Blue Bat Kitchen & Tequilaria

249 N. Water St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I didn't even know Tequilaria was a word—I guess it's kind of like taqueria, like if tacos were Tequila—but it was the kitchen part I came here for, and some interesting variations of the taco. I had smoked brisket tacos—with cabbage, onion, and bbq sauce—very good. They also have three kinds of hot sauce that they make—which is fun. (The hottest one is called “Batshit Crazy,” which is kind of funny.) There was another restaurant in this space previously but I'm not even going to bother looking up what it was because I never ate there—so I don't know if this is the old décor or brand new, but it's okay, a lot of muted wood, nothing overly cute—not inspiring, but I guess that's better than being annoying. The most notable thing here, though, is the Tequila menu—more kinds of Tequila and Mezcal than I've ever seen. I used to love Tequila, and I wish I could still drink it—though I don't know if I could afford it here. The least expensive shot is $4, which I could afford, but would that feel lame? It gets pretty expensive on this menu—I saw one that was $225 a pour. If I was working somewhere and someone came in and ordered a $225 pour, I'd probably propose right on the spot—if not marriage, then purchase of the title to the Hoan Bridge, or an exclusive interview. When I last lived in New York, my very favorite Pho restaurant closed, and eventually in its spot opened a Pulqueria. I don't know if Milwaukee has a Pulqueria yet, but it will eventually, so there's a business opportunity for you! I'd like to return to the Blue Bat, maybe with a friend next time—it's a convenient location, and you can sit by the river if it's warm. I should have, on this day, because the worst thing about my visit was that the music was too loud—way too loud—maybe they didn't realize, I don't know. It was only bearable because I was alone and not trying to talk to anyone. But then this one song came on, for some reason louder than all the rest (one of the real downsides of digital music), and it was so loud that it compelled me, during the song, to put a decibel meter on my phone (which you can do, almost instantly—this world!) and it measured the song at almost 90 dB—which is the noise level of a lawn mower—and will cause ear damage over an 8 hour exposure. To be fair, it was just this one song that loud, and I'm not really criticizing the restaurant for this—more than anything it struck me as funny. Plus, I've heard a lot of people—especially in this town—over mid-day cocktails—at least that loud.

Randy Russell

Benji's – 4156 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood, Wisconsin

Open every day – 8am to 8pm – Saturday and Sunday – 7am to 8pm

This is my most frequented restaurant in Milwaukee, though it's in Shorewood (there's one in Fox Point, but I haven't eaten there yet), as it's my favorite diner, locally—and in the ongoing discussion of what a “diner” is or isn't—this is the example of what it is and what is good. It's also a deli, and I suppose there are many loyal customers who never eat here, who just get prepared or unprepared food to go. I've had the corned beef, and it's excellent, but I almost never eat corned beef. Much of the menu is off-limits to vegans, celiacs, vegetarians—but I still highly recommend finding what you can eat here and eating it here. There are loyal customers who do come here—I'd bet some almost every day, or once a week, or just more often than anywhere else. That's one of the things that makes it a diner. What makes it an excellent diner is no TV, no (noticeable) music, no high-top tables—you can sit at a counter, booths, or tables—some always-excellent wait-person takes your order. It's a great place to come with someone, or a great place to come alone and observe the diner-world. My favorite is “Super Hoppel Poppel”—you know it—or, look it up, try it. If they ever add the “Supper Hoppel Poppel,” I may never leave (though it maybe as well be, because breakfast is served, as it should be, all day). I also might just move in here if they ever incorporate a really good gluten-free bread, because this menu just goes on and on, particularly the sandwiches: the “Hear-O Israel” looks like my kind of thing, as does “The Gonzo” and “The Epiphany”—and really, on and on. Is there a pants store or a tailor in the crappy, dated shopping plaza (I mean, I love it) where Benji's makes its home? If Benji's was situated in one of Milwaukee's apartment-hotels, it would remind me of nothing so much as my former home-away-from-home, the mourned Cafe Edison in the Big Rotting Apple. As it stands, Benji's is still the real heart of this exploding neighborhood where new restaurants open faster than ad agencies can brand stupid names over $15 Bloody Marys. Fortunately, young people are still people, and for some, the new trendy will always be the untrendy—vinyl records are not chopped liver anymore—and neither is chopped liver, borscht, matzo ball shop, potato pancakes, on and on...

