Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Take a Walk on the North Side -- Milwaukee's Asian Markets

My coworker, Phia, is a man of few words. Few, rushed, and often excited words. One day, very much out of the blue (as he's wont to do), he approached me after our morning meeting.

"Gotta new pho place! Asian markets! Tasty!" 

Phia had me at pho.

If you've been a constant reader (and if you have, I apologize, and owe you a debt of gratitude for sticking with us for these three-odd years), you'll know our romance with pho hasn't been an incredibly long one, but riddled with bouts of fiery passion that truly magnificent love affairs often are. 

We've tried good. We've tried meh. We've even been to Hue... the restaurant, not the city, and we liked it... a lot. But really hardcore-authentic pho has been a bit of Beowulfian legend -- traded back and forth in hushed tones in back-alleys and drawn as daydreams in foodie's multi-subject Mead notebooks like so much study hall fodder. Well, Milwaukee, we've found the pho of your dreams. And a lot of other really, really cool food, too. You might even want to try the tripe. 

First, a bit of background: Milwaukee's Asian Markets Phongsavan (which is the business' full title) is, as its name might imply, a market. Like, plywood stalls, chicken wire, everything-under-the-sun market, with hawkers and alien produce and all the smells and sights and lack of climate control you can imagine in an actual Asian Market. Many of the market's customers are Hmong, although you'll find Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai goods and folks there, among many others. 

The building was previously a transmission workshop, and the owners plan on remodeling the current space, as well as adding a massive building next-door, in the coming years. Right now, the building is a little homely, and it's easy to mistake it for a warehouse or factory. But step inside, my friends, and you are suddenly half a world away...

There's a large grocery section in the market, well stocked and with what seems to be very good turn-over, meaning what's on the shelf seems to move fairly quickly. I was particularly excited to find Red Boat brand fish sauce -- something I had heard about but only now get to experience. 

Stalls of domestic products line the aisles, ranging from innocuous aspirin to slightly intimidating herbs and barks. 

Beautiful fabrics and traditional garments hang willy-nilly, helping complete the journey from North-side Milwaukee to South-Pacific

People here are happy, social, and warm: you may not share a language, but you can share the experience, and everyone we've ever encountered is happy to be a part of it.

In the back of the market is the produce and food stall area (which is where all the action is, of course!), and if a foodie heart beats in your chest, it will arise and thunder at the sight of so many exotics:

Here, our own Adam concentrates curiously at copious containers of chilis, 

only to make dear and life-long friends with a squash(?) a few moments later. Yes, that is the grin of satisfaction on his face.(?)

I thought maybe Adam had found Waldo when he shouted across the room, "OH! LOOK!" which was, to my dismay, followed with, "I actually know what this is! That's some big ginger!"

Big ginger, indeed, Adam, but we weren't here to ogle the produce... we were here for some pho. Some really serious pho. And I was going to get some, big ginger or not. 


A lot of the food is prepared early in the day, and when it's gone, it's gone -- we had our friends from CBS This Morning with us for our review, and by the time we got set up, established lighting, let our awesome imprimatur and EM "superfan" Sr. Stella talk about how awesome we all are (duh), and ordered, a lot of the prepared food available at the stalls was already sold out. Sad face.

This is where Phia chimes in:

"Well, yeah! Get to the market at 11am! That's when everything is still there!" 

Which was really great advice... the next day.

It didn't dilute our spirits, though, or our thirst, and we all ordered rounds of bubble tea.

Poor Adam: it seems every single picture I took of the evening somehow involved him.

The stand which sells bubble tea also has delicious Vietnamese Summer Rolls (gỏi cuốn), which we made quick work of. 

The rolls were everything that a great summer roll should be: a chorus of textures, crisp lettuce, chewy noodles, substantial roast pork, crunchy shrimp (yes, that's the way I'd describe a cooked shrimp), bound together with rich, sweet, hoisin-infused peanut sauce.

The bubble teas, at least on this outing, were nothing to write home about. In the past, I've watched as a ripe mango was de-boned right in front of me, tossed into a blender with ice and Lord only knows what else, and blended to a smooth finish, studded with tapioca pearls. Sadly, all the ripe mangoes seem to have been de-boned, because our bubble teas were of the too-sweet variety made with powdered fruit flavor. 


During the summer months, the dining area is indoor/outdoor, and is exposed to both the heat of the day, and any insect friends that may buzz their way towards your plate.


The pho is quite divine.

