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