50 Things You Need to Eat in Milwaukee Before You Die
In what should be a spoiler to no one, eventually, we’re all going to croak -- it might not be soon, but just in case, be sure you’ve left the land of the living having eaten all of Milwaukee’s iconic foods (and told your mother you love her). From fried fish and cheese curds to tamales and honey pie, we’ve narrowed our bucket list down to 50 amazing foods from around the city that you need to experience.
1. Hot dog, Milwaukee-style
The Vanguard (address and info)
The homemade hot dog at The Vanguard is made with as much respect as all of its other encased meats. Top it with cheese, cheese sauce, and cheese curds (Milwaukee-style, appropriately) for a transcendent hot dog experience.
2. Bacon cheeseburger
Mazos (address and info)
Nothing fancy here, just freshly ground beef, a couple thick slices of gooey American cheese, and smokey bacon. It's been making its burgers the same way since 1934 for a reason.
3. Friday fish fry
The Packing House (address and info)
Town of Lake
The Friday fish fry is so popular at this supper club that they made a dedicated drive-thru just for fish. Breaded cod or perch is served with all the fixings: clam chowder, rye bread, tartar sauce, and fries or potato pancakes. Only non-Wisconsinites order fries when there are potato pancakes to be had.
4. Tonkotsu ramen
Red Light Ramen (address and info)
Lower East Side
Highly acclaimed Ardent transforms into a dark and mysterious ramen shop every Friday and Saturday night. People line up an hour before it opens for the super-rich pork broth and springy noodles, booze slushies, cans of PBR, and the chance to eat it all standing in the tiny kitchen next to the chef.
5. Combo plate, kalua pig, and char siu chicken
Ono Kine Grindz (address and info)
The combo plate at this Hawaiian deli and market is a feast with shredded roast kalua pork, red Chinese char siu chicken, purple sticky rice, macaroni salad, kimchi, and an irresistible sweet carrot and pineapple slaw. It’ll make you want to resurrect that aloha shirt from your 1997 trip to the islands.
6. Camarones en chile de arbol
Buenavista Restaurant and Bar (address and info)
The full-service version of a popular takeout place and taco truck, this location has a larger menu, including lots of shrimp dishes. The spicy, rich sauce of pureed chiles de arbol is not for the faint of heart, but totally worth the pain the next day.
7. Spicy crab pasta
Goodkind (address and info)
Who knew pepperoni and peekytoe crabmeat would go together so well? Simple tomato sauce with just enough spicy pepperoni balances out the sweet crab and bitter wilted rapini.
8. Wok-fried fish
RuYi (address and info)
Menomonee River Valley
Don’t let the casino location throw you; there’s some tasty fish to be had here. A whole red snapper is deep fried with its tail in the air and it’s topped with a Thai brown sauce and veggies, which you’ll want to soak up with the side of rice.
The Gouda Girls (address and info)
This roving food truck filled with cheese has won MKE’s heart. You can’t go wrong with the classic, gooey Triple grilled cheese filled with Gouda, colby, Jack, and havarti.
10. Double butter pecan cone
Leon’s Frozen Custard (address and info)
An old-timey custard stand demands an old-timey flavor like butter pecan. Old-timey prices don’t hurt either.
11. Half & half dinner with outside and rib tips
Speed Queen (address and info)
This is Milwaukee barbecue royalty in name and reputation. You can smell the smoke as soon as you walk in. The bright red sweet and tangy sauce will cut through the fatty meat and make you go through a ton of napkins.
12. Combo stack with corned beef and pastrami
Jake’s Deli (address and info)
It’s way too hard to decide between the equally venerated corned beef and pastrami at Jake’s, so why not just get both in one giant, amazing sandwich?
13. Fresh-shucked raw oysters
Maxie’s (address and info)
Nothing could be simpler and more sophisticated than an oyster on the half shell, topped with a spritz of lemon or mignonette. Just don’t tell the date you’re trying to impress that you came during happy hour when they’re a buck off.
El Senorial (address and info)
Parrillada is a communal meal for the whole table, full of Mexican-seasoned meats, grilled peppers, onions, and sausage, served on a dish over an open flame. Everyone gets their own plate of fixin's, tortilla, and sides, too. It’s like fajitas on steroids.
Chef Paz (address and info)
Fun fact: the honorary national dish of Peru is ceviche. It’s served with piles of mild shaved red onion, thick slices of sweet potatos, and big kernels of corn. Your brain may be confused at first, but your taste buds will set you straight.
16. Chorizo tacos
La Casa de Alberto (address and info)
A great place to have a taco-eating contest, because they’re super cheap (four for $5 whaaa?), piled high with any toppings you like, and you’ll definitely want to eat as many as you can stomach. The chorizo is spicy and not dripping with grease.
