Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Speed Queen: Milwaukee's Own BBQ Royalty

I actually wasn't sure exactly how to approach a review for Speed Queen, as the restaurant has both a fervently devoted following, but also a sort of legendary position in the city: it is a bridge, an icon of soul food; but with a sort of percarious position with some of the city's residents.

Last week, in an effort to not get heat stroke, I had cloistered myself in my Spancrete tomb in Little Serbia, watching old episodes of This American Life on my Roku, when a story really caught my attention. Act Three was about a hot dog stand in Chicago, in the relatively fashionable Lincoln Park neighborhood. The Weiner Circle, which sounds more like a Falcon film than a restaurant, has developed a reputation among patrons for its no-holds-barred attitude after dark, with trash-talking counter clerks and insult (and sometimes hot dog) throwing customers.

This concept isn't exactly new, as Milwaukeeans may recall Ed Debevic's downtown: of course, this was an offshoot of the original location in Chicago. Debevic's was a 50's style retro-dining experience, complete with all the chrome and formica you could ever imagine. Wait staff wore costumes straight out of Hairspray, threw straws at you, hollered if you asked for a glass of water, and danced to stock 50's hits every half hour. With all of the abuse came a wink and a nod, as the customers and the staff were sort of in on a joke: it was like dinner theater. Sure, you might get the stink eye from the guy with the horn rimmed glasses, but his name wasn't really Eugene in real life. Everyone played their parts, had their fun for a few hours, and went home to relatively normal lives.

The Weiner Circle isn't like that. The staff doesn't wear costumes, doesn't assume character names, and doesn't dance to 50's music: you're more likely to hear Lil Wayne or T.I. than Buddy Holly or the Shirelles. The affluent, almost exclusively white customers frequent the restaurant late night, usually in between or after spending some quality time examining the bottom of shot glasses. They're in their 20's or 30's, drunk, mostly male, and mostly obnoxious. They spit epithets at the staff, sometimes overtly racist or sexist, and the staff responds in kind. They'll shout for a "chocolate shake," which isn't an item on the menu. The women behind the counter know that's a cue to start bouncing in time, allowing even more slurs and block-headedness from the customers depending on how much of a tip they slam down on the counter. The owners view this as a sort of ramped-up version of Debevic's, my stomach just turns listening to it. All of the things that these boys feel, all of the pent-up thoughts and prejudices, the hate and the misconceptions all start flowing like the cheap booze they consumed earlier in the evening, because someone fired the first round years and years ago, and ever since then, late-nights are fair game.

It would seem this is an opportunity for these customers to make a "safe" trip to the inner city: it's slumming it without the actual risk of a rough neighborhood. It's nauseating.

I mention this because some people treat Speed Queen in a similar fashion: an opportunity to "slum it," but without the verbal abuse or racist undercurrents. I really resent this view: Speed Queen isn't located in Fox Point or Franklin, but it's not in Cabrini-Green, either. The staff at Speed Queen is friendly and accommodating, and while there may be the occaisonal panhandler, the parking lot at Speed Queen is no more interesting than your average East Side George Webb's. For some people in the Milwaukee area, Speed Queen, and the people who love it, might seem foreign. I, however, am one of the people who love it, and can't imagine it as a trip to the other side of the tracks: it's simply part of the fabric of my city, no different than any of the other long-time fixtures I remember as a child. I'm proud of that.

Speed Queen is located at the corner of 12th and Walnut, easily accessed via 43 N, and has an vast parking lot. The majority of Speed Queen's business is takeout, so the parking comes in handy: despite the large amount of traffic, you should never find yourself short of a spot. There is also a drive through, which is fine and dandy, but provided the lobby is open, I always like to order my dinner face-to-face. The menu is straightforward but a bit cryptic to the 'cue virgin. You have your choice of meat dinners, combination dinners, or half-and-half dinners. Meat dinners are a single cut of meat, a tiny cup of coleslaw, a couple of slices of white bread, and a cornbread muffin. Combinations (Pick 3) consist of two sides and a meat. Half and Half are two half portions of meat: this is probably the best bet if you want to keep your options open.

"Meats" include (pork) ribs, (pork) rib tips, (pulled pork) shoulder, beef brisket, chicken, turkey, and the ambiguous "outside." What makes "outside" even more interesting is the caveat on the menu: "when available." Well, I'll give it to you straight, because nobody was kind enough to explain it to me: "outside" is exactly what it says: the outside "bark" of the pork shoulder, crunchy, chewy, smoky, and meaty. After smoking for half a day, the "outside" is really the prize part of the shoulder, where the smoke ring is most potent, where fat has basted the meat into oblivion. You'll notice on the menu that Outside is more expensive than regular pork shoulder: there's a reason. It's worth it.

