The welcome return (and slightly less deep-fried vibe) of Palomino
There was the time our breakfast burger came without gravy, and without apologies. Then there was the order where the server refused to customize a simple sandwich with a fried egg, explaining curtly, “The kitchen won’t do that.” Maybe it was all part of a blue-collar, tattered-booth romanticism and gruff, downhome charm, but if you cared about quality, it was obvious that over the past few years, Palomino was in desperate need of a swift kick in the pants.
And, like so rarely happens in the industry, they got it. New management from the Mojofuco group and two months of closed doors and swinging hammers left Milwaukee with a fresh menu, different ‘tude, and brand new old neighborhood spot. We stopped in on a recent, very hopping Friday night to peep the renovation, rejuvenation, and rebirth of the Bay View corner-joint icon.
The space: Cleansed, spruced, hipped, re-purposed-wooded. There are new booths, and more of them. Murals abound. Something steely and corrugated and called a “soffit” hangs above the old bar. Gone are the pool tables, stank-ass bathrooms, and the feel that you can take up a table forever because the game’s not over yet.
If you want to watch the Packers, you can go next door. If you’re looking for wings and a dive, you’ll go across the street. Palomino is now, largely, a different brand of groove, yet the building itself maintains the crusty siding and old-school signage that make it a corner bar of a piece with Cactus, Garibaldi, and the magical drinking center of Bay View. And of course you can get a High Life ($3) and a burger. So, at heart, it’s still Palomino.
The service: Overwhelmed, understandably; but rather friendly, surprisingly. Not quite like everyone went on a communal vision quest, popped peyote, and found their collective tater-tot-slinging centers. But gone is the steely-eyed feel that the crew is but courier between the frier and our yearning guts. The attitude adjustment seems to make sense, following logically from an establishment that again takes itself seriously.
The A.V. Club’s food: If you’re as fat as us, the first thing you’ll notice is the newfound absence of fried cheese curds. Even before you walk through the door, turn up your nose like a sorority girl, and you’ll notice a certain oily essence sadly missing from the air. And, for better or worse, it’s not really that kind of place any more. Instead, think grilled bread.
And we’ll think of ourselves as on board—especially when gooping velvety Pimento cheese and bacon jam onto our sourdough ($6). Sure, bacon inspiration is inevitable to the point of stale, and nobody’s confusing said bread with a loaf from San Francisco. But the black strips on the toast pimp the awesomeness of the Maillard reaction, and act like landing strips for a bombastic sweet, savory, sharp, mushy mouthful. It’s not a curd, but it is a very solid app, and a nice bed for a Hopdinger ($5) or the obligatory house bourbon mix—a rosemary infused Kentucky Rose ($8)—if you’re still on cocktails from the table wait.
Then there’s the biscuits and sawmill gravy ($7)—comforting, feeling like old times with an old friend to anyone familiar with the old Pal’s hangover-squashing brunches. There’s that same sausage—cubed and somehow Jimmy Dean-like, with a zing of cayenne. But something’s different now. And it’s in how long it takes your fork to meet plate that you know: these biscuits have had some work done. Pillow-y and plump, augmentation is rarely such a good thing.
Moving on from the now-mandatory “small plates” section, the second thing you might notice is entrees are served a la carte—a term many a Facebook group would lead you to believe means “bend over.” Really though, there are four joints within walking distance also serving eight-buck burgers. And if you want, you can always order your own tots direct from Sysco. Or you could complement a meal with the Hoppin’ John ($3)—a creamy, cohesive take on jambalaya. It’s a simple side that’s homey without being fatty, and “crafted” without all those highbrow connotations. Quality is worth paying for, as are all those lovingly diced peppers and green onions.
Give the Hot Fried Chicken sandwich ($8) a minute. Then give it another minute. There’s plenty of grease to absorb. But once it settles and comfortably coalesces with the homemade dill pickles and just-right mayo application, it’s about all you need for downhome, backyard, Southern comfort bliss. It’s a kind of link between something that is carefully, expertly cooked, and something that is appropriately served on “aww schucks” checkered tissue paper. It’s also a welcome declaration that the joint still ain’t good for you.
The Pulled Pork ($8) sounded inspired on menu, but it landed on the tongue a bit dry, borderline lukewarm. And the tots ($4), now homemade, could have used another minute of fried love. So, the kitchen is not perfect. But once she hits her stride, the potential is certainly as high, or higher, than Comet, Honey Pie, or any of the other joints about town in that ever-expanding weight class. Take the Chocolate Blackout Cake ($6.50), for instance. The layers keep coming, alternating frosting with each level, the moistness refusing to let up. It’s an impeccable bomb of chocolate, a conversation starter, and another-fork-necessitater – even for non-dessert people.
The verdict: Many will bemoan the prices. Some will refuse to order a burger that comes sans complementary Jalapeno Poppers. More than a few will stick to the delineation of “hipsters” or “yuppies” or whatever other label necessary to separate themselves from people who might happen to be guilty of having a beard while being hungry. And plenty of people just want the thrifty, speedy ease of a Wal-Mart. But with clear mind and empty stomach, it’s hard not to give thanks to the owners for taking time and care to acknowledge shortcomings, and meet them with such fervor. In the same swallow, it’s delicious and easy to welcome the old girl back to the legitimate ranks of the Bay View dining scene.