When ordering pho, you'll be faced with two very important decisions. The first of which is, Regular Pho or Special Combination Pho.

Regular Pho is filled with everything you'd expect out of pho from an American restaurant: delicious, plentiful meats that everyone's grandmother would never turn her nose up at. If you're new to pho, this is where you probably want to start.

The Special Combination Pho, however, offers a veritable cornucopia of meaty vittles, including, but certainly not limited to:

  • Roast Pork
  • Krab
  • Meatballs
  • Shrimp
  • Tendon
  • Tripe
  • Brisket
The second decision you'll be confronted with is size: huge, or mega-honkin'-gut-buster-gargantuan. 

The pork is absolutely amazing. Rich, rich, rich roasted flavor, fatty, meaty, golden brown skin and chewy-in-the-fun-way lean meat. Brisket is good, although it tends to be pretty well done by the time it arrives on the table (I love my brisket rare). Meatballs have that familiar, strange density and cheese-curd squeakiness that we all love so much. The Krab is, well, still Krab, and the shrimp have ranged (on different visits) from perfect, fresh, and crisp, to over-done and iodine-y. Your milage may vary.

The Pho Broth, which, let's face it, is really the raison d'être here, is marvelous. Rich and full of palate-pulverizing umami goodness (did you hear that? It's the sound of my physician reminding me about my already-too-high blood pressure! Sodium ahoy!), it dances nicely around the big meaty bullies, glances off the pungent green onions, and wraps around the chewy rice noodles like a well-worn blanket.

Each table in the dining area of the market is well-equipped with a tray of pretty much anything you'd ever want to dunk in your pho, including:

  • Soy Sauce
  • Hoisin Sauce
  • Sriracha
  • Hmong Hot Pepper Sauce (aka, pain and suffering... today and tomorrow)
  • Ground Peanuts
  • Pickled Chili
  • Beef Base
And, let us not forget our friendly trays of pho accompaniments:

Thai Basil, bean sprouts, lime, and chili. Fairly standard.

Did I mention there was tripe in the Special Combo Pho? Yeah, it's a little leathery, a little gritty, and a little like chewing on a wet napkin, but there's also something very... macho... about it. I usually ask the folks at the counter to cut back on the tripe... just a little to remind me of the humble beginnings to pho, but not enough to frustrate the experience. 

Also on the menu for the evening was a chicken curry, which has a lovely Thai name I can't remember. Immediately, I thought of Tom Kha Kai, a heavenly Thai coconut chicken curry soup. There's Thai red curry paste here, and lemongrass -- the coconut broth was light, with a little acidic brightness and citrus notes. Still, it lacked a satisfying punch -- tasty, but probably not the sort of thing I could make an entire meal of.

Roast pork was sadly absent, but there was still plenty of roast chicken and sticky rice to go 'round.

The mangled chicken carcasses were nothing too pretty -- and the well-done meat was a bit dry, but I think I understand what the chicken could be if we were to arrive at the market at, say, 11am, as Phia had suggested. Still, the skin was a beautiful mahogany, and the flavors were there -- but the texture was a bit off. I'm going to chalk this one up to it having been 8pm by the time we actually were able to eat.

Is there anyone who hates sticky rice? Certainly none of the Eating Milwaukee staff -- even when you're busy making network television, and the rice congeals into a massive brick of starch, it's still delicious, ripped apart by hand and used as everything from fork and spoon to bread and napkin. 

While we were a little late in ordering, the pho stall also offers delicious Lao sausage, with all of the garlic, ginger, and lemongrass sass you can handle. I was terribly disappointed that they had run out -- next to the pho, this is one of my favorite dishes the stall offers.


Milwaukee's Asian Markets are probably off most of Milwaukee's radar. I couldn't blame someone for not knowing about them: tucked away, without a proper sign, no advertising, and a bit of culture shock waiting for the average caucasian Milwaukeean. Yet, if one were to be frightened off by the exotic nature of the markets and the very real-life Laotian or Thai or Vietnamese market atmosphere, they would be missing a wonderful experience in spite of its strongest traits. This is not the Ethnic Foods aisle at Pick 'N' Save, and it's not Super A-Number-One Chinese. This is the market of cultures displaced from their homelands, a market made to comfort and assuage as much as it is to peddle and hawk. Not too long ago, neighborhoods of Germans and Poles had markets not too different -- selling food, clothing, and household items from home, a little bit of comfort in a country so dissimilar from their own, a place where customs, language and landscape are so foreign to seem an entirely different planet. Communities are built around these markets, and an identity, an integral part of America's diverse patchwork of cultures and traditions, is forged in the intermingling of natives and new sons and daughters.

