarburg’s Stone -Manor -Bridal Shop. Just as important is the patient, thoughtful service. While other bridal salons restrict the number of dresses a bride may try on, the well-trained staff at owner Kate Iggens’ shop has the patience of saints. Iggens, who worked for Allen-Edmonds before opening this shop four years ago, knows a thing or two about quality and value. And for those “in a hurry,” there are 200 cash-and-carry discontinued dresses in her discount room for $199 each. Shotgun wedding anyone? W61 N311 Washington Ave., Cedarburg.
5k Run for a Cause
Milwaukee’s mid-summer’s night ritual, Storm the Bastille, certainly would take the prize for best 5K run with a beer in your hand. Or your belly. But for a run that’s fun and meaningful, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s Race for the Cure is the champ. Pretty in pink, thousands of runners and walkers flood the Downtown streets – breast cancer survivors, families honoring those they’ve lost, as well as do. Among 100 such events around the world, the turnout in Milwaukee is huge, the enthusiasm high, the survivors’ stories inspiring. And the 5K route is lovely, starting and finishing at Northwestern Mutual Plaza and winding along the lakefront through Veterans Park. It’s a run for the roses – pink roses – that will warm your heart.
Elsa’s on the Park serves a big plate of crunchy, deep-fried broccoli with a honey mustard dipping sauce. It’s tasty, healthy and big enough for two. 833 N. Jefferson St.
Approach to Sexuality
Sometimes it takes a woman’s touch – literally. Started by Ellen Barnard, a social worker, and Myrtle Wilhite, a physician, A Woman’s Touch is a sexual health and pleasure resource center with a matter-of-fact but comfortable vibe. Instead of dim, seedy corners, the store’s layout is open, with sections for lingerie, books, DVDs and toys, among other things to excite the senses. The staff is knowledgeable and polite, and the entire experience makes typical sex education – with hushed voices and sideways glances – seem silly. Whether you’re in the market for a vibrating rubber ducky or an informational pamphlet, this store can do it for you. 200 N. Jefferson St.
We Wisconsinites are a practical people. Even our best artists tend to tell a story or paint what they see. Gregory -Klassen paints how we see, or maybe he paints what there is before we see. Klassen came here from Big Spring, Texas, via a two-year stint in the class of great German painter Gerhard Richter. His milieu is daunting. He is up against some of the greatest artists of the 20th century who reduced art to its essentials. His canvases are luminous landscapes of color and form. But unlike most painters who reference natural forms or seek to represent emotional states, Klassen paintings are neutral. They are just paintings.
Justin Teisl of Alterra at the Lake won second prize at the 11th Tri-Annual Latte Art Competition held in Las Vegas in June. A barista since 2001 and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Teisl’s -winning design was a double Rosetta, made by pouring foam over a spoon into hot espresso. Just -another way to perk up your morning. 1701 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr.
New Salsa Band
Featuring a repertoire of completely original music (very rare in salsa) the incendiary new 13-piece Nabori is already causing quite a stir – mostly below the waist. Look for the band to turn up the thermostat at venues such as Club Belize this winter with unrivaled creativity and virtuosity. If you want to be able to respond properly to the impulses you’ll be feeling at Nabori shows, learn how to salsa dance from Nabori vocalist Dennis Lopez at Dance Sport Studios. 828-3322; www.myspace.com/naborisalsa.
When Thomas D. Lidtke, executive director of the West Bend Art Museum, began buying up the work of regional Wisconsin artists on the q.t. more than two decades ago, regional art wasn’t in or trendy. Major museums shunned it while they chased New York tastes. But Lidtke quietly amassed one of the best regional art archives in the country, putting the state well ahead of what has now become a hot national trend. And with the museum’s recent announcement of plans to double its size, Lidtke’s not done yet.
At The Palomino in Bay View, an homage to Elvis (may the King rest in peace) comes on grilled sourdough. The peanut butter and banana filling in this Velvet -Elvis ($6.95) meets its texture and flavor opposite in crisp fried bacon. If you need to ask for it without the pig, you’re no Pal. Warning: too many of these and you’ll be heading to the heartbreak hotel. 2491 S. Superior St.
