Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Royal India

We've already established the supremacy of Indian cuisine, so I'm going to spare you my dissertation on why curry will set you free.

Royal India is, as is the tradition in Milwaukee for great food, located in a strip-mall in a less than chic part of town. Overlooking what has to be the largest Wal-Mart in the Midwest, and the ruins of Southgate, Royal India isn't particularly pretty.

The parking is dodgy, and traffic on 27th Street is a nightmare. But often with great struggle comes great rewards, and this is most certainly the case with Royal India.

Enter, and you're greeted by an ample dining room, softly lit and relatively clean. The usual smells of garlic, ginger, coriander, and cumin immediate storm your sniffer.

Dinner starts with the traditional Papadum,

Accompanied by the equally traditional trifecta of chutneys:

Bright red onion, dark thin tamarind, and paste-like mint.

Now, we've always been fans of Tandoor's home-made chutneys, but never really big cheerleaders for their Papadum. They always seem too salty, and the (ajwain?) seed throughout just give it an odd flavor.

Thankfully, Royal India's Papadum are much less salty, and spare us the odd seed-age. Combined with the tasty mint, sweet and sour tamarind, or absolutely sublime onion chutney, they serve as a delicious warm-up for the rest of the meal.

Did I mention that the onion chutney was superb? Our friendly server pointed out that most of the non-Indian patrons tend to perfer the tamarind, as the sweet-sour combo is familiar to us. However, we gobbled down almost the entire dish of the onion chutney, and were left wondering what, exactly, made it so cotton-pickin' tasty?

First, the onions are crunchy. Score one for texture. Second, the nuclear red marinade they're in is a bit sweet, but intensely sour, a little hot, but also a bit spicy... it's the most odd, fantastic combination. Try the onion chutney on just about anything... it'll make the meal.

We splurged a little on the highly affordable appetizers, ordering Chicken Pakora:


Veggie Pakora:

And Paneer Pakora:

Our helpful friendly server also brought us out each a cup of Masala Tea, aka Chai.

The chicken pakoras were, as would be expected, quite delicious. The meat was well seasoned if a bit chewy in places, and the chickpea batter crunchy and substantial.

The cheese pakoras were more of the same, with firm paneer and a spicy batter.

Not wanting to break with tradition, the veggie pakoras were very fine, with hunks of every vegetable in the garden. Surprise! Was that a battered, deep-fried leaf of spinach? I'm pretty sure it was.

While the samosas were tasty, they lacked the rich pastry texture of Tandoor's, and there was no mistaking the filling for anything else except mashed potatoes. I'll say the various pakoras probably scored either as good or better (in the case of the veggie pakoras) than the Tandoori equivalent, however, the samosas at Tandoor are by far and away the winners.

The Masala Chai was a nice surprise, with a mild sweetness, smoky spice, and rich creaminess. The tea served as an effective palate cleanser between appetizers, and the fat of the milk helped keep the spice of the meal under control.

Well, full yet? Excellent. Because it's time for the entrees!

Andy ordered Chicken Vindaloo:

While Lauren ordered Chicken Makhani (aka Butter Chicken) 

And I ordered Lamb Saag:

It should be noted that, despite having a (relatively) complicated order, involving multiple appetizers, breads, drinks, and entrées, the timing on all of our food was nearly perfect, neither cluttering up the table nor leaving us wondering when the next course was going to arrive.

Andy ordered his Vindaloo a Medium+ spice level, which our server told us was probably the upper limit for, er, pale Western European types. In retrospect, Andy says, he probably could have handled a full-fledged HOT, but was satisfied with a Medium+ nonetheless. Andy is kind of a man's man when it comes to spicing, through, so you kids at home don't feel bad about sticking to the mild stuff.

His Vindaloo was true to it's Portuguese/Goan roots: ultra-spicy, tomato, garlic and vinegar based gravy with chicken. This was in no way, shape or form just a manipulation of the house red curry; this was as true a Vindaloo as I've ever tasted. If spicy/sour is your thing, then Vindaloo is your dish.

