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Milwaukee -- Report (way, way longer than necessary)

  • m

So I'll get straight to the bottom line. Any corned beef-eating person within a 30 minute drive of Milwaukee should be ashamed of themselves if they don't get to Jake's Deli at the corner of W. North Ave and N. 17th St at least once a month.

If you told me last Friday that a sandwich anywhere in the midwest, including Chicago, would hold its own against those found in the finest delis of Manhattan (Katz's being my favorite for the record), I would have laughed you off the planet. Anyone familiar with NY delis needs to get to Jake's and see for yourself. Surely someone in Milwaukee can back me up on this.

Jake's is a much smaller place than Katz's, but the era and style of the decor is the same -- there is no decor and certainly no "style". You walk in and there's an old soda fountain counter (appeared to be not in use any more) with about 10 faux, faux-wood booths probably salvaged from a 1960's Dairy Queen. Along the right side is a long deli counter and about 12 stools. Every inch of the place is packed with drooling people watching and waiting for their number to be called to order.

The ordering is simple. Corned beef or pastrami. Rye bread. Mustard, no mustard or an obscene amount of mustard. If you're feeling fancy, you can get the toasted corned beef with swiss. The rye is fresh (there's no time for this bread to get stale with the sheer volume of customers). The beef appears from underneath the cutting board, is sliced thick and piled high on the bread. The deli mustard is superb.

If you've been to Katz's you know what the tip jar is all about. The thought was on my mind as I ordered, but alas, no jar. I was thinking "yeah..only at Katz's". Out of the blue, the guy behind the counter stabbed a big extra slice and gave me a sample as he was finishing my sandwich -- I saw about 50 other people order the same corned beef sandwich and I was the only one to receive this gesture. It was really strange in a Twilight Zone kind of way. Of course, I immediately gave the man a generous tip.

Here's the kicker: this was lunchtime and I had just eaten 15 minutes prior at the Speed Queen up the road (that report next). As soon as I saw the inside of this place, I knew I had to stuff down a 2nd lunch. Thank God for granting me that wisdom, as I went back on Sunday for another sandwich and they were closed.

This is my chowhound promise: I *will* some day drive the nearly 10 hour round trip from Minneapolis to Milwaukee again, this time for no other reason than to eat a corned beef sandwich at Jake Levin's Delicatessen.

The Speed Queen

Back up a half hour. As recommended recently (thanks folks) and discussed before on this board, the Speed Queen merited a visit for BBQ. If I didn't have the Jake's-gasm to talk about above, I probably blab on longer about this place. It's worthy of its praise. The ribs (pork) were flavorful, meaty and satisfying. I also had "outside", which is the crispier outside of pork shoulder. This was also very good, although I think I would have liked less of the crispy parts and more of the meaty parts -- I think this ratio varies by luck of the draw. I totally missed the $2.50 "extra meat" option on the board until I was well into my meal and heard someone else order that...I probably should have done that with the shoulder.

The sauce (I had the "mild") was so good I even ate all 3 pieces of plain Wonder bread. All of the meat had a nice smoky flavor as expected. The cole slaw was laughable -- you get about two forkfuls in this teeny-tiny cup. But who cares -- slaw at this kind of place is so people can say they ate something from the "dairy" and "vegetable" food groups along with their 3.5 pounds of BBQ.

I'll shrug my shoulders and say "sure, why not" when people proclaim the Speed Queen one of the best BBQ places in the upper-Midwest. It beats the heck out of anything anywhere else I've been in a long time, but I need a bit more convincing before I go into full hyperbole-mode. I'll definitely go back there nonetheless and it's a great Milwaukee treasure.

The Philly Way

Traveling alone, I decided to pass on some of the other recommendations (The Social on 2nd, which I drove by). I figured I'd hit places my wife wouldn't want to go when I bring her to Milwaukee (which I will as I didn't get to the art museum and galleries around town). So I also ate at "The Philly Way" which is at Florida St. and S. 2nd St. in Walker Point (across the street from The Social). I'll admit to openly shunning "cheesesteaks" outside of Philadelphia, much like I shun deli sandwiches outside of NYC up until now. I went in resigned to ordering a Coke if it looked like crap, but the variety of Tastycakes on the counter convinced me this place had something of a clue. That, and one of the owners used to work at Pat's in Philly, (I'm in the "Pat's Camp" in the great Philly steak debate). The sandwich was good. It's been a few years since I've eaten at Pat's, but I thought this one was "close enough". If I were a Philly native living in Milwaukee, I'd probably go there just to reminisce, but if you haven't had a cheesesteak in Philadelphia, have that experience first. I did feel a bit strange not eating it standing out on the sidewalk.