Sides consist of what I guess would be the essential soul food accompaniments: fries, yams, black-eyed peas, greens, Mac & Cheese, red beans and rice, spaghetti, baked beans, cole slaw, and potato salad, among others. These are available in an absurd number of sizes, from 2 oz to a full pan, however, some items are not available in some sizes. For instance, fries do not come in a 2 oz or 4 oz size, but do come in an 8 oz size, but not a pint, but they do come in a pan... let the brain melt begin.

The interior of Speed Queen is spartan: the menu board, a counter to place your order, a counter to pick it up, and a few orange plastic booths:

You can always call ahead with your order, as well, but being as anal retentive that I am, I don't think it hurts to order in person. Besides, a little wait in the lobby gives you some opportunity for conversation. 

And yes, it is a little disconcerting that the counter clerks are behind two inches of Lucite. And yes, it is a cash-only affair. Get over it. Plenty of places are cash only, and plenty of places have projectile-resistant glass. This really isn't news.

One thing I found myself a little dumbfounded about was the lack of space in the dining room, especially considering the size of the building, which is actually quite huge. What, exactly, is taking up all the space? The pit, of course. Most of Speed Queen is the kitchen and the pit, which was spewing a cloud of grayish smoke as we left, making my stomach growl even louder:

We ordered almost everything we could think of, included two pints of Mac & Cheese:

Two pints of Red Beans and Rice:

And some yams:

Andy and Jim ordered a Half & Half with Ribs and Outside:

Lauren ordered a Half & Half with Tips and Shoulder:

Marcia ordered straight Ribs:

and I ordered Half & Half Tips and Outside:

And, since I thought the preponderance of porcine products was partisan (PORK!), we ordered a beef brisket sandwich to share, as well:

Our dinners included the obligatory white bread, as well as cornbread muffins. And this, dear readers, is where the story momentarily takes a turn for the worst. 

Andy had warned me that when we got our food, it was in our best interest to inspect that everything we ordered be in the bags. We saw five boxes (five dinners), all of our sides, and a bag we imagined to be the beef sandwich. 

Of course, by the time we had made the trip from Speed Queen back to the Eating Milwaukee Impromptu Dining Hall, had our food unpacked and our appetites strung out like a truck stop hooker, we discovered that either Jim or Andy's dinner was missing. It was the sort of feeling one gets when one trusts a tele-marketer that they really and truly have an important message for you. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Andy and I drove back to Speed Queen, after calling them, to pick up our purloined provisions. 

 I would have looked for some sort of admission of guilt, other than offering to toss out the meal they had forgotten to place in our bag and replacing it with a fresh one. I used to have to comp entire meals at a restaurant I waited tables at because the kitchen took ten minutes too long... and that was when the guests were eating in! I'm not a schmuck, and I don't like exploiting other people's mistakes, but having to have a customer drive back to the restaurant, regardless of distance, because of a mistake made by the staff is, plainly put, unacceptable. Never should a business feel it is in such a comfortable position as to alienate any of its customers: treat every customer like they're your most important. No matter how good your product is, it is ultimately your service that will make or break you. This is too easy to forget, and too essential to let slide.

We finally got our dinner in its entirety, and set about to consume this massive feast:

The Mac & Cheese was delightful, if not a little gritty from the roux used to thicken the cheese sauce. It was cheesy, well seasoned, and had a nice kick of cayenne that I love so much about soul food. While not the sort of dish I think I could eat an entire meal of, it was a nice, cheesy compliment to the sweet, tangy barbecue.

The Red Beans and Rice were tasty, but lacked a certain kind of punch I guess I adore from the dish. I look for a deep, smokiness from pork hocks or Andouille sausage, and ours was well seasoned, it just lacked a certain depth of flavor that I've come to expect.

The yams were a complete shock for me. Richly spiced, sweet, buttery, sugary, and salty all at the same time: and not a mini marshmallow to be found. I have a new favorite side dish. 

Our cornbread muffins had the texture of what I'd imagine freeze dried pears to be: light, airy, dry and gritty. The cornbread flavor was there, all right, but they were completely devoid of any moisture, and I resorted to slathering them in butter, which is, of course, not a bad thing. Warmed and with butter they were edible, but certainly not a high point. 

The 'cue, however, was a different story entirely.

My tips were fantastic. Despite having to maneuver around the bone tips, the meat was tender, incredibly smoky, well-sauced, and even crispy in places. I rarely had a piece of pork that was the least bit fatty or laden with connective tissue. They were surprisingly meaty, and really a nice alternative to stand-alone ribs.

