People often ask me, “I’m sure you get this a lot but… what’s your favorite restaurant dish to eat right now?” I like to have a few suggestions in my back pocket at all times for just that reason. As dining critic for Milwaukee Magazine, trying new things and experimenting when I dine is all part of the job. But on a personal level, there are times I crave the comfort of a particular dish and want to return and recreate that memorable experience by ordering the same meal again. My 21 must-eats contain a few of my creature comforts woven into more recent finds. We are fortunate to have a thriving scene where picking favorites is relatively easy.
1) Linguini alla Carbonara
The tales of how this egg-, bacon- and cheese-based pasta came to be are quite colorful. One theory is its name refers to “coal worker’s style” – eaten by coal workers and covered in coarse-ground pepper that looks like pieces of coal. Goodkind’s chefs nail it – balancing the creamy egg mixture and pasta, tossing in fried pancetta and romano cheese and sprinkling it with cracked pepper. (2457 S. Wentworth Ave., goodkindbayview.com)
2) 16-ounce Bone-in Filet
The wet-aged 16-ounce bone-in filet is juicy, the seasoned crust leading to more pronounced beef flavor inside. Your wallet will take a beating, and trust me, it’s hard to stomach the thought of a $57 a la carte steak, but these are top tier. (718 N. Milwaukee St., carnevor.com)
Chef Dane Baldwin’s cooking background — from Carnevor to Harbor House — keeps the menu at his own place, small-plates-focused The Diplomat, evolving and approachable for newbies, a discovery zone for diners who crave change. Since the joint’s inception in summer 2017, Baldwin has offered a wonderful preparation of tender, flaky trout. The beauty of it is it pulls this delicate, rich fish away from typical amandine and brown butter preparations. In summer, the chef matched the fillet with bright, pickly dilly beans, sliced radish, a daub of creamy red pepper romesco sauce and a cold tuna-anchovy sauce or tonnato. By winter, the prep was richer but equally flavorful — pickled mustard seeds with Brussels sprouts and sharp-sweet dill cream (815 E. Brady St., thediplomatmke.com).
4) Old Fashioned
This cocktail combines Woodford Reserve bourbon, Averna amaro, Angostura bitters, orange zest and Milwaukee-roasted Hawthorne coffee. (2423 N. Murray Ave. jazzestate.com)
5) Stuffed Chicken Wings
American-style chicken wings focus on sauces. Thai-style wings are about the filling. The wings are delicately deboned, stuffed with minced chicken; thin cellophane noodles; and lots of cilantro. They have a crisp, nicely charred skin and are plump with stuffing. Kim’s Thai Restaurant (938 W. Layton Ave., kimsthairestaurant.com) takes the time to perfect them, so expect a bit of a wait. They’re worth it! Served with a spicy dipping sauce, too.
6) Bistec Taco
Sit at a table pushed up against the old wooden bar at Guadalajara (901 S. 10th St., 414-647-2266). It’s old Milwaukee (the building dates to 1890) meets the modern wave of immigration. The steak is lean, on the juicy side, and with the spread of toppings, the tacos look like little queso-capped mountain peaks. Don’t forget the house pico de gallo! This boffo fresh salsa of cabbage, radish and bell peppers offers that all-important crunch.
7) Very Crunchy Roll
The sushi chefs at Hungry Sumo Sushi Bar (2663 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., hungrysumosushibar.com) take “crunchy” to delicious heights with the aptly named Very Crunchy Roll. Some creatively dressed sushi rolls go overboard on sauces. The emphasis is on putting your teeth scrumptiously to work! The roll – filled with crab, tempura shrimp, cream cheese and rice and rolled in a seaweed wrapper – is deep-fried and topped with crispy shallots and wasabi tobiko. The creaminess comes from drizzled garlic mayo and sweet unagi (eel) sauce.
8) New York Strip Steak
Cut from the short loin, the NY strip benefits from its source – a little-used steer muscle known as the longissimus. The cut is therefore marbled and quite tender. Milwaukee ChopHouse (Hilton Milwaukee, 509 W. Wisconsin Ave., chophouse411.com) gets its steaks from Illinois-based Meats by Linz. Order it grilled medium-rare and don’t forget the béarnaise!
9) Fabulous Newcomer
The cooking prowess of two chefs named Dan (Van Rite and Jacobs) and their take on Chinese cuisine propelled the Third Ward’s DanDan to the crown (360 E. Erie St., dandanmke.com). The duo also has EsterEv, an intimate restaurant that serves its own inventive, 10-course menu on Friday and Saturday nights only. And with pastry chef Jaceleen Latin-Kasper, they are partners in Batches Bakery (401 E. Erie St.).
