In her Best Bites series, dining critic Rachel Bernhard rounds up some of the most delicious dishes she ate around Milwaukee in recent weeks. From food-truck finds to fine-dining dishes, these are some of her favorite things that crossed her plate each month.
It’s around this time of year when my taste buds stage a tug-of-war. Do I devour all the cool and crunchy produce I can get my hands on or slip into cozy mode with a toasty sandwich the size of my head? It can be way too hot to dine comfortably on a patio, but I’m well aware that soon I won’t have the option, so I sweat it out. There was so much to try this month, I have to admit I didn’t even eat a cream puff or an ear of roasted corn at the State Fair (is my Wisconsin card revoked yet?). Instead, I spent the month checking out new-to-me eateries, old standbys, food-truck favorites and classic cafes. I also did a little traveling, wherein local food is always a focus. Here are some of the best things I ate over the month of August.
Fish tacos from Frida’s Cocina
Fish tacos can be difficult to get right. They can easily get soggy, the batter can be too thick or too mealy. The toppings can overpower the fish. But that’s not the case at Frida’s Cocina food truck.
These fish tacos fire on all cylinders. First off: The corn tortillas are handmade on the truck, and they come out soft and warm. The fish is fresh and the batter is light and crisp without being greasy. And that batter actually sticks to the fish — none of that sliding-off-the-meat nonsense that can sometimes happen with deep-fried food. It gets topped with a mound of super finely shredded slaw, a sprinkle of cilantro and a squirt of creamy chipotle sauce. It’s a party of textures that get along so well together: crispy, creamy, crunchy, tender, flaky. So good.
Check Frida’s Cocina’s Facebook or Instagram to find their schedule, but you can typically catch their bright blue truck parked outside of Cactus Club, 2496 S. Wentworth Ave., from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.
Chicken fatteh from Lebnani House
I don’t know what took me so long to visit Lebnani House, 5051 S. 27th St., the Levantine restaurant that opened in Greenfield last summer. When I finally dined there last month, I was blown away by pretty much everything I ordered, but one standout rose to the top. The chicken fatteh is one of the restaurant’s hot mezzes, and it’s like a little casserole of fried flatbread baked with creamy yogurt, spiced chicken pieces, pine nuts, sumac and parsley. It’s comforting without feeling heavy, with warm spices and a gentle tang from the yogurt that give the dish a bit of zip. I’m still craving it, and though I barely made a dent in the restaurant’s extensive menu, I know I’ll make a repeat order on my next visit.
Honorable mention: The umm ali, one of the best desserts I’ve had all year. It’s served in a warm clay pot filled with milky bread pudding spiced with cinnamon and topped with coconut flakes and crushed pistachios. The flavor was reminiscent of horchata, not too rich or sweet. Just a light and lovely way to end the meal.
Hash browns from Cafe at the Plaza
I recently revisited a Milwaukee morning icon, the Cafe at the Plaza, 1007 N. Cass St., and while my breakfast sandwich hit the spot and I wolfed down my lemon poppyseed pancake, it’s the side of hash browns that occupies space in my mind weeks later.
I waxed poetic about them in my review, but I’ll reiterate that I’m still stumped by how they’ve turned a heap of shredded potatoes into something transcendent. They’re deeply golden brown and so crispy they crack under your fork, but inside they’re soft, buttery and almost creamy. The ’browns are seasoned simply — maybe a little salt and pepper — and finished off with a sprinkling of fresh chives. Shake a little hot sauce on them if you want some extra flavor, but these hash browns hold up on their own.
The Pogi from Maya Ophelia’s
I may have silently fist-pumped with absolutely no one else in the room when I learned Maya Ophelia’s food truck was setting up permanent residency behind one of my favorite bars, The Mothership, 2301 S. Logan Ave. They’re doing plant-based vegan comfort food influenced by Filipino and Latin cuisine in such a creative way, and I’ll always welcome a little somethin’-somethin’ to chew on as I’m sipping a stiff cocktail or throwing back a frosty mug of Hamm’s.
The somethin’ I welcomed last month was the Pogi, a sandwich that’ll tempt any meat-eater into going vegan for the night. The base is seared “stek” (a plant-based alternative to beef), layered with a bevy of buttered mushrooms and sliced red onion. It’s savory and salty, but a splash of Thai basil vinaigrette, smidge of cilantro cream and slather of bright chimichurri across the toasted baguette add plenty of zest.
