The mind behind La Merenda converts an old Walker's Point firehouse into a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
It’s a little “game” called Locate as Many Pieces of Firehouse Memorabilia Behind the Bar as You Can. “Rubber boots.” Check. “Very old oxygen mask.” Up there, high on a shelf above the bloody mary fixings. “Kid’s metal toy fire truck.” On an even higher shelf. “Fire hose.” Attached to the lower front side of the bar. And the list of artifacts goes on…
Engine Company No. 3 – the two-floor, refurbished, onetime firehouse in Walker’s Point – takes its setting quite seriously as a mecca for collectors of fire station gear. More importantly, it takes breakfast seriously. Perhaps even more so, now four months into its life. The international dishes (which will change, depending on the availability of the ingredients) are the marrow of the menu. One morning, a server offers help with what to order. You can get an omelet anytime, he reminds me. But “you might not see this [the plantain dish with cilantro rice, horto beans, fried egg] on the menu again.” That puts things in perspective.
That’s not to say it’s not worth coming in for an omelet. They have veggie and meat versions, plus eggs cooked any style. But when the owner’s other place is the global small-plates destination La Merenda, you might gravitate to something more exotic.
There’s been no downtime for Peter Sandroni. The opening of his new place came on the heels of what he says was La Merenda’s busiest summer. He continued to answer the pull of the kitchen at his firstborn, three blocks east of his second. So if things were gnarly in the beginning of Engine Company’s life, Sandroni admits he’s a control freak, but he can’t control everything.
Engine Company is settling in. With Sandroni cooking three days a week (as of November), the kitchen is toeing the line, keeping order when the wait is crazy – an hour-plus on the weekends. La Merenda established relationships with Wisconsin farms. The same goes for Engine Company, whose menu bacon and uses eggs from Jeff-Leen and Three Brothers farms, and pork (for house-smoked sausage) from Maple Creek Farms. The weekend menu is a little thicker in the midsection, and included (in the fall of 2014) homemade cinnamon rolls ($4.50 each) and s’mores pancakes with chocolate ganache and marshmallow fluff ($8). They brought the dining room’s aroma level up – way up. (Milwaukee’s Troubadour Bakery supplies the croissants, brioche and breads served here.)
The quiche lorraine ($10) and salmon madame ($12) are Francophile contributions from Gil Petrovic, an Engine Company cook whose kitchen jumping has landed him at Coquette Cafe and Le Rêve Patisserie & Café. The madame is particularly fine – an open-face cured salmon sandwich on sourdough. Briny fish is topped with mornay sauce (a cheesy béchamel) and a fried egg. In the case of the round, mini quiche, the filling is a bit gelatin-like for my taste, but the candied bacon offers a chewy distraction.
The plantain creation – “patacon con huevo” is how it reads on the menu – is a savory, salty South American punch. Layer one is the firm fried plantains, layer two is everything else – the herby green rice, a chopped tomato-and-onion Colombian sauce called hogao, a fried egg and starchy horto beans ($13).
I don’t know how to say “Urtain” ($15) – a dish the menu attributes to the Basque region, bordering France and Spain – but I know how to eat it. It’s steak frites on protein overdrive. A hunk of tender sirloin accompanies a pile of thick truffle fries, two Spanish-style fried eggs, and a link of Tia Paquita chorizo. Better yet is a pile of spaghetti squash masquerading as pasta carbonara – creamy as all get out and topped with the obligatory fried egg ($11).
Don’t think that the menu isn’t much for sweets. You can’t have a breakfast place without pancakes and French toast. Here, you can commit to a full order ($8.50-$9.50 each) or get one pancake or French toast slice à la carte ($5-$6) – ideal for everyone at the table to fight over. The saucer-size blueberry pancakes are soused up with a berry compote; the amaretto French toast, with a cinnamon-vanilla whipped cream.
More plates with the boundary-extending La Merenda spirit are on their way. One is a Filipino dish featuring longanisa sausage (similar to chorizo) and vegetable fried rice capped with a fried egg. Another is Chinese scrambled eggs cooked up in a wok with soy sauce and tomatoes.
A few things may move you if your appetite is communicating lunch. The beef Milanesa sandwich ($13) with avocado, jalapeno jam and cumin-lime mayo is tops on my list. Greens are mixed in tight little packages – two versions were available on my visits. Pickled hard-boiled eggs, roasted chicken and candied bacon make the ECN3 salad toot its horn ($9).
Speaking of horn-tooting, the brick walls hold more mementos from Milwaukee’s fire-fighting history – old photos and badges, and best of all, a very obsolete looking life-safety net.
When we talked in November 2014, Sandroni was considering a spot to put a salvaged fire pole. Another relic that cements the theme. And no, the pole will not be set up for entertainment like La Perla’s mechanical chile pepper.
Engine Company No. 3
217 W. National Ave., 414-226-5695.
Hours: B and L Tues-Fri 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; brunch Sat-Sun 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Prices: Eggs, sandwiches, sweet fare, salads $4-$15.
Service: A mix of outgoing, enthusiastic morning people.
Dress: Personal preference.
Credit cards: M V A DS.
Handicap access: Yes
Reservations: Accepted on weekends with at least 24 hours’ notice.