Looking for new spots to try? Lori Fredrich has dished out her top five picks in 20 different dining categories, from brunch to BBQ and everything in between.
Milwaukee has far to go when it comes to culinary representation from the diverse set of countries so often unfairly homogenized by terms like "Middle Eastern" or "Mediterranean." Fortunately, recent years have brought an increasing buffet of regional specialties from countries including Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iran; and I have high hopes that more will follow.
In the meantime, here are five spots that offer a delicious peek at the regionally distinctive cuisines often disguised by the use of more generic nomenclature.
1. Lebnani House
5051 S. 27th St., (414) 488-8033
For me, a first trip to Lebnani House was among the highlights of the year. Not only is the restaurant itself beautiful, but the fare is like a delicious journey just waiting to be taken.
From a bright, modern fatoush salad doppled with pomegranite to a far-from-traditional hummus trio, every dish offered both a nod to tradition as well as something new.
I'd recommend making your first trip with friends and trying as many items as you can. Explore the housemade flatbreads, including the flavorful beef filet bil ajin topped with thin slices of beautifully seasoned beef filet and olive oil.
Indulge in their flavorful char-grilled beef kebabs and likely the best kafta I've eaten in the city. And if you love seafood, be sure to order the delectably fresh head-on prawns, which are char-grilled and served with a flavorful garlic lemon sauce that begs to be sopped up with fresh, housemade flatbread.
As usual, I'd also encourage you to try something new. For me it was the fatteh, a classic Levantine comfort food composed of layers of toasted pita bread tossed with tahini, tangy yogurt, spices and herbs. Lebnani house offers their fatteh topped with beets, eggplant and beef, chicken or grilled prawns.
2. Damascus Gate
There’s little more delightful than a trip to Damascus Gate, where Syrian fare is both showcased and celebrated. There’s vibrant, lemony hummus and hand-rolled stuffed grape leaves with tangy pomegranate molasses. And don’t miss the fatayer (handmade pies); the spinach is deliciously nuanced and the cheese pies are both tasty and beautiful, flecked with black sesame seeds. Foods are also presented as both individual dishes and platters, allowing you to sample your way through numerous dishes in a single trip.
3. Taqwa’s Bakery & Restaurant
There’s a feast of dishes to savor at Taqwa’s, which celebrates dishes from climes including Jordan and Palestine. Stand-outs include signature entrees like dawalee (grape leaves stuffed with seasoned meat and rice) are served alongside roasted chicken with yogurt cucumber salad; along with daily specials like shoshbarak (beef dumplings) in yogurt sauce with rice.
Be sure to try the freshly baked manakish (Palestinian taboun bread topped with cheese and za'atar and tender house-baked fatayer (hand pies) stuffed with spinach, onions and sumac. And don’t leave without ordering something from the list of freshly baked sweets (both the maamoul and warbat are outstanding).
4. Pita Palace
At pita palace you’ll find staples like falafel, kebabs and shawarma sandwiches. But you'll also find memorable starters like foul mudamas, a dish with origins in Egypt that's comprised of a tastty puree of mashed, boiled grassy-flavored fava beans enhanced by bright lemon, crushed garlic and cumin. Don’t sleep on entrees like shish tawook, chicken marinated with yogurt, citrus and plenty of garlic. Daily specials are also worth your while, particularly the Jordanian mansaf served on Saturday and Sunday. It’s comprised of lamb cooked in a fermented dried yogurt sauce and served with rice or bulgur.
There are so many lovely dishes to enjoy at this East Side staple, which has served up a menu of excellent Iranian dishes and Palestinian staples, since 1993. And I’ve been a longtime customer, whether just stopping in for simple lunches of lentil soup and tabouli or lingering over dinner and Turkish coffee with friends.
The restaurant's new location (just down the road from where they once were) has a different vibe from the original; it's far more casual and adaptable to carry-out. So the days of lingering over coffee may have passed.
But you'll still find a menu filled with beloved staples, including shareable appetizers like yalenjee (stuffed grape leaves) and slightly smoky baba ghanouj along with entrees like succulent lamb shank braised in fragrant tomato sauce and vegetarian shakshuka, a tomato-based vegetable stew which can be enjoyed at varying spice levels from tame to positively incendiary.
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.