Caleb Westphal hasn’t missed a Friday fish fry since 2013. Follow his never-ending adventures—sponsored by Miller High LifeHERE. This week, fish fry #542: The Explorium Brewpub via Milwaukee’s streetcar system, The Hop!

After a bus ride—which included not having to pay because the fare machine wasn’t accepting cash, and having to switch buses for an unknown reason halfway through—Tyler Maas and I found ourselves in the shadow of the Milwaukee Public Market. The plan was simple: we would build our own fish fry dinner using one of Milwaukee’s most venerable treasures, The Hop. I’d never been on The Hop, and neither had Tyler. Undoubtedly, there will be those who criticize this exercise, saying we could have just walked (and that it would have taken less time), or that we were joy riding (riding The Hop was joyful!), or that this was pointless. So be it. As Vonnegut said, “we are here on Earth to fart around,” and that’s what I plan to do, too—fart around and eat a lot of fish frys.

Since the Central Standard Crafthouse & Kitchen was closer than the nearest Hop stop, we decided to go straight to Central Standard. But butterflies gathered as we crossed Broadway and I had my first Hop spotting—it was coming towards us from the north. We took the elevator to Central Standard’s rooftop bar, the Aviary, to start our culinary adventure out with an Old Fashioned. While more types of Old Fashioneds might have been available, Central Standard’s Ready to Drink Brandy Old Fashioned ($9.75) caught my eye and we didn’t look any further. I’d never had a canned Old Fashioned before, and admit a prepackaged drink doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but the moment felt right for one.

The bartender poured the 12-ounce can over ice in a plastic cup and also gave me the can which had a few ounces left in it. At first taste my thought was that the drink was surprisingly believable. After that, I tried to compare it to other Old Fashioneds I’ve had, both in alcohol strength and overall taste. The Ready to Drink Brandy Old Fashioned boasts 8% ABV, but it did not seem as strong as most Old Fashioneds I’ve had. And yet, by the time I had finished it—while sitting on the roof of a building without any cover from the sun—I definitely could tell I had had alcohol, suggesting the cocktail did a fine job of masking it. As far as overall taste, it was sweeter and fruitier than most Old Fashioneds—even without any muddled fruit or garnish.

I would be up for trying another canned Old Fashioned sometime, but it wasn’t the time for it. As we had been drinking, I caught a glimpse of The Hop down below, circling us like a snake in the Snafu game I played on my Intellivision II as a child, and beckoning us to take a ride to some clam chowder. So while the building that houses the Swingin’ Door Exchange, the Mackie Building, was in view and easily walkable from where we were, we headed to the Wisconsin Avenue Northbound streetcar station, located between Michigan Street and Wisconsin Avenue on Milwaukee Street. Facing south, we waited for The Hop to head towards us. Just minutes later it arrived.

There’s still no charge to ride The Hop, so we were able to get on quickly, and found some seats. As we approached the next station, City Hall Northbound, located between Wells Street and Kilbourn Avenue, the operator got on the intercom and said there was some sort of issue ahead (an accident, I think?), and that riders who wished to go to the end of the line at Burns Commons had to get off at the next station and could not travel any farther towards it on The Hop. Oh great, one stop into my ride on The Hop and something has gone wrong, and now all the naysayers are going to pooh-pooh my whole story about The Hop. Amusingly, one rider who loudly grumbled with displeasure that they lived near Burns Commons and now couldn’t take The Hop all the way there, highlighted their actual reliance on The Hop and the benefit it provided them.

After making the stop, The Hop swung west on Kilbourn and then headed south on Broadway. We jumped off at the Wisconsin Avenue Southbound station and continued walking south the rest of the block to Michigan Avenue. In the distance, I could see the rooftop bar we had just been sitting on. There were a few places where we could have found clam chowder. I thought that Third Coast Provisions likely had it, and I knew that if all else failed, St. Paul Fish Company would come through. But we settled on the Swingin’ Door Exchange.

It was getting to dinner time, so seating was hard to come by; I didn’t want to trouble the waitstaff for a table just for a cup of chowder, but thankfully there was one bar seat open, which Tyler offered to me in deference to chowder. He ordered a beer to drink.

“And how about you?” the bartender asked me. “Clam chowder.”

”To drink?” I answered that no, the chowder was to eat, but that I’d have some water to drink with it.

