Love Handle’s Sandwiches From Scratch
How a couple in love created a homey restaurant with unique, farm-to-table creations.
Chris Benedyk went to school to study film making and landed in Indianapolis cutting meat. At the same time his wife Ally, trained as a pastry chef, honed her skills at a fine dining restaurant. Together they had a dream; open a café. In 2012 they moved to Milwaukee because as Benedyk says, “It seemed to be a budding food scene.” He knew the city from playing local gigs here with his band Pow Wow.
A year later, in May 2013, the Benedyks opened Love Handle, a tiny place with eight tables tucked in next to an American Family Insurance agency at 2215 E. North Avenue.
This is no ordinary run-of-the-mill sandwich shop/diner. That’s obvious from a first glance at the street-salvaged empty windows hanging on the walls. Are they art? Absolutely. Much of the unique décor, Ally’s creation, comes from her memories. “I wanted the restaurant to remind me of my childhood when I went to visit my grandma’s house.” Well then, Grandma would be honored. Even the wallpapered half wall that separates Love Handle from the hallway has a blue-green pastoral farm scene that resembles every Grandma’s parlor from the 1940s. Add peach-colored walls and Benedyk scored the classic antique, retro, vintage ambiance.
To add a contemporary vibe, she found old door handles, attached them to slabs of cherry wood salvaged from old barns, and hung them on the wall. Marcel Duchamp couldn’t have done it better with his “readymades.” “We had to make do with what we could,” says Benedyk.
“They’re our love handles,” she says. Of course. How did I miss the obvious?
That segues to the question, “So, how did you come up with the name Love Handle?”
He says, “We wanted something philosophical; something to relate to us as husband and wife in love.”
She adds, “We wanted to get a handle on what we want to do with our lives.” It all fits — the door handles, the windows of opportunity, and the mural on the wall painted by Chris, a loving couple encased in a big red heart.
Don’t look for egg salad on whole wheat at Love Handle. If you pair a musician/artist with a pastry chef who has a passion for retro, you get something different that you’ve never tasted, like a Smoked Lake Trout Sandwich with purslane and escabeche mayonnaise. Purslane, a low-growing fleshy plant, considered a noxious weed, and universally disdained by gardeners, has a flavor that falls somewhere between cucumber and green pepper with a lemony-peppery aftertaste.
Escabeche refers to the chopped pickled jalapenos and carrots that Benedyk adds to the mayonnaise to make it pop. Pile some house-pickled red onion on to any sandwich on the menu, wash it down with Brother Thelonious Abbey Ale, and you’ve entered the uniquely creative kitchen of Chef Chris Benedyk.
It’s a don’t ask, trust-the-chef place with a rotating chalkboard menu that changes weekly. The Love Handle, a sandwich made with braised beef tongue, blue cheese aioli, and “sour”(pickled) turnip tops turned into a carnival of flavors starring those turnip tops. Love Handle also serves tongue Biltong-style, a common South African dried meat snack similar to beef jerky.
In the UhOh sandwich with barley-malt roasted pork, bits of chopped melon add flavor and temper the heat.
Benedyk didn’t pickle that melon but there isn’t much coming from the farm to his kitchen that he won’t pickle including radishes, red onions, turnips, and assorted greens. “I pickle random stuff and use it” he says, pointing to one of his more unusual creations, rhubarb pickled in strawberry soda.
A couple more selections from the rotating menu might include the Gough, pulled pork shoulder with turnip-carrot slaw, or the T-Bird, barley malt roasted pork belly with pickled broccoli rabe and rhubarb puree.
A second chalkboard lists small plates: mixed pickle, a cheese plate, a charcuterie plate, and for the adventurous, pork belly and egg in smoked fish broth. The small Deli-To-Go counter will please stinky cheese lovers with selections like Carr Valley Wildfire Blue and Limburger Brick.
A superstar on the rotating list of desserts by Ally is German Chocolate Cake, a dense mix of dark chocolate, caramel, pecans, and toasted coconut. She mixes in some dark beer to add heft to the cake. Homemade rhubarb-ginger ice cream tastes both sweet and tart and churros with spicy chocolate give a nod to Mexican cuisine.
A short but impressive beer selection includes Hinterland White Gap. Three wines, a bubbly, a rose and a spicy Spanish red make up the wine list in early July, and for non-drinkers, blonde root beer from Silver Creek Brewery in Cedarburg.
“We pick our wines according to the season,” says Chris Benedyk. I surmised the same goes for the sandwiches as I spied a large box of purslane from a local farmer waiting to be washed and stored.
2215 E. North Avenue
Open Tuesday-Saturday 11am-9pm
Menu available at facebook.com/lovehandlefooddrink
Will accept reservations