Game in Town
The rap on the Bradley Center is that it’s made for hockey, not basketball. Well, if hockey’s your game, then give the Milwaukee Admirals a call and reserve some seats. The prices can’t be beat ($19, $17 and $15), and the thing is, they play the best game in town – a game that, strictly and poetically speaking, isn’t played on ice. It’s played on quarter-inch steel blades – a fast-changing combination of ballet, acrobatics and mayhem executed on the razor’s edge. It’s a thrilling spectator experience, and you can count on lots of home victories by this consistent playoff team.
Carbon dioxide emissions may be warming the planet, but at Johnny Vassallo’s two Monsoon restaurants, solidified CO2 (dry ice) makes drinks much cooler. Signature cocktails such as the Monfusion and Cosmonsoon are spiked with it, which creates a surreal, steaming witch’s brew effect as the dry ice returns to a gaseous state in the bottom of your glass. Truly a gas.
Pet Care in the Air
Now frequent-flying Fluffy can earn free trips, too. With Midwest Airlines’ -Premier Pet Program (www.midwestairlines.com), man’s best friend (and travel companion) can earn a free round-trip flight with every three paid. Small dogs are allowed in the cabin (where they receive a special dog cookie); other pets fly in a temperature-controlled, pressurized cargo area. So while you’re enjoying your freshly baked cookies, you can be sure Fido is enjoying his ride, too – and saving you money.
In the name of science, we set out to find the best gelato in town. We conducted a scientifically sound double-blind comparison between offerings from every gelato purveyor in the metro area. Okay, we’re not even sure what that means, but rest assured our staff judges tasted a lot of anonymous gelatos. While our panel initially, and quite suspiciously, claimed a lack of certainty in their preferences – which, of course, could only be settled by tasting more – their final findings were conclusive. Waukesha’s Divino Gelato Café is the winner. Where some of the gelatos were plagued by an icy or lumpy texture, Divino’s were smoother than the hood of a Ferrari. While many lacked balance in their sweetness and flavor, Divino’s were as well-proportioned as the statue of David. Divino boasts more than 100 rotating flavors (24 at a time). 227 W. Main St., Waukesha.
New Art Brain
Lisa Hostetler, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s new assistant curator of photographs, has plenty of wow factor: a Ph.D. from Princeton, magna cum laude with honors at NYU, a research appointment at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a three-year stint at NY’s Howard Greenberg Gallery. MAM has perhaps never employed someone of equal pedigree. With less than two years on the job, she has already curated three world-class photography exhibitions (with another in the -final stages of planning) and made some of the most significant acquisitions to the museum’s permanent collection ever.
Twenty-seven-year-old Adam Hembel and his kid sister, Ashley Hembel Thull, put a new spin on the polka. Literally. With their kicks, twists and flips, this isn’t your grandma’s polka! “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” says Janine Adamczyk, Polish Fest entertainment chair. But Adam and Ashley – a former United States Polka Association queen – have racked up a serious collection of trophies for their fancy footwork, and deservedly so.
What better place for a pirate to lower his gangway, limp across the table-strewn deck and enter the bar. Okay, so maybe you’re more likely to run into a yachter than a marauder here, but Barnacle Bud’s has a salty spirit mixed with a bit of whimsy (it’s Milwaukee, after all). You’ll need a treasure map to find this little buried treasure on the Kinnickinnic River, but the hunt will make for a good sea yarn over a burger and some grog. 1955 S. Hilbert St.
A spin-off of Coquette Café, Harlequin Bakery sets a new standard in Milwaukee, with marvelous croissants, caramelized onion and walnut bread, rhubarb or plum tarts, buttermilk doughnuts (just 50 cents!), brioche, peanut butter and jelly cookies and countless other delights. 316 N. Milwaukee St.
Pettit National Ice Center might have the glory of an Olympic connection, but if you don’t want to have to live up to that reputation, Eble Ice Arena in Brookfield has a friendlier atmosphere. With accessible open-skate times (Monday-Friday 12-3 p.m.) and the right price (admission is $2.50; skate rental $1). 19400 W. Blue Mound Rd.
