Sure, Milwaukee is known for its cheese and beer, but there are so many other foods that absolutely need to hit your palate when in Wisconsin's largest city. From fish fries to frozen custard--and, of course, cheese curds, here's what to eat before you leave town.
The story is such that if you want to ensure your curds are fresh, rub two of the knobby cheeses together and see if they squeak. While yellow cheddar is the most common curd, the varieties are endless as cheesemakers blend in chives, dill, garlic, tomato-basil and horseradish, also using white cheddar. At Clockshadow Creamery you can even watch them being made. Pro tip: curds made fresh on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Made from eggs, cream and sugar, frozen custard is a nostalgic treat around Milwaukee—which has the most frozen-custard shops per city in the entire world. Leon’s Frozen Custard on the South Side has been virtually untouched since its mid-century debut. Three Kopp’s locations—Glendale, Greenfield and Brookfield—are homages to founder Elsa Kopp, who opened the first Kopp’s in 1950. True custard fans keep an eye on the flavor forecast, published on Kopp’s website, showcasing off-beat flavors like Joe Dirt and Éclair Affair.
A popular treat at local farmer’s markets during the summer months, East Side Ovens’ vegan (you honestly can’t tell!) dumplings featuring blueberries, rhubarb, apple and other fruits are sold at Outpost Natural Foods. Sip with a cup of Fair Trade coffee (scored from Outpost’s café) and it’ll be a breakfast to remember.
You might think that fish fries (beer-battered, fried cod; with signature sides of coleslaw, tartar sauce, potato pancakes, sliced caraway rye bread and a lemon wedge) are more easily found during Lent but they’re actually a year-round staple in Milwaukee. Lakefront Brewery even serves a fish fry—with a side of coleslaw and tartar sauce—daily. For a throwback kind of meal, venture to American Serb Hall on the South Side, which even has a drive-thru when open Friday nights. Drink Wisconsinbly is a newer venue which has quickly become known for its fish fry.
Artisan cheese isn’t the only game in town. Within the past few years, Milwaukee restaurants have begun to add platters piled with regionally smoked and butchered meats, from purveyors like Underground Meats. James Beard Award nominated chef-owner Karen Bell runs the kitchen at Bavette La Boucherie, with a cheese-and-charcuterie platter (options for both change daily). At Odd Duck, a tapas-style meal is encouraged to begin with a charcuterie platter piled with choices like elk salami or ghost pepperoni.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Milwaukee in early August during the Wisconsin State Fair, run—don’t walk—to the Cream Puff stand at its West Allis fairgrounds. A thick layer of airy cream is wedged between two flaky, buttery crusts. Year-round you can order a cream puff at places like Peter Sciortino’s Bakery on Brady Street; or Le Rêve Patisserie and Café, where cream puffs share space with macarons and tarts in the pastry case.
Burger and a Bloody Mary
Wisconsin bars and restaurants are known for making a good Bloody Mary but some do it with a twist: a burger is stuffed onto a skewer. Sobelman’s on Milwaukee’s South Side has earned international attention for its version but you can also get a good Bloody Mary at another burger joint, AJ Bombers in downtown Milwaukee, which has also been featured on reality television for its burgers and Bloody Marys.
Deep-fried Cheese Curds
What’s better than fresh cheese curds? When they’re breaded, battered in beer and deep-fried. Practically a bar staple, you can find them at SafeHouse (a speakeasy-style, spy-themed eatery in downtown Milwaukee), Drink Wisconsinbly (in Walker’s Point), Lakefront Brewery’s East Side tap room, and Iron Horse Hotel in Walker’s Point, where you can order tempura-fried Clock Shadow Creamery cheese curds at Smyth and Branded, as well as in The Yard.
Whiskey Ice Cream
The creamery’s scoop shop in Walker’s Point is only a few years old and you can bet there’s a line nearly every day. The flavors are both expected and unique, with whiskey ice cream falling into the unique category. Purchase a scoop in a dish or in a cone (sugar or waffle), or take home a pint. The whiskey is from another Walker’s Point business—Great Lakes Distillery—for a total locavore treat. You can also pick up a pint at many specialty grocers around Milwaukee, including Outpost Natural Foods’ four locations.
If you’re only in Milwaukee for a short period of time then trying some of the state’s award-winning artisan cheeses is daunting. Two wine bars make it easy for you by curating only the best into a cheese board. Whether it’s aged yellow cheddar, Italian cheeses from producers like Sartori or Bel Gioloso, or the best blue cheese you’ve ever tried, consider this sampler a tutorial in what to buy as edible souvenirs (pro tip: West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe in the Milwaukee Public Market has an amazing cheese selection).