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Going to Summerfest? Check out Milwaukee’s food scene

Leon's Frozen Custard 3131 S. 27th St. Milwaukee WisconsWednesday June 20 2012.  / Mark Hertzberg for Sun-Times

Leon's Frozen Custard, 3131 S. 27th St. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Wednesday June 20, 2012. / Mark Hertzberg for the Sun-Times

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Updated: July 28, 2012 6:09AM

With the annual music festival Summerfest starting today, and high gas prices continuing, nearby Milwaukee’s an ideal destination for summer food and fun. Just 90 miles away, the Cream City seems as if it ought to be much like Chicago.

Yet its food scene differs in surprising ways and not as Chicagoans might imagine.

In my imagined Milwaukee, bratwurst stands are as ubiquitous as hot dog stands in Chicago; scores of cheese-focused restaurants take advantage of Wisconsin artisanal cheeses; dozens of great German eateries exist, and Konditoreien serve pastries as luscious as the descriptions of Baumbach’s in Edna Ferber’s 1910, Milwaukee-based novel, Dawn O’Hara. But no.

Alas, the Journal-Sentinel reports such bakeries are nearly gone; only 67 bakers now hold licenses in Milwaukee County, and that includes food processors and supermarkets. German restaurants have become scarce, though highlights include Karl Ratzsch’s, Jack Pandl’s and Wegner’s St. Martins Inn.

Bratwurst appears often, but mainly at backyard cookouts, festivals and the ballpark, according to Nancy Stohs, food editor of the Journal-Sentinel. Milwaukee boasts a plethora of meat markets, each with its own wurst recipes. Major brand Usinger’s old-fashioned store is a must-see spot, and smaller sausage makers, such as Karl’s Country Market, European Homemade Sausage and Bunzel’s, abound.

The closest thing to my dream of bratwurst stands, the Milwaukee Brat House, is a bar serving Usinger’s sausage.

But where Milwaukee triumphs is in taverns and frozen-custard stands.

“In Chicago, we have a hot dog stand on every corner. In Milwaukee, we have a tavern on every corner,” says John Wise, director of operations and managing partner for the Bartolotta Restaurants, the city’s largest group of fine-dining restaurants. A veteran of Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Wise has been in Milwaukee 17 years.

You’ll find few BYOB restaurants in Milwaukee, which has no limit on liquor licenses.

In early-to-bed Milwaukee, the Brat House is unusual in serving food till nearly 2 a.m. Most local restaurants close by 9 p.m.

“Pretty much the whole town wants to dine at 7 p.m.,” says Wise.

Of course, they have the Friday fish fry, a custom so entrenched in Milwaukee that even the Chinese restaurants offer it. Milwaukeeans argue over the best fish fry like Chicagoans debate pizza parlors. It’s usually battered cod but often lake perch as well, typically paired with potato pancakes and soft marble rye bread. Often all-you-can-eat, most fish fries cost well under $15.

“Portion sizes in Milwaukee are probably double that of Chicago,” says Milwaukee writer Lucy Saunders, publisher of “There’s much more of an emphasis on value dining.”

“You can eat in Milwaukee for half the price of Chicago,” says Patty Penzey Erd, who owns the Spice House seasoning stores in Milwaukee and Chicago. “They strip it down to the basics.”

In 1935, Wisconsin law required restaurants to serve cheese and butter. The legislation only lasted till 1937, but it might as well still be in effect. Cheese doesn’t stand front and center, though, so much as play a supporting role.

“Deep-fried cheese curds are one of the appetizers” often seen, says Carol Deptolla, restaurant critic for the Journal-Sentinel. Beer-cheese soup is common as well.

One place that puts cheese in a starring role is the new Melthouse Bistro, which specializes in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches on artisanal breads.

Dairy really stars at frozen-custard stands all over town. Most serve burgers and other fast food — such as Leon’s, which also offers a loose-meat sandwich it calls a “Spanish hamburger” — but rich, high-butterfat, egg-laced, frozen desserts are unquestionably the main attraction. Chocolate and vanilla are typically supplemented by a flavor of the day with mix-ins such as fruit or candy.

Nowhere serves a richer version than Kopp’s, whose three locations offer two specialty flavors daily, while Golden Gyros & Frozen Custard packs in add-ons so generously there’s almost not enough custard in between.

“We’re kind of shocked that no one’s made a go of custard stands in Chicago,” says Erd.

Erd says her customers in both towns have similarities — “Our No. 1 question in all our stores is, ‘What do you have that’s good on steak?’” — but seasonings for homemade sausage sell better in Milwaukee, while Chicagoans might buy ingredients for molecular gastronomy. Erd says most Milwaukee restaurants go for “the tried and true,” where Chicago chefs are more avant garde.

“Milwaukee is “even more local-centric” in food choices than Chicago, says Wise, looking for local produce, beer from area breweries and Wisconsin dairy. Bartolotta recently opened a gastropub, the Rumpus Room, and craft beers are big, but the trend for what Erd calls “fancy-schmancy cocktails” has yet to make inroads into Milwaukee taverns, where the brandy old-fashioned still holds sway.

“A lot of nationwide trends are a little slower getting here,” Wise says.

Milwaukee’s demographics have changed, though. “It used to be a lot of old immigrant food,” says Deptolla. Today, she says, “a lot of the restaurants popping up are Mexican or Vietnamese.”

Since the Vietnam War, some 10,000 Hmong refugees out of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand resettled in Milwaukee, according to U.S. Census data, with the most recent wave coming in 2004. That’s added a Southeast Asian flavor to Milwaukee’s culinary stew: restaurants such as Mekong Cafe, and markets including the unmarked, multi-seller Milwaukee’s Asian Markets and the new, large Pacific Produce.

Milwaukee’s also rich in neighborhood Chinese restaurants, including such highly authentic Cantonese spots as Fortune and Peony, a dim sum specialist that also serves a Friday fish fry.

“Like anywhere else, it’s constantly changing and evolving,” says Deptolla.

Freelance writer Leah A. Zeldes divides her time between Chicago and Milwaukee.

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