Summer Road Trip: South Milwaukee
One word, big difference.
More Summer Survey
- Video poker and $1 Blatz: Dropping in on the house bars of St. Francis
- The A.V. Club’s guide to Milwaukee ethnic festivals, 2013 edition
- Lesser fests: 5 under-the-radar Milwaukee summer festivals, 2013 edition
- Milwaukee’s 8 can’t-miss shows of summer 2013 (non-Summerfest edition)
- The A.V. Club’s publicly intoxicated guide to Milwaukee summer festivals, 2013 edition
In our Summer Road Trip series, we venture outside the city limits in search of good, clean, and inexpensive summer fun. Starting close to home and working our way out, we’ll cover everything from UFO cafes in Burlington to illicit swimming quarries in Redgranite.
Summer Road Trip destination: South Milwaukee
Distance from Milwaukee: 10.6 miles
South Milwaukee is an approximately four-square-mile parcel of land in Milwaukee County that serves as home to some 21,000 residents. Machinery behemoth Caterpillar has a plant there. South Milwaukee has schools, a library, churches, and even an outdoor farmers’ market in the summer months. One thing South Milwaukee doesn’t have, though, is an iota of a connection to Milwaukee. It could as easily be called North Racine.
By way of actually having the word “Milwaukee” in its name, the small, working-class city has long attempted to tether itself to its big brother to the north. Forget, for a second, its proximity or the confusion brought by Milwaukee having its own south side—one that’s not exceptionally far from northwest South Milwaukee by car. At no point along its border does South Milwaukee directly touch Milwaukee proper. Depending on entry point, Milwaukee and its similarly suffixed city are bridged by Oak Creek, Cudahy, or St. Francis (and subsequently Cudahy). Veteran comedian Jackie Kashian—arguably South Milwaukee’s most renowned former resident, excluding a heft of state senators—referred to her hometown as being “east of Milwaukee.” Even that’s generous.
Since the prospect of a Milwaukeean going out of their way to seek fun in South Milwaukee is akin to someone from Chicago driving to Lake Geneva to get deep dish pizza from a Geno’s franchisee, The A.V. Club did what so many Milwaukee residents have not and brazenly crossed the border—twice!—to spend an afternoon in Milwaukee’s vestigial twin sister city to the south.
After taking Kinnickinnic Ave. (Highway 32) south through St. Francis and Cudahy, we eventually wound up in South Milwaukee. (“Wound up” is the predominant means of arriving there.) Across from the Caterpillar plant and eerily close to the South Milwaukee Public Library, we quickly spotted the city’s premier makeshift music venue, Powers On 10th (formerly the Frozen Rope Bar), with an exterior sign touting an “Open Jam.” The bar was closed and it was technically still morning, so we opted to avoid alcohol and continue down 10th with caffeine in our crosshairs.
Down the block a bit, we spotted Nona’s Café and dropped in for a cup of coffee (Sven’s) to go. While waiting to be helped, we glanced around the quaint (and packed) mom and pop diner. The front display case caught our attention: Alongside the standard cookies and donuts, we studied “inside outs” ($1.50) and baby elephant ears (75 cents). Compared to dropping $5 on a flax seed-pomegranate-acai berry muffin in an uppity café in Milwaukee, getting a county fair treat for three quarters seemed like a more enticing option.
Coffee in hand and safely parked for the near future—we spotted exactly zero parking meters in the city—we walked down what passed as South Milwaukee’s shopping district: vibrant Milwaukee Avenue. Around the noon hour, we were shocked to see a considerable portion of the local businesses on the main drag weren’t yet open. Of course, South Milwaukee’s most renowned (and we think only) Mexican restaurant, Azteca, was bustling with lunch buffet business, as was China Chef’s buffet.
We passed by two computer repair shops, a Christian ministry, a shop specializing in “leathers”—for motorcycling, we assumed/hoped—and a store that appeared to only sell clothing emblazoned with the name and logo of the South Milwaukee Rockets. All had yet to open shop. Okay, maybe the leather shop was open, but we weren’t going in there.
A shop called Wonders (also closed) didn’t expend any wonders on the design of its sign. Peering inside the shop window, we ascertained the wonders must have been hidden behind its gaudy stained-glass decorations it was selling. We spied a sign on a vacant storefront advertising office space available for $150 a month, including utilities. If Wonders was a tad more wondrous, we would’ve moved right then. There was a carpet store, too.
The unabashed highlight of our walk down South Milwaukee’s version of Brady Street was none other than PJ’s Variety & Deli. We didn’t notice any deli items (unless an expired jug of Tampico fruit juice and some cans of Vienna sausages qualifies), but the variety was off the fucking charts. The eclectic emporium was a veritable island of misfit toys: dreamcatchers, lotions, Magic cards, oven mitts, generic Ramen noodles, inflatable novelty baseball bats, and so much more.
Needless to say, those stained cans of off-brand food made us hungry. Against all better judgment, we avoided the familiar embassy-like allure of a nearby Subway. Instead, we swung past South Milwaukee burger boss Johnny Mo’s and Landmark Lanes’ sketchy sibling (Ed’s South Milwaukee Arcade) en route to Buck & Cheryl’s, where we knew of a $5 unlimited topping large pizza special.
As we washed down the tasty pizza with a $2 Blatz, we thought back on our brief stint in southeast Wisconsin’s lesser-known Milwaukee—the sights, the shops, the affordable and abundant elephant ears, the world of differences that can exist within the span of just a few miles and with the addition of just one word. Then we went home, probably never to return, until we need a new dreamcatcher or some leathers.