Love Handle takes hold of Milwaukee’s East Side
Sometimes you want a sandwich because hunger is tall and lunch breaks are short. Other times, it’s simply time to get something solid in your gut before the room starts spinning. And every now and then, when the cheese is melted just right, say, or the meat braised just so, some hand-scarfed, foodstuffs-between-bread can be a transcendent gastronomic experience. Indianapolis expats Chris and Ally Benedyk try to hammer a bit of all three realms with Love Handle, a simple North Avenue strip sandwich slinger with small plates, charcuterie, and an ever-changing menu. We popped in recently to get the couple’s—and Milwaukee’s—latest spin on sandwiches and cheese as affordable fine art.
The space: Love Handle’s entrance lands you somewhere between an all-out construction zone and a half-built Wes Anderson movie set: it’s minimal, woody, dotted with random window frames, spotted with quirky animal faces on the wall, and a recurring hand-stamped restaurant logo on the paper tablecloths is straight out of the artistic oeuvre of Richie Tennenbaum. New floors are coming to the sketchy entranceway, and a few more pieces filling the walls wouldn’t hurt, either—but it hardly matters. It’s clear where the priorities lay.
The service: They were happy to see us, and not just because there was but one other couple on a Friday night getting elbow-deep in a tongue hoagie. Our server was a man who cared, and was as spot-on with a knowing recommendation and heartfelt from-the-kitchen answer as he was with an easy smile or swift hot sauce delivery. His familiarity with the new menu, and seeming lack of concern over what was definitely going to be a slow tip night, felt like evidence of a pleasant, unsuspected side effect of the hipster over-romanticism of slow food: genuine passion for the given product.
The A.V. Club’s food: We’ve never been huge on sweet/savory, fruit/salt, foodie-inspired ying/yang type of taste combos. We’ve also never really been that smart. Here, we opened with a refreshing combo of Watermelon, feta, and cumin ($6). Maybe it was the balance, maybe it was the light toasting of the cumin seeds, or maybe combined with a Lagunitas IPA ($5) and a just-warm-enough evening it was a seeming perfect taste of midsummer. Either way, we were on board.
As we were for a board of Charcuterie ($8)—that once-funky term by now so ubiquitous it’s no longer fun to say, let alone order. But a trio of demolished animals ably supported the big-seeded mustard and cast iron of little bread pieces. There was the pork heart and liver sausage—spicy, punchy, potent. If the description turns you off, you’ll be turned right by the thought of some slices atop a pizza. They were even cut like pepperoni. Then there’s the tissue-thin fennel pollen and red peppercorn pork, practically begging to be folded like a cold cut, placed between bread, slathered with too much zinging mustard, and eaten with elbows out over a lunchtime newspaper. While those two are imported from Benedyk’s old Indy butcher shop, he makes the third, his bresaola, in house.
Partially sated, it was time to roll up the sleeves and get serious. The “Big L” ($9) features black truffle bologna, taleggio, and pickled radish. It’s an inspired, not-at-all nostalgic take on the baloney and cheeses of childhood. Well-constructed, with consistent gooey bites from a lightly toasted, easily manageable baguette, it also shows that brie-like soft cheese shouldn’t be limited to yuppie cheese plates. Slap that shit atop some hot, salty meat.
The “Iris”($9) yields braised beef tongue, pickled watermelon rind, blue cheese aioli, and arugula. Our healthy-averse stomach was half-worried about the melon. But it was subtle, strange, and allowed the runny, wining blue cheese gravy to rule our tongue.
It matters little if there’s stomach room at the end for the Churros with spicy chocolate ($5). They are as light, airy, and perfect as the delightfully ribbed and sugarcoated Mexican pastry can be. And with a hint of cayenne, or something equally devilish in the Nutella-like chocolate dipping sauce, it was like a newfound appetite miracle: dessert nachos. They can tamper with the sandwich sauces all they want, or go crazy with foie gras and handmade marmalades; please, just let the rest of our many forthcoming meals here end like this.
The verdict: Maybe the closest Milwaukee has to Rick Bayless’ Chicago A-list joint Xoco, with its basic, elemental, between-bread food and sweet chaser, ordered simply at a counter, and crafted with as much love, care, and attention to detail as is allowable by law. But Love Handle is not just a pleasant dose of haute food essence in the land of chicken wings and Chubby’s—few other sandwiches in town are as worth a sideways expansion to the gut.