Thursday, September 1, 2011

Day One: The National

Day one: I'm still not sure. 

I'm not sure I know what I'm doing, I'm not sure if I'm doing it right, and I'm not sure if I deserved to be hyped as participating in the "Eat Local Challenge." I had a chimichanga from Grebe's at lunch today, and a hard roll from Sendik's for breakfast. Is that really making an effort? Is it too early (er, day one, Joe...) to start scolding myself? And what did I expect, after all, us being a restaurant blog? I'm not sure.

I do know that I'm excited. I'm excited not so much in the Christmas Morning way, but more of the way you feel when you see a thunderhead on the horizon: still a little far off, but looming, dark, full of friction and electricity and entropy and excitement, and maybe a little danger, a little risk. Bringing the blog back online, bringing myself further into the fold of the food community in Milwaukee, and meeting people chipping away at making a difference, and finding out I'm a lot like them: this is very, very cool. Milwaukee, big things are comin' your way, girl. Get your hairs did and your nails painted, 'cause I can see a thunderhead on the horizon, and I feel like the Eat Local Challenge, food blogs, and #MKEFoodies is just the beginning. So, with that excitement, and my nagging lack of surety, I forged ahead to our first Eat Local Challenge Restaurant Of The Day (or ELCROTD, for short).

The National.

If you've ever taken the National Avenue / 6th Street Exit from 94/43 to get to Walker's Point, you have undoubtedly driven past The National. Maybe you've even wondered what it is, with it's large swath of Cream City Brick bedecked in a painted mural. Maybe, you're like me: never in Walker's Point during The National's business hours (ahem). Maybe, you already know it and love it. We're going to hope that everyone, by the time the Eat Local Challenge is over, falls into the last category.

The interior of The National is requisite funky and mod, with art on the walls, cool lighting, big pleather banquettes, and some nice exposed brickwork.

Being the lighting dork that I am, I was immediately hooked by the dangling clear globes near the cooler:

But smart interior design and clever lighting isn't really what The National is about, I found. General Manager Jean explained to me the rationale behind The National's sustainability and local ingredients initiatives as I swooned over a tray of pumpkin Whoopie Pies:

She told me how The National looks for every opportunity to bring in local ingredients, from the dairy and eggs in the bakery, to coffee, beers and sodas. 

You see, The National isn't exactly a three-piece-suit kind of restaurant: it's a casual hang-out spot, a place where the menu shifts with what's available at a given time, where a brunch is a relaxed, informal affair. A place where the breakfast burrito is slightly larger than your head:

As Jean spooned out smooth and ripe avocado, she told me about her passion for the restaurant, and for local ingredients. I watched her spoon vegan bean spread across the huge wheat tortilla, and we talked about what brought the both of us to our current places in life:

Jean never set out to manage a restaurant, she told me. As a former case worker, she thrived on the interactions she had with the people she worked with, though, and the restaurant was a perfect fit for her. 

We chuckled about past jobs as she cracked eggs into a sauté pan, and told me about the tofu version of the burrito. 

"It's local tofu," she told me, "totally awesome."

The holy mix of omelette, onions, peppers, local cheddar cheese, and the fabulous bean dip made for a fantastic snack on my empty stomach that night, and an awesome breakfast the next day. Yes, it really is that big. The accompanying salsa is bursting with onion and garlic, and made everyone in the office wonder if we had opened up a small produce stand betwixt the computers and BizHub.

Next we examined the seasonal salad, served today with strawberries and blueberries over mixed greens, accompanied by the tomato walnut pesto soup, a piquant and intriguing concoction, indeed:

The greens were bright and excruciatingly fresh, topped off with the tart and romantic strawberries, and those darlings of Wisconsin summers, the big plump blueberries. The soup was a complete surprise: sharp and bold, creamy and chunky in the same instant. The walnuts gave a big, assertive body to the soup: when some co-workers tried it, they immediately commented, "tastes almost beefy!"

Of course, The National also offers a number of consistent and seasonal wraps and sandwiches, so it pays to check the menu out on a regular basis (daily isn't such a bad thing):

The National also features a plethora of baked goodies, and I was honored to consume (very quickly, I might add) the delectable Whoopie Pie pictured above, as well as some of the Orange Dream bread perched, beckoning to me, next to the register:

Add in the inky dark iced coffee as I drooled over The National's gorgeous espresso machine:

Jean said in a justifiably proud tone, "How can you not love that machine?"

The National offers a number of locally brewed beers:

best enjoyed, as I found out, on the secret, tucked-away patio at the back of the restaurant. Both mildly secluded and boasting a pleasant view of busy National Avenue, the patio is centered around a gently gurgling fountain:

I spent almost two hours talking to Jean, and we went on and on about everything: food, politics, life in general -- and I get the drift that our conversation wasn't an exception, rather the rule. The folks at The National are passionate about what they do, the food they serve, the community they support. I walked in to The National not having a real clear idea about what I was going to ask, or how my time was going to actually play out. I left feeling like I had already made new friends, added new allies, and found a new favorite hang out. I wasn't so unsure anymore.


I'm not sure I could have chosen a better way to start the challenge: manager Jean and owner Michael were so incredibly accommodating and enthusiastic, instead of questioning who exactly this rotund guy with a Nikon actually is, they welcomed me with open arms, and shared with me their unmistakable passion: making Milwaukee a better, happier, cooler place -- one breakfast burrito at a time. It was a blast to meet them, and an even bigger honor to highlight them here.

Looking for a new spot to try during the challenge? Put The National on your short list, and then keep it at the top of your list for new and interesting soups, sandwiches, and bakery -- all incorporating the best of what area farmers and artisanal producers, like Braise RSA, Vern's Cheese, Simple Soyman, and the Spice House have to offer. You'll thank me...

Contact Info:

The National Café
839 W. National Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53204
Excellent website with tons of great info HERE

The National - Cafe and Takeaway on Urbanspoon


  1. Joe! Somehow I missed this article (ahem, probably because you never posted in on our Facebook wall, ahem). But the pictures are GORGEOUS! Thanks for all your great feedback and time we had together. Stop back again soon & we'll chat again.


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