Bay View’s quirky Vanguard serves classic Milwaukee eats

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Bay View’s quirky Vanguard serves classic Milwaukee eats

Photo by Photo via facebook.com/vanguardmke

Photo by Photo via facebook.com/vanguardmke

Photo by Photo via facebook.com/vanguardmke

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Housed in the trendy south side neighborhood of Bay View, The Vanguard is so unabashedly Milwaukee that it’s almost funny. And that’s precisely why I love it. The specialty sausage house has one foot firmly in the hipster-artisanal cuisine camp and another planted in the tradition of incredibly indulgent Midwest fare, perfectly blending experimental with old-time favorites to cement itself in the canon of city dining.

When I started at Marquette, as a self-described aspiring foodie, I scoured niche food blogs and local newspaper dining sections to find the best eats in town. The Vanguard, located on 2659 S Kinnickinnic Ave., which opened last year, often received acknowledgement for being one of the best new restaurants in Milwaukee. I knew I had to try it, but I exercised patience. Like late night television, it’s never wise to judge a restaurant right out of the gate. It took Jimmy Fallon about a year before he had any comfort on “Late Night.” Now he’s the king of TV comedy, killing it with the masses every night on “The Tonight Show.”

So, finally, the time arose when a Portland-native Bro’Donnell brother of mine realized he’s yet to have an authentic Milwaukee bratwurst. Off to Vanguard’s we went.

The atmosphere was true Milwaukee hipster. The service is from the counter, and the food is served in boxes and trays, providing a cool fast-casual contrast to the more upscale decor. Obscure early 2000s punk played over the speakers (specifically, The Ponys), while a taped recording of ABC’s classic ’80s reality show “Wide World of Sports” was being played on both TVs above the bar. (Former MLB star Bobby Bonds, father of Barry, competed in this particular episode). “BE SOMEBODY,” the bar’s slogan, was plastered in big black letters on the back wall. And, best yet, the place has become the city’s premier location for WWE watch parties. “It got crazy in here,” an employee told me, describing the crowd drawn in for last weekend’s “Royal Rumble” pay-per-view event.

But more importantly, how was the food? Now, I’m a Chicago boy. Hot dogs, bratwurst and Italian sausage were all regular menu items in the Boyle household. Needless to say, I know my way around a wiener. And boy, does Vanguard’s have wieners. The expansive menu features about two dozen unique dishes centered around the sausage. From classics like the cheddarwurst and the hot dog to out-of-left-field choices like “Octopus-Chorizo” and “Duck-BLT,” Vanguard offers a series of fully-loaded, one-and-done sausage-as-meals.

My order, The Bellomo, was great. The sausage: spiced Italian pork. The toppings: sautéed peppers, caramelized onions, fennel and savory wisconsin-made sarvecchio cheese. The sauce: a creamy pesto. The taste: delectable. My emotional state: pure, unadulterated joy. Also sampled, and also great, was the classic beer-battered bratwurst, topped with onion, relish and mustard. On the side, we ate buttery melt-in-your-mouth cheese curds with a great bacon-aioli ranch dip.

The Vanguard is like Sobleman’s weenie cousin who went to art school. It’s a cooler, slightly more sophisticated, though equally as grounded restaurant that takes a popular dish and creates an entire menu of variety. It’s the Chris Nolan of sausages, where art house sensibilities meet mass appeal, and leaves everyone happy.

It may be a bit of a trek in the winter, but the quick 10 minute Uber ride was well worth it. With some sausages priced as low as $4, it’s nice to know the wallet doesn’t take a major hit, and on weekdays during lunch hours each meal comes with free fries and a drink. It’s also a great reminder that Milwaukee – and Milwaukee cuisine – can be found beyond downtown, The Third Ward and Brady Street. And if a day trip is too hard, the kitchen’s open till 2 a.m. on weekends, and it’d make for excellent late night binge food.

As someone who feels like an outsider to Milwaukee, The Vanguard tiptoes the line of city self-parody. As someone who also feels like an insider to Milwaukee, it’s easy to recommend as authentic city cuisine. Either way, it’s great, and I can’t wait to go back.

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