Milwaukee’s best corned beef lives up to its name
Top Corned Beef on the Southwest Side ticked all the boxes for me, a picky food critic who values her corned beef:
It must be sliced by hand.
It should be served hot.
It should be soft and fragrant.
Relating to soft and savory: there must be fat – there really is – and it must melt in your mouth. Succulent or bust.
Top Corned Beef makes the kind of corned beef sandwich I think of with nostalgia the next day. (After this sandwich, I wasn’t surprised that his pastrami and Italian beef sandwiches were equally mouth-watering.)
The chef who operates Top Corned Beef, Ricky Means, is a corned beef related spirit. “I like it to be a good mix of meat and fat. And I like it big. That’s how I like it,” he said, lots of meat, lots of flavor. Served on light rye, the classic corned beef is also sprinkled with paprika on top.
Means takes a few unorthodox approaches to preparing his corned beef.
“Most people boil corned beef or slowly steam it. It may sound weird, but I actually fry it. It’s at a lower temperature, and it’s still a long process. It doesn’t really speed it up.” he said. But “somehow it locks in the flavor.”
He buys the breast already dried, but he dips it in an unexpected marinade before preparing it.
Means knows of a deli in Chicago that marinates its corned beef in orange soda. He didn’t want to go that route, so he landed on Dr Pepper.
“I figured I couldn’t go wrong with all 23 flavors,” he said.
The corned beef is so well done, I almost couldn’t believe it when Means told me he had no idea what kind of restaurant he would open when he signed the lease in late February 2020 – approx. two weeks before the pandemic lockdown of restaurants and bars on March 16.
He walked around the neighborhood to see what kinds of restaurants there were in the neighborhood. He noticed what he didn’t have.
Unlike the North Side, where he grew up watching his mother and grandmother cook, “I looked at the scenery and realized you couldn’t have corned beef on this side of town. “, said Means.
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His original goal was to open a chicken coop somewhere in Milwaukee, he said. He wanted to establish what he hoped would be the fried chicken restaurant in town, but couldn’t find the right place. His fiancée eventually found the store on 92nd Street, and although the kitchen wasn’t suitable for a chicken coop, he liked the location and other aspects of the small space.
Then the lockdown happened.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I freaked out,” Means said. And then he got to work.
The pandemic has given her time to develop her recipes, seek out the right bread and cheese, and try menu items with friends. His owner also granted him time: an eight-month cushion. “Luckily our landlord gave us a break, which I’ve learned a lot of landlords can’t afford to fund their businesses,” Means said. A contractor, Means did much of the remodeling himself.
Other corned beef stores have been around for decades, he noted. “I knew the food was going to have to speak for itself,” Means said.
He makes the juice for dipping the Italian beef sandwich and his mother makes the giardiniera. He’s doing the Thousand Islands for the Ruben sandwiches, and his fiancée is making the caramel cake for dessert.
His pastrami, which he smokes lightly, is flavored with his blend of spices. He makes the house punch with fresh fruit.
Top Corned Beef finally opened its doors on June 14, 2021. “One day I turned on the lights and stood in front of the liquor store” – A-1 Liquor, next door in the same building – “and I handed out flyers,” Means said. Top Corned Beef only has 10 seats at two counters, so much of the business is take-out.
Means keeps the menu concise in part because he works alone most of the time, managing the counter and the kitchen. But also, “I think it’s better for people to come to you for a specific reason,” he said.
He thinks about the kind of devotion a specific dish inspires in diners. For example, her mother goes to a business in Ohio just for her cheesecake.
“I wanted this for me,” Means said.
“That’s how you build customers and a foundation,” he said.
Corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day
On St. Patrick’s Day in 2022, Top Corned Beef’s first, there was a line of customers at the door and Means ran out of food at 2 p.m., he said. “This year there will be a lot more food,” he said.
Usually, only a special on Soul Food Sunday, corned beef and cabbage will be available on Friday, March 17. It will be $10.99 instead of the usual $13.99. Means will also have shepherd’s pie with cornbread ($8.99) and have holiday prices on the corned beef sandwich ($10 instead of $12) and reuben ($12 instead of $15).
BEEF HORN TOP
3109 S. 92nd Street
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday.
Prices: From $5 (tacos) to $16.75 (pastrami); Soul Food Sunday Dishes, $6.99-$17.99
Car park: Several stalls in front and on the south side of the restaurant.
Wheelchair access: Yes, but the dining surfaces are at bar height.
Payment: Cash and all major credit cards.
To note : Order at the counter or by phone (better call ahead if you’re in a hurry, especially at lunchtime); 10 seats at counter height for dining; to go out; delivery via DoorDash and GrubHub; Children’s menu; restoration. Specials: $2 Taco Tuesdays; Smokey Saturdays, ribs, hot links and smoker’s wings; Soul Food Sunday, entrees, $6.99-$17.99.