Important Note

There's a lot of talk about the Speed Queen and the neighborhood. Granted it was high noon on a beautifully sunny day, but I had absolutely no hesitation going inside, having lunch and lingering over the newspaper. I was there for about an hour (I read the paper "cover to cover") and wasn't approached by anyone "asking for money" (as debated in previous posts). I exchanged smiles with a cute kid, a grandmotherly-looking woman and a short conversation with a guy that wanted my Sports section. I felt as comfortable there as I would in any other urban area.

While close to Speed Queen, Jake's is in a much more financially-distressed neighborhood. Again, people were pleasant, especially the counter staff and enjoying the nice day. It's not every day that *I'm* the one that makes a place "diverse".

I mention this because a) a while back someone mentioned that they wouldn't go to Speed Queen because of the neighborhood and b) because if you avoid places because of some perceived "threat", you are selling yourself short of some great experiences, chow and non-chow. (On my way out of town I noticed the "African American Holocaust Museum" near Jake's. I wish it was open at the time, but I'll have to get there another trip).

Thanks again for the recommendations Milwaukee hounds!

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  1. Great Post!

    I agree with you 100% on Jakes, I get to Milwaukee about 3 times a month and at least one of those trips will include lunch at Jakes, even if I'm clear on the other side of town.

    I'm glad you went to the Speed Queen, it bugs me when people bring up the neighborhoods these places are in as reasons for not going there. I've been to Speed Queen dozens of times and have never had a problem inside the restaurant or out.

    1. s
      Sweet Willie


      Excellent report, no way too long, your writing convinced me to try these places. Having just been to Katzs two weeks ago, I've been dreaming of a great pastrami sandwich.

      I'll make a roadtrip very soon to MKE.



      1. Aw, geez - I was in Milwaukee yesterday, and while following the directional signs to get back on to 43S to get back to Chicago, I saw it! Sure didn't look like a bad neighborhood to me - at least, no worse than mine! :o)

        Thanks in a big way. I'll probably be moving up there soon, so now that I know where it is, I'll be a regular.

        1. Well I for one don't plan on going back to the Speed Queen neighborhood anytime soon. Like several posters above I had gone that way on occasion for many years thinking why miss out on a local gem and never had any problems. A brick thrown at my car in broad daylight has made me seriously reconsider a bit. I would not say I'm never going back but anyone who makes light of the fact the neighborhood this establishment is in (or Jake's for that matter) isn't very desirable and doesn't take that fact seriously does so at their own peril.

          1. Thank you for this report!

            My wife's family is in Milwaukee and as much as I love a Kopp's burger, I need something else to try that isn't The Chancery or Olive Garden. Mmmmmm Corned Beef Sammiches....

            1. I am always fascinated to read visitor's reports of their impressions of Milwaukee, and I often find out about places I wouldnt ordinarily seek out. Thank you for a very interesting post!

              I used to be in Jake's once a week picking up sandwiches for my office, and I have to say that walking into Jake's and having the guys behind the counter call you by name is a wonderful feeling! I only wish they still had tongue, but I kind of think that I was pretty much the only one who had ordered it for a long time.

              As for Speed Queen, your impressions are right on the mark. The rib tip dinner is one of my favourites. On your next visit, you might try asking them to mix the hot and mild sauce (they will do this on request); it's a bit more of a kick without being over the top hot. My other favourite BBQ is at Ashley's, around 13th & Center. It's carry out only though, so it might not suit a visitor's needs.

              I have never heard of The Philly Way, and 2nd & Florida is off my beaten path. But also being a Pat's advocate, and since I have off Friday afternoon, I will seek it out this week.

              Your notes about the neighborhoods are also on the money. I take the same precautions going to Jake's and Speed Queen and Ashley's as I do when I go anywhere else, and I have never had an issue.

              So I'm glad you had a good time on your visit, and thanks for a great post!

              2 Replies
              1. re: Fydeaux

                Just to note -- the original post was one I made three years ago. I've been back to Jake's many times and Speed Queen twice.

                I did get a chance to visit the Museum of the African American Holocaust on my next trip there as well -- I recommend it.

                The Philly Way closed a long time ago (at least a year, maybe two).

                1. re: MSPD

                  Brain burp! I didnt realize that your original post was that old!

                  I'm sorry to hear about The Philly Way; just my luck! IO guess I'll just have to head to Jake's for lunch on Friday.

                  Mr Cameron, the founder of the museum, passed away not all that long ago. he was a very nice man, and lived a fascinating life. I'm glad you checked out the museum.

