I know that when most people think of awesome food cities in the US, Milwaukee isn’t the first to spring to mind. Places like New York, Portland and even DC are bit flashier with what they have to offer, while the Midwest is woefully modest.
Even so, I had high hopes for the food in Milwaukee and I wasn’t disappointed. There was tons of fresh, local food, both traditional and with a twist. I had juicy steak topped with cheddar cheese, smoke duck flatbread pizza and spicy habanero pigs in a blanket. Mike and I both ate really well, and came back to DC with the waistbands on our jeans just a little bit tighter.
So why is the food in Milwaukee so good? I can think of three reasons:
- There are a lot of immigrants who’ve brought their food culture over: mostly german and polish but also Irish and Italian.
- They have access to a lot of fresh local ingredients.
- They are inside most of the year- so there’s not much else to do but eat and drink and maybe drink more.
You know me, I can find something delicious to eat most anywhere, but Milwaukee made it really easy for me. Of course I did it all to pass on the knowledge to you (I’m selfless like that). So here is my guide to must-try food in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee is nicknamed Brew City for a reason. The city was built on German brewing traditions and was once home to the world’s four largest breweries: Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller. Of those four only Miller remains in the city, but a ton of microbreweries have sprung up in the other’s place.
We didn’t get around to visiting Miller but we did spend some time at the very cool Lakefront Brewery (take the tour, it’s worth it) as well as sample a few other local specialties. There’s Sprecher, Milwaukee Brewing Company, Leinenkugel and many others that can be found on tap all around the city. My personal favorite was Lakefront Brewery’s Wisconsonite Summer Weiss– made from all local Wisconsin ingredients.
Cheese is definitely a Wisconsin thing: on this trip I sampled local mozzarella cheese, aged cheddar cheese (on top of a steak no less) and even chocolate cheese but I’m basically obsessed with cheese curds. It’s probably a good thing that you can’t get them in DC because my wedding diet would be totally destroyed.
Cheese curds are just solid bits of sour milk created during the cheese making process. Kind of like the hunks found in cottage cheese but bigger and better. They taste similar to cheese but saltier and mild and are best eaten fresh (you’ll know they are fresh if they squeak in your teeth).
During our time in Milwaukee we tried plain cheese curds, fried cheese curds, cheese curd fritters, but the best was the Leinenkugel battered cheese curds I ordered at Summerfest. Yum.
Cheese, beer and sausage make up the Milwaukee food trifecta of awesomeness. As I mentioned before, thanks to all that German heritage locals love their brats.
The most iconic sausage maker in the city is Usinger, who have a factory and deli counter in the middle of downtown, decorated with little sausage making elves. They sell everything from salami to blood sausage. I didn’t get to try as much as I would have liked but my favorite was the summer sausage.
As I mentioned previously, Milwaukee is definitely an old school, Mad Men style cocktail city. Old fashioned’s are quite popular as are bloody Mary’s- usually served at brunch with a variety of interesting snacks on sticks.
My favorite cocktail spot we visited though was Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. This is the kind of dark, loungey spot perfect for a clandestine meeting or affair. They serve hundreds of cocktails but have no menu- instead you explain to the waitress what kind of cocktails you like and she suggests the perfect one for you. Our tables choices ranged from hot and spicy to ginger beer tinged to an alcoholic peanut butter milkshake. Very fun.
If you find yourself in Milwaukee an want an expert tour of the food scene, Milwaukee Food Tours offers some really great and interesting tours all over town. I only had the chance to take an abridged one but was very impressed.
Have you been to Milwaukee? What was the best thing you ate?
I visited Milwaukee as a guest of Visit Milwaukee. All thoroughly unhealthy obsessions with cheese curds are my own.