Milwaukee Walkabout: Historic Mitchell Street
Your grandmother bought her wedding dress on Mitchell Street.
It doesn’t matter who your grandmother is, where she’s from, or even if she had a dress in the first place. There’s two things for certain in Milwaukee: 1) the custard wars will never be settled and 2) your grandmother bought her wedding dress on Mitchell Street.
The white billowy chiffon and flower-studded arches have aged. The slick neon signs above department stores dotting the busy thoroughfare are dark, replaced by white LED rope lights and flashing open signs. Sultry smells of smoked specialties waft in certain corners, nudged aside by decadent al pastor, fresh tortillas, sweet concha and fiery seekh kebab. Goldman’s and Schuster’s are long gone, and so too may be your grandmother’s wedding dress, but Mitchell Street is the thriving, buzzing, living center of the South side that it has always been, in ways that your grandmother probably would never expect.
It is an important fact to establish that the South side—and we’re talking The Old Neighborhood South Side—has always been an immigrant community. Look at the broken pediment roof lines and Polish flats in Lincoln Village, the verdigris copper-capped brick of Walker’s Point, the coalstained Cream City brick of St. Hyacinth Church, and you’ll see the city of Milwaukee as it was inhabited by all types at the turn of the century. Sure, there were lots of Germans, Slovenians, Croatians, Latvians, Kaszubes, Serbians and others—but the South Side was Polish—working class, hard scrabble Polish with one foot back in Wroclaw and the other on 5th and Lapham. Mitchell Street was the bridge between them: at once a celebration of traditional culture and an adventure in early 20th century American amalgamism.
A walk down Mitchell Street on a mild spring day might elicit the exact same thoughts today: in a beautiful twist, this old commercial district now serves an entirely new group of immigrants—count expats from Mexico, Pakistan, India, El Salvador and Puerto Rico among them.
Start strong and challenge your constitution to a dual with the piquant pleasures of Pakistan at Anmol, a compact eatery near St. Stanislaus. The spice levels are predetermined keeping the suspense palpable, and the naan is pillowy and heavily buttered. Chicken handi is rich and creamy, with a beautiful melange of spice that will have you sopping up every last drop of gravy.
After an indulgent meal, there’s no better place to contemplate life choices or simply appreciate the varied and breathtaking examples of Milwaukee’s sacred architecture than at the parishes of Mitchell Street. St. Anthony’s, a historic German congregation pierces the sky at So. 9th Street while St. Stanislaus stands stalwart on 5th Street. St. Anthony’s dramatic spires soar above a gilded Victorian interior, in contrast with St. Stanislaus, a 1873 Polish Catholic Oratory, and its detailed Polish Cathedral decor.
No meander down Mitchell Street would be complete without a stop at Lopez Bakery. This location may not be the family’s original outlet, but the space is big and open and the central kitchen is located here. Whether it’s a concha (shell) or a tortuga (turtle), the fluffy egg dough and bright assortment of flavors will have you eagerly asking, “What’s that?” and might even bring back your 7th grade Spanish lessons.
Check out the varied and unusual retail on Mitchell Street, and you’ll find Quinceañera dresses coexisting next to Halal meats, furriers, western wear, banks, shoe stores—anything you’d find in a sprawling suburban retail complex, here concentrated down into a human-scaled stretch of about a half mile.
If your grandmother were on Mitchell Street buying her wedding dress, she probably would have re-energized at the lunch counter, maybe with a cup of split pea and ham soup and some toast. In 2017, we re-energize (as we always do) with tacos, and the best tacos on Mitchell Street —nay—the best tacos in Milwaukee may be at Los Gemelos on 11th and Mitchell. The star here is tacos al pastor: The thin slices of spiced pork are shaved off a vertical spit a la shawarma, and served on corn tortillas, topped with cilantro and onion and a wafer-thin piece of sweet piña.
Your grandmother wouldn’t know every store on Mitchell Street anymore, but she’d immediately recognize the soul of the place hasn’t changed. Milwaukee needs places and neighborhoods that nurture community and belonging—perhaps now more than ever. Take a walk down Mitchell Street, learn about a different community in the city, and maybe bring your grandmother—the sopa de pollo will have her right as rain in no time.
711 W Historic Mitchell St, Milwaukee, WI 53204
Lopez Bakery & Restaurant
1100 W Historic Mitchell St, Milwaukee, WI 53204
1116 W Historic Mitchell St. Milwaukee, Wisconsin