Richard Skiller 9.15.18

Cudahy's Pancake House – 4753 S. Packard Ave., Cudahy, Wisconsin

Open every day – 7am to 8pm (closes at 3pm on Sunday and Monday)

I almost want to keep this place a secret—not that anyone listens to me—because there are lines around the block now at Milwaukee's most popular weekend brunch spots—the ones with $15 Bloody Marys and avocado toast bowls. Maybe I shouldn't worry—the classic family restaurant décor here is enough to scare away the new generation of—what do you call them?—post-yuppie, post-millennial, post-tech professionals, seamlessly connected to their devices but with no human social skills, traveling in packs with their “team.” I really have no idea why people flock to one place and not another—it's sure not just because of the food. Actually, I'd be happy if business was good here because it's my current favorite breakfast spot and I want it to survive. I've been here a couple of times recently and it's been mellow. Even though it's minutes from downtown Milwaukee by electric scooter, I feel like Cudahy scares away some people—maybe it's the Bermuda Triangle vibe you get from the infamous Dretzka's Department Store (which this is directly across the street from). There's a big family restaurant menu to explore, but I can't get past my favorite, the Hawaii Five-0 omelette (ham, bacon, jack cheese, and pineapple) because it's both funny and delicious. It comes with fine hash-browns and pancakes—and they can be gluten-free pancakes for a dollar extra—and then it only comes to $8.25—after which, if you're not done eating for the day, you're a better man than I. It's probably just as well they don't have rice pudding.

Richard Skiller 8.15.18

Cafe India – 605-A S. 1st St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open every day from 11am to 9pm

It occurred to me that I should eat at a place at least twice before writing a review, and seeing how often I eat (like most humans) and what a struggle it is for me to write (like many humans), that shouldn't be a difficult stretch. Sometimes your first visit to a place is on an off day, and it shouldn't be condemned because of that, and likewise, as in the case of Cafe India, the initial visit might be overly magical. I first ate here on a wet and cold spring evening just after I'd fallen on my elbow in the bed of a moving truck, and I sat at the table with my right arm in a bag of gas station ice while I ate an order of Chicken Biryani with my left hand. The best meal I've ever had. And I've thought about that Chicken Biryani every time I've passed this place since. The “A” in the address is because it's in a little hell-hole plaza with a gas station, convenience store, car wash, etc. in a part of up-and-coming Walker's Point that isn't nice yet. Of course I ordered the same on my return visit, in spite of an extensive and enticing menu, and of course it didn't live up to the first time, as I sat sweating in the humidity, the spiciness soaking my head like a madman. I didn't mind the takeout container and plastic fork so much once I decided to take half of it home, where later in the day it was even better. With the bright lights, gas station bathroom, loud TVs, and tables that probably get cleaned off at best once a day, this place is right up there—for food vs. atmosphere gap—with any place in town, because yes, it was delicious enough that I'm now, while writing this, longing for more. I'd also like to try the rest of the menu.

Richard Skiller 7.26.18

Jonathan Gold

The news of Jonathan Gold's death, yesterday, hit me even harder than the death of Anthony Bourdain; for me, as a writer about food, these were the first two I looked to, pretty much every time I sat down and attempted the painful and horrible act of writing anything. Not that I aspired to be them. As someone who hates to travel, I let Bourdain do the traveling for me. With Jonathan Gold, knowing that there was always someone doing something I aspired to do, but would never be able to come close to—as far a knowledge, wisdom, humor, and just pure writing—was not daunting, but somehow comforting.