10) House-Made Spaghetti with Gulf Shrimp
Stella Van Buren takes on Italian food and, in the case of the house-made spaghetti with gulf shrimp, the restaurant does it really well. The al dente pasta is tossed in an heirloom tomato-basil sauce and dotted with firm but not tough gulf shrimp. There’s just the right amount of garlic and red pepper oil to add interest without too much heat. (Westin Hotel, 550 N. Van Buren St., stellvanburen.com)
11) Enchiladas Verde
The Spanish word for “delicious” is what co-owner Francisco Sanchez chose for his Sabrosa Cafe & Gallery (3216 S. Howell Ave., sabrosa.cafe), and it couldn’t be more apt. He’s shooting for delicious, hearty, colorful morning and mid-day meals, and a thread of Mexican influence. Such as the wonderful enchiladas verdes, layers of chicken, spinach and mozzarella served with a smooth, nutty roasted poblano peanut sauce and queso fresco.
12) Happiest Hour
Maxie’s (6732 W. Fairview Ave., maxies.com) weaves tasty HH foods, $1 oysters and heady drinks into number-one status. Swingin’ Door Exchange (219 E. Michigan St., swingindoorexchange.com) moved up from third place last year, and Hotel Madrid (600 S. Sixth St., hotelmadridmke.com) comes in a strong third.
13) Al Pastor Taco
Traffic moves at an antelope’s pace on National Avenue, so it’s easy to unknowingly whiz by El Comedor (1039 W. National Ave., 551 W. Mitchell St., elcomedormke.com). Advice: Keep your eyes peeled for a corner building with a bright-red threshold, then head inside and place your order immediately for crispy, succulent shreds of pork (a.k.a., al pastor). The meat is sweetened with tiny chunks of pineapple. Ask for cilantro and onion on top, and be liberal with the fresh lime! Look for El Comedor’s taco truck, too.
14) Cornbread Waffles With Memphis-Style Fried Chicken
The cornbread waffle with Memphis fried chicken ($15) at the stylish Sweet Diner (239 E. Chicago St., sweetdiner.com) is an unexpected gem – the waffle is tender, the crispy breaded chicken is unexpectedly succulent. I recommend drizzling it with maple syrup and a little vinegar-based BBQ sauce. The pockets catch the syrup and the sauce makes dark-red beads across the crunchy straw-colored waffle.
15) Dine Outdoors
When it comes to patios, elevation seems to augment the experience. Perhaps that’s why readers gave Cafe Benelux (346 N. Broadway, cafebenelux.com) top honors. The U-shaped space offers instant al fresco calm. Another Third Ward rooftop, The Outsider at the Kimpton Journeyman Hotel (310 E. Chicago St., ninth floor, journeymanhotel.com), came in third place, while Barnacle Bud’s (1955 S. Hilbert St., barnacle-buds.com) took second.
The East Side’s Strange Town (2101 N. Prospect Ave., strangetownmke.com) is playing a key role in the growing local plant-based movement. Owners Andy Noble and Mia LeTendre use the “limitations” of a small, modestly equipped kitchen to their advantage. Vegetable broth is the base in the congee – an Asian savory porridge. Strange Town ups the taste with Thai spices, roasted mushrooms, fermented red cabbage, crispy shallot and collards.
17) New York Sour
Supper [Editor’s Note: Now closed]
What happens when a whiskey sour fools around with red wine? It becomes a New York Sour. The tart lemon and spicy-sour Old Forester bourbon are softened by simple syrup and fruity red wine, “floating” at the top. Mix it up with the straw to fully distribute the wine. Order it at Supper (1962 N. Prospect Ave., supper.restaurant)
18) Root Vegetable Hash with Poached Eggs
Bucking the tradition of hash as diced, sautéed meat and potatoes, chef Jonna Froelich of 2894 On Main (2894 Main St., East Troy, 2894onmain.com) gives the old-school breakfast toss-up a colorful, extra-tasty lift with roasted root vegetables and Brussels sprouts, along with roasted heirloom tomatoes all folded into a bright, herby arugula pine nut pesto. On top: a couple of oozy poached eggs, fresh pea shoots and creamy avocado.
19) All-Around Experience
Whether it’s the reliable menu of classics (steak frites to Dover sole a la meuniere) or the warm French country ambiance, diners continue to love up 23-year-old Lake Park Bistro (3133 E. Newberry Blvd., lakeparkbistro.com), whose menu is overseen by James Beard Award-winning chef Adam Siegel. It has also become known for special events like the black truffle dinner held each January.
20) Worth a Drive
While there are plenty of restaurants to wow you in Milwaukee, sometimes your palate wants a change of pace. When our readers venture beyond city limits, their 1 is farm-driven L’Etoile, run by James Beard Award-winning chef Tory Miller (1 S. Pinckney St., Madison, letoile-restaurant.com).
21) Farm-Roasted Chicken
The statement maker of Birch + Butcher’s evolving menu is the whole farm-roasted chicken, hot, charred and flavorful in its cooking vessel (a clay pot). It’s the perfect shareable hearth dish and shows the oak-fired cooking source in this modern space at its best. (459 E. Pleasant St., birchandbutcher.com).