17. Yum nuer (Thai beef salad)
Kim’s Thai (address and info)
What could make salad better? Meat. The main ingredient here is steak. Sure, there’s some cucumber, tomato, onion, lots of lime juice, fish sauce, hot pepper, and other goodies, but it’s for carnivores only. If you’ve never branched out from pad Thai, this is the place to do it.
18. Rendang beef
Peking Chef (address and info)
You have to go to the suburbs to find great Indonesian food. Rendang beef is a thick, coconut-based curry flavored with ginger, lemongrass, cinnamon, and probably also crack. If this place were in the city, hipsters would be lining up out the door.
Spartan Gyros (address and info)
Menomonee River Hills
The best gyro in the city that no one’s heard about. It won’t make you feel like you need a nap or some Rolaids. Plus, there’s always cops eating here, and they know the best neighborhood places.
20. Fried chicken dinner
TomKen’s Bar and Grill (address and info)
Skip the KFC and support a local neighborhood bar instead. Here you can get four pieces of fried chicken, a mess of fries, slaw, and bread for only a buck or two more than the Colonel’s No. 5 meal.
21. Bacon-wrapped meatloaf
Comet Cafe (address and info)
Lower East Side
Comet’s widely known for its free bacon, and bacon Bloody Marys, and bacon inside pancakes, so why wouldn’t there be meatloaf wrapped in bacon? It even adds beer gravy to seal the deal.
22. Filet mignon
Jackson Grill (address and info)
In a meat and potatoes town, Jackson Grill stands out for its supper club vibe and tender hunks of meat. The filet is king around here, and it cuts like butta.
23. Charred octopus
Odd Duck (address and info)
They say the menu changes all the time, but the charred octopus has been hanging around a long time. Fermented black beans, oyster mushrooms, and bok choy give the tentacles an Asian persuasion.
24. Four-course exploration menu
Sanford (address and info)
Lower East Side
The a la carte menu at this institution of a restaurant changes all the time, but there’s a four-course menu (Monday through Thursday) that explores different cuisines and themes, from Lebanese to tailgate fare. It’s a great thing if you’re indecisive.
25. Salted honey pie
Honeypie (address and info)
If you’ve always wanted to go to a little cafe and just order a slice of pie (or three) for dinner, this place is your jam. The creamy custard filling of the honey pie is sprinkled with coarse salt so your taste buds don’t go into sugar overload. And it’s just so pretty.
Three Brothers (address and info)
If Serbian food is mysterious to you, start with burek, a dinner plate-sized pie of flaky phyllo dough layered with beef, cheese, or spinach filling. If you could bake a hug, it would taste like this. Call ahead to order it since it takes 40 minutes to prepare.
Cubanitas (address and info)
So we may be able to go to Cuba now, but we’ve never needed to travel that far for a good Cubano sandwich. Pork on pork will always be a great thing.
Vientiane Noodle Shop (address and info)
Those pho places with punny names might attract more attention, but the soup here is pho real. (Sorry, not sorry.) Other places give you wimpy jalapeños on your garnish plate, but here you get atomic-strength Thai bird chiles. A plop of concentrated soup base allows even more customization.
29. Brandy Old Fashioned ice cream
Purple Door (address and info)
A little bit of orange, a little bit of cherry, and lots of brandy. Exactly how we make the drink, only frozen.
30. Shrimp soup
Botanas (address and info)
Shrimp soup is ubiquitous at our Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, of which Botanas’ version is quite popular. Served hot or cold, it’s a cross between ceviche and shrimp cocktail, with tomatoes, onion, citrus, and avocado. If you need to spice it up, ask for the chile de arbol salsa.
31. Maria’s special pizza (sausage, mushroom, onion)
Maria’s Pizzeria (address and info)
The freeform shape of Maria’s pizzas might remind you of a Picasso painting, but presumably the pizza tastes a lot better. Super-thin crust is charred around the edges and full of fresh Italian sausage, lending lots of pizza grease -- the most delicious kind of grease -- to these pies.
32. Saz’s sampler combo
Saz’s (address and info)
As much of a staple at festivals around here as beer, Saz’s combo platter includes cheese curds, sour cream and chive seasoned fries, and the piece de resistance: mozzarella marinara. It’s not summer until you’ve had those giant wonton-wrapped sticks.
33. Hodag sandwich
Koppa’s Fulbeli Deli (address and info)
Lower East Side
Only a super-quirky corner deli and grocery like Koppa’s would name its breakfast sandwich after a mythical creature. The Hodag is considered a local legend, though, so it fits. You pick whatever you want on the card and they make your giant beast, any time you want it.
