On the Rum

On the Rum

In the name of all things fusion, Wauwatosa is home to a speakeasy-tiki-small-plates joint called Lucky Joe’s.

In skull cup: Mai Tai (the poster drink for tiki) and Painkiller, a fruity and (the rum doesn't lie) strong drink. Photo by Chris Kessler.
In skull cup: Mai Tai (the poster drink for tiki) and Painkiller, a fruity and (the rum doesn’t lie) strong drink. Photo by Chris Kessler.
The intended destination is Lucky Joe’s Alchemy and Eatery on the downtown Wauwatosa angle street of Underwood Avenue. It seems fitting that we must weave through the jolly Tosa Fest crowd, and a ring of faces pressed around a man, stripped to the waist, seated inside the fest’s dunk tank. Lucky Joe’s, its striped awning like a cap pulled down low over the forehead, stands inconspicuously on the west side of the street.

Do not confuse this Joe (situated inside the former digs of One Way Café) with its Walker’s Point brother (set to close Saturday, Oct. 31), a business with the same name but a pseudo-Polynesian theme. However, there is tiki present here. Tiki in Tosa.

Co-owner Lee Guk bit off more than little paper umbrellas. The checkerboard floor, chandeliers and heavy, dark-wood booths are not tiki, but speakeasy-themed – the murky lighting suggests the secret saloon motif. Frank Harroun (whose assorted cooking experiences range from The Noble in Walker’s Point to traveling with Cirque du Soleil) is using the kitchen for more than bar snacks.

Where it gets serious about padding the stomach is with creamy crab “gratin,” pork sliders, coffee-rubbed short ribs and other hearty Harroun menu items that will circle in and out as time goes on.

And coating the belly is crucial considering the potent nature of the cocktail menu (classics, tiki staples and new concoctions). No allotment of heaviness was spared from the crabmeat gratin ($12), a warm cream cheese dip that buoyed the bland crackers. It has the effect of making you crave crab, a feeling satiated by the blue crab deviled eggs topped with caviar ($9). A layer of tart Braeburn apple slaw makes the little braised pork sliders (on tender potato buns) a tasty mess ($10).

As for misfires, the coffee-rubbed short-ribs with mashed potatoes ($11) was dry and deficient in flavor. But the ribs – along with seared foie gras (savory decadence matched with sweetness, a sour cherry marmalade, and bitter orange gelee, but served with lousy bread) – have been relegated to the past, as chef Harroun tries to keep the menu from stagnating. By the way, “stagnant” is not a word I would use to describe Tosa these days.

Photos by Chris Kessler.
Photos by Chris Kessler.

Kindred Spirits

If cocktails could talk, these specialties from Lucky Joe’s would have plenty to say.

Left: A Sconnie tradition, the Old-Fashioned is bitter, sweet, sour and boozy.

Center: The classic Manhattan, made with Rittenhouse Rye.

Right: The gin-based Aviation gets its color from crème de violette liqueur.


Lucky Joe’s Alchemy and Eatery: 1427 Underwood Ave., Tosa Hours: Dinner, Mon-Sat. Brunch, Sun. Prices: $5-$13 Service: Confident, friendly, unhurried.

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‘On the Rum’ appears in the November 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the November issue on newsstands Nov. 2

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.