              2. So we were finally in Milwaukee this past weekend to run the Trailbreaker half-marathon and have our chance at trying Jakes! The four of us were starving by the time the race was over and we made our way from Waukesha (where the race was) back to Milwaukee.

                It was myself, my wife, and our friend's who live in Tosa. After giving my wife's shocks and struts the beating of a lifetime on our way down North, we were elated to see the sign, it's corner location, and all the people streaming in and out. We walked in and plunked down into one of the awesome booths along the west wall. Our waitress came over immediately and we ordered a pastrami and swiss, a pastrami, a corned beef, and a turkey pastrami; all on rye.

                All of the sandwiches were very fresh, hot and very good. Great bread, good spicy brown, terrific atmosphere. About $6-$7 per sandwich. While I would not put these in a league (in terms of experience and size) with Carnegie or Katz's, you are also not paying $20-$30 per sandwich as you do at those places. By far the best corned beef sandwich I've had in the upper midwest. Kudos to Jake's!

                Now, the unfortunate downside. The line to order passes directly in front of the entrance/exit of Jake's. As we left, smiling, happy and full of very good food, Brian (a teacher and football & track coach at Hale) said "excuse me" in order to get around a young man to the door, to which the young man responded, "that's right excuse you."

                It was so disappointing and embarrassing to have one person ruin an otherwise great experience. Next time we will try Speed Queen and hope the Chamber of Commerce sends a better ambassador to welcome out-of-towners.

                8 Replies
                1. re: Foureyes137

                  whachoo talking bout willis? philly way is still open and still serving great cheese steaks. fido, youve been giving great advice on this board over the years. i cant believe you haven't been down there.

                  jakes is awesome. just got sold. hope the new owner continues the quality.

                  as for speed queen, i'm a former farm kid from iowa who now lives in the milw burbs. and i can tell you there's nothing scary about this neighborhood. it doesn't look like the suburbs, but so what? get in for some shoulder. you'll like it. i've been there dozens of times. have been asked for change a few times, but never been hassled. just say no thx and move on for the mighty cue. keep it real!

                  1. re: Milwhawkeye

                    Thanks for the kind words, Hawk, but I just cant get everywhere, not even in Milwaukee. As it happens, I have to go down to Walker's Point area this Friday afternoon, so I'll check and see if Philly Way really is there or not.

                    1. re: Milwhawkeye

                      Oh man...I apologize! I drove by Philly Way a year or two ago and the signage was gone and from the outside, the place looked like it had been cleared out. Granted, it was after dark. That's the last time I ever make an assumption like that again!

                      There's a good article on the ownership change at Jake's. Here's a link. I'm not worried -- Michael Kassof is still running it day-to-day.


                      Thanks for correcting my big error on Philly Way. I wish I had known sooner -- I've missed a couple of opportunities during more recent visits to MKE.

                      1. re: MSPD

                        Jake;s is awesome. I went in Sept. I was also a big fan of the banana malt at Solley's (not so much the butter burger) and the hoppel poppel, cheese blintzes and matzo ball soup at Benji's.

                        1. re: steveindurham

                          Benji's is really good too-they have really good chopped liver.

                          1. re: jenniegirl

                            I agree on Benji's. Since the post that started this back in 2004, I've been back to MKE many times and a couple visits included Benji's -- a great breakfast spot and I wish we had a similar place here in MSP.

                        2. re: MSPD

                          I drove by yesterday afternoon, and The Philly Way is indeed still there and open. I'll be going back to eat as soon as I can after Passover ends.

                      2. re: nsxtasy

                        nsxtasy, that's so true. Milwaukee doesn't hold a monopoly on rude people and the one's we have don't all reside in the inner city. I've been going to both Speed Queen (even back when it was called "The Speed Queen" and located in what became an urban renewal area) and Jake's and while I've never had anything like that happen to me there, I understand it could. I also have run across rude people in our tonier areas but imho Milwaukee has a well deserved reputation as a very friendly city. Another recent poster mentioned the Soup Brothers in another thread as a must stop. I'd just like to point out The Philly Way is right around the corner on 2nd St. while Soup Bros. is on Florida. Heading west on Florida, it peters out at 6th St. where Conejito's stands at the roundabout on Virginia. By no means great Mexican food, it does serve one of the tastiest, quickly served, and cheapest taco's in town; the chop meat is the one to order and no, it's not hamburger, but a tender stew-like beef served in a grilled, slightly charred flour tortilla. The late Al McGuire put it on the map declaring it one of his favorite local dumps. It's remodeled and no longer a dump but it still gets its share of poor hungry Marquette students and alumni. The margarita's are more tart than sticky sweet as some are and are one of my favorites in all of town.