On any given day I could look for something recent he'd written, online, for sustenance—inspiration with much more consistency and dependability than finding something out there to eat that inspired me. His book Counter Intelligence (2000), a Los Angeles food guide, sits by my bed. As a restaurant guide it's, of course, hopelessly outdated, but still it's invaluable—I will open it to a random page and just start reading in the middle of a review and be immediately energized and transported to places—impossible to find and maybe unknown, even to Angelenos—who make something (often that I've never eaten) better than any place outside of the country of origin of its cuisine. And may be long gone, given the brutal nature of the restaurant business, and the war on non-white people, and time. There's probably a story behind why there is not a (or several) follow-ups to this book—by a Pulitzer Prize winning food writer—or it may just be the current condition of book publishing vs. the Internet. But the book is worth tracking down. If his brief introduction—about how, as a much younger person, he decided to methodically eat his way the length of Pico Boulevard as a way of discovering his city—is not inspiring to you—well, I'm sure it is inspiring to you. The 2015 documentary City of Gold is also worth seeing, if you haven't, or again.

I've never wanted to be anyone but myself, but as a person who loves to explore through food and restaurants, once I discovered Jonathan Gold, he came the closest as a role model. His knowledge, wit, style, and larger view can only be aspired to. But as a New Yorker who can't drive, Los Angeles may as well be Mars. As a recovering alcoholic, a career as a food writer was never an option for me, as wine and fine dining go together like money and success. And as someone with celiac disease, the most ambitious I could ever hope to be was a celiac food writer. Thus, I am thankful for my position as food critic for, a job which, as of late, my output has woefully matched my paycheck. But I get it—there doesn't have to be money in it when there is joy. For a much too brief time, Jonathan Gold was who everyone who wrote about food wanted to be. There's quite a lot of writing by him, out there, at least, that we can keep being inspired by. As for me, I'll try to do better.

Richard Skiller 7.22.18

Cracker Barrel – 4216 Milan Rd., Sandusky, Ohio

Open every day – 7am to 10pm

I took some time off, attending to business back in my former home, New York City, where I said a final good-bye to my longtime home, Hotel Edison. The reasons are complicated (as in don't ask) but I am excited to have moved into a new place on the ominously named (Charles Foster?) Kane Place, in Milwaukee. On the way, with a loaded van, I decided to stop off in Ohio at the birthplace of Thomas Alva Edison (who turned on the lights of my former home), Milan, Ohio—and while I was at it, the amusement park, Cedar Point (self-proclaimed as “Roller Coaster Capital of the World”), as well as a mysterious place called “The Blue Hole.” Anyway, all this excitement took me a week, so I decided to review some restaurants while I was at it, so here, first, and maybe least: Cracker Barrel

It's always ominous when a restaurant's Wikipedia page “Controversies” section is the longest part of the entry, but I assume the reader of this review knows how to use the internet, so I don't have to paraphrase that here—it is up to you to review their history of discrimination and their progress in changing policies to address this. I'm going to merely post a brief review based on one modest meal. The first good thing was that the place is an oasis of shade on a white-hot day, kind of looking like the rustic dark wood dining room of an old farmhouse. That's the idea anyway. And the second good thing is the hostess asked if I wanted a breakfast menu, even though it was late-afternoon, going on evening. The menu has quite a bit of “Southern” food, a lot that could be gluten-free based on how it's prepared, so I asked the waitress and she brought me an laminated binder that listed which foods were safe or not for various food allergies and intolerances—something that every restaurant should have.