However, if the intricacies and romance of Indian spicing are your true calling, then the Chicken Makhani might just be up your alley. The gravy is thick and rich, smacking of cream and butter, bright red with tomato, fragrant with garlic and spiced with a harmonious blend that never lets you forget it's Indian you're eating. The chicken tikka were tender and tasty and plentiful, and came together like a symphony with the curry.

My Lamb Saag was heaven. The creamed spinach was thick, thick, and even thicker yet. Realizing, of course, that creamed spinach curry isn't very photogenic, understand that the flavor belies the slightly unsavory sight of the dish.

India's love and respect for the dairy cow becomes readily apparent here: the Saag is a textbook outing of cream and butter, garlic, a little cumin, a little cardamom. Bits of red chili dot it, and my mild+ heat gave me just enough tongue-tingle to keep my interest. The lamb was beautifully cooked, tender and juicy, never tough, and never particularly lamb-y, if you catch my drift.

Combined with the fresh garlic naan (no picture, use your imagination), my Saag was a decadent treat, like licking the spoon after mixing a batch of brownies... something I'm keenly aware isn't healthy nor wise, but the sort of food-indulgence that one needs to engage in once in a while to keep from going completely off the deep end and eating an entire box of petit-fours. Which I did not do this Christmas. You can keep your accusatory stares and your tongue-clucking, thank you.

It bears repeating that our server was genuinely warm and helpful, talking and joking with us the entire time, even recommending better camera angles for the curry! He was quite proud of the food he was serving to us, taking the time to explain how everything in the kitchen, save the papadum, was home-made from scratch, and how he couldn't imagine using canned or pre-made anything.

I like it when my server is excited about the food I'm eating as I am.

We closed the meal with a little bowl of Gulab Jamun, lovely spheres of fresh cheese, deep fried and soaked in a rosewater syrup. Two of these sugary little suckers is plenty much, just a pleasant finish to a heavy and spicy meal.


I will always have a soft spot for Tandoor, but, as the old adage goes, you can never go home again. With Tandoor's new ownership comes a new menu and new flavors. We've been assured over and over that classic recipes haven't changed, yet on our last visit, it was all too obvious there are some subtle differences -- good, bad, or otherwise. As a break from tradition, Royal India satisfies with down-home Desi treats, the heavy curry comfort food that makes you want to take a long nap followed by an even longer night's sleep. 

I've heard some folks complain that the service is slow at Royal India, or that things aren't kept as clean as they ought to. Honestly, we didn't see any of that on any of our visits (admission: this wasn't our first rodeo). Despite the dining room being a bit quiet on our visit (it being the day after Thanksgiving, and all), there was a lot of carry-out traffic, so the kitchen was still busy enough to show potential slow-downs to us dining-room folks. 

We really enjoy Royal India, and we think it offers a nice change of pace from some of our other Indian standbys in the city. It's always good to have options, and we believe Royal India should be at the top of the list when you get the hankerin' for some curry...

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B-
It's quiet, intimate, and generic enough to be pretty much any kind of restaurant except German. Don't let the chairs stolen from a Greek family restaurant fool you, there is some Asha Bhosle playing from the overhead speakers. I'd say the only thing I really could dock the place for was the faulty dimmer which controlled the pendant lamps over the tables -- they'd blink high-low every couple of seconds, and pretty soon, I developed a pretty wicked eye-twitch.

Prices: B+
We're firmly in the $10-$15 range for entrées, but the portions are fair, and the food quality is peerless. Appetizers are inexpensive and the options are plentiful 

Service: A
Quick and gabby, and not the least bit shy about recommendations. It's a pleasant change to have a server who is actively engaged with customers. 

The Food: A-
Curries, executed essentially flawlessly, and consistently to boot. A few minor missteps in the samosas can be easily forgiven, I imagine samosa recipes are a lot like chili recipes: everyone thinks theirs is the best. 

The Details:

Royal India Restaurant
3400 S. 27th St.
Milwaukee, WI 53215
(414) 647-9600

Royal India on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tam's Chop Suey

If you've ever driven past Tam's (and, chances are, if you live on the South Side, you have), you probably thought it was for sale. Maybe even abandoned for at least a few years. The building's paint is faded in places, peeling in others, the neon signs hang precariously, and the lot has, in the summer months, weeds spewing forth from every imaginable crack.

