Francis Lam: The food writer Khushbu Shah has been reporting on the restaurant scene all over the country for years. I was in Chicago with her once and we made plans to have breakfast, which meant a couple of tacos, then walking to a Mexican bakery she wanted to check out before going to an ice cream place, and – I mentioned this was just breakfast, right? As you see, she puts in the work, and is a great source for what’s killer in restaurants these days and where you should book a trip just to eat. Khushbu, great to have you here.
Khushbu Shah: Thanks for having me.
FM: In all your travels across this great land there is one possibly surprising town that you are kind of obsessed with.
KS: Yeah. And that’s Milwaukee.
FM: Tell me about Milwaukee.
KS: I think the Midwest overall is underrated. People don’t appreciate the portion sizes, the incredible price points, and the incredible hospitality that comes out of there.
FM: Says the girl from Michigan. [both laugh]
KS: I am from Michigan. But, Milwaukee does have a surprising food scene. To be fair, I also went in a little bit skeptical – I apologize to all of Wisconsin – but walked out shockingly excited about everything that’s happening there right now.
FM: Tell me, what is exciting?
KS: Wisconsin is sort of the land of dairy and meat and more dairy. Yet, Milwaukee has one of the best vegan food scenes in the country.
KS: Yeah. There’s classic vegan restaurants like Celesta, which does vegan comfort food. And then places like Strange Town with the fussier high-end small plates, ‘tapas style’ is what they like to call it. But also, if you just go to restaurants in the city, they without fail will sort of have a separate vegan menu available or a whole slew of vegan dishes. I went to this bar called Snack Boys and got some amazing braised cheese curds, which by the way is a genius dish.
FM: Braised cheese curds?
KS: Slow braised, almost like gnocchi, in a tomato sauce. They also had a full separate vegan menu which was so unexpected and out of nowhere. Everywhere you went there were several vegan options. It’s not just like bland tofu. It’s beautiful shaved mushroom salads and gorgeous sandwiches. I had this really great Oaxacan-inspired fried eggplant dish with great black bean puree. It was stuff that’s vegan but it doesn’t matter if it’s vegan or not; it’s just good food at the end of the day.
FM: Speaking of what’s underrated, I often feel like people don’t realize how incredible the produce of the Upper Midwest can be, how flavorful the vegetables are, and how deep the traditions of agriculture are beyond dairy and cows.
KS: There’s so much farmland. There’s also the Great Lakes near Wisconsin and Michigan, so there is great seafood, especially coming out of Lake Michigan.
FM: What else is rad about Milwaukee eating?
KS: Definitely the fish fry. It’s a Friday tradition. I think it started with Catholic immigrants who don’t eat meat on Fridays, and it became this really awesome cheap way to feed your entire family. It’s super affordable. So many restaurants around the city do a fish fry on Fridays. I have friends that end up going to like a Latin-inspired one or a Puerto Rican-inspired one. Every restaurant adapted beyond the classics of deep-fried fish, fries, and maybe some other side like potato salad or coleslaw into whatever cuisine their restaurants are serving. It’s really fun. I have yet to find a vegan one, though. Maybe it’s out there. Honestly, I would eat deep-fried tofu with some fries next to it. Sign me up.
FM: Anything old-school?
KS: Oh, yeah. There’s this place called Three Brothers. It’s a little bit out of the way. It’s in this building that’s been around since the 1800s; it was a former beer factory. This restaurant has been around since 1956 and it serves seriously old-school Serbian classics. Milwaukee has a really big Serbian population, which I didn’t realize until I got there. You walk in and it’s like Formica tables, everything is cash only, and the receipt you get is scratch on a piece of paper. You have no idea if you’re actually paying the correct amount for stuff. [laughs] But, it’s so wonderful and charming.
The thing to get there is their burek, which takes like 90 minutes to bake. You can call ahead and say, “I’m coming in and I’d really like a cheese burek.” They’ll pop it in the oven for you, so by the time you get there it’s almost ready to go. And if you don’t know what a burek is, it’s spelled a bunch of different ways. On their menu it’s b-u-r-e-k. You can find it on the Internet I think also as b-o-r-e-k. It’s popular in Serbia, Bosnia, that sort of area. It’s this really gorgeous, layered, flaky filo dough pie situation with lots of butter, lots of cheese – definitely not vegan-friendly. Then they have this whole selection of old-school Serbian fruit brandies and really great grape leaves. The service is really pleasant, but maybe not too friendly – a little bit strict there. I love it though. It’s great.
FM: Yeah. Like you always want to go to your auntie’s house, but you have some weird past with your uncle. [both laugh]
KS: Yes, that’s basically it. It was originally started by three brothers. But now, a couple generations in, two women in the family run the kitchen, which is pretty cool to see.
FM: Right on. Let’s go together sometime.
KS: Let’s. Please.
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