Located in the former home of Albanese’s at 701 E. Keefe Ave, The Riverwest Filling Station opened in late January. After overcoming the legalities of offering growlers of beer "to go," this beer bar sought to gain acclaim as a gastropub type eatery by adding a food menu to its offerings.
Having heard a variety of opinions about the newest restaurant on the Riverwest block, I took time to head over to the space on a busy Friday night to see what all the fuss was about.
Though elements of the newly renovated building hearken back to the 1920’s, visitors will find the space keenly outfitted with wood-slat tables, refinished hardwood floors, trendy light fixtures and rustic industrial chic ironwork. The original metal ceiling is flanked by brick walls which are adorned with contemporary artwork at every turn, creating a modern, hip space that evokes a relaxed, comfortable vibe.
The attractive bar serves as a focal point for this lively hang-out spot, perfect for meeting friends or grabbing a bite on a weeknight. You’ll wait a bit longer for a table on the weekend, as we found out on a Friday night when the typical wait was between 20 and 30 minutes.
The Filling Station gets points, as it should, for its impressive draught beer selection, which includes 30 craft varieties, including a number of Wisconsin brews. The list continues with over 30 more selections available in bottles. Pricing is reasonable, with many pints starting at $5. Growlers are an even better deal, with fill-ups ranging in price from $10 to $12 after the $4 deposit for the bottle.
Almost more impressive than the beer selection is the expansive collection of whiskeys and bourbons, which spans three shelves behind the bar. Classic cocktails, including a masterfully prepared "rail" gin and tonic made with Rehorst gin, were affordable at just over $5 each.
The menu itself is a mash-up of cuisines, including options inspired by the Middle East, North Africa, Indonesia, and the southern U.S. Entrees are reasonable, with prices between $5 and $18, with plenty of items priced in the $12 range, and a wide selection of options for vegetarians and carnivores alike. And a children’s menu, sporting typical offerings like mac 'n' cheese, chicken strips and a hot dog, is priced fairly at $3-$5 per meal.
Highlights of our meal included the fresh-tasting house-made baba ghanoush ($6), served with pitas, fresh onions and pickles. I expected the dish to exude more kick, based on the "spicy" designation on the menu. But, it became obvious that even those with a sensitive palate shouldn’t fret over items which are accompanied by s’khug, a Yemenite "hot" sauce. The sauce erred heavily on the mild side, with some pepper flavor and plenty of color, but almost no discernible heat.
We were a bit disappointed to find the gluten-free bread, which we ordered to accommodate a gluten-free friend who was dining with us, underneath the pile of gluten-filled pita triangles rather than served separately to avoid cross-contamination. We were fortunate that hers was a relatively mild intolerance, so she was still able to enjoy the dish. But, had she suffered from a more serious allergy or Celiac diagnosis, she would have had to pass on the dish altogether.
A similarly confusing scenario ensued when the same member of our party ordered Kari’s vegetarian sloppy ($8) with the optional gluten-free bread, and was chided by the waiter and encouraged to order the sandwich with the regular bun, which he suggested would be more satisfying.
Nonetheless, she did get the dish as she ordered it – proclaiming the sloppy to be "pretty darn good," with lots of cilantro flavor and a slight bit of heat from the jalapeno peppers. And her generous helping of sweet potato fries were quite tasty, despite being served lukewarm.
The chicken fried chicken ($12) was flavorful, prepared with a lighter breading than one might expect, covered in tasty gravy, and accompanied by sweet crisp-tender carrots (not quite "candied," but definitely cooked in sugared water) and buttered grits. The grits were buttery, as promised, but a bit stiff, indicating a bit too much time at rest before the food was delivered.
Come to think of it, most of the food was delivered to our table lukewarm, including the Friday night fish fry ($12), which featured a typical serving of two light, crisp, beer-battered cod filets, along with plenty of french fries. The coleslaw was flavorful, but a bit on the salty side and swimming in liquid.
The Filling Station burger ($11), comprised of stout-marinated beef stuffed with melted fontina and topped with mushrooms, fried onions, and stout aioli, fell a bit flat despite its mouth-watering menu description. The charred edges of the burger could have been indication alone, but the grey interior of the burger belied a well-done burger, even when medium-rare was indicated at the time of ordering. The onions were slightly over-cooked, lending an almost burnt flavor to the burger that overwhelmed the flavors of the mushrooms and aioli.
We ordered both of the dessert specials, a classic crème brulee and a slice of coconut lime cheesecake. Both were basic, but tasty, with the crème brulee sporting the usual creamy sweetness and the coconut lime cheesecake offering up a nice balance of both coconut and lime flavors and plenty of texture from the incorporation of ricotta cheese in the filling and the presence of a crisp flavorful crust.
In the end, our experience was a mixed one.
The Filling Station rates extremely high in my book when it comes to atmosphere, cocktail, and beer selection. Even during our wait for table seating, we had a great time bellying up to the bar, sipping beer, and chatting with the friendly bar staff. But, I can’t deny that they fell short of expectations on this first visit when it comes to their food offerings.
That said, I’d be apt to return to the Filling Station on a weeknight when it is slightly less busy. I’d like to try the deep-fried chicken wings tossed in a spicy cilantro jalapeño sauce or the egg roll poppers, featuring jalapeños filled with goat cheese and prosciutto. I also wouldn’t mind trying out a few more menu items, including a few of the seafood options. The Indonesian scallop curry, caught my eye for instance, as did the shiitake encrusted ahi tuna and the open-faced blackened catfish sandwich.
In the meantime, my verdict would be that a few simple tweaks and a bit of attention to detail could propel its offerings into something worth seeking out. So, I’m optimistic about giving it another chance to impress.
Lori Fredrich (Lo) is an eater, writer, wonderer, bon vivante, traveler, cook, gardener and girlwonder. Born and raised in the Milwaukee area, she has tried to leave many times, but seems to be drawn to this quirky city that smells of beer and alewives.
Some might say that she is a little obsessed with food. Lo would say she is A LOT obsessed with food. After all, she has been cooking, eating and enjoying food for decades and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
Lo's recipes and writing have been featured in a variety of publications including GO: Airtran Inflight Magazine, Cheese Connoisseur, Cooking Light, Edible Milwaukee, Milwaukee Magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as on the blog Go Bold with Butter, the web site Wisconsin Cheese Talk, and in the quarterly online magazine Grate. Pair. Share.