Where we are right now in Milwaukee is endemic of our destiny as one of the great Rust Belt cities; stuck between our past as an industrial powerhouse and the crippling reality of poverty, joblessness, hopelessness, and confusion of the modern era. And yet at the same time, parts of our city are flourishing in many ways; new construction downtown, new industries, creativity, artistry, and entrepreneurship are starting to take root in the cracks, so to speak, in our post-industrial pavement. At the same time, we are slowly coming to terms with the fact that there are two Milwaukees: One of rich whites, and another of poor minorities. We are simultaneously one of the best cities for white Americans to live, with a thriving downtown, good architecture, strong businesses, and multiple colleges that makes us a “hidden gem of the Midwest”, and the location of the 53206 area code, the worst place to be African-American in the United States.
I am white, male, and moderately successful. I live twelve blocks away from 53206.
Throughout the city, there are many small efforts that aim at resolving this duplicity, and in bringing together the fractured parts of the city of Milwaukee, making us whole again. I had the unique pleasure of seeing, from a short distance, the growth of a restaurant that hopes to help become a bridge between white and black Milwaukeeans through one of my favorite mediums: food.
Enter The Tandem (1848 W. Fond du Lac Avenue), a restaurant specializing in a mix of African-American and contemporary American cuisine. Situated in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood between downtown and the North Side, in the space formerly occupied by Wally Schmidt’s Tavern, chef Caitlin Cullen’s venture seeks to bridge the divide between these two disparate parts of Milwaukee’s culture. By blending fried chicken and collard greens with chimichurri and craft cocktails, Chef Cullen seeks to create a space where affluent diners from downtown can interact with community members from the area, facilitating important conversation about the invisible wall between the two sides of town. She also seeks to primarily employ local residents, giving much-needed job opportunities to the area, and providing training and an opportunity to take part in Milwaukee’s growing culinary industry.
Chef Caitlin Cullen
Chef Cullen, a Detroit transplant to Milwaukee, is something of an enigma. A former English teacher who has spent time as an educator in Detroit and the Dominican Republic, her goal isn’t only to feed Milwaukee and run a successful business, but also to educate and inspire change. In Tandem, named for her father’s Motown bar, she seeks to help eliminate some of the staggering inequality in Milwaukee through ground-level work in providing what so many in the city desperately need: good jobs and valuable skills. By building so close to the Bucks Arena development downtown, using crowdsourced funding organized by Juli Kaufmann of Fix Development and Jeremy Davis of Walnut Way Conservation Corp, and employing local residents, Cullen also wants Tandem to be a representative of a new way of funding and staffing restaurant business development, and one that may be replicated elsewhere around the city.
We arrived at Tandem on November 22, for their official opening night, full of excitement. After following the few articles about the restaurant’s development, we wanted to see how the food and service stacked up. We weren’t alone; sitting next to us (among others) was Mark Bearce, CEO of Kettle Range Meat Co., a local meat purveyor responsible for providing the product served that night.
We started out with two of the specialty cocktails: an Original #1 (described as tequila, lime, and berry) for me, and a Lindsay Heights Punch (listed as vodka, orange, berry, and bubbles) for my fiancee. The cocktails were delicious and well-prepared, though the punch was just a little warm for our liking, and it concerned me a little to not know exactly what “bubbles” means (champagne? seltzer? Sprite?).
For our appetizer round, we ordered a family favorite, fried chicken livers, as well as a plate of Cullen’s famous mixed pickles. Both were served with what I believe was a homemade buttermilk ranch, and both were absolutely delicious. The house pickles were tart and sweet, but not overwhelmingly so; the mixture of carrots, beets, onions, and red and yellow bell peppers was a delightful departure from the typical pickled cucumber plate, using largely seasonally-appropriate root vegetables for November. The fried chicken livers were astoundingly good; large, even-sized hunks of smooth liver with a thick, chunky, crispy buttermilk coating, nicely spiced with a touch of heat. We demolished them, both being too polite to touch the last few pieces until I had at least gotten a chance to get another picture.
For our entree round, the chef had unfortunately run out of the oxtail soup, so I settled with the steak chimichurri over rice, whereas Sydney went with the drumstick and thigh with sides platter, with the Georgia spice. For her sides, she went with macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, and a bean salad. The chimichurri was tender and flavorful, with a bright, fragrant green chimichurri sauce , and the rice was soft and slightly acidic from the light citrus-herb coating. However, the real star of the show was the Georgia chicken; a beautifully thick, crispy coating with a crunch heard halfway across Milwaukee. Beautifully brined for salt and flavor throughout, the chicken was thick, hot, and delicious, and the mild spice and herb blend in the buttermilk coating was the perfect accent to the chicken itself. If there’s one thing to look forward to when visiting Tandem, it’s this. The sides which accompanied it were fresh and tasty, but it was honestly quite hard to objectively identify any qualities in them following a bite of that tasty fowl; the one thing that does stand out from the sides is the macaroni and cheese, which was richly creamy and delightful, though I do wish it came with more cheese (this being Wisconsin, after all).
After all was said and done, we paid up and stumbled towards the door, bellies full and hearts happy, to celebrate the rest of the evening. We took with us a few leftover sides and an extra order of those delectable fried chicken livers.
Despite some minor hiccups in service and speed, the food was incredible and affordable, and the decor was classic and well-restored. Chef Cullen’s endeavor deserves recognition, not just as a wonderful effort to improve Milwaukee, but as a place for great, affordable food and drinks. All in all, I’d give this a “chicken-skin crunch” out of ten, and leave you with a video clip of exactly what I mean.