Go, and visit. Listen, and learn. Oh, and watch us on CBS This Morning -- it's only fitting that the crazy food blog gets national media attention at the equally outrageous and equally lovable (ahem) Asian Markets.

Report Card:

Atmosphere: A- / C+
Why two grades? Well, there's two very different ways of looking at this. Either you're completely turned off by an un-climate-controlled dining area with flies, or you see it as an authentic experience and enjoy the change of pace. I'll let you decide what camp you fall into.

Prices: A-
$8-$9 for a huge bowl of pho, filled to the brim with meat, is the deal of the century. Hmong egg rolls are something like $1 a crack, and Lao sausage is $4. You really can't beat that with a stick.

Service: B
Despite being counter-service-only, the folks at the food stalls are glad to bring your food to you, bring you napkins, boundless glasses of ice water, and anything else you made need to trim your pho like a spicy, beefy Christmas wreath. I understand I pushed the bounds of the simile there.

The Food: B+
Some hits, some misses -- the challenge here is, there are days the food is phenomenal, and there are days when it's merely okay. The grade, therefore, reflects more the lack of consistency of exceptional taste, not the actual lack of quality.

The Details:

Milwaukee's Asian Markets Phongsavan
6300 N. 76th St.
Milwaukee, WI 53218

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Staff of Eating Milwaukee attend SlōPig!

After far, far too long, we present to you...

Was that dramatic enough? Excellent.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

#MKEFoodies Get Branded at Iron Horse Hotel!

It's been another month since Harbor House (remember when I embarrassingly put the title up of Harbor Room? Yeah, that was pretty bad. Sorry, Harbor House!).

For February, the goofy, rag-tag bunch of Milwaukee Foodies met up at Iron Horse Hotel's bar Branded, and a good time was had by all. That is, everyone except Magirck, who I kept blasting in the eyes with my flash. Sorry, Rachel!

While there, those of us who drink (some of your trusty Eating Milwaukee staff are tee-totalers, after all) were treated to what I'm told are some of the tastiest (and strongest) Old Fashioned's in the city (and that's saying something in the MKE).

We also were treated to duck and tuna steak sliders (duck pictured):

breaded, deep-fried aubergines (I'm done using the word Eggplant. Aubergine is so much more elegant), and Magirck and I sampled some Truffle-Chips:

Fresh potato chips kissed with truffle oil and parmesan cheese, as well as the Duck Nachos:

The staff was quite helpful with Magirck's GF dietary requirements, too!

Our dear friend, Nate, who, if you should ever see him on the street, is lovingly referred to as "Pumpkin," guts'd a gargasmicly sized cheese steak:

Upon seeing such a huge plate of sliced steak, onions, and cheese, Nate was immediately stricken with an acute case of Bro-Face:

While his lovely bride, Nicole, ordered the beer-cheese soup en-pain:

Observers says Nicole became exceedingly contemplative and gained 25 IQ points after eating her soup...

Greg Sampson, the Anthony Sullivan of Wisconsin-produced Cherry products, was on hand to evangelize CherryLand's Best cherries (boy howdy, do those pictures look delicious! I wonder who shot them?), and to help announce the winner of the Great Wisconsin Cherry Recipe Contest!

Things got crazy and almost surreal when Dude Food's Nick suggested the Iron Horse kitchen staff chocolate-cover, batter, and deep fry an entire Harley motorcycle:

At which point Magirck turned into a Muppet and we all got dizzy and fell down the end:

If you'd like to see the whole photo album for our visit to Iron Horse's Branded, you can click below:

Iron Horse
All in all, we had a blast, and would like to thank the staff of Iron Horse for making us feel welcome, and for not calling the FBI or CDC on us while we were there!

Branded at The Iron Horse Hotel on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Eating Milwaukee starts publishing all those press releases we keep getting!

Since we started doing this website, we've been innundated with press releases, special offers, and heads-up about every variety of restaurant, bar, and product under the sun. Up until now, I've filed them away in our "Someday" file, with the hope of finding something to do with them.

Today is that day -- we're launching our exciting! new! restaurant news! page, with the hopes of helping out Milwaukee businesses who would like to get the word out about something or other.

