BroYo – 1617 W. Wells St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open every day from 7am until just past lunchtime.

Milwaukee has a few distinct university neighborhoods, and I like wandering through those during times when school is in session to get that electric vibe of optimism, curiosity, and early morning vomit encrusted hangovers. I spend more time in the UWM Union than a creepy old guy should, but I rarely make it over to Marquette, and that campus is mostly a mystery to me, so on a recent weekday morning I walked over looking for breakfast that wasn't a Starbucks pastry or fast-food breakfast sandwich. I came upon a little storefront restaurant called “BroYo” which apparently used to be called The Broken Yolk, but on one of their signs the “ken” and “lk” are crossed out to clearly illustrate the evolution of the name. I didn't look into the history of this place, nor am I willing, at this time, to perform an online archaeological dig, but I'm guessing it could be interesting.

It seems that there are a lot breakfast burritos eaten here, and looking at the other customer's plates, they really load you up. I went with the basic, two eggs over easy and hash-browns, and asked without much hope if they offered gluten-free toast. To my surprise they did! Not bad, either, and no extra charge. The portion of potatoes was massive (as portions of potatoes at breakfast should be) (and they were good hash-browns, too) and it all came to about $5—so this is truly an affordable breakfast—harder and harder to come by in the Milwaukee area. You order at a counter, which I'm not crazy about, and the silverware is plastic, but at least the plates are washable. It's just a small room with tables, but happily pretty bustling with people on this morning. The worst thing was a TV up in one corner, which was on, so I tried my ploy of sitting directly under the TV so I wouldn't have to see it. Unfortunately, the volume was high enough to not be able to ignore it. Also, since everyone else there was watching it, I felt like I was about to hold a press conference. It seemed like one of the guys there, eating alone, controlled the remote, and mercifully changed the channels from time to time—so that was kind of charming in a one-flew-over-the-cuckoo's-nest way.

Richard Skiller 2.3.18

The Ruckus – 4144 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood, Wisconsin

Weekdays 4pm – 9pm, Sat. 11am – 9pm, Sun. 11am – 8pm.

The Ruckus is a place I could have passed by for years without ever even thinking of entering, just because it's next to Benji's, in Shorewood, and if I'm that close to Benji's, and hungry, why not go to Benji's, as it's one of those places you could make your home away from home. The Ruckus has a lot more not going for it, like the dumb name (which is not that bad for a hamburger place—I've heard worse—on the bottom of my list is “5 Napkin Burger.”) The cartoon font on the sign doesn't help, either. What got me to enter, finally, was hearing they had gluten-free buns. Which isn't that unusual for hamburger places, anymore, but still, that's essential. A hamburger on a bun, is—well, if it's not your thing, then it's garbage—but if it is your thing, you recognize it as one of the world's great food inventions, like pizza, tacos, and haggis. A hamburger alone on a plate, however, is dog-food. You'd be better off eating it on the floor.

Once inside, however, I was reminded again how a place that can seem so foreboding and alienating from the outside, upon entering can feel friendly and inviting—and it's often because of the warmth and attitude of the human beings working there. It's almost comical to realize how much money restaurant owners will pay a design firm to create a space that feels like a dystopian nightmare, and how little they pay the most important piece of the puzzle, the day to day employees. On this day it was young guys working there—maybe high school age, or college students—but anyway, they seemed to take everything seriously and also seemed to be having somewhat of a good time—so you didn't feel like they were just suffering through the experience. Even if that's just an act, it makes the customer feel good. I hope they get paid decently.

I have eaten so few hamburgers overs the years, I somehow missed the transition from them being called “hamburgers” to being called “burgers.” I cannot tolerate many food abbreviations—among them: “Slice, app, fries, and burger.” Just so you know. The menu here has a large variety of hamburger variations, including chicken ones—which, wouldn't that be a chicken sandwich? I don't know—I just got a “classic” one, purportedly “Angus”—which—I don't know Black Angus from Spotted Dick. Though it's interesting that a lot of beef varieties share names with guys in bands. The décor here is a bit confusing—it's kind of an uncomfortable jumble between that 1990s industrial thing, and the Fifties thing, and the Starbucks thing, and the job break-room, high school cafeteria, or camp commissary. I mean, it's like none of those things but I thought of them all. Maybe my synapses were popping because of the nitrogen infused coffee, which I liked, as it tasted like a non-sweet coffee soda, and was a keen caffeine delivery device. By the way, I don't see it on their online menu now, so they maybe have discontinued it for health reasons, or because (as I found myself, after drinking it, telling my life story to all who would listen) it makes old guys too talkative.