There was a place I used to frequent on business trips to Chicago—I think it was Wishbone—where I used to only order sides—and that's a good way to eat—especially when you are trying to avoid particular food groups—so that's what I did here. I'm always excited when a restaurant serves grits, because as far as regional food goes, you rarely see grits on a breakfast menu in the “North,” but in the “South” it's always on the menu. Anyway, grits are easy, I make them at home, but apparently the kitchen here just followed the directions on the packet of Quaker instant grits box (add water, stir) and then dumped some bagged, shredded orange cheese on top, viola “Cheese Grits.” Grits should never be served without butter, but I didn't want to go to the trouble of asking for butter and having them microwave it all so it would melt. I could taste the chlorine in the water, because grits in themselves don't have enough flavor to overpower it. At least they had Tabasco here, which made them barely edible, and I guess is why hot sauce was invented. The “Fried Apples” were little better, but at least were hot. Tasting them, though, that kind of weird factory flavor, I could tell that they were most likely simply apple pie filling scooped from an enormous industrial can of factory apple pie filling into a little bowl and microwaved. The cole slaw was at least pretty good. Everyone likes different styles of cole slaw, and this was a creamy, kind of sweet, though also factory tasting kind. At least the food factory has the cole slaw down—intended as it is to be served cold, unembellished, as a side. The coffee was at least drinkable, thankfully, because I didn't expect much there. All of my food was served in those little plastic bowls restaurants call “monkey dishes”—which gives you an idea of what they think of the diner who orders food in them. Oh, well, at least the place was dark and quiet on a hot summer day, and a good place to hide out, unhurried, and write. You don't go to a place like this and expect gourmet food, but for the love of god at least get the grits halfway right.

Richard Skiller 7.15.18

Build-a-Breakfast/Build-a-Burger – 633 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open every day – 7am – 10pm

You've got to love those hours, and the location, and that it's pretty much a diner, in concept and function. Or family restaurant, which is pretty much synonymous with diner in the practical sense. As soon as I finally ate here I warmed up to it, but it took me awhile, because there are so many off-putting things that stood in the way of taking the leap. First of all, the restaurant logo, which is round, has “BB” in the center, with the name around the outside; I believe it's supposed to look like a “brand”—the kind a cattle rancher would put on a cow—as it uses typewriter font and is a little crooked—but what it actually makes me think of is a bottle of barbecue sauce. Then there's the name—it's not that it's so long (though it is too long)—it's that there's a slash in the middle, and a restaurant name should never have odd punctuation in its name (unless it's an exclamation point!); though it could be worse; it could be a semi-colon. The place is also called BB's—and there are also several problems with that name that I won't elaborate on—but maybe I'm just being too particular. But wouldn't a name like, say, B's Diner just be better? And then there's my aversion to the word “burger”—which I've already written about too much in these pages. And finally, and most, I have a real problem with this whole idea of “building” your entree—both that term, and the actuality—this “build an omelette” thing, where you decide what's in your omelette. I guess a place like Subway, that's their concept. And a lot of taco places. I want the restaurant to make the dishes, not me! And even better when they give them names, like “Denver Omelette”—isn't that much better than if you build your own ham, onion, and green pepper, omelette? Though I suppose when the waitperson inevitably comes by and asks if you're still “working on it” you can always say, “I'm in the final stages of demolition.”

In spite of all these problems, BB's is a diner, an ordinary place to sit down and order simple “comfort” food (though I have a bit of a problem with that concept, too)—maybe breakfast at lunch time, or lunch too early, or at dinner time, or a side of potatoes anytime, or two eggs and French fries, whatever! I had an omelette and potatoes, it was good and hearty, if not foodie instagrammie. You sit at a table, someone waits on you. I used to occasionally come to a diner in this location, though I can't remember its name. I believe there used to be a counter—yes there was. They have remodeled, for the worse, tried to turn it from diner to restaurant, very sad. But it still has that feeling—and there are plenty of places you can sit and look out on this very active downtown Milwaukee street. It's on the corner of Wisconsin (the major downtown east-to-west route—connecting the downtown to Marquette University) and James Lovell Street (named after the astronaut—a Milwaukee native—who was on the nearly tragic Apollo 13) (I believe he was played by Tom Hanks in the movie version). You're a block away from the public library, and two blocks from the Public Museum—two of the best places in town. Also within a block of liquor stores, convenience stores, donut shops, pawn shops, very old hotels and theaters, convention centers, department stores, steakhouses, and bus stops where there's always someone waiting. You can't really find a more urban, more Milwaukee diner spot where you'll see a greater variety of human beings. Just writing this is making me feel like I should frequent this place more. I just wish they hadn't remodeled... but that's the story of my life.

Richard Skiller 5.18.18

Ma Fischer's – 2214 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open 24 hours.