No, Tam's Chop Suey doesn't look like much. But that's okay. Because if you've learned anything from Eating Milwaukee, dear reader, it's that looks can be deceiving.

First, let's get something straight: Tam's is not a gourmet Chinese restaurant. Don't expect any baroque ingredients, any preparations with XO sauce, or intricately carved radishes shaped like roses. Tam's is an old-school Chinese restaurant, the sort of place your grandparents would go to when they felt like eating something really exotic. Like shrimp egg foo young.

Tam's interior is simple. Walk in, and you're immediately at a take-out counter, complete with a large, mostly impertinent visual directory of some of the items on the menu. Behind the counter, a tiny Chinese sparkplug paces back and forth, waiting for her favorite customers to come in and pick up their take out. Open the door on any given evening, and you'll hear her distinct shout, "Helllloooooo!" with the tone and cadence of greeting a long lost friend.

Tam's does a very brisk take-out business. In fact, you'll see more folks sitting on the benches by the counter waiting for their take-out order than you'll see sitting in the dining room. I'll be the first to admit, I usually order take-out from Tam's, too. They offer a huge assortment of lunch specials, and due to their proximity to my workplace, my co-workers and I have been known to order lunch two, three, or even four times a week.

But this is about the dinners, dear readers, and I thought, for a change, we should dine in. So, on a cold and blustery December evening, we took the trip to Milwaukee's most haunted looking Chinese joint.

Inside, Tam's is a blast from the past. You can tell, in decades past, couples would pull up in monstrous Detroit Landyachts with Opera Lights lit, step out onto a weed-free parking lot, and tuck into a night on the town, starting with some of that mystical and wonderfully foreign "Oriental" food. Now, things are a little on the run-down side. I'll forgive that, providing that the kitchen stays clean and the food stays tasty.

The dining room is nothing to write home about, dimly lit and with a few typical Chinese décor touches. The bathrooms, well, er, just go before you go out to dinner. And tell Timmy to sip his soda. Slamming Pepsi after Pepsi is only going to get him a very uncomfortable ride home. And we all remember how that ended last time

The menu is lush, but easy to navigate. True to the old-school Chinese restaurant roots, Tam's menu is divided by meats, with sections for poultry, beef, seafood, and vegetarian choices. The owners are happy to accommodate, and will gladly cook off-menu for you, if they have the ingredients, and will add/subtract anything to suit tastes.

We started out with the usual appetizers for a traditional old-school Chinese feast.

Tam's fantastic peanut-butter and Chinese five-spice infused egg rolls:

Deep-fried (but also available as steamed and pan-fried) potstickers:

and Cantonese shrimp:

I think everyone I know adores Tam's egg rolls. Filled with a flavorful balance of cabbage and meat, with the wrappers at the perfect nexus of crispy and chewy, Tam's doesn't try anything avant-garde here. These are the egg rolls that I remember from the long-gone dining rooms of China Town and Peach Garden (okay, I know these places are still in business, but nothing like they used to be...). Egg rolls seem to be a barometer for Chinese/American restaurants these days: bite into one and find crunchy, uncooked cabbage and red-dyed "meat," your meal will probably leave you disappointed. Luckily, Tam's egg rolls are fantastic, and doused in their bizarre thin, watery hot mustard, and they're sublime.

I have strong feelings about deep-fried dumplings. It's kind of like deep-fried Oreos or deep-fried carrots... just things that have no business being crispy. But, Tam's makes it work. The dumplings are filled with a tasty meat mixture, and the size of the dumplings makes them manageable, but still in danger of becoming mouth-shrapnel. My advice: if you like dumplings the way I like dumplings, order them steamed. You'll be happier.

The Cantonese fried shrimp are HUGE. Freakin' gargantuan. Served with a nuclear-orange sweet and sour sauce, they're tasty, but a bit on the greasy side. Maybe I'd be more excited about them with a different dipping sauce. Maybe chili sauce?

