Milwaukee Neighborhood Guide: Town of Lake

Warm up with a pour over or pho. Feast with chopsticks or your fingers. And get ready to meet some of the friendliest people in town. The Town of Lake, that is.

Well, it’s not really a town anymore. The Town of Lake neighborhood is now sandwiched between the Tippecanoe neighborhood, Mitchell International and the city of St. Francis, one of many neighborhoods in the 13th aldermanic district, otherwise known as The Garden District.

In 1838, the county divided into the Town of Milwaukee (north of Greenfield Ave.) and the Town of Lake (south of Greenfield Ave.), but over the next 16 years, a series of villaging, incorporating and annexing slowly chopped away at Lake. Today, Howell and Layton Avenues form an upside-down “T” of small shops, strip malls and sports bars. Among them, you’ll find some interesting (and tasty) destinations.

Map of Town of Lake destinations

→ Iron Grate BBQ

At Iron Grate BBQ, as one of the servers suggested, people here tend to visit with each other, rather than keep to themselves. Perhaps it’s because everyone’s ogling each other’s platters of smoked meats. Perhaps it’s because everyone is licking their fingers and piling up napkins. Ribs are just fun.

I tried the Milwaukee Ribs, which are thicker cut, with the pork belly attached to them for better caramelization, spiced with their homemade Pony Boy Spice rub — sweet, almost dilly. The pound of ribs was served atop two slices of Texas toast and sprinkled with sweet homemade pickles

Owner and chef Aaron Patin moved Iron Grate to this new location in August 2017 after getting his start in the same building that still houses Hawthorne Coffee Roasters, only a few blocks away. He has transformed a former Boy Blue ice cream stand into a modern, surprisingly chic dining environment. Exposed light bulbs drape like tentacles from the ceiling and pop off the walls on playful, twisting conduits. Greens and greys soothe and luscious curtains belie the fact that there’s meat smoking for hours out back. Patrons sit at tables crafted from a lightning-struck tree on an Illinois farm, the same place where Iron Grate built their three wood smokers, lovingly named Edna, Roxanne and Big Boss Lady.

Where: 4125 S. Howell Ave.

Photo by Dominic Inouye

→ Hawthorne Coffee Roasters

The advantage of a slow pour-over coffee is that you can get things done while you wait — or you can chat with the friendly barista. As is the case at Hawthorne Coffee Roasters, that barista is the talented co-owner Kendra Hawthorne who, with her husband Steve, filled a need in the Town of Lake for a neighborhood coffee shop. Steve and Kendra married his roasting/buying and her barista/coffee art expertise, setting out to offer people bare-bones coffee done right, which means, according to Kendra, “hanging out with and really caring about people.”

Where: 4177 S. Howell Ave.

→ Pho Hai Tuyet I

Photo by Dominic Inouye

As I let my rare beef pho cook in the pungent broth of star anise, cinnamon, coriander and other spices, Pho Hai Tuyet II owner Oanh Vu informed me that while the Vietnamese food lovers continue to sing the praises of Pho Hai Tuyet’s pho and the banh mi sandwich, sometimes she thinks the restaurant’s location deters customers who are whizzing by on Layton Avenue. If that’s the case, I suggest slowing down as you’re heading west on Layton and pull into Pho Hai Tuyet. Don’t let the outdated exterior (or the outdated interior, either) trick you into thinking that Oanh Vu is not cooking and serving up excellent food.

When I say that owner Oanh Vu is both cooking and serving, I mean just that. Apparently, Vu is running the entire show: “I used to have cooks, but each one would change the recipes so that one customer’s food tasted like this and another like that. There wasn’t consistency, so I started doing it all.” She adds, though: “If I’m lazy, I’ll call my son.”

Where: 204 W. Layton Ave.

Photo by Dominic Inouye

 → Koi Japanese Cuisine

At the recommendation of my friendly and attentive server, I tried the popular Godzilla deep fried roll ($9.25): spicy salmon and white fish wrapped in seaweed, dipped in tempura, then deep fried. I also tried the maguro (tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi, which came out on a bed of those impossibly thin, curly carrots I’ve loved since childhood. The sashimi each had clean, distinct flavors. The roll had a generous ten pieces and was deliciously crispy on the outside; on the inside, the warm flavors melded perfectly for a cold winter day.

Koi Japanese Cuisine is located at the far end of a strip mall. Clean and inviting, it features the requisite neko (good luck cats), noren curtains and room dividers featuring temples and modern watercolors, but adds striking, lacquered black and red kanji characters on the walls, as well as the namesake fish.

Where: 552 W. Layton Ave.

Photo by Dominic Inouye