Ilija’s Placeis located in what was undoubtedly a Cudahy corner tavern. There is a nice dark wood bar like you find in many old Milwaukee area watering holes. Actually they still are a tavern, and a unique and tasty restaurant as well. I had the opportunity to eat lunch here a few weeks back and I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food and the lunchtime prices.
We were immediately seated in the non-smoking rear dining room, which is small, cozy, and decorated with Serbian photographs and artwork. The lunch menu is very impressive and the prices are incredible. An Osso Bucco (braised veal shank) entree will set you back a mere $9.00 while a grilled beef tenderloin dish is only $8.00. The Chevapchichi, which is a combination of ground meats and seasonings (think of it as a sausage without any casings and put in more of a patty form) is only $7.00. You cannot get out of Panera for 7 bucks! According to this article about the owners in the Journal, they make everything from scratch and believe me, it is reflected in the food.
Each entree comes with a loaf of bread and some awesome spreads. One spread was a cream cheese and butter mixture and the other was a delicious red pepper and eggplant puree. Both spreads are hard to stop eating. The best way to enjoy them is to first spread the cream cheese on the bread and top it with the pepper puree. I shouldn’t say this, but they could easily charge customers for this complimentary treat, or at least bottle up the eggplant and pepper puree and sell it to customers.
Not only are the bread and dips included, but your choice of soup or salad is included as well. I opted for the chicken noodle soup which was in a rich, delicious, homemade broth. Not being a huge fan of chicken noodle soup, I was quite satisfied with this one and would not hesitate ordering it again. It is a bit fatty and rich and well seasoned, which is probably why I liked it.
This is not a place for vegetarians. The menu is a smorgasboard of meats and offal(organ meats). Veal, lamb, pork, venison, chicken, and even whitefish find their way onto the menu. As for the offal offerings, Ilija’s features sweetbreads (which are veal thymus glands prized for their mild flavor and creamy texture) as an appetizer at lunch or sauteed with wine and spices as a dinner entree. Veal liver and chicken livers also make their way onto the dinner menu. The Anthony Bourdain/Andrew Zimmernin me came close to making a bold selection of breaded veal brain ($9.00 at lunch, $17.00 at dinner) but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I try to be adventurous, but I am not quite to the point where I can eat a brain. Those less adventurous will still find something appealing from the calamari or Prosciutto and Cheese appetizers to the rib-eye, schnitzel, or pork chop entrees. Ilija’s menu will suit just about anyone who enjoys meat.
Every Friday (and only on Fridays) they have Venison Goulash, which is listed as “Ilija’s Specialty” and if you are lucky enough to be there on Friday, be sure to try it. Averse to venison because of the gamey taste? Throw all of your preconceptions out the window. The venison is prepared in a manner in which the venison is marinated for seven days in wine, with the wine being changed every day. The result is a rich and flavorful braised chunks of venison that have been stripped of any trace of gaminess. The sauce has a pronounced paprika taste and it is full of flavor. It is served atop egg noodles. Even though you are eating off the lunch menu, there is so much food that you will probably have leftovers.
The other dish I got to try was the Pljeskavica, which is a mixture of highly seasoned ground beef and veal. When you order they ask if you want it stuffed with that awesome cream cheese spread. The meat was grilled so the exterior had a nice crust while the interior remained moist. The cheese mixture oozed out as you cut into the meat and the marriage of flavors worked very well together. Even if you don’t want the cheese inside, the meat would hold up well on its own. If Ilija’s made these into burger shaped patties and put them on a bun topped with the eggplant and pepper puree and sold them at Summerfest, the lines might just rival those at Saz’s.
The service was impressive given the fact that the server was also acting as the bartender. Oh, and he is also one of the owners. He effortlessly made his way from table to table while still serving the two patrons who sat at the bar. He was friendly, and very enthusiastic about the menu, and he should be because his wife (and co-owner) is in the kitchen.
My only complaint, and it is minor, is that you can smoke in the bar. They do a great job of keeping the smoke out of the rear dining area. While you will not notice the smell of smoke while eating in the back dining room, when you leave you smell like have been in a tavern. Its a small price to pay for some pretty good food. You also won’t leave empty-handed. In addition to the leftovers you are bound to have, we were given nice pens with Ilija’s logos on them. On the way out you can also grab some matches and a cool bumper sticker (featured at the top of this review).
EatWisconsin Rating: 4 out of 5.
Rating Guide: 0=Absolutely terrible, avoid at all costs, 1=Bad, 2=Mediocre/Average, 3= Admirable, 4=Excellent, 5=Sublime
Ilija’s is located at 3701 E. Squire Avenue in Cudahy, WI. Ph. (414)727-5885. http://ilijasplace.com/