Richard Skiller 2.1.18


Simple Cafe – 2124 N. Farwell, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Opens 6am on weekdays, 7 on Saturday, 8 on Sunday. Closes at 3pm every day.

I'm not sure how long Simple Cafe has been open now, but I feel like I ate there a few years back when visiting Milwaukee, and then a year after that; what I remember is mixed feelings; on one hand the food is always delicious, as well as fresh and healthy. But something always rubbed me the wrong way. The fact that it's called “Simple” and the the food is usually quite involved and inventive—that's something that should delight me, not bug me. Maybe it's that they change their menu often enough that it seems to be never the same as the last time. Or the look of the place is that it's perpetually design-y, like a place that just opened with bright colors and inventive HVAC integration, etc.—but it didn't just open, and just feels that way. But after coming here, several times over the years, and then a few times recently, I think it has finally grown on me and has become a favorite.

I'm not going to try to encapsulate the menu or even describe what I've eaten, but I always get some kind of breakfast variation, and it's often some version of a breakfast taco, and they're always good. A couple visits ago I had something that was so good, though, that I vowed to get it the next time, but I didn't write down what it was, and the next time it wasn't on the menu. A little frustrating, but maybe in a way, that's a very cool thing. I'm happy that Simple Cafe is always busy, and I hope it says open and keeps doing what they do well. This is your place for early breakfast if you must dine early, too, as it opens at 6am on weekdays (a little later on weekends). If you don't get up until 3pm, you will never eat here. Look, what I might do is, the next time I eat here I'll write down what I eat, and then put a little addendum on this review. And maybe the time after that, too. I know that's out of the ordinary, but I'm driving the bus here. My name is:

Richard Skiller 1.17.18

Shah Jee's – 770 N. Jefferson St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open 11am to 2:30pm, weekdays only.

The first time I was aware of Shah Jee's was when, visiting Milwaukee, I was looking for lunch downtown at noon, and I noticed all these people walking into this storefront space under a massive parking garage (for some reason, about half of downtown Milwaukee is parking garages and surface lots, as if every person drives two cars to work each day). Anyway, I thought, what's going on here?—it must be either something free or something good. So I joined them, filing into a basement, down a bizarre series of staircases that look a little like you're in a 1970s dystopian sci-fi movie. Then I saw the line for a guy serving food from a hot table, and I thought, what the hell, must be super cheap, but I'm not waiting in line for an hour. So it wasn't until sometime later that I actually went to Shah Jee's for food and found out it wasn't just inexpensive, it was an interesting selection of Pakistani food, delicious in a way that makes you think about it at unexpected times and crave it in way unusual for ordinary lunch.

Maybe this is just what good food does, take over your brain. There's a menu board, but I think it's pretty much the same every day, with dishes that include chicken masala, aalu palak, saag paneer, chana masala, daal masoor, all served with basmati rice. It's similar to Indian food, but different—I mean, Indian food is all different from other Indian food—but anyway—well, it's almost not fair—how can anything be more delicious than Indian food? I've been back a few times, and I normally just get whatever is the special that day. Eventually, I might dissect the menu more closely, but in the meantime I have to mention the dining room, which is a random assortment of tables and chairs in this basement that lacks warmth warmth and nicety, but isn't even weird enough to be interesting. All in all, Shah Jee's might have—of any restaurant in town—the biggest gap between food, on the high side, and décor, on the low—and I know it's not a contest, but if it was, food wins.

Richard Skiller 1.11.18

Las 7 Estrellas – 112 E. Dakota St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open every day at 10am for lunch and dinner

One of the immense pleasures of eating at a restaurant that you sincerely like is that it gives you carte blanche to write a brief review and get out (of the review) with the promise of returning to write a more thorough review once you've been able to sample more of the menu. That way you don't feel like you have to write the last word in your allotted word count limit, and also your opinion might change over time (and if the restaurant is very new, the restaurant might well change). I'm not sure when Las 7 Estrellas opened, but I'm guessing late summer. It's a modest place in a strip mall in Bay View, next to the Target—not the place you'd notice walking, since it's not on a walking street, but you might drive by countless times and ignore since it's in a little strip mall next to a tobacco store. Since I'm still on the Airbnb review circuit, there is no need for me, yet, to hit a Target for all those toaster and drain-stopper essentials, but if you are shopping at Target and inevitably get hungry, instead of eating a microwave sandwich at a never cleaned table, head on over here, fool! It doesn't look like much until you get inside, then it feels homey. The menu is exciting, pretty extensive, a lot to try out.

