This is not the kind of restaurant I would normally review for this blog. It was not my normal, dirt-cheap, hole-in-the-wall, greasy-spoon, post-hike haunt. It was expensive. It was also not near the trail I hiked, or any trail for that matter. It was in downtown Milwaukee, near the airport and across a weed-choked parking lot from my cheap hotel. When I completed my Lapham Peak hike (read here), I checked Yelp for nearby restaurants. Nothing caught my eye. I started driving back to Milwaukee, intending to check in and then go looking for after-hike chow, but by the time I was back in Brew Town, I had resolved to hit a grocery store and eat in my room. As I pulled up to my hotel, I saw the Branded Steer across the way. It was 3:00pm. Early that morning, somewhere in Indiana, I had eaten a meager, motel breakfast. Then I’d driven for three hours, assembled a piece of scenery, and hiked four miles. I was hungry. Suddenly, very hungry. I threw my bag in the room and headed for the Branded Steer.
The first thing I noticed as I hurried across the parking lot in a midwestern March snow flurry was a sign on a parking spot near the door. The sign read, “Special Parking for Mayor Tony”.
Wow, I thought, is that the mayor of Milwaukee?
It’s not. I googled it. Tom Barrett is the mayor of Milwaukee.
When I walked in, I was greeted by some fairly standard steakhouse décor. Lots of wood – there was a chair rail with oak wainscoting below and a large wooden bar with matching barstools. All of the tables, chairs, and booths were also wood. I liked that. The floor was concrete but finished to look like leather. Signs with western themes adorned the walls, and large screen TVs were everywhere. Homey and comfortable – a great place to watch the game.
A gregarious server showed me to a booth in a room where I was practically by myself. Spotted Cow was on tap, so I ordered one. It came ice-cold and I sipped it while perusing the menu.
Spotted Cow is an American cream ale brewed by New Glarus Brewing Company. Although Beer Advocate gives it a rating of 84, it is in every pub and restaurant in Wisconsin – bar none. (Pun intended.) The brew master calls it, “fun, fruity, and satisfying,” claiming it pairs well with diverse culinary choices from jambalaya to Reuben sandwiches. It’s Wisconsin, so naturally bratwurst and Limburger cheese made the list as well. Spotted cow is a well-balanced, easy-drinking beer that is a Dairy State go-to for me on any occasion. And, honestly, any beer that can elevate Limburger cheese must have some magical properties.
I ordered the 14 ounce ribeye. I’m not sorry. It came with a soup or salad, and a choice of potato. I chose salad and subbed the potato out for mixed vegetables.
“What kind of dressing do you want?”
“What kinds do you have?”
My bubbly server rattled off about fifteen kinds of salad dressings like an auctioneer on her fifth cup of coffee. Then she circled back to the chipotle-lime vinaigrette.
“It’s home made,” she said with a smile that suggested that I would be a fool to choose otherwise.
“I’ll have tha- …”. She had already scribbled on her pad and was flouncing away.
Her confidence was not unwarranted. The chipotle-lime vinaigrette was really good – much better than I had even expected. It was tangy and a bit spicy. It transformed a run-of-the-mill side salad into a first course that made an impression. Best supporting ingredient? Crumbled, deep-fried croutons.
At that point, it had been nine hours, one-hundred-eighty road miles, three states, and four miles of trail since I had last eaten. In my mind, I was sitting at the table, napkin tucked into my shirt, knife and fork pointing at the ceiling, salivating like Yosemite Sam waiting on his hasenpfeffer. I had just finished my salad when I saw my steak coming.
I was ready. Just as my perky server reached the table, she stumbled, and ice-water from a highball sloshed onto my plate. Looking embarrassed, she gushed apologies and darted off to fix it. I didn’t really care, but she was gone before I could protest. So close and yet … she was back inside of five minutes.
The steak was fantastic. I mean, I was pretty hungry, but I don’t think I had lost my objectivity. My rib-eye had a beautiful, rich, brown sear on the outside and was topped with caramelized button mushrooms. I cut into it. The center was just barely warm and bright red. Juice ran freely onto the plate and seeped into the mixed vegetables. I tasted it. Well seasoned and tender. I was happy.
I turned my attention to the sides. The onion rings (Branded Steer calls them “lassos”) were thinner than thin and very lightly battered. I don’t mind a thick piece of onion, but I hate a heavily battered ring that’s sopping with grease. They were wispy: light, and flavorful, and nicely crisp. Another win. The mixed vegetables were also good. I like potatoes, but I’m not one of those meat-and-potatoes guys; I’d just as soon have a nice vegetable sauté as a butter-drenched, tuber-fest any day. On that day their mix included broccoli, carrots, peppers, water chestnuts, mushrooms, onions, and celery. All were cooked well: good and hot, but still brilliantly crisp.
Usually, I would rather eat more dinner and less desert. This day was an exception. Besides, the menu included two of my all-time favorites: crème brûlée and cheesecake. The Branded Steer didn’t seem like a crème brûlée type of place, so I went for the cheesecake, New York style. It came exactly as I hoped it would – no frills. I contend that if you want your cheesecake with swirls through it, or drowning in some kind of sauce or compote, it’s because you don’t really like cheesecake. My server delivered an unadorned slice of creamy, silky cheesecake on a graham cracker crust. I devoured it. I wasn’t mad at anybody.
When my server brought the bill, I asked about Mayor Tony.
“He’s just a regular,” she said.
“Was he mayor of somewhere?”
My meal came to $63.70, way more (like four times more) than I would ordinarily want to spend on an after-hike meal. However, the Steer provided me with a hearty, delicious meal and the service was prompt, efficient, and friendly. Plus, it was close to my lodging. Was it Bavette’s of Chicago? No. Was it worth what I paid? Yes. Sadly, the Branded Steer isn’t close to any hike, but it is a mere 2,000 feet from a hot Wisconsin travel destination – General Mitchell International Airport. So, if you’ve been tramping the Wisconsin trails and need a good steak before flying home … the Steer has got you covered. I do what I can to help.
Date: March 14, 2020
Location: 42.929824, -87.929539
Price Range: $$$
Everything Else: ★★★★