When Brady Street Hardware shuttered last year and set off a building owner vs. neighborhood association pillow fight over what should fill the space, it highlighted the fact that if the bohemian center of Milwaukee isn’t exactly facing an identity crisis, then it’s at least taking a long look in the mirror. The strip still features the delightfully dichotomous neighboring of Mimma’s and Jo-Cat’s, Rochambo and Zayna’s, and old haunts of non-conformist charm like the Roman Coin and Nomad. But of late has come the generic Water Street-dom seen in spots such as Jack’s “American Pub,” a spiffy and moneyed expansion for Casablanca, and a new capacious Glorioso’s that feels a bit like Whole Foods.
Add to this mix the perfect metaphor: a new restaurant, with Bartolotta roots and high-end small plates, but an overtly plebeian mindset of “street food.” Or, a high take on low living. In Easy Tyger (1230 E. Brady Street; 414-226-6640) former Bartolotta’s employees Brian Ojer and Todd Hasselbacher, with recent Rumpus Room and Lake Park Bistro sous chef Evan Greenhalgh, focus on elevated, international small plates, in our own example of what is happening from San Francisco’s Mission District to Bushwick. Centers for young and cool are becoming polished and expensive; street has become a co-opted ideology; artistic communities are being rendered obsolete. But hey, we’re not sociologists, we simply wonder: how’s the food? We braved East Side parking struggles to find out.
The space: For a place with a posture leaning toward “street,” Easy Tyger certainly spent a shitload on design and aesthetics. And on branding, and high-end carpentry, and cutting-edge bamboo bar seats, and fancy heatlamps that make the serving counter between the kitchen and dining room floodlit. The Bob Dylan poster in the men’s room isn’t fooling anyone with leanings of low-rent charm. So it’s more of an HGTV-branded, sought-after shabby chic. But the effort adds up to a pleasant, cosmopolitan, exposed brick-laden, and quite stylish product—but when inner-city taqueria fare like “pig ear nachos” are listed, it’s hard not to feel that street style is in something of a Derelicte by Mugatu sort of way.
The service: Speaking of affectations, we walked in on a highly nerd-ish bartender confab on flavor notes of Vermouth—a drink which is supposedly an upcoming focus of the drink program. Yes, much as it is in the street food carts of Rio de Janeiro and such. Either way, the rest of the black-clad staff seemed hip, cooly passionate, but still very much trying to figure things out. Still, the piped-in Samba and Cha Cha kept things laid back, and all interactions indicated that everyone had every intention of pleasing. And making a rather solid black Manhattan ($7) while heartily endorsing menu selections with a smile.
Milwaukee Record‘s food: You can eat globally here: from Peru to Portugal, Norway to New York, as indicated by the country of origin in parentheses after each dish. You can go from langos to liver, buckwheat crepe to bibimbap. You can also eat “gf” and/or “v,” if that’s your thing. Or you can have pig ear nachos, because it sounds like a fun thing to order (which it must be, because they were out).
Yes, it’s not exactly easy to focus your appetite when the menu implores you to “eat the world.” But we forged on anyhow with the Roman dish Suppli ($9), and were met with neatly breaded and fried sturdy golden brown nuggets, gooey with fontina cheesy risotto bites, topped with grated SarVecchio, the three pieces pyramiding over a bright and thick tomato sauce. It’s not really going to transport anyone to the cobblestones and romance of Trastevere, but damn if it wasn’t a perfect and comforting snack dish for a cold night.
The Piri Piri chicken wings ($8) are apparently derivative of Portugal (or Angola, or Mozambique, “piri piri” being Swahili for chile peppers). All we know for sure is that the five brined, fried morsels were extra crispy on the outside, moist in the middle, rife with a black pepper juju, juicy, and at once spicy and sweet. Also, big. And satisfying enough to nearly render a fresh and bursting cilantro-yogurt dip as moot. A slight misstep: sweet potatoes are highly divisive. One may go for the slaw bedding the dish; others, like us, may shake their heads, grimace, and think, “Get that fucking sweet potato off my chicken wing.”
Crossing the other ocean for the next round, we ordered the Chinese steamed buns ($8). Here we think they may actually take the gluten from all “gf” dishes and syringe-insert them into the bread. Inside the disarmingly white buns—mushy, spongy, like memory foam—is a shreddy, hearty brisket which reeks more of distant Texan relatives and their BBQ know-it-all-ness than Chinatown. The tender beef is topped with oi-sobagi, a conservatively applied spicy kimchi, and slathered up by a maybe unnecessary mayo. But we’re never one to complain about more sauciness. By dishes end, our only misgiving was the hot sauce request was met not by some homemade concoction in an Ikea-like porcelain dish, by a big ol’ bottle of Tabasco. Which, actually, is pretty “street” after all.
The verdict: Culture notes are meaningless in the face of three well-executed, hunger-slaying, comfort-lending dishes. Here we were, skeptical in the face of newness, again won over by chicken wings and pork and melty cheese. When it’s all washed down by an Enlightened Pale Ale ($5 and a taste of home!), it’s easy to go into the night full-bellied, thinking that no matter what, food-wise, it’s a beautiful world.