Andy ordered General Tso's Chicken (which normally features baby corn as well, but since the great Mielke versus Baby Corn War of 1857, Andy has sworn off the tiny ears)

While Lauren ordered the multiple-mushroom chicken:

And I ordered the Hot Braised Chicken:

Andy, in keeping with EM tradition, ordered his General Tso's chicken a fiery hot. Despite this, the sauce was pleasantly sweet and sour, rich and flavorful, without being overly sugary or vinegar-y, which can be a downfall of most chain-like Chinese.

Lauren's Chicken with Three Mushrooms (not three physical mushrooms, but three kinds of mushrooms) was outstanding. I might go so far as to say it was the star dish of the evening. The chicken was tender but never jelly-like, the mushrooms (and I'm not entirely sure the varieties used) were fresh and flavorful, but the sauce... oh, the sauce! Deep, rich, and mushroom-y, salty, a little sweet, full of mouth-watering umami and the occasional crunch of fresh green onion. I would, despite not being the mushroom-fiend that Lauren is, order this again in a heartbeat.

My Hot Braised Chicken was a nice change of pace. Battered and fried chunks of chicken in a sweet and sour sauce which, strangely enough, tasted nothing like the General Tso's sauce. A little tangy, nice and sweet, with some red chili punch, not at all flavored like ketchup or duck sauce. Sliced water chestnuts, carrots and bamboo shoots rounded out the Necessary Veggie Quotient. A Hmong friend at work had ordered Hot Braised Pork at work in the past, and gave it a passing grade, so I figured the chicken wouldn't be far behind, and in that, I was mostly right. 

I think my biggest misgiving about my entrée was that the chicken was battered and fried. I'm not entirely sure where the whole "braised" part comes in, since it would appear that, save the garlic in the sauce, nothing in the dish endured a braise. Pair the battered chicken bits with a hot sauce, and suddenly the batter is slipping off faster than a soccer mom's blazer at a Justin Bieber concert. Just savor that image for a while. Lost your appetite yet?

Well, that's too bad, I guess I'll just have to eat your portion of Triple Lobster Sauce. Pictured here, with our old nemesis, Egg Roll, Photo Bombing the poor thing. 

I really like Tam's Triple Lobster Sauce. I actually kind of love it. Oh, who am I kidding? I'm addicted to the stuff. I'll order it weekly for dinner, to be sure, and every time I call, the owner knows it's me, and chuckles to herself as I order the exact same thing.

But this is fantastic. Better than fantastic. This is a rare breed: a cross of actually authentic Chinese cooking and saucemaking with the American need for More. Lobster Sauce has no lobster in it, but rather it was served with lobster. While there may be a lobster in every pot in China, we're not quite so fortunate here in snowy Wisconsin, so the more typical American preparation is shimp in lobster sauce. 

Lobster sauce is a harmony of strong, potent flavors: black fermented soybeans, garlic, pork, wine, egg, and green onion. Sure, it sounds like a nightmare. Actually, it sort of looks like one, too. But the flavor is immense and unmistakable. Dark, murky, rich, and chock full of funky rotten bean and garlic flavor. You have to be a fan of the ferment to get down with this one, but close your eyes and tell yourself it's just soy sauce you taste... you'll be in Lobster Sauce Oblivion and you'll never know those beans started life lily-white. 

Tam's lobster sauce is dead-on, probably one of the better ones I've tasted in the city (excepting my own, of course). The liquid has the right mouth feel, thick and unctuous with a little bit of fat supplied by the ground pork. The black beans give their all, making a flavor that is completely unique but instantly recognizable, even by someone who has never had the dish before. 

Of course, you can get just shrimp in your lobster sauce. But Triple Lobster Sauce makes things a little more interesting, adding chicken and beef to the mix. The shrimp are on the, well, shrimpy side, both in size and flavor, with a little more iodine than I'm fond of, but I gladly put up with it for the rest of the dish. Chicken and beef fall in line, with the chicken being tender and the beef being a bit more chewing, giving you all sorts of awesome textural contrast in each bite. 