Year-round Garden Center By mid-summer, trees, shrubs and perennials at the chain garden centers and big box retailers have shriveled from neglect if they haven’t sold out. But at Minor’s -Garden Center, the selection of quality nursery stock – including a good number of wonderful exotics like the Carol Mackie Daphne, a small, fine-leaved shrub with fragrant pink blooms in late spring – is still green and flourishing even late in the season. If you didn’t get your gardening done last spring, this is the procrastinator’s paradise. 7777 N. 76th St.
Used (Japanese) Autos
Tucked away in West Allis is Autowise, an odd little place with great deals on used Toyotas, Mazdas, Nissans and Hondas – all priced from $2,000 to $6,000. Owner Ray Knebel buys from the auctions, knows how to pick ’em and is confident enough to give customers a one-month warranty. 9712 W. Schlinger Ave.
Mole Taste Test
“Attention editorial staff,” the receptionist announced. “Your, um, mariachi band is here.”
The silver charms fastened decoratively to their matching black pants clinked like spurs as we led them toward their solemn task: to taste-test the top contenders for the city’s best mole -Oaxaca. We were told that achieving -harmony while still allowing each ingredient to express itself is the key to good mole, which, we were also told, happens to be the key to a great mariachi band as well. See the connection?
We prepared a festive table, with chips, grilled chicken, beer and decorations we hoped would inspire spontaneity – perhaps a celebratory pistol round fired into our drop ceiling. The largest of the mariachis toted a mysterious circular case. He placed it on a desk, releasing its latches with a flick of his thumbs. Sombreros.
They set about their task with stoic intensity, tasting each mole repeatedly, thoughtfully, seriously. The day ended with a newly crowned Best Mole in Milwaukee commemorated by a raucous version of “Oyé Como Va.” Success!
Trio Alma Latina (never mind that there are four of them) is a mariachi band made up of professional, world-touring musicians. Here are their rankings and comments:
1. Xel-Há “Delicious mole” (José de Jesus Cahrera Zuñiga)
2. Cempazuchi “Bueno!” (Javier Reynoso)
3. Rey Sol “The most authentic” (J. Alberto Cardenas)
4. Taqueria Azteca “Needs more ingredients” (Zuñiga)
5. Jalapeño Loco “Too sweet” (Eleazar Celis Peño)
Soccer Mom Bassist
When she’s not shuttling her kids to the typical activities of suburban youth or volunteering to help troubled kids through Express Yourself Milwaukee, Mequon’s KT Rusch can be found laying down taut bass lines for two Afrocentric bands. Rusch is the backbone in both Scorcher Family Reggae, a ragtag collective of almost perfect diversity, and Mali Blues Group, a cast of African musicians that revolves around Rusch and kamelan ngoni (an African harp-like instrument) virtuoso Tani Diakite. Rusch’s polished chops, positive vibes and absolute command of the low end keeps her bands on task. The mission: to dispense “music as medicine,” she says. No spoonful of sugar needed – it gets down just fine. www.ktruschmusic.com.
Drinks With a View
Sometimes the ambience of a restaurant can be more important than the menu. Here are three joints better known for their views than their vittles, where it’s wonderful to hang out and imbibe.
ON THE LAKE Pieces of Eight on Municipal Pier has the best 360-degree view from a patio table – the lake, the skyline, the art museum, Discovery World. In the cooler months, you can cozy around an outdoor fire pit and pretend you’re camping – with a full-service bar at your disposal.
ON THE RIVER The panoramic view of Downtown from the patio and dining room of Rock Bottom Restaurant is downright cinematic. Between the boat traffic and people traffic along the RiverWalk, the action never stops.
ON THE STREET The corner of Jefferson and Wells is a hotbed for people-watching, and the sidewalk tables at Louise’s Trattoria across from Cathedral Square are ideal for casual ogling. In the winter, inside tables along a sun-drenched wall of windows make power lunching a little less draggy.