The beef brisket was a resounding success as well. Lightly smoked, but intensely "beefy," with the day-glo orange-red sauce slathered over top, this was quite possibly the biggest surprise of the meal. While a little dry, and just a bit tough, the texture was a nice match for the thick, sweet sauce and spongy white bread lurking beneath.

And then I tasted the Outside.

The best way I can describe it is by asking you to watch this short video:

It will be different for you than it was for me. I relished the chewiness, becoming ecstatic when my canines sunk into tender meat, and nearly intoxicated when I hit crunchy, crispy pieces which were smoked and basted into submission. This is what I want my barbecue to be.

While the sauce definitely had some bite to it, the Outside actually seemed spicier on its own... was it a rub? Or the intense smoke flavor? All of the above? It really doesn't matter, because the Outside is quite obviously some of the best Speed Queen has to offer, and I would have no qualms about making the trip again exclusively for it.

The sauce itself is sort of a quagmire: sweet, tangy, with a spice that kept making me think of Chinese Five-Spice. I've heard some people describe it as Sweet & Sour sauce, and some say that it combined with the ribs tastes like Char Siu. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it certainly isn't the thick, murky, molasses-colored stuff we're used to from the condiment isle at Sendik's. Bright, clean, and complimentary: I didn't taste the sauce on the meat as much as the meat plus the sauce, which I think is how it should be.

I think part of my initial disdain for the folks that look at Speed Queen like a Anthropology exhibit at the Field Museum comes from my own fear of appropriating Black culture: with everything mainstream white society has assimilated in the past two centuries, I didn't want to be seen as some sort of interested but uninvolved bystander, the role some of my fellow citizens seem to favor these days (just read some of the scornful comments on NewsWatch items on JSOnline). I don't want to be a tacky tourist, I just love good barbecue. When you allow yourself to reach that conclusion, and understand that barbecue doesn't belong to just one race, or one creed, one social or economic group, you can actually enjoy it. Food is an awesome equalizer in this way: everyone, no matter Black or White, Asian, Hispanic, or man or woman, straight or gay, or anything in between, loves good food.

So, let's drop the pretense here, Milwaukee. Go eat at Speed Queen. Get yourself some Outside, and enjoy the hell out of it. Just make sure you check your order thoroughly  before you leave for home, and don't say I didn't warn you...

Report Card:
Atmosphere: C
Speed Queen is not going to win any design awards. The lobby, counter, and dining area are all utilitarian, no frills.  There is really nothing about the dining room that would compel you to stay there and eat, which I think might explain the large amount of take-out business they do. 

Prices: B+
The portion-to-price ration is above average, and the quality is outstanding. I wouldn't call Speed Queen a value, but it certainly doesn't break the bank. Our entire bill, including five dinners, four pint sides, one small side, and a sandwich came to about $80. 

Service: D
Sorry guys, but forgetting items in the order on two separate visits shows there's some opportunity for growth in the kitchen. Everyone was nice enough, but the customer shouldn't have to double-check to make sure their own order is complete. 

The Food: B
Some bright shining amazing spots (Outside), some tasty surprises (Beef Brisket, Mac & Cheese, Yams), and some turkeys (the cornbread). Take the good with the bad. It's not called Speed Queen Cornbread, it's Speed Queen Bar-b-q, for Pete's sake. 

The Details:

Speed Queen Bar-B-Q
1130 W. Walnut St. 
Milwaukee, WI 53205
(414) 265-2900

Website with menu and pricing available here. 

Speed Queen Bar-B-Q on Urbanspoon


  1. After hearing for years about the vaunted Speed Queen I did indeed bike down from Shorewood to try them out since I was looking for a source to cater BBQ to an up-coming party.

    I ordered the ribs though I should have gotten the shoulder.

    Maybe it was the hype, but I went away very disappointed.

    The sauce was pinkish and thin. Not my standard for BBQ sauce. When I make ribs I slow cook them in vinegar to leech out the fat and then throw them on the grille for a crispy yet fall off the bone result. Here, the ribs in my opinion were underdone.

    Maybe it's me, but I do not appreciate the places Milwaukee raves about. I find Real Chili's chili to be like BBs in grease. Crawdaddy's jambalaya is no big whoop and overpriced. I don't know why people wait up to an hour to get seated.

    Found Speed Queen equally disappointing.

  2. If I ate at a bbq place where the ribs were pre-cooked, grilled, and fall off the bone tender I would be very disappointed. Speed Queen does it right, low and slow. The sauce is great (but I know a lot of people who don't like it). However I rarely order ribs as the shoulder is what you need to order at SQ. However I will say that Ashley's is better.

  3. Been going to Speed Queen for 30 years, the outside shoulder is what I ALWAYS get. Myself and my family love it....the BEST :)

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