Soo Ahn is the executive chef of Band of Bohemia, a one-MICHELIN-starred brewpub in Chicago recognized by our inspectors for its “unique creations both in the glass and on the plate.” Unlike most restaurants in which drink pairings follow food menus, at Band of Bohemia Ahn has the unusual role of reverse-engineering a food menu based on in-house beers artfully brewed by co-founder Michael Carroll.
As our inspectors say, the result is “so much more than a working brewery with a talented kitchen.” Dishes like Berkshire pork chop served over a pile of kimchi, creamy labneh and compressed apple “defy expectations with delicious success.” Ahn is at the forefront, utilizing not only an impressive cooking background but also his experience in defying expectations.
As a former professional golfer and graduate of Duke University (where he studied psychology), Ahn is no stranger to interdisciplinary thinking. Before joining Band of Bohemia, he cooked at Curtis Duffy’s famed Grace and one-MICHELIN-starred “underground dinner party prepared by a merry band of misfit cooks” EL Ideas, as well as for the Ritz Carlton. While at EL Ideas, Ahn discovered one of his favorite culinary destinations: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The chef’s first trip to Cream City occurred due to a kitchen conversation with El Ideas’s chef and owner Phillip Foss. “When I was working,” Ahn recalls, “[he] always talked about the best bowl of ramen being in Milwaukee. At first I thought, ‘Ramen in Milwaukee? How good could it be?’” One night after dinner service, a crew of Ahn’s friends from EL Ideas decided to drive up to Milwaukee to find out themselves.
The ramen Foss was referring to was chef Justin Carlisle’s, now owner of Red Light Ramen (which opened in summer 2016), who at the time was hosting a popular after-hours ramen eatery in his acclaimed restaurant Ardent (still a Milwaukee hotspot since its opening in 2013). “Two of the best bowls of ramen I have ever had, multiple Spotted Cow [beers] and many laughs later,” Ahn remembers, “I was madly in love with Milwaukee.”
After that trip, Ahn continued to travel to Milwaukee for inspiration. “Every time [I go],” he says, “I discover something else amazing about the city.” His favorite highlights are the “beer, cheese, people, music, hiking trails and golf courses,” which he considers “some of the best” in the country.
For “cheese curds and Spotted Cows,” Ahn recommends Who’s on Third, a laid-back sports bar with an outdoor patio and sports games running around the clock. (Cheese curds, a Wisconsin tradition, here are battered in Lakefront Riverwest Stein and served with ranch and marinara dipping sauces.)
For not just custard but also “good burgers,” Ahn recommends Kopp’s Frozen Custard, founded by Elsa Kopp in 1950 with custard flavors changing daily. “Pet the cows,” says Ahn, referring to the lines of black or white cows that often dot the back of Kopp’s restaurants.
For a lively local scene and a taste of Milwaukee’s culinary talent, Ahn loves the Milwaukee Public Market, a downtown food destination featuring artisan products and freshly prepared food from local vendors including the West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shop, small batch coffee roaster Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company and Kehr’s Candies. “Come for the souvenirs,” Ahn says, “and stay for the food and drinks.”
Ahn’s recommendations read like a local’s, a testament to the number of times he’s visited. For a Mexican-style taqueria with “solid tacos” and “boozy slushies,” Ahn loves The Laughing Taco. For “fancy cocktails,” he recommends Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge, Milwaukee’s oldest of its kind since 1938. Plush velvet walls and tunes from a vintage McIntosh-powered audio system make each visitor a part of its storied history. For late night drinks, Ahn favors Goodkind, a former blacksmith shop turned corner tavern tucked away in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood near the shores of Lake Michigan.
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After a big night out, Ahn recommends visitors start their morning at Uncle Wolfie’s Breakfast Tavern, which he describes as “the perfect spot to grab some greasy food for your hangover,” open until 3:00 p.m. daily. For more a lowkey daytime activity, he recommends the Milwaukee Art Museum, whose exhibits have included the first retrospective of New York artist James Nares and Wisconsin furniture craftsman Charles Radtke. “Get some culture!” exclaims Ahn.
Ahn also loves the natural aspects of the Milwaukee area. For an outdoorsy day trip, he recommends the Oak Leaf Trail, noting the “spectacular views for hiking and biking.” The multi-use trail system offers over 125 miles of trail for cycling, roller blading, walking, birding and running around Milwaukee County, nearly a quarter of which hug the scenic shores of Lake Michigan.
If you want to get out of town, Ahn’s favorite brewery is New Glarus Brewery, nestled on the outskirts of New Glarus, Wisconsin, and run by an enthusiastic couple, Daniel and Deb Carey. “It’s a little away from the city (short of two hours away), but an amazing place to tour.”
Hero image courtesy of Uncle Wolfie's Breakfast Tavern/Facebook.