During my first extended stay in Milwaukee I was encamped less than a block from Ma Fischer's, so it was kind of my home away from home for a while, and I'll always have a warm spot in my heart for it thus. The internet says it's been around since 1947, which not only means pre-Happy Days, but pre-fictional-Happy Days. It's one of those places that doesn't technically need a door lock—never closes—and also boasts the best three word phrase in the English language: “Breakfast All Day.” I call it my regular diner. Depending on your definition of diner—which is justifiably debatable—either it's a diner or Milwaukee has no diners. It's not my dream diner, though: it's pretty much “family restaurant” in style. It's too expensive, the food is good but not great, and it's a little colder than it should be—I mean the overall vibe—and I can't put my finger on why. As many times as I've darkened its door, I don't ever feel particularly welcomed back. But maybe that's just part of that urban Midwest misguided idea of authenticity (“Have it our way or get the fuck out”). Still, it's a good place to sit and write in your notebook (paper and pen) and not get arrested. It's pretty much always bustling, but you can always get a seat (that's a very good combination). It's in the same block as the Oriental Theatre (one of Milwaukee's best things). And it pretty much doesn't change too much (also, as far as I'm concerned, a huge positive) year after year after year.

Richard Skiller 5.4.18

BelAir Cantina – Downer – 2625 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open 11am every day until later than you should be eating tacos.

BelAir Cantina is a small, local chain of meeting places for younger people who like Mexican food and drinking and don't mind a noisy, busy dining environment. I tried to visit a $2 Taco Tuesday night at their Humboldt/Milwaukee River location, but it was so crowded I decided better of it, and waited until a calm weekday lunchtime to visit this, the Downer Ave. location in my (thus far) favorite Milwaukee neighborhood. The menu suffers from that family restaurant syndrome that wants to have food for everyone, so you wonder if any of it is well-represented. Not that extreme, of course, but there is too much on the menu. I was in the mood for soup, so I enjoyed the Hominy Shrimp Soup, even though the ingredients didn't come together, really, until they got into my stomach. It was okay. After that I tried a $4 Al Pastor taco, which was also fine, but I inhaled it. See, that comes to over ten dollars, and I was still hungry. (Okay, I eat too much, and I'm getting paid for this, but still...) The inexpensive way to go here is on $2 taco night, because if you get three, you get rice and beans, and that's a meal. But only SOME of the tacos are eligible for the $2 night. Then there's the crowds (which you may be into—good for you!)

A regular at BelAir could enjoy exploring the extensive menu, over time, but for a one-time visitor it would be nice to be able to figure out what they do best and what to avoid, and it's a guessing game. Say you just narrow it down to tacos; there are 25 tacos on the menu, and if you aren't hungry when you arrive, you will be after reading the descriptions of the overly-busy varieties. If you are one to pay attention to prices, good luck, because the various taco prices are as follows: $3.57, $2.94, $2.89, $3.55, $4.45—okay, I'm not going to list all 25, you get the picture. I guess it's meant to be a joke?—or some kind of reference I don't get? Sorry, I was born before 1990. Some of the tacos are reasonable: meat, onions, cilantro—while others are a bit ridiculous. I mean, it would be fun to try them all, and if I found a busy taco that really worked, I'd be the first to admit it. But generally, a taco should fit within a folded tortilla or two and not fall apart before you can get it into your mouth. The Dick Skiller (admittedly gringo from upstate) rule is that if there are five ingredients in a taco, the fifth should be my teeth. Four is okay when the fourth is lime juice. Generally, three is optimal. Cheaper, less filled tacos over more expensive bloated ones. Cheese only belongs on a taco if your name is Taco Bell. Shredded iceberg lettuce is reserved for grade schools, prison cafeterias, and Hell.

Richard Skiller 3.18.18

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

UPDATE: This restaurant has closed, which is too bad because they did prepare some unusual to American palate Chinese dishes. I'm not sure if they have, or are, opening at another location. There's something new in this location I haven't tried. This may be the most oddball block in downtown Milwaukee, so it's always worth checking out. It's almost impossible to keep up with the changes. 

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