It’s easy to forget that we live in the most segregated city in the country. But cruise west out of Downtown on Wisconsin Avenue and there exists a microcosm of Milwaukee’s racial and economic divide: the plush Marquette campus segues into the grit around The Rave; the Ambassador’s fancy Envoy Restaurant neighbors a bulletproofed drive-through window of Taco Bell; there’s the Pabst Mansion and then there’s Michael’s Family Restaurant. The near West Side is the rare instance of an all-at-once mash-up of the socioeconomic forces at work in urban America.
But the Main Street Milwaukee Program has tabbed the area around north 27th Street for revitalization. And like such bureaucratic efforts, it offers, if nothing else, a vaguely NYC-ish zone name—so we have the SOHI District (south of Highland). And within such promise we now have Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille. A former bastion of five-dollar footlongs, this is the new brick-and-mortar home for Bennie Smith’s catering business. It’s also a celebration of fatherhood: Smith, who opened the spot with wife Angela, and titled sections of the menu after his six kids, named the restaurant in tribute of his old man, a former country club chef. It’s a family affair all the way, and enough to stop us with the anthropologic insight to get our hands greasy with chicken and fish.
The space: Daddy’s section of the recently renovated three-story building at the corner of Wells and 27th affects an economy coffee shop feel. Upon entry it is visually loud, with flashing TVs, HD displays, and much distraction from the chalkboard menu. A recent Friday lunchtime also found it pulsing with Jackson 5, a not-too-deep Motown mix, and bustling mid-workday murmur. Eventually it was “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love Babe” playing over Fox 6 daytime bickering while we waited for food. Bric-a-brac frames a hulking projector TV screen that hints at great things for game day. There’s local art for display and sale. This is basically a living room, mixed with a cafeteria.
The service: Hairnetted and friendly. We were offered greetings and an instantaneous rundown of the day’s spread as soon as we hit the door. The line, the ordering, and the caloric delivery system proved disorganized. They were out of paper menus and then forgot our sides. And the ice tea. But it’s a paper-plate-and-tray and bus-your-own mess type joint, populated by everyone knowing everyone else. Around us: lunch breakers running into co-workers, Smith coming out from the kitchen to talk shop, button-down business meetings commencing over coffee and catfish. It’s something of a family and a neighborhood affair. And what kind of quality family meal doesn’t have at least a touch of mild chaos?
Milwaukee Record’s food: Nobody likes large quantities and seemingly endless selections of food more, but consider us wary of buffets. So despite the presentation and what seemed to be the popular order of the day, we were determined to stick to our appetite guns and avoid the food in the carafes behind the plastic partition. But that might have been missing the point, evidenced when Smith himself asked of our chicken and waffles ($6.99) order, “Chicken from the line or strips?” This being Friday, the day the oil is reserved for fried fish, it was not the day to order fried chicken.
Stubbornly, we went all in with the strips. They asked if we wanted hot sauce, which was nice, but then rendered three packets of “Chef’s Quality,” which was deflating. Still, the soft packaged stuff had some zing and some salt, and the impossibly white frozen strips had a just-right oil bath. But again, we’re missing the point: not only is $6.99 a ridiculous price to pay for chicken and waffles, the gridded cakes sent us toward fat-guy first-meal heaven. With just a touch of powdered sugar, a plastic container side of liquid butter and syrup, they were thick, without requiring a knife, while still holding their own myriad of goopy love. Warm and velvety, they were a big way to get quick-stuffed at noon. Some hot sauce eventually crossed the plate threshold, and it was the classic soul food moment of savory and sweet, of forgetting whether you were at dinner or breakfast.
Mired in sluggish revelry, we again lost something of a point: Mr. Smith has a history as a catering professional and a McDonald’s manager, so you can assume he knows plenty about how to cook ahead of time, and in large quantities. By now emboldened with waffles, we went shoulders-shrugging into the pre-made wares.
$10.99 gets you a meat with three sides. The spaghetti could have been warmer, the sauce thicker. The mac ’n’ cheese was creamy and soft, predictably enjoyable, and of that neon yellow-hued variety that makes us Kraft-nostalgic. The black-eyed peas stole the show, though. Goop and stringy with pork bits, and with actual venerable chunks of piggy hunks hiding just underneath, they achieved a consistency like refried beans. A satisfaction level, too. The baked chicken felt the opposite of our fried strips. From the line our three pieces were all grease and hominess, indicating salt and love, and yielding meat that fell off the bone with no knife and just a plastic fork.
We felt happy to wash it all down with a super sweet ice tea ($1), tasting like Carolina or someplace else that feels one million miles away when it’s February and windy in Milwaukee. Too bad it didn’t exactly assuage concern over glucose levels as we ordered a banana pudding ($3). Whipped-cream-heavy, thick, mixed with turning banana slices, it was dense and sugar forward, intense and custardy, with occasional crumbly asides. And by now we had to ponder on room rates at the aforementioned Ambassador. Or would the seedy Biller suffice? Either way it was time for a nap.
The verdict: Maybe it’s the ultimate cliché, and maybe it’s almost always true of any new restaurant, but Daddy’s is very much a great addition to the neighborhood, and reason enough to venture west of Downtown.