Foodie Friday: Milwaukee, Moving Past Meat And Cheese

Bimbibap from the the Stone Bowl Grill.
Bimbibap from the the Stone Bowl Grill. (Photo Esme Barniskis.)

By Esmé Barniskis

Milwaukee is an up-and-coming hot destination; think of it as Cleveland minus LeBron James. But how’s the food?

That depends. Milwaukee has long had a (well-earned) reputation as a meat-and-cheese kind of city, but its reputation is changing. Today’s Milwaukee actually features a diversity of food that’s vegetarian- and pescetarian-friendly. (Vegan food, meanwhile, remains a work in progress).

I‘m finding this out for myself. I recently moved to Milwaukee, and I’m deep into the process of finding good places to eat. Though I’m pescetarian, I often opt for the vegetarian options at restaurants, just to test how well-rounded the place is.

Often, but not always. While some people might hesitate to put something called “spicy squid” in their mouths, I didn’t bat an eyelash while feasting on bibimbap at the Stone Bowl Grill.

Served in a hot stone bowl, this Korean dish is a bed of rice with vegetables and a choice of toppings. I chose tofu on one occasion, and the spicy squid another time. The dishes were delightfully hot and fresh, with a well-mixed selection of vegetables and rice that was rich-tasting and full-bodied. I used to believe that rice is rice; not anymore.

The never-disappointing Cafe Hollander.
The never-disappointing Cafe Hollander.

Café Hollander often appears on lists of the best places to eat in Milwaukee. Because this Benelux restaurant is known for its beer-and-burger combos, the vegetarian wrap is often left by the wayside. Big mistake: All bundled up and toasted, the wrap’s pepper-jack cheese perfectly compliments its grilled asparagus, carrot, and yellow squash spears. Though on the hearty side in comparison to the salads vegetarians often order here, this wrap is fresh, hot, and completely delicious.

The side dish is usually frites, but Café Hollander offers sweet-potato fries as a substitute. Do not hesitate; always take the sweet-potato fries at Café Hollander. Whatever previous concept I had of sweet potato fries was wrong. These particular fries are the only true sweet potato fries. Thin and crispy and in no way sweet or cloying, they’re a wonderful crunchy addition to any wrap.

If you’re feeling restrained by forks and plates and some of the other trappings of conventional restaurants, Ethiopian Cottage is the place to go. Since Ethiopian food is eaten using pieces of injera, a spongy, pancake-like bread, to scoop up the shared entrees, I was able to share five different dishes and not end up with leftovers. I tried the vegetarian combo and assa wat, a dish of tilapia cooked in a spicy red sauce; yemisir wat, red lentils in spicy sauce; kick alicha, a mild split-pea dish; gomen, collard greens that are like no southern collard greens ever; and dinch alicha, a potato-and-carrot dish with plenty of spices.

Ethiopian Cottage has received glowing reviews, and it doesn’t disappoint: The food is rich and flavorful, and the variety of textures and levels of flavor interact pleasantly with each other and the injera. Though the dishes were labeled “spicy,” I’d argue that they‘re complexly flavored rather than spicy. Everyone’s spice tolerance differs, but nothing I was served had me rushing for the water pitcher.

Ethiopian Cottage is next to a Chinese restaurant, a pho restaurant and a Thai restaurant. Just the image of these four restaurants residing side-by-side shows how Milwaukee is moving past its meat-and-cheese heritage and embracing a more diverse, more exciting ethnic-food scene.

Though a little 10-year-old cheddar every now and then never hurt anyone.

Esmé  Barniskis is a free-lance writer and student living in Milwaukee.

Photos from jsonline.com, ethiopiancottage.com, onmilwaukee.com, and cafehollander.com.