I visited with Ray Speen, who was trying to get back into writing Mexican food reviews for his neglected taco blog. It seems he's been busy with a lot of dubious money-making schemes like medical studies in Madison, and selling his DNA to shadow governments (so he says) who are attempting to clone an army of super-humans and had neglected to include a mellow gene. For Speen it was still breakfast-time, and he inhaled a substantial plate of Huevos Con Chorizo, which he said was pretty standard but excellent. Both of us remarked on the quality of the refried beans, which were tasty without being cooked the hell out of. I had a plate of three tacos with rice and beans, and at under $10, is as good a deal as you'll get around here. The deluxe tacos go for more, but my advice is get the more basic ones, with onion, cilantro, and lime (cheaper, and infinitely better than heaping on the dairy crap). I tried chorizo and potato, very tasty, and al pastor, even tastier and moister, and beef head—which like tongue, is not totally my thing—but when you can mix and match tacos, what better time to try something new, huh? I kind of wish they'd call this cabeza, since I'm one of those meat eaters in constant denial, and when you say “head”—that's a little too literal. But anyway, I'll be back here with an entirely refurbished appetite.

Richard Skiller 12.22.17

Peking House – 782 N. Jefferson St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open 7 Days, past 9pm / Open 11am for lunch on weekdays

Chinese food and a gluten-free diet go together like two things that just do not go together. If you can find a place that is GF friendly, as indicated on their menu, or a wait-person you can communicate well with, you can make it work, but otherwise you have to order somewhat conservatively. It's obvious if something is breaded or not, if it's rice noodles or noodles made with wheat, but the tricky thing is soy sauce. Most of the world's soy sauce is made with wheat as its major ingredient. Some is not. So you've got to know what's in the kitchen or just order a dish that uses no soy sauce, which really limits you. If this was the only restaurant in town, I'd get to know them, and hope for a successful marriage. I'd love to visit here with a Chinese friend (I have no friends), or if I was Jonathan Gold. I am not, however, him—I'm not even Long John Silver.

I stopped at Peking House on an off night—there were only a few diners besides myself, possibly not the usual employees—and it's the kind of big place that feels weird when it's empty. Sports were on the large TVs, and the empty lunch buffet sat coldly off to one side (never a good look; the problem with lunch buffets is when they're not in service they really give a melancholy air to a room). I ordered a chicken, vegetables, with white sauce dish. As mundane and kind of boring as this is, I'm always kind of amazed how American Chinese food tastes exactly like what it is, and nothing else. I find it delicious, and also there is a nostalgic appeal. As I'm a cheapie, I wish it was cheaper, but this is average priced for a Chinese restaurant, and to be expected, as this is a prime downtown Milwaukee location, within blocks of the best hotels. As usual, there was enough food for two, so I had some to take home, and as usual it lost its appeal after the corn starch coagulated. The other thing that kind of bummed me out was that they charged me for the hot tea, which many places do not. It's often almost automatic—hot tea, no extra charge, like the fortune cooky. It was a pretty good pot of tea, though.

When I am unable to be excited about food, I hope a place can buoy my spirits, but this restaurant falls uncomfortably between the upscale and the kind of funky and weird, and not in a good way. Like I said, it was an off night, and not all its fault. Two groups of diners who arrived, as I was finishing, seemed to be Chinese, which is a good sign, as far as cuisine goes, and looking over the menu, I'd say that it's almost insanely ambitious, or else a really good place—if you're dietarily able, and curiously adventurous—to go very deep. To end on a positive note, there over a hundred dishes you might want to check out, including several preparations of rabbit, duck, and whole fish. Also, frog. Pig ear and pig intestines. Also, lamb, and lots of fish, octopus, shrimp, and squid. A big vegetable section, including lotus root and bitter melon. I'm looking at a take-out menu, now, which has the Americanized side, and the much more extensive “House Special” side for Chinese diners and serious food explorers, so that may well be you.