So there I was, moments later, with spoon in hand, chowing down on chowder while most people to my right and left were drinking beers and cocktails. Tyler stood behind me and enjoyed a Riverwest Stein. If I would have looked at the sign behind me before I ordered I would have known that the chowder at the Swingin’ Door is Manhattan clam chowder ($5 cup/$8 bowl), not the New England variety that I have most weeks. It was full of vegetables, with lots of tomatoes, of course, and big potato chunks, with only a modicum of clam. I took it down in four minutes flat, quicker than most people were taking down their drinks around me. After Tyler finished the rest of his beer, we walked back towards the streetcar station we had just been at. The Hop zipped past before we made it there, so we dropped into Downtown Books for a few minutes. That’s right, not only can you build a fish fry while riding The Hop, you can pick up a book on the route and do some riding and reading.

Our next destination was The Explorium Brewpub, and the maps told me we needed to get on the M-Line, not the L-Line. While I was able to confirm that the L-Line that was the approaching streetcar, it was all happening quickly. As the streetcar paused to let passengers on and off, it probably looked and sounded like Tyler and I were unsure what to do. Is that voice talking to us? It must be talking to us. It was coming from the front of The Hop, which was right next to us. Shrouded in glass and glare, it seemed like The Hop itself was talking to me. I asked it if this streetcar would get us to Explorium Brewpub and the voice said it would. I went against my better instincts and we got on The Hop. Moments later we found ourselves standing right outside of Café Benelux, at the Historic Third Ward Eastbound stop. This streetcar was going to head east all the way to the Couture—something it only started doing last month—not west towards Explorium, so we bailed while we still had the chance.

With the Old Fashioned and chowder working their way through me, and Explorium and its fish not yet in sight, it seemed like the opportune time to walk inside the best public market in the nation to use the bathroom. Reset physically and mentally, I regrouped with Tyler and we walked to the Historic Third Ward Westbound station, just outside of the market. Our plan was to ride The Hop all the way to the end of the westbound line and back to the Saint Paul at Plankinton Eastbound station, just feet from Explorium Brewpub, on the same side of the street as it.

Things started out well and we made it to the end of the line. There was an operator change, so there was a short delay as the new operator arrived and entered the opposite end of The Hop. (The Hop doesn’t turn around at the end of the line, but it is two-headed and can be operated from either of its heads.) The Hop started heading eastbound again and excitement built as we approached Explorium. Here comes the fish! And then we blew past it.

I think up until this point we had stopped at every station we had gone past, but wouldn’t you know it, there actually was a button that people had been hitting at all these stops, and we had failed to hit it for this one. So there we were, once again outside of Café Benelux, feeling like two idiots. We’d traveled so far and yet gone nowhere at all.

We started walking back to the station outside of the Public Market, but then I saw the M-Line coming south and about to turn the corner towards the station. Although there were people at the station, so The Hop was going to stop (and Tyler reminded me of this), I began to run frantically towards the station. Just as Cary Grant ran from a crop duster after getting off of a bus, I was running to The Hop to get to a fish fry. Serious matters call for serious measures. We caught The Hop and headed towards Explorium, this time stopping at the Saint Paul at Plankinton station on the opposite side of the road as the brewpub, instead of going all the way to the end of the line and back. Finally, we had arrived.

There are a number of restaurants on or near The Hop’s route that serve Friday fish frys. There may be more, but the first that came to mind are ones I’ve already written about over the years: County Clare Irish Inn & Pub, Swingin’ Door Exchange, St. Paul Fish Company, and The Wicked Hop. I’d never been to Explorium Brewpub before, which is why I decided to go there this week and not retread old ground. Besides the location in Milwaukee, there also is one in Greendale.

We found seats at the bar and ordered beers. I went with an IPA because I wanted something hoppy in honor of The Hop. But I kicked the Cold IPA keg and ended up with less than a half glass of it. There were no more kegs of the beer, so after I finished what I was given I went with what Tyler had ordered, a lager called Hot Dog!

The all-day Friday fish fry menu at Explorium Brewpub has blackened mahi with a mango avocado salsa served on a bed of rice ($20), baked cod with broccoli ($20), a “Creole fish fry” with “lightly breaded, Cajun seasoned fried catfish” ($19), and a “traditional fish & chips” with “Atlantic Cod beer battered and fried crispy golden brown” ($19). The potato offerings are fries, beer chips, mashed potatoes, and potato pancakes. Old Fashioneds can be added to any fish fry for $5. I went with the fried cod and Tyler went with the catfish and a bonus Old Fashioned. While the menu specifically listed fries under the fish and chips, instead of “choice of potato” like it did with the baked cod and catfish, no questions were asked when I ordered potato pancakes.

