Zak's Cafe finds niche in local dining scene
It's been a year and a half since we found Doug Konzak in the middle of renovating the space that's become Zak's Cafe, 231 S. 2nd St.
"It's going very well," says the restaurant owner, who's now brought his cafe through the critical early stages of a young establishment. And Konzak keeps going, drawing on the resources of the Walker's Point neighborhood, adding new menu items this summer and getting ready to build a new patio on the north side of the building.
Zak's Cafe, which takes its name from part of Konzak's, was retrofitted into its three-story structure of cream city brick, tall ceilings and windows originally built in 1890. A kitchen was added to the basement and a mezzanine that seats 40 was built over the bar area.
A menu in development at the beginning of last year has now been formalized to include ribs, airline chicken breast and an Angus filet served with choice of Cabernet demi-glace or a green peppercorn sauce, vegetables and choice of potato.
"Zak's is an ever-evolving entity," says manager Heather Rodriquez. "We're so new, our perpetual fine-tuning has us getting better every day."
The ribs are Konzak's own recipe, which he pairs with a Cabernet Sauvignon from California's Main Street Winery.
Along with the ribs are numerous other pairing selections on the table top drink menu at Zak's, like a Merlot with pan-fried perch.
A summer menu of lighter fare was added this year that includes seared Ahi tuna salad and sandwich, duck breast pan-seared in a Door County cherry, port wine, honey and Merlot reduction, salmon, scallops and Rushing Waters trout.
OnMilwaukee.com stopped by Zak's to try a couple of these summer items, namely the seared Ahi tuna salad and the Ahi tuna sandwich, it being warm outside and an all-round Ahi tuna kind-of-day.
Customers choose how Zak's sushi-grade tuna is prepared. Ours was lightly seared and served in a thick, but not-too-thick slab, like a well-cut steak. The softness of the fish and mushrooms juxtaposed nicely with the cashews and other crunchy salad toppings. The salad was finished with a sesame ginger dressing.
We ordered the Ahi cooked medium-well for the sandwich and it was every bit as delicious as near-raw. The tuna was served with arugula on a toasted bun pleasantly smeared with balsamic vinaigrette. The side of Asian slaw is a great complement, as is the in-house made chips, which come either regular, sweet potato or a combination.
Weekdays from 11 a.m to 2 p.m. have become the busiest for Zak's, along with its popular Sunday brunch, which features an omelet station in the dining room, but coffee business at the bar, which starts at 7 a.m., is going well, too.
"I'd like to improve on the morning coffee and espresso rush," says Konzak. "But we do get our share of mid-morning business meetings and other events."
Zak's features Alterra coffees and has a full menu of specialty drinks, including iced coffees. The cafe also offers fruit juices and soft drinks like Sprecher's root beer and Red Bull.
The lunch menu includes the Zak's Burger, which is a half-pound of Kobe beef, a crab cake sandwich with Cajun remoulade, as well as turkey, pulled pork, portobello and Reuben sandwiches.
Zak's delivers to Walker's Point, the Third Ward and Downtown locations.
The breakfast menu includes a sweet potato hash, which is blended with russets as well as bacon, rosemary and thyme and is accompanied by two eggs and toast. The menu also includes pancakes, French toast, eggs, biscuits and gravy and features a number of Benedict options, such as "Zak's Original Benedict."
Flowers by Faye, 2534 N. 71 St., puts vases of fresh flowers on every table in the dining areas.
Work by student painters at artist James Hempel's studio, 133 W. Pittsburgh Ave., currently adorns the walls, along with some from Hempel and other artists. All are for sale right off the wall.
"I like to use the resources of the community and be part of it," says Konzak. "This is one way to do that."
Konzak likes to offer promotions. Wednesdays have a taco theme which feature shrimp and fish tacos and a steak fajita roll, and Zak's offers a punch card to its customers, too. Order nine breakfast and lunch items or dinner entrees and get the 10th one on the cafe.
Konzak prefers to have a part in all aspects of his business, from developing the menu, which include showing the chefs his rib and BBQ sauce recipes, to choosing green as the dominant color in Zak's design scheme. He will occasionally jump in the kitchen line to help out and his is the most likely face greeting customers during catering drop-offs.
"The executive MBA program at Marquette really prepared me for getting into the business world," says Konzak, who graduated with the degree in 2007. "It's a challenge owning one's own business in the first place."
But Konzak enjoys being a restaurateur, from designing the space and the menu, working with his employees and interacting with customers to all the challenges of helping design what has decidedly become his own place.
Konzak always liked cooking and going out to eat. His 40 years in the IT industry, first as a programmer at W.W. Grainger and then his 25 years at Rockwell Automation, probably gave him more preparation for the culinary world than he thinks. His master's degree in English literature, also from Marquette, doesn't hurt, either.
"It gave me great insights into life. It showed me how to study things," says Konzak. "And that I wouldn't ever be afraid to waste my opinion."
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