Please, do me a favor, though... don't put any soy sauce on any of Tam's food. The owners season everything perfectly, and add soy (which, oddly, was Kikkoman, which is a Japanese product...) and you've got a veritable salt-lick on your plate. No, nothing we ordered really needed any seasoning at all.


I know there are faster, cheaper, and more authentic Chinese restaurants in Milwaukee. I know this. But Tam's is a pleasant throwback, a nostalgic gastronomic time capsule, a way to re-connect with some of the food that made me love food in the first place. I can remember the smells as the server at Peach Garden would, with a little bit of theatre, lift the cover off the stainless steel serving dish of my Hong Sue chicken, watch as platters of noodles and mu shu pancakes came out of the kitchen. On another day, my dad and I would walk to the Washington Park Lagoon, maybe fish for a while, and Asian families would gather on the shores with camp stoves and woks, cooking their catch only minutes after cleaning them, and those same luscious smells would waft over. 

At Tam's, I smell those same smells. I delight as my dinner is brought out in those same stainless steel serving dishes, now a little careworn with the years. I can see the same family passion for food as I saw at Washington Park when I was six, and I feel a little vindicated. Tam's is a little frayed, a little long in the tooth. But the food is what matters here, and it is an exercise in reminiscing. I'll keep going back, as long as the Lobster Sauce is still funky, and the owner still greets me as her favorite customer who works at a funeral home...

Report Card:
Atmosphere: C+
With so few people eating in the dining room these days, it sort of feels like a ghost town. Nothing is particularly pretty, but you're not there to eat the décor. Still, it would be nice if there were a few other diners around...

Prices: A-
Portion sizes are absolute huge. Food quality is good. And if you'd like, when you order carry out, you can get a "single" portion, which is enough for a large lunch or comfortable dinner with no leftovers. Most "single" portions are in the $6-8 range.

Service: A
The service in the dining room was fantastic, but carry-out is equally wonderful. I always tip when I do carry out, and the owner always blushes, thanks me, then scolds me for tipping. Everyone is always pleasant, smiling, and ready to talk your ear off. I don't think I've ever seen her frown.

The Food: B
Tam's doesn't break any new Chinese/American food ground. But it is damn tasty, and brings back a lot of memories for me. For a step above the New Super A-Number-1 China Wall restaurants that are popping up faster than Walgreens', this is a nice option.

The Details:

Tams Chop Suey
6725 W. Layton Ave. 
Greenfield, WI 53220
(414) 281-8877

Hellaciously laid out but nevertheless informative website available here

Tam's Chop Suey on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pancake Smackdown 2010: The Real Deal

All warm and fluffy, they're the ultimate winter comfort food. Drizzled in entirely synthetic Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, a pad of butter sliding lazily across the top of the stack, the common flapjack is one of the most innocuous things I can think of. Until SIX POUNDS of them are set in front of you...

Such was the scene at the Eatery on Farwell's Pancake Smackdown for Charity, where our own Andy competed against seven other valiant eaters for the coveted Butterworth Belt.

The full roster of competitive eaters is as follows:
  • Pat Nettesheim - Guitars for Vets
  • Andy *****  - BESTD Clinic
  • Tim Cigelske - Crohn's and Colitis Foundation
  • Dan Augustine - Milwaukee Animal Rescue Center
  • Mike Beyers - Independence First
  • Tim Panicucci - Celebrating Brad: A Tribute to Art and Life
  • Phil Gerb - Brew City HDI
  • Paul Fredrich - Transition Milwaukee
Andy and I had an awesome time, and got to hang out with a ton of our friends in the Food Blogosphere... something we don't get to do half as often as we like. A big shout out to our friends Paul and Lori from Burp! blog... it's always a blast, and we can't wait for the next Milwaukee Foodie Tweetup!

The full gallery of pictures from the even is available after the jump:

Pancake Smackdown

Also, a big shout-out to the Eatery's owner, Ryan and Social Media Guru David for putting this whole flapjack-stuffing fiasco together!

Oh, and just in case you were wondering... Eating Milwaukee came in Second Place which, as luck would have it, only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and eating competitions!