34. Sole meuniere
Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro (address and info)
Sole meuniere was the dish that turned Julia Child into a Francophile, so it’s required eating for all French food novices. They filet the fish tableside, which can be equally awkward and fascinating.
Polonez (address and info)
It doesn’t matter which flavor you get, all the pierogies are handmade with love and fried with plenty of butter. If they have dessert pierogies available, like cherry and sweet cheese, make sure you order them too.
36. Eight-course chef’s tasting menu
Ardent (address and info)
Lower East Side
Sit back, relax, and put all your trust into Ardent’s chef, Justin Carlisle. You’ll get eight courses, some of which will be surprising, and all of which will be unique. Escargot sometimes make an appearance, as does beef from Carlisle’s parent’s cattle farm. Craving ants on a log or fried rice? Make a request and the chef’s interpretation might appear in front of you.
37. Solly cheeseburger
Solly’s Grille (address and info)
Burgers topped with so much butter it pools on the plate. What more do you need in life?
38. Mac & cheese pizza
Ian’s Pizza (address and info)
After a night of drinking, Ian’s is there to take care of you. Pizza crust, topped with more carbs in the form of macaroni, and salty, melty cheese make this manna from heaven after too many hours at Just Art’s.
39. Cheese curds
Northpoint Custard (address and info)
Deep-frying makes everything better, especially when we’re talking about those beloved squeaky little curds. We prefer our lake views with fried cheese.
40. Pulled ham Very Stuffed Browns
Blue’s Egg (address and info)
MKEans know their brunch and Blue’s Egg is a favorite spot, serving brunch every day of the week (that’s all it serves). Falling-apart ham and cheddar are folded into a blanket of crunchy hash browns, elevating the humble potato to a whole new level.
Old German Beer Hall (address and info)
This list would be a joke without a brat on it. Might as well go full-on Munich at Old German Beer Hall.
42. Hot ham and rolls
Grebe’s Bakery (address and info)
No one really knows why Sunday morning hot ham and rolls is a MKE tradition. It may have started as a Catholic after-church thing, or maybe the most successful promotion of all time by Badger Ham. Grebe's will be crowded Sunday mornings, but that bag of hot processed pig and fresh rolls is worth it.
43. Bloody Masterpiece
Sobelman’s (address and info)
Sobelman’s has perfected the art of piling garnishes on Bloody Marys, creating precarious arrangements of cocktail shrimp, beef sticks, bacon-wrapped cheese curds, and even a whole fried chicken. If that’s a little too scary for you, order the Bloody Masterpiece with the relatively tame mini cheeseburger on top.
Bombay Sweets (address and info)
Before you order boxes of Indian sweets from the counter, do yourself a favor and order a bunch of samosas (they’re only 75 cents a pop, after all). Filled with potatoes, peas, and masala spices, they’re great dipped in the spicy cilantro chutney or sweet tamarind sauce.
45. All-American breakfast
George Webb (address and info)
Who needs Denny’s when you’ve got Webb’s? They’ve been fulfilling MKE’s 24/7 diner needs for decades, and like all greasy spoons, the best food is breakfast. And if you want a burger alongside your eggs, go for it. You do you.
El Rey (address and info)
You know that when the second ingredient listed is lard, those tamales are going to be good. Chicken, pork, beef, and even dessert tamales are available at this busy Hispanic grocery store. Buy them by the bundle -- hot for now or cold for later.
47. Cream puff
State Fair Park (address and info)
It’s only available 11 days every summer, so you better make getting your whipped cream mustache a top priority.
48. Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein
Karl Ratzsch’s (address and info)
“Wiener schnitzel” is almost as fun to say as “Karl Ratzsch’s.”This traditional version is topped with a fried egg, anchovies, and capers for a super-salty one-two punch.
49. Hot wings
Points East Pub (address and info)
Lower East Side
There’s only one kind of wing you can order here, dubbed the “hot wing.” They’re fried, sauced, and then grilled for smoke flavor. The kitchen is being renovated, so hopefully those nights of 80-minute wing waits will soon be over.
Simma’s Bakery (address and info)
It’s just not a wedding, or baby shower, or birthday, without a Simma’s cheesecake. A thin layer of chocolate cake, fat layer of cheesecake, and a smear of raspberry jelly is all coated in shiny chocolate ganache. We love our cheese any way we can get it.
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Lacey Muszynski is a Milwaukee native who was initially intimidated by this list, but had trouble paring it down to just 50 items. Follow her on Twitter @worthhersalt.