Richard Skiller 12.20.17

Fuel Cafe Walker's Point – 630 S. 5th St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open 7am weekdays / 8am weekends

The Fuel Cafe (on Center Street) is one of the first coffee shops I remember from my earliest visits to Milwaukee, in the 1990s. This relatively new version in Milwaukee's most up-and-coming (whether that's true and/or desirable is debatable) neighborhood, Walker's Point, barely resembles the Riverwest version, as far as clientele, menu, and decor—except for the motorcycle stuff. If you're really into motorcycles, this is your place, but even if you're not, it's fun to see a theme so excessively executed, with MC decor (which would be: motorcycles) and MC movies and races on the big screen TVs (I'm never crazy about the big-screen TVs, but it's much nicer to have a theme than a half-assed whatever playing on them). I had a few MC comic books when I was young, and they really fascinated me; I should dig them up, because I remember that they were pretty detailed, as in discussing the different manufacturers and different kinds of racing. We built trails through the woods behind my neighborhood growing up, a some of my friends had motorcycles (I didn't) and even raced motocross pretty seriously.

What I'm serious about is breakfast, and on their website I spotted a sentence that is music to my ears: “Breakfast served all day.” The various times and menus are too complicated for me to go into here (their website is good), as this location is both a cafe/coffee shop in front, and a restaurant/bar in back. I'm not sure if they're renting rooms, but it might not be a bad idea. On a brunch Sunday, I spotted something very interesting: Johnny Cakes. The menu clearly indicates gluten-free items, and the employees actually know what that means (you'd think everyone would by now, but not always). Johnny Cakes are one of the old, old traditional American foods, as they are corn based. Most recipes you see include flour as well (it's just easier to make everything with flour) but these are either always GF or can be made that way. As a Celiac, you probably always want to make it clear that the kitchen knows it's a dire concern. This breakfast, with a combination of the slightly sweet corn cakes, and the too-healthy kale, poached eggs (my favorite egg preparation) and the Mexican flavored condiments—it was like the perfect breakfast for me. Plus, I just love the name. Everyone knows someone named “Johnny Cakes,” right? Usually a guy with one foot in some criminal activity, but someone who lives by some kind of code (even if it makes sense only to him)—so you can depend on him—if only to screw up—but to do it in some semi-predictable but always colorful way.

Richard Skiller 12.5.17

Cafe at the Pfister – 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open every day at 6am.

When you're sitting in the Pfister Cafe (the official name is “Cafe at the Pfister”), you don't feel like you're anywhere else but a hotel restaurant. (I'm so tired of places putting the word “cafe” first, rather than last, where it belongs, that I'm going to put my foot down right now and refuse to do it, and call the place by the unpretentious version.) Not that there is anything wrong with hotel restaurants, in fact I love them—they have a certain romance all their own—but also a certain sadness and squalor. (I mean, what if I called myself “Skiller, whose first name is Dick?”) I used to eat here every time I was in town on someone else's dime, staying at a $400 a night haunted room, and breakfast at the cafe. And there was always something about this place that felt just a little off—I don't know—maybe it was/is me—but I always had the impression there was a little bit of drinking going on behind the scenes, as in “where's all that cooking sherry go when we never cook anything with sherry?”

And this is not unlike the feeling you'll find at the practical yet romantic expensive hotel cafes throughout the United States, if not the world. There are always some personalities that linger, or have become bigger than the place itself. I'm not sure this isn't due to something like the presence of union labor in some hotels, and thus their restaurants, so certain employees stay around a lot longer than they normally would for a diner. You get a little of that Post Office/Amtrak vibe. Also, it always feels a little like—as someone not staying at the hotel—you're putting something over on them, eating at the hotel restaurant, which, of course, you're not at all. A lot of people probably think the overpriced rooms translate to overpriced breakfasts, but the Pfister Cafe, while not cheap, isn't really any more expensive than anywhere else serving a half-decent breakfast.

I had two eggs and sausage links and hash-browns which tasted just like those three things from Tim Hortons to Waffle House, from Fells Point Diner to Norms. I ordered gluten-free toast, since it was available, and so I could report on that side of things. At least they didn't charge some absurd amount extra for the g-f, but they did give me one piece of toast. Also, not enough potatoes. But one piece of toast, it's almost a “fuck you.” But why? A little ramekin with enough butter to take some back up to the room, if it wasn't in a ramekin, but how nice is it not getting butter in a plastic tub, and getting the jam/jelly in those tiny single serving jars. Too much for one piece of toast, but that didn't stop me. Just like nothing will stop me from calling this the Pfister One Piece of Toast Fuck You Cafe. Oh, but to end on a positive note, because I really do like this place, the waitress actually asked if I wanted hot sauce. Do you know how much that never happens anymore? It made me wish I was Sinatra and could tip her $100. I don't really want to be Sinatra, but I'd love to be able to tip $100!

