Wisconsin Eats: Mozzarella, Beer, Pizza & Frozen Custard

On Tuesday morning we headed out for Milwaukee. We had minimal plans, but they included one art museum and two breweries.

Our first stop in Milwaukee was the Milwaukee Art Museum, on the shore or Lake Michigan. It’s not a bad museum, but kind of pales in comparison to the museums here in NYC. After the museum we headed out to lunch at a place recommended by my sister, as well as a Serious Eater.

Beans & Barley

It can be hard to find vegetarian-friendly places in the Midwest, which is why my sister is so fond of Beans & Barley. The dining room is light and airy, and lunch service is apparently always quite busy. I ordered one of the two fresh mozzarella sandwiches, the one with roasted tomatoes. After a fairly long wait they brought me the other mozzarella sandwich, the one with fresh tomatoes. You may remember that I am not very fond of fresh tomatoes. Because we had waited for so long I decided to keep my mouth shut and keep the sandwich.

Luckily the sandwich was delicious. The mozzarella was nicely seasoned, which is something many other fresh mozz sandwiches fall short on, and it matched nicely with the crusty roll. My sister enjoyed her sweet potato and bean burrito, which came with a nice lime sour cream.

Beans & Barley also has a take-away counter, and a nicely stocked market full of natural foods and other curiosities.

Lake Front Brewery

After lunch we headed over to Lakefront Brewery, situated (confusingly) on the Milwaukee River. We arrived too early for the next tour, so we crossed the bridge across the river and walked back to get a good look at this part of Milwaukee.

Our tour ($6) came with tokens for four free beers, and unlike other brewery tours (I took the Carlsberg Brewery tour while I was in Copenhagen), you start your tour with some beer, rather than end with it. We headed out to the riverside, where brewery co-founder Jim Klisch greeted us with a token for a fifth free beer.

Jim explained to us that he and his brother Russ had started the brewery as a home-brewing operation, and it just got out of hand. He told us that for most of their beers, they stick to the so-called “Bavarian Purity Law” (aka Reinheitsgebot). This means they use only four ingredients in their beer: malted barley, hops, yeast, and water (the exceptions are some flavored beers and a gluten-free beer, made with rice and sorghum). I’ll bring this up again in tomorrow’s post, when I describe the second brewery tour we took.

The tour was pretty short, and most of what you see are big metal tanks (as my sister pointed out, most of the beer making process is just the liquid sitting around). We didn’t get to see the bottling process (due to the risk of “flying broken glass”), but Jim did so a short re-enactment of the famous scene in the Laverne & Shirley opening credits before we went back to the bar for more free beer. We were able to sample several beers, and our favorite was the East Side Dark (Jim had explained that the darker you roast the barley, the darker the beer will be), though the Rendezvous was also quite good. After four of the beers, we had had more than enough and we headed off to check into our hotel.

After reading all of that, you probably figure that we’d had a full day. And you’re right. But there’s so much more.

Maria’s Pizza

A few weeks ago Adam Kuban over at Slice posted about a pizza place he loved in Milwaukee, and I immediately put it on my list of places to go. Sure, I was a little suspicious of Wisconsin pizza after the previous day’s abomination, but if anyone knows good pizza it’s Adam Kuban. Maria’s Pizza, with its funky interior and its outsized pies, is apparently a Milwaukee institution (and sometimes referred to as Maria’s Pizzaria [sic]). We ordered a large Cheese Special, which has mushrooms and onions on it.

I used this photo my sister took of me with the pizza to give you a sense of scale. Look at the size of this thing! Note the crazy look in my eyes as I realize we ordered too much food. Or did we? My first bite of the pizza threw me off. The sauce and the crust were slightly sweet. I had to take another bite to decide. And another. Okay, I decided, this was seriously delicious pizza, despite being cut into squares. My sister thought so too. We ate, fully intending to have leftovers for the next day. Well, that didn’t happen. We ate the whole thing. And I know what you’re thinking, but my sister ate almost as much as I did. Feeling full and more than a little ashamed, we stumbled out of Maria’s wondering how exactly we had made that thing disappear. It was just so good.

And that wasn’t the end.

Leon’s Drive In

Adam Kuban, along with other Serious Eaters, had recommended the frozen custard at Leon’s. It was only a short drive from Maria’s, so we headed there for dessert. It was hard to miss this place (my sister’s boss later referred to it as “Neon Leon’s”), which looks like it time traveled straight from the 1950’s to present day.

The lines were long, but they moved faster than we anticipated. The woman behind the counter didn’t seem much inclined to list all of the toppings for me, but I ended up ordering cherries on vanilla custard. “Whole or crushed cherries?” she eye-rolled. As you see, I went for whole. The custard itself is amazing; creamy and fresh tasting. No wonder, as it sells so fast there’s no time for it to sit around. They say it is made daily with “fresh cream and eggs” and I believe them.

After what was truly a marathon eating day, we retired to our hotel. Between Maria’s and Leon’s we’d had about as much fun as it’s possible to have while over-eating. My sister vowed to get a salad the next day, but first we had another brewery tour planned…

Beans & Barley — 1901 E. North Ave, Milwaukee, WI
Lakefront Brewery — 1872 N Commerce St, Milwaukee, WI
Maria’s Pizzaria — 5025 W Forest Home Ave, Milwaukee, WI
Leon’s Frozen Custard — 3131 S 27th St, Milwaukee, WI