AT THE TOP Every city needs a revolving rooftop restaurant. The sights from
Polaris at the top of the Hyatt Regency can make your head spin – even before your first cocktail. On a clear day, you can see Wauwatosa. Better yet, sit at the bar at dusk and watch the city lights come on. If you squint your eyes and flex your imagination, it’s almost Paris.
Best Free Wi-Fi
Turn on your laptop, surf your favorite blog and sip away at Stone Creek Coffee. The local coffee chain brews great java and offers unlimited free wireless Internet at each of its nine locations. The specialty drinks and baked goods (from City Market) are sure to please, and the knowledgeable staff leaves you to enjoy the Web in laid-back and smoke-free peace.
Best of Politics
RUN FOR PRESIDENT Russ Feingold is making the best run by a Wisconsinite since, oh, the days of Fighting Bob LaFollette. Feingold has become a darling of the liberal Internet activists, and if he can just avoid a Howard Dean-like meltdown, he could be a force in the Democratic primaries.
DISAPPEARING ACT Is it just that the Journal Sentinel has lost interest in City Hall or has Mayor Tom Barrett become the invisible man? Not since the latter years of Henry Maier has the mayor made less news or been less of a presence.
UPSET Conservative Republican state Rep. Ann Nischke had a 3-1 -advantage in campaign funds and the blessings of the GOP establishment, but she was beaten by moderate Larry Nelson in the race for Waukesha mayor. That leaves the city an island in a sea of Waukesha County Republicanism.
CAKEWALK Okay, he’s nobody’s senator but ours, but can’t we at least get a choice between Sen. Herb Kohl and a viable candidate? Even Republicans are running away from GOP candidate Robert Gerald Lorge, a fringe candidate who was accused of sexual molestation by a female relative (Lorge denies it). Expect a Kohl landslide.
Marcel Du Champ made things like a urinal or bicycle wheel into art. He called them “ready-mades,” and the idea that anything could be art transformed the art world. By accident, we have our own Du Champian masterpiece. These objects, which originally stood upright in the Menomonee Valley, were moved across the street and placed supine to make way for the new Harley Museum. In this new context, these petite silos are quite evocative. Is it some kind of -rocket ship that landed many years ago? The volumes are nearly perfect, and placing them on their sides makes them somehow more tactile. Sometimes the most elegant solution to the problem of “what is art” is as simple as changing its orientation.
Local Architectural Historian
A self-taught expert on the region’s historic architecture, H. Russell Zimmermann knows it all. Through his firm, Zimmermann Design Consultants, the former ad man has consulted on the restoration of landmarks like the Grain Exchange Room and designed seamless renovations for Queen Anne Victorian homes. He’s also written nine books documenting the area’s structures, from the Heritage Guidebook (1976) to River Hills (2003). Got a question about a building’s past? Zimmermann’s your man.
On the Media
UNEMPLOYED NEWSMAN Mike Gousha created the gold standard for local anchors. Always knowledgeable, his campaign interviews of candidates were marvelous – Gousha was tough, smart and quick, with strong follow-up questions. He was easily the best interviewer in town, better than many national reporters. What a loss.
COMEBACK Disgraced politico Dave Begel, tarnished by his association with convicted former state Sen. Gary George, has rebounded with a regular sports column for onmilwaukee.com that’s readable, debatable and fun.
SPORTS WRITER Wall Street Journal editorial page editor and Green Bay native Paul Gigot calls Journal Sentinel sports writer Bob McGinn the best football writer in America. We agree. Just compare McGinn’s pre-Super Bowl analysis with any other sportswriter in the country. No one is more insightful or revealing.
LIBERAL BLOGGER There aren’t many. The best is the Xoff Files by former political consultant Bill Christofferson. He’s also a former reporter, so he can write well. Christofferson is funny, cranky and often has insights that come from having been in the trenches himself.
CONSERVATIVE BLOGGER Among an endless list of bloggers from the right, WTMJ Radio host Charlie Sykes still stands out. Despite too much bric-a-brac and radio promotions, the blog can be funny, ironic and plain scathing. Best of all are the columns that originate in the Madison weekly Isthmus, where Sykes clearly takes special glee in smiting the liberals.
