Welcome to Milwaukee’s Silver City neighborhood. A bustling industrial center in the late 1800s. A blighted and abandoned area by the late 1900s. Now emerging as part of the Menomonee Valley renaissance.
Map of Silver City Points of Interest
According to the Milwaukee Writers Project of 1947, the Silver City neighborhood gained its name when a saloon visitor entered, saw tall piles of silver on the poker tables, and exclaimed, “Why, this must be Silver City!”
Indeed, workers in the southwest Menomonee Valley — many of whom manufactured trains for the massive Milwaukee Road Shops — were paid in silver dollars and spent their wages at businesses along National Avenue.
Industries flourished then died over the course of the 1900s, but at the turn of this century, the City of Milwaukee began planning the redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley. The beautiful Three Bridges Park, which stretches across the northern border of Silver City, exemplifies this two-decade renaissance. And Silver City’s multicultural past lives on in its diverse residents — Hmong, Hispanic, African American and others. Once home to the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Fox, Menominee, Ottawa, Sauk and Winnebago tribes, then European immigrants, Silver City has evolved into a neighborhood in which one can emerge from a Laotian restaurant and witness white and black youth preparing dance moves in a studio across the street, or walk from a sprawling urban park to a busy street corner for Puerto Rican specialties.
Where to Dine
→ VIENTIANE NOODLE SHOP
Where: 3422 W. National Ave.
It may be small, but the flavors are large at Vientiane Noodle Shop, with a menu similar to other Laotian and Thai restaurants in the city: salads and soups, noodles and rice dishes. On a recent tour of Silver City restaurants, my friends and I ordered sticky rice (sweet and al dente), Vientiane meatballs both steamed (an acquired but tasty sponginess) and fried (“Like a birthday treat”), and our favorite, Laotian-style fried beef jerky (crispy and caramelized on the outside, chewy and ginger-marinated on the inside). That’s three appetizers for less than today’s price of an ounce of silver.
→ La ISLA
Where: 3500 W. National Ave.
For a different international experience, try La Isla. This Puerto Rican restaurant calls itself “Casa del Mofongo,” referencing the popular mashed plantain dish. So if the sorullitos de maiz (a sweet and chewy cornbread) and alcapurrias con carne molida (a sweet fritter stuffed with plantains and ground beef) fail to satisfy your appetites, the mofongo con carne will certainly fill you up. A generous portion of roast pork with lettuce and tomato accompanies a heaping ball of mofongo, slightly sweet and chunky. Monica says of the mofongo, adding a traditional Puerto Rican condiment (ketchup): “When I take a bite of everything together, it’s heavenly.”
Where: 3427 W. National Ave.
If you’re looking for something lighter than the hefty mofongo, try the Thai and Laotian Bamboo. Sample the Laotian beef larb, with crisp iceberg lettuce for wrapping the mildly limey meat (and tripe, in case you were wondering, which was salty and chewy), and a large hot pot of Tom Kha soup, almost dessert-like in its sweetness, the tender chicken absorbing the coconut milk and tomatoes, lime and onions. My friend Ana suggests adding two drops of chili oil for an “extra layer.” I concur.
→ THAI BAR-B-QUE
Where: 3417 W. National Ave.
One other restaurant stands out on this stretch of Silver City: the much larger and ornamental Thai Bar-B-Que. Seating about fifty and serving Northern and Southern Thai cuisine, this local favorite boasts the most extensive Asian menu in Silver City, with interesting options like pineapple fried rice, Kang Phed Ped Yank (a roasted duck and eggplant curry), and deep fried fish cakes seasoned with curry paste. For a recent solo lunch, I gave in to my Pad Thai obsession (theirs is one of the best in the city, I think, its tangy tamarind hitting just the right spot) and also tried the lightly fried, succulent Thai Shrimp Cakes with a chunky cucumber, red onion and peanut sweet and sour sauce.
Where to play
→ URBAN ECOLOGY CENTER – MENOMONEE VALLEY
Where: 3700 W. Pierce St.
You can walk off that Pad Thai by heading a few blocks northwest to the Urban Ecology Center‘s Menomonee Valley location. Providing year-round science, leadership, and recreational programs for all ages, UEC-Menomonee Valley’s commitment to creating sustainable communities — both environmentally and culturally — is evident beyond their doors to Three Bridges Park, which serves as their outdoor science classroom. Whether you want to kayak and rock climb in the summer or snowshoe and cross-country ski in the winter, UEC’s membership program has what you need.
→ THREE BRIDGES PARK
Where: Bridge entrances at Valley Passage on 37th Street, at 33rd Court, and at the Mitchell Park Domes.
For the past four years, the Menomonee River Valley renaissance has been growing (literally) in Three Bridges Park, with two miles of the 15.2-mile Hank Aaron State Trail winding through it. Once a wild rice marsh, then a rail yard, the park is not only an idyllic and hilly opportunity to walk, bike or skate while enjoying the scenic natural habitats and horizon views of downtown but also a place to fish, canoe or kayak, and a place to grow food (it contains 42 community gardens). Three Bridges Park’s green belt cuts through the Valley from UEC’s muraled Valley Passage at the west end all the way to the Mitchell Park Conservatory (The Domes) at the east.
→ BICYCLE FED – WISCONSIN
Where: 3618 W. Pierce St.
Two doors east of the UEC, next to sustainability-focused Escuela Verde high school, you will find the headquarters of Bicycle Fed Wisconsin, which works “to make Wisconsin one of the best places in the world to ride a bike.” Leading the country as the largest statewide bicycle organization, Bicycle Fed sponsors an annual Bike to Work Week and the Wisconsin Bike Challenge where participants have logged over 2 million bicycle miles. The non-profit uses grassroots door-to-door education and recruitment as well as aggressive legislative campaigns to help ensure Wisconsin’s road are safe and bicycle-friendly for everyone.
Where to shop
→ OUR DAILY SALT
Where: 3519 W. National Ave.
When you walk into Our Daily Salt, you’ll be bathed in light and magically want to start chopping herbs and proteins. Neat stacks of handcrafted cutting boards, wooden spoons and tongs and other kitchen sundries (many hewn from hard maple, Wisconsin’s state tree) greet you in the front space and a large window looks into the expansive and sunlit workshop in back. Owned by Chef Felisha Wild and her partner Janelle Phalen, the three-year-old, brick-and-mortar retail space/woodshop replaced an abandoned 1920s grocery store but didn’t replace Our Daily Salt’s presence at farmers’ markets and makers’ markets, where they continue to sell their simple but elegant wares throughout the summer and fall.
→ SILVER CITY INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
Where: W. National Ave. between 33rd St. and 35th St.
The 6th annual InterNational Festival takes place on Saturday, September 9, from 12 p.m.-5 p.m. It will celebrate — with food, the arts and music — the diverse cultures of Silver City. Last year it attracted close to 2,000 residents. After you eat your way through this festival — one of the last of Milwaukee’s festival season — don’t forget where to walk it off!