Check their Instagram for hours, but Maya Ophelia’s is typically open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Scarecrow Boogie pizza from Wy’East
There are few things I anticipate more than fresh corn season, so when I dropped into Wy’East Pizza, 5601 W. Vliet St., on the night they debuted their special seasonal pie that featured loads of fresh Wisconsin sweet corn, I instantly knew what I’d order. Their signature crust — so chewy and light with delectable pockets of char — is topped with a creamy sauce made with roasted poblano and guajillo peppers. I instinctively shake a little crushed red pepper over almost any pizza I try, and I did so here, too, but I didn’t need that extra spice factor here — the sauce has the perfect subtle kick to it for those who like a little heat. But if you’re not a fan of spice, don’t shy away — the pizza is loaded with fresh sweet corn to balance things out, along with a generous scattering of fresh chives for extra herb-y oomph. The pizza is served with a lemon wedge, a unique garnish that adds a little brightness when squeezed over your slice. I’ll hate to see it go once fresh corn season fades, but I’m happy I tried it when I did.
Steak banh mi from Xankia
The banh mi might be my all-time favorite sandwich, and I’m forever on a quest to find the best version (R.I.P. to my favorite Milwaukee-area banh mi purveyor, Pho Hai Tuyet, which closed in 2019). So when I was reminded that Xankia, the downtown Vietnamese-American restaurant at 222 W. Wells St., had recently refreshed its space with an updated look, it gave me an excuse to check out the new digs and revisit their banh mi, which I hadn’t tried in years but recall being impressed with.
The new space is beautiful. Light and tranquil with a wash of baby blue over the walls, John Boos wood-block tables and a sleek new bar at the front of the store.
But that sandwich … it’s as good as I remember. I opted for the grilled steak version, stuffed with thinly sliced steak and mushrooms, all coated in a savory Maggi seasoning sauce. There’s just a whisper of pickling to the julienned carrot and daikon radish, which helps to cut the umami of meat and sauce, and a brush of mayo for tang. Thinly sliced cucumber ribbons are tucked into the side and a couple sprigs of cilantro top it all. Such a great balance of cool and crunchy, warm and savory. That bread, though — it deserves a spotlight. The baguette is impossibly airy and soft with the slightest bit of crackle on the outside — not too heavy or chewy, but sturdy enough to carry all the goodies inside. Is it my favorite banh mi in the city? The journey continues, but for now, it’s way up there.
Rabbit saddle from Miijim on Madeline Island
I visited Madeline Island — the largest of the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior — the last weekend of August, and, oh, am I glad this dish got in under the wire! Miijim, 858 Main St., La Pointe, opened on the island in May, and I’ve heard fantastic things about it since. Miijim is an indigenous restaurant serving Ojibwe fare with ingredients native to the area (chef Bryce Stevenson is a UW-Milwaukee grad). It’s an exceptional concept, and the menu was filled with beautiful dishes, but the rabbit saddle — a cut of two loins from the back of a rabbit — was the standout of the night. The tender meat was lightly seasoned and served sliced in a crock with savory rabbit stock, tender French lentils and charred green onion. It was so cozy on a chilly night up north, and a happy reminder that the comfort of fall is right around the corner.
Savory trout cake from Cafe Seiche
Also located on Madeline Island, Cafe Seiche, 794 Fort Road, La Pointe, was a surprise hit for me. The small restaurant has a simple and sweet menu, but the dishes are prepared with elegance with ingredients sourced from local farms. During my visit to the area I was downing as much fresh-caught Lake Superior fish as I could, and this savory trout cake was the winner of the trip. Flaked trout was mixed with a blend of goat cheese and cream cheese with herbs with the lightest breading, then topped with crumbled bacon and a sprinkling of chives. It was rich, but still felt light, especially with the side of greens tossed in a bright herb vinaigrette that helped cut the richness of the trout cake. If you’re going to make the six-hour drive from Milwaukee (plus the ferry ride to the island), this dish is a must-try.
Rachel Bernhard joined the Journal Sentinel as dining critic in June 2023. She’s been busy exploring the Milwaukee-area food scene to share her favorite finds with readers along the way. Like all Journal Sentinel reporters, she buys all meals, accepts no gifts and is independent of all establishments she covers.
More Best Bites:5 of the best things our dining critic ate in July