PRODUCER For many years, Channel 10 producer Bill Werner has overseen high-quality broadcasts of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concerts, Skylight Opera Theatre shows and other arts productions. Musicians marvel at his knowledge of scores and his ability to get the right shot at the right time. This month’s documentary, “The Making of Milwaukee,” is just another example of the versatile Werner’s ability to make magic.
HALL OF FAME
Ferne Caulker: The irresistible force of African-influenced dance, Caulker created a nationally unique dance company that has endured, training countless dancers and musicians while entertaining Milwaukeeans for decades. Caulker has time and again proved the ability of art to change lives and promote cultural understanding.
Sprecher: Opened in 1985, Sprecher was brewing small-batch, artisinal beer long before “micro-breweries” became all the rage. The brewery has done us proud by winning numerous prestigious awards and has perhaps done a few of us in from time to time with a mighty fine selection of craft brews. A worthy scion to our brewing heritage.
Mark Belling: Long before Sykes, there was Belling, the original right wing talk radio guy. He’s cranky and can sink into demagoguery, but he’s philosophically consistent, even if it means attacking a Republican. And he has insights on the news. Love him or hate him, Belling still gets high ratings, and he’s become as much a part of Milwaukee as I-94, which generates most of his listeners.
Kopp’s Custard: The drive-in that’s worth blowing your diet for, the “flavor of the day” sign an exuberant symbol of carbohydrate drunkenness. A common Milwaukee memory: nights spent sitting in the Kopp’s parking lot, bathed in moonlight and butter pecan. Kopp’s has the chameleon’s ability to be modern and classic, not bad for a 56-year-old business with outposts on three sides of town.
Sanford “Sandy” D’Amato: Co-owner of the eponymously named East Side restaurant (plus French siblings Coquette Café and Harlequin Bakery), the James Beard award winner has honed Milwaukee’s palate for good food – slow, seasonal food that’s less about quantity than quality, more about substance than style, though there’s plenty of style. Our closest thing to a celebrity chef (with none of the enfant terrible attitude), D’Amato isn’t just in a class by himself. He is class.
Atomic Records: Always on top of the underground, Atomic Records has been Milwaukee’s window into what is really going on in music for 21 years. While Web sites like iTunes, Myspace and Pitchfork have moved in on some of the East Side record store’s niche, this store remains the undisputed vortex of independent music, hosting amazing in-store performances, helping bring unlikely touring acts to town, supporting local music and, of course, filling its racks with the best of the fringe.
Bob Reitman: Poet, underground newspaper founder, Dylan junkie, Reitman once deconstructed “Abbey Road” on-air to prove why “Paul is dead.” Though best known for this long stint at WKTI-FM, Reitman’s four-decade FM career has been an anagram of call letters. Yet he’s done more than entertain. He has advocated and educated. When new talent emerged, Reitman hyped it. When diagnosed with prostate cancer, Reitman went public to build awareness. He retires in December as King of the Airwaves.
Alterra: Embracing our industrial past yet symbolizing the changing city, Alterra created a brand that is a forward-looking celebration of the city’s rich history. The company opened its first store in 1994 as chain coffee shops began spreading across the country and has flourished against the odds, with a phenomenal product and an impeccable sense of style.
Violent Femmes: It’s a little weird seeing gentrified middle-agers singing first-person about adolescent sexual frustration to a sea of teens who weren’t even born when the songs were written in the early ’80s. But the Femmes’ music has transcended generational borders, and the band’s impact continues to influence the branches of rock music’s family tree, as evidenced by the crowd of It musicians lining the stage when the Milwaukee band rocked Chicago’s Lollapalooza music festival last summer.
El Rey: Milwaukee’s cultural borscht gained a little Latin spice when El Rey opened in 1978. Take a trip to 35th and Burnham on any given Saturday, and you’ll swear you’ve been transported to a vibrant mercado in Mexico City. Street vendors, music, a bustling café, aisles of exotic and enticing ingredients and products – it’s all here. As much a cultural center as a product line and chain of grocery stores, El Rey has made Milwaukee a richer, tastier place to live.