Richard Skiller 11.24.17

The Original Pancake House – 2621 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open Monday through Friday, 7am to 2pm, Weekends 7am to 3pm.

A national chain restaurant that doesn't really feel like one, the Downer Ave. Milwaukee location of the Original Pancake House is in a low-key location with a sign that is so subtle you will almost surely miss it if you don't know it's there. I knew it was there and missed it, asked a local, who started going on about the “Coffee Trader”—an apparently beloved local hangout that was in this location from, I believe the 1970s until it closed sometime in the '90s. It must have been pretty special to a lot of people, because they won't stop commemorating it. Anyway, TOPH is squeezed into this block of storefront businesses, between BelAir tacos and a physical therapy place, all of which are between a drug store and a hardware store, and is a block north of the Downer movie theater. If you were moving to Milwaukee, you could do worse than to end up in this neighborhood.

The Original Pancake House is immensely popular, which you will discover if you try to visit on any weekend morning, though there at least is ample space for waiting, inside, as it's a deceptively big space. (Though, this location is perhaps not as busy as the one in Brookfield. I tried to eat breakfast there on a Saturday, just after moving here, when I was staying at the Country Inn, and the estimated wait was three days.) I first visited this Downer location on a weekday when it was much more low-key, but still bustling. It's only open until 2pm on weekdays, and 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays, so this is strictly breakfast, or breakfast for lunch (though there are some lunch items on the overly extensive menu). The odd thing, to me, is that they don't open until 7am, which makes sense on weekends, but on weekdays, that pretty much means that no one working in an office job can eat breakfast there before work. (As you know, nine to five jobs typically start at 8am or 7am.) Maybe eating a gigantic, sugary breakfast isn't a good strategy for office work, anyway, but I don't know, it would be for construction jobs (which start even earlier). What I'm saying is, I think quite a few of these people eating here on a weekday morning aren't going to work, and it's not the cheapest option out there.

I am happy it's busy because I want them to stay open, as this is one of those perfect environments for sitting in a booth, meeting with someone, people watching, or writing. It's the kind of place that I'll make into a regular spot, even though I'm not generally fond of chains. When I spent time in Portland, Oregon (nearly 20 years ago) I occasionally visited the original Original Pancake House, which was in an odd location that I had to drive to, in an actual old house. The first one opened in 1953, so it has some history. There as another pancake place in Portland, called the Original Hotcake House, that the internet indicates is still around, that is a much grittier, diner-like, 24 hour joint, great in its own way.

The menu could take several visits to fully appreciate. Even if I had the budget (keep dreaming, Skiller) to taste a smorgasbord-like sampling of the options here, it's against my core values to waste food, and I'm trying to overeat less these days, so my modus operandi is to order one thing (like a normal person) (though not necessarily the most normal thing on the menu, or the “signature” dish). If a place is good enough to return to, I'll return, and probably many times, and if inclined, write another article about what I ate next, or other developments, changes, improvements, or the slow slide to extinction.

On this visit I tried something new, not even on the regular menu (I don't think)—their “gluten-friendly” French Toast. I asked the waiter what that meant, “friendly,” and he assured me it was made with gluten-free bread and ingredients, but cooked in a kitchen (and on a grill) with other wheat items. I think it's kind of a legal thing, using the “friendly” rather than the “free” tag that some establishments adhere to—so it's up to the gluten conscious customer to know the extent of their gluten sensitivity. Regardless, it was excellent (I haven't had French toast in a restaurant in a while), and there was no downside to the nature of the gf bread—and I ordered a side of over-easy eggs, because I like to have a halfway savory breakfast before I pour on the fake maple syrup. The whole mess came to about $11. I've had coffee here before, and it's not cheap, but it's good, and they bring you a little pitcher of half & half, rather than those infernal little tubs. As usual, the wait staff here, mostly young people, are very friendly, and the whole place makes you feel kind of homey and warm on an advancing fall day. And like I said, you don't feel like you're at a chain restaurant at all.

Richard Skiller, 11.15.17