I'm in Milwaukee 2-3 times a year, and most trips includes at least one visit to the stretch of National Avenue that extends a few blocks in both directions from 35th Street. On this stretch, one can find good Vietnamese, Colombian, Thai, Mexican and Laotian eateries, most of which cater to a diverse but largely native clientele. My latest trip was the first on which I brought a camera, so here's a report with some pictures.RICE PALACE
Pan-Asian probably describes this menu best, but the highlights are items which represent the owners' home country, Laos. While there are some Americanized dishes here, there's also a beef larb that's loaded with tripe, and makes no apologies for its funkiness and intense heat. There's also "Hmong Herbal Chicken," a soup that includes bird parts that make most Americans uncomfortable, and there are Ban Vinai Mustard Greens, which come swimming in peppery, very herbal broth.
Tasty as some of the boldly flavored, authentic dishes are at Rice Palace, one of my favorites here is the simple roast chicken, a brined bird that packs terrific chickenny flavor that's enhanced by delicious skin that's been glazed with a slightly sweetened star anise concoction. To serve, the cook hacks the bird into large-bite sized pieces, and plates it with some crisp-cooked green beans and scallions.Roast Chicken at Rice Palace:THAI BAR-B-QUE
I can't find anything justifying the name of this restaurant, but the food's delicious. This is another place where you can find a few Pan-Asian dishes, but most of what's here is Thai at the core, as are a large percentage of the clientele, according to my server. This, she says, is where Thai's eat in Milwaukee. And I can see why, if the northern thai sausage and the larb are representative of the caliber of food coming from Thai Bar-B-Que's kitchen. The larb is heavy on roasted rice, and perhaps a little lighter on fish sauce than other versions. It's got plenty of fresh lime, and great texture that's not drowned by too much thin dressing, as are many versions of larb. Thai Bar-B-Que's Northern Thai Sausage rivals any version of this dish, anywhere. It might be a little lighter on spice than some, but way heavier on sweet, roasted garlic and juicy bits of fat that's slightly rendered from the heat applied before serving. The sausage comes to the table piping hot.Larb at Thai Bar-B-Que:Northern Thai Sausage at Thai Bar-B-Que:Laotian Beer at Thai Bar-B-Que:MEKATO
LTHers know about Chicago's Mekato, the GNR award winning Colombian bakery. The Mekato folks in Milwaukee make some of the same delicious guava, cheese and natilla pastries, but here the place is less bakery and more full-service restaurant. It's an excellent choice for inexpensive empanadas and tasty steaks grilled over live coals.Mekato, Milwaukee:
There are lots of other places on this stretch of National Avenue, including this interesting place that I'll have to try on my next visit.Nacho Usual:
Unfortunately, in what appears to be a growingly depressed neighborhood, there are also a large number of shuttered storefronts, some of which were interesting places that the people of Milwaukee should be sad to lose.Viet Nam, now closed:
The multi-ethnic character of National Avenue is distinctive, as is the food coming from many of these relatively humble storefronts. It's worth the short trip from downtown or wherever Milwaukee visitors might find themselves. I hope the locals recognize and support the area enough for the character and flavor to survive (but not so much that it gets overly watered down).
Rice Palace Asian Cuisine
3730 West National Avenue
Thai Bar-B-Que Restaurant
3417 West National Avenue
Mekato's Bakery & Cafe
3500 W. National Ave
...defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions." Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters
by CS LewisFuckerberg on Food