Check back often to the "News" tab for postings about special events and offers, which, of course, we don't endorse but merely provide as a service to our readers.

Just remember, we don't get paid for anything we post. Just so we're clear ;)

And, because I spent about six hours putting together this post's header graphic, here's the entire paper, in full-res glory:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

G. Mirch Masala: Indo-Pak In Unlikely Places

Anyone who knows anything about us, or has read the blog in the last three years knows that we here at Eating Milwaukee love Indian food. When we first started going to Tandoor, my thoughts immediately turned to Shah Jee, a (literal) hole-in-the-wall my mother and I used to frequent on my days off in high school. I thought, "Ahhh, I remember these flavors..." but what I failed to connect was that Shah Jee was indeed Pakistani food, and that Indian and Pakistani cuisine share so many flavors, despite being very distinct sets of cooking traditions.

Fast forward to 2012, and we're all a bit older, a bit wiser, and a bit... er, gray-er -- and Andy and Lauren are raving to me about G. Mirch Masala -- "You've got to try it!" Lauren would beg, practically drooling over the thought of plate upon plate Indo-Pak goodness. So, we made a date, and I drove over that invisible continental divide between the North and South sides known as I-94, to check out what all the hype is about.

The first think you'll notice about G. Mirch Masala is its location: in a building which formerly housed The King & I Thai. At the intersection of 76th Street and Good Hope, G. Mirch Masala lives in a very unique part of town. The Northern suburbs are living proof of what White Flight and urban sprawl can do to a city: houses abandoned and boarded up, businesses vacant, and empty lots, maybe once occupied by now burnt-down residences or maybe never built upon in the first place -- an area that population and economies simply couldn't support. 

Despite the slightly depressed neighborhood, G. Mirch Masala does a lively business, with a popular lunch buffet, and substantial night-time dinner crowds. The night we went, we came late, and missed most diners, but Andy and Lauren assured me the restaurant is consistently busy. The exception, of course, is during Ramadan -- Andy said, "I think we were pretty much the only people in here that day."

I started my meal off with a mango lassi:

The lassi was incredibly thick, something that was abated as the ice melted. The thick, tangy yogurt blended with milk, sugar, and mango puree made the perfect palate cleanser to the tongue-tingling meal to follow. 

The table agreed to order Samosas, three ways:

Beef and Chicken: 

which both used similar phyllo-dough exteriors, and traditional vegetable Samosas:

which were wrapped in the traditional, more crumbly pastry shell.

I can't say I've ever actually seen a beef Samosa before, mainly because we tend to frequent more Indian restaurants than Pakistani, and I'd have to say I'd be slightly turned off at an Indian restaurant offering beef anything.

The veg Samosas were tasty and brightly spiced, with chunky potatoes packing the tender pastry. The beef Samosas were equally well spiced, but I'd have to say that the texture of ground beef freaks me out just a little bit -- it reminds me of tater tot casserole in the lunch room as a kid. 

The chicken Samosas were dead on -- perfect little bits of chicken with enough heat to make things interesting, but not enough to get me diving for my fabulous lassi. 

For meals, Andy had Karahi Chicken:

While Lauren had Chicken Makhni:

Adam ordered Chicken Biryani:

Jim ordered the G. Mirch Masala Grill Platter (affectionately christened Meat Mountain):

While Marcia ordered Chickan Malai:

and Joe ordered the Chicken Qorma:

Our dinners were served with the requisite Papadum:

along with a salad:

and Basmati rice:

It should be noted, however, that the rice was not included with the dinners. If one wanted rice, it is available per-platter, for a small price. There is also an option to make your dinner a "combo," which is to say with rice and Naan, for a nominal charge.

My question is... who would want a curry without rice? Or Naan? Perhaps someone unfamiliar with Indo-Pak? Or have we been eating curries wrong all along? Either way, we ordered enough rice and naan to go around the table twice over.

I, of course, had to go with garlic naan (who wouldn't?)

One of the things I had to continually remind myself of is that G. Mirch Masala isn't Indian food. Well, I mean, it is. But, it's Indo-Pak. We've had this discussion already. Different cultures, different cuisines, different expectations. Don't expect Indian spicing, 'cause you're not going to get it out of anything but the Tandoori chicken (which, by the way, is the best I've ever had. Period. End of sentence.).