It wasn’t long into our discussion about how humanity is doomed that the fish fry arrived. As the menu noted, my meal didn’t come with any bread. (The menu did list rye bread as coming with the catfish, but Tyler didn’t receive any either.) The coleslaw was all creamy and cabbage out front, and decorated with carrot. Uniform and soft, the potato pancakes had a few visible seasonings, but not enough to move the flavor needle, and were rather neutral in flavor.

There almost always are at least three pieces of fish with a cod fish fry, but this one only had two. The fish itself was of a fine caliber, but there wasn’t much beer flavor to the batter—surprising given we were at a brewery. And while most of the batter was consistent, it was somewhat soggy and greasy on the bottom. If the fish was the centerpiece of the meal, this meal was just okay. Tyler let me try some of his catfish and it was a step up from the cod. As far as the tartar, it was thin and saucy with notes of dill and lemon.

Ending the night immediately after fish was not fit for a night out on The Hop, so we kept moving, this time in search of Brandy Alexanders. I had been tipped off that Elsa’s On The Park sometimes makes them, so that’s where we headed, taking The Hop all the way back up to the Cathedral Square Eastbound station. The tables were full, and so were the seats at the bar, but we found a place at the bar next to the area where the servers pick up drinks. “We can do that” was the answer to my cocktail question. Since we were in Wisconsin, a blender came out and the Brandy Alexanders were made with ice cream, naturally, just as if we were in a supper club. Priced at $14 before tax, an 18% service charge, and an additional tip, these were not cheap drinks. But they were outstanding and well worth the money and extra ride up to get them.

It was then time for one last ride on The Hop, which meant it was also Tyler’s last opportunity to sing the line “Let’s go to the hop” from the Danny & The Juniors song “At The Hop,” which he had been doing all night. Although the streetcars had been quite full during some of our treks, as we completed the last parts of our final commute, we were the only people left on our streetcar. We got off at the Historic Third Ward Westbound station, the same spot I had run to frantically a few hours earlier.

As the streetcar rode away, I took its picture with one hand and waved at it with the other, thanking it for the journey it had taken us on. Tyler Maas took a picture of me taking a picture of the streetcar, as a tip of the hat to Matt Wild and his “pictures of people taking pictures of the Milwaukee streetcar” series. Then we took the 15 bus back to Bay View.

So, what did I learn? Yes, The Hop does serve a purpose. It appeared that everyone else who was riding it was using it for something more constructive than for a half thought-out plan to build a Friday fish fry dinner. And so what if that’s what I used it for? It worked for that too, even if I got on the wrong streetcar once, failed to push the button in time for a station, and ran after another streetcar. The Hop was clean and inviting. My dogs drag out more trash into my back yard every day than what I found on all my travels on The Hop. Finally, people ride The Hop. Sure, it was empty on our final commute, but it was pretty full the rest of the night. The Hop isn’t necessary, but not much in life is, except for maybe treating people with kindness and eating fish frys. But we do a lot of unnecessary things just because they are good, and riding The Hop is good.

Takeaways: Central Standard Crafthouse & Kitchen has a rooftop bar and it is warm up there but they have Old Fashioneds in a can to cool you off; Swingin’ Door Exchange has Manhattan clam chowder and you can eat it at the bar; If you think you should take the M-Line, take the M-Line; hit the button if you want to stop while you are on The Hop; The Hop can be operated from each of its ends; note to self: return to Downtown Books; the fish fry at Explorium Brewpub in the Third Ward is just okay; the Brandy Alexander at Elsa’s froze my brain but I still wanted more; you should ride The Hop; Milwaukee is the best city in the world.

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About The Author

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Originally hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin—home of Walleye Weekend, the self-professed "World's Largest Walleye Fish Fry"—Caleb Westphal has not missed a Friday night fish fry since sometime in 2013. He plays saxophone with the surf-punk-garage outfit Devils Teeth. He also spins classic 45s and would love to do so at your roller skating party, car show, or 50th high school reunion.