What's in a restaurant? In this series, we ask chefs around the city to describe their restaurants in their own words and recommend three dishes that embody the best of what they offer. In this edition, we talk with Chefs Tony Kora and JJ Lert of Rice N Roll Bistro on Milwaukee’s East Side.
Rice N Roll Bistro
1952 N. Farwell Ave.
"Rice N Roll is really about home cooking – both Thai and sushi," says co-owner and chef Tony Kora. "And people really get to experience the authentic flavors that they want from both cuisines. Because we moved here from Chicago, we spent a lot of time getting to know our customers. So the menu that we opened with was much smaller. But I spend a lot of time talking to people who come here to eat, and there are now quite a few dishes that are inspired by things that people suggest."
"Everything is made fresh. We offer four curries: red, green, panang and massaman. And we make them from scratch, including the pastes for the curries. One reason is that they taste more fresh. Another is that we do things a bit different here, and we want to showcase what we do."
"We also try to make the authentic Thai versions," adds co-owner and chef JJ Lert. "Most of the recipes are based on recipes that my mother made in Bangkok. And then we let our customers taste them and we get their feedback."
"One of the things that sets us apart is that I pull together things from Thai food and incorporate it into our sushi," explains Kora. "For a number of years, I worked at a sushi bar in New York City where I worked with a number of Japanese chefs. But I don’t claim to make it in the authentic Japanese tradition. My style is really part of the new tradition, what they call omakase. It opens the possibilities so you can really try new things."
"We see so many sushi restaurants that are really expensive. So people go there only for special occasions. But we want it to be something people can try whenever they want. So our pricing reflects that. We also offer half off our sushi rolls during happy hour. We don’t make a profit on what we sell during happy hour, but we really want people to try what we’re making. And the quality of what we serve during happy hour is the same as what we serve at all the other times of the day."
"People look at us and they say, 'They are so young,'" says Tammy Lert, who handles the front of the house duties at Rice N Roll. "But we’ve all been working in the industry for over ten years. And some people get into this business just to make a profit. But we do things that we’re passionate about. It’s food that we love to eat and that we would eat with our families."
1. East Town Monster
Broiled shrimp, cilantro, avocado, jalapeno topped with seared ika served with spicy lime sauce, scallion and fried garlic ($12.95)
"The best way to describe the East Town Monster is as a combination of Thai and ceviche in a roll," says Kora. "The Thai flavor comes from a dressing made from lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, with garlic and Thai chili. You'd normally find on a Thai seafood salad. Inside the roll is cooked shrimp, cilantro, avocado and jalapeno for a bit of spiciness. And it’s topped with seared ika (squid). We picked the name since it’s something we thought people might remember ... and it’s a monster because it’s spicy."
Crispy and soft noodles with coconut creamy yellow sauce, shallot, scallion and boiled egg ($12.95)
"This is our original version of a traditional dish served in Northern Thailand," explains Lert. "It’s a dish that’s very hard to find, even in Bangkok. And here in Milwaukee, we couldn’t find it anywhere. But this is one of the dishes that’s based on my mother’s recipe, and it’s one of the dishes that I really love. But it’s easy to eat and not too fusion. It’s made from a combination of massaman and red curries along with a number of other ingredients. We also add the fresh red onion, which really adds a nice aroma."
3. MKE Duck
Deep fried duck with grilled asparagus, pineapple, tomato served with basil fried rice topped with fried basil leaves and special house sauce ($15)
"This dish is a lot of things all at once ... spicy, crunchy, sweet and sour," says Kora. "It was on our specials menu for about two months, and it was really popular. When we went to take it off, people were coming in and asking for it. So we decided to add it to our regular menu. The rice looks like regular fried rice, but it’s made with a special basil paste that gives it a great aroma and flavor. The fried basil on top adds a bit of crunch. The duck is braised in a flavorful sauce until the meat is tender, and then we deep fry it to give it a really crispy coating. It gives you two textures in one bit – very soft in the center and crunchy on the outside."
Rice N Roll Bistro is open on Monday from 4:30 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. and Sundays 12:30 to 9:30 p.m. Happy hour is Monday and Tuesday 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.