Milwaukee is filled with amazing people. And some of those people are wild about food. 8 Questions is a series that focuses on food lovers in our midst. They aren’t chefs. They don’t work in the food industry. But, they know a thing or two about eating. And that’s part of what makes them awesome.
By day, Rick Rodriguez works as the Treasury Management Implementation Analyst at U.S. Bank. But, it’s more likely you know him from his reviews on Yelp… or maybe even from attending one of his dinner club events. You may have also read his pizza blog right here at OnMilwaukee.com
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Rodriguez grew up in the Riverwest neighborhood, where his mother still lives. Both of his parents hailed from Puerto Rico -- his mother from the northwest, and his father from the central south.
Rodriguez attended Milwaukee Public Schools through third grade before moving on to St. Rita’s for 4-8 and graduating from Rufus King High School. After earning his degree in productions and operations management from UW-Whitewater, Rodriguez spent ten years with AT&T before moving on to Wells Fargo and into his current position at U.S. Bank.
Over the years, he’s gained quite the reputation for his Yelp reviews - a pastime he says has given him an impetus to keep up with Milwaukee’s dining scene.
"Yelp has gotten me a bit of a reputation in town that I never thought I would have," he says. "There are chefs who know who I am -- and it really acted as a catalyst for me to really keep on top of things. People have started to expect it."
When he’s not dining out with friends, you’re likely to find Rodriguez catching a movie, enjoying music or dancing, handling one of his many duties as landlord of his south side property or spending time with family.
What inspired your love of food?
I really owe a lot to the dinner club concept, which I started probably fourteen years ago. I was at Summer Sizzle in the Third Ward with friends. Nanakusa had just opened, and I suggested we go there. Dave Foshey commented: "You always know where the cool places are. Why don’t we get some people together every month and try new restaurants?"
So, it wasn’t even my idea. But, it grew into a way to get people out of their comfort zones and try new foods while supporting local restaurant owners. Our first stop was Seigo’s Steakhouse. I think that was in October of 2001.
And really, the whole experience changed my relationship with food. I needed to do my research and get to know the restaurants. I always scouted the restaurants before planning an event. And through that, I started forming relationships with the chefs. And I really learned more about their craft -- and the differences between dining out at Applebee’s and dining at some of the local restaurants. And I developed my palate.
People have a tendency to go to the same restaurants and order the same dishes, but this gives them an opportunity to branch out. And being with other people helps that. They meet new people, socialize and try something new.
So, it became a challenge for me to find some of the best places I could, and to find them in obscure places where people might not think to look.
Chef Michael Fecker taught me the difference between a $6 pasta dish and a $15 pasta dish. And that may well have started me on my exploration of food and what’s decent and what’s really good.
Do you cook? If so, what are some of your favorite things to make?
I don’t cook often; in fact, I rarely cook. I love dining out. It’s social. And I have a really small place, so cooking really makes my place reek. I have to open up doors, turn off the smoke detector… and it becomes a real ordeal.
I really do want to do more cooking, I really do. I got a new grill for my birthday, so I’ve set that out on the back porch and I’m going to start to try to use it more and more.
That said, my favorite thing to cook is paella. I took a cooking class to learn to make it because I loved it so much. I ordered a paella pan online -- a 13 inch one -- right after I took the class at Antigua, where I learned from Chef Nicolas. He taught us Paella Valencia, and it turns out beautifully every time.
Favorite dish at a restaurant in Milwaukee?
Whoa. Nooo… that’s impossible to answer. I don’t even think I could begin. I’ve learned that I’ve become a big fan of risotto. It’s something I didn’t think I’d like, but I do. I’ve had so many great dishes in this town. But, I’m at a point now, where I’d definitely order risotto if I went to an Italian restaurant.
Oh, wait. I might have an idea. The Osso Bucco with mushroom risotto at La Merenda might be my favorite. The incredible richness of the risotto... it's so good.
It used to be a menu item, but now it’s a special. And when they announce in their newsletter that it’s going to be on the menu, I try to plan around and for that.
Of course paella and risotto have some things in common, so it’s no wonder why I love them both so much.
Favorite Milwaukee restaurant?
I have a couple. Ardent and La Merenda are probaby my two favorites. And, while I haven’t been there often, the dining experiences I’ve had at Ardent and c.1880 have been similar.
At Ardent, you have the chefs bringing the food to you, and there’s nothing really like that.
But, at c.1880, the last time I was there, I did the tasting menu. And that was pretty amazing too.
La Merenda is always the place I recommend to people from out of town who really want a great experience. And I’d give Odd Duck an honorable mention too.
In your opinion, what’s the best, but "least known" restaurant in Milwaukee?
Maybe Anmol -- because everyone I mention it to says: "What’s that? Where is it?"
But there are all sorts of places, like Phongsavan on 76th Street -- or even Jing’s. That’s my favorite Chinese restaurant in the city. I had a dinner club there, and I worked with the owner on putting together a menu with some of the items from their special Chinese menu. And it was delicious.
What's the most frustrating thing about Milwaukee?
This is a frustration that I share with restaurant owners, chefs and other foodies. I think there are still too many people who are afraid to have new experiences. And, as much as the scene has changed, I think it’s being held back a bit by that. Maybe we’re a generation away from being what we could be. It bothers me that Madison has cuisine that we don’t have here. If Madison has something, we should have it too. And it’s really the conservative nature of the residency here that’s preventing that from happening.
Do you have a favorite type of cuisine?
I do. Southeast Asian -- Thai Laotian, Vietnamese. I love the flavor profiles. I love pho, and pud prik khing. And all the curries. I could eat that every day.
What's one of your most memorable food adventures?
Before I became a "foodie," I was in Atlanta on business. And there was a Moroccan restaurant in Buckhead. I went there with a number of other people and had their seven course meal. You had to take your shoes off. You sat on cushions at a low table. And they brought us each a towel the size of a bath towel, as well as water to wash our hands. And the towel ended up being our napkin. And there were no utensils; we had to eat everything with our hands.
I don’t even remember what we ate. There were meats and rice. And I spilled something on my khakis, which stained and the hotel couldn’t get it out. So, that added $50 to the trip.
But, that experience may have singlehandedly been the start of me seeking out similar experiences moving forward.
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.