Lauren's Chicken Makhni was delicate and creamy, just the way you'd expect it to be. Gone, however, was the managerie of aggressive spices of its strictly Indian cousin, giving way to a sweeter, more subdued flavor of the gravy: tomato, cream, and butter, with notes of garlic and ginger. While I think I would have liked it with a bit more chili heat, it was a nice departure from the typical butter chicken recipe. If Royal India's Butter Chicken is like a Sibelius chorale, G. Mirch Masala's is like a very talented singer-songwriter playing the guitar and harmonica. I like it.

Andy's chicken was bright and brash, with big obnoxious frat-boy chilis in the front, and bold and acidic tomato and onion and garlic flanking the heat. The heat quickly gave way to a warm blend of spices, making this one a beautiful choice on a cold winter night.

Jim's Meat Mountain was, well, meaty. The kabobs were executed extremely well, the Tandoori chicken was marvelous, tender and flavorful, and I was a big fan of the spice level of every item.

Adam's Chicken Biryani reminded me immediately of a chicken 'n' rice casserole my mom used to make when I was a kid: warm, hearty comfort food, with a little bit of chili heat, a little bit of aromatics, but nothing Earth shattering or groundbreaking: just delicious, hearty food.

Marcia's chicken proved interesting: cooked well, spiced just right, and marinated in cream(?), the only off flavor I could immediately identify was that of burnt milk in the spots where the grilled chicken charred a bit. Still, very tasty.

My chicken Qorma (or, how I'll probably slip and spell it at least once, Korma) was divine. Enragingly tender chunks of dark meat chicken lurking in a sweet and garlicky cashew cream gravy. Add in the fresh julienned ginger on top, and my palate was awash in richness and heaviness: this is not diet food.

The Qorma represents one of the fine points of Indo-Pak cuisine that I love so much: balancing spices which, in less able hands, can chew scenery, with delicate and easily mashed flavors like cream, cashew, and butter. Think butter versus cinnamon: who would you be more likely to taste?

This Qorma built flavor layers deftly, ranging from wafts of complex spices, to big beautiful foundations of sweetness and the fat of the cashews and cream. Neither too rich nor too lean, I would go back to Mirch for the Qorma alone. And probably a few orders of that garlic-studded naan.

Served with dinner was a salad(?) which, strange as it may seem, was absolutely heaven with the cilantro and tamarind chutneys drizzled over it. Every thought to use cilantro chutney as salad dressing? Neither have I. Try it. You'll thank me.

We finished things off with an order of the G. Mirch Masala Kulfi:

Rich with dairy, the kulfi was enough that our entire table had a sample, and just enough sweetness to cap off the mildly spicy meal.


It's been a long time coming -- getting a new review up. Life has thrown the staff of Eating Milwaukee a few curve balls here and there, but the amazing part, the reassuring part, the part I love the most -- is that we, after all this time, still can come together and enjoy a great meal, in a new and interesting location, as the best of friends.

G. Mirch Masala is a delicious departure from standard Indian fare (if Indian food can ever be called standard). Andy and Lauren have been bugging me for months to try it, and now I understand why: the usual suspects are all there on the menu, but they all have just a little different character, a little different twist. With the warm welcome we recieved, the excellent service, and the enthusiastic recommendations, there is little room for me to criticize G. Mirch Masala.

It was a fantastic opportunity to share the evening with my Eating Milwaukee friends, and enjoy yet another facet of Milwaukee's ever-diversifying food scene.

Report Card:

Atmosphere: B
G. Mirch Masala resides in what used to be The King & I Thai restaurant. By its location in the city, and the remaining design cues in the building, it had obviously been a pretty hip joint in the 70's (for some reason, Boogie Nights comes to mind...). Not much has changed, meaning the interior is warm and careworn, but still very servicable and pleasant.

Prices: B
What appears to be downright cheap prices for most dishes turns out to be just slightly-less-expensive-than-normal when you add in rice and naan. Which, of course, you'll do.

Service: A
Our servers were extremely attentive, sometimes almost to a fault. I loved that one of the waitresses we had actually took part in making some of the food, and she was very quick to explain to us the painstaking processes!

The Food: A-
As an excercise in Indo-Pak, G. Mirch Masala excels. If diners go in with the expectation of having an "Indian" dinner, they may be a bit disappointed, as the specific dishes don't always correlate -- but come with an open mind, you'll find Indo-Pak a refreshing change from the everyday curry.

The Details:

G. Mirch Masala
7225 N. 76th St.
Milwaukee, WI 53223
Website (With menu! Hooray!) available HERE

G Mirch Masala on Urbanspoon