There's a place with a unique name in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek that has intrigued me for awhile - Erv's Mug. I've passed it a couple times while traveling to the American TV store location in Oak Creek. On a recent trip up to Milwaukee, I took the Ryan Road exit off of Interstate 94 and headed east for a mile to have lunch at Erv's Mug.
Erv Kazik was a longtime bartender in the Milwaukee area, gathering a legion of fans that followed him from places like Schneider's in downtown Milwaukee and De Salvo's Italian Restaurant in Cudahy out to the Oak Chalet at the corner of S. Howell and Ryan Road in Oak Creek. Erv had an idea for a bar that he'd like to run. He envisioned a bar that was open only through the week days, selling burgers and beer.
Just to the west of the Oak Chalet was a dilapidated building that once housed the Oak Creek volunteer fire department. In 1979, it came up for sale and Erv Kazik bought the building, complete with an attached apartment. Erv and his wife, Barb, along with friends cleaned out the building and put in a bar and a grill. Erv's Mug became a place for Erv and his friends to hang out through the week. And when he was closed on Saturday's, his friends would still come by in the morning to play cribbage. Invariably, one of them would be hungry and Erv would fire up the grill. Seeing cars in the parking lot, more people would come in and Erv suddenly was forced to open up on Saturdays.
(Pictured right - Erv Kazik and his daughter, Danielle. Photo courtesy of onmilwaukee.com)
A year after he opened, someone suggested to Erv that he do a Friday night fish fry. Suddenly, Erv's was a destination for hundreds of south Milwaukee area residents on Friday nights. But one thing that Erv did not waver from - he never opened on Sundays or holidays. He believed that the people that worked for him needed to be with their families on those days.
Erv and Barb never wanted their daughter, Danielle, to get into the family business even though she literally grew up in the place and they encouraged her to do something big in her life. Danielle got her law degree in 1990 and had been practicing law in the Oak Creek area for a few years when Erv and Barb decided to retire. Wanting to keep the family legacy going, Danielle took over Erv's Mug in 2004. Retirement was a loose term for Erv and Barb - you'd find Erv in the place nearly every morning talking with friends and making sure people showed up for work. Unfortunately, Erv passed away in late April of 2012. I was told the memorial service at the church and the celebration of life get together afterward at Erv's were both "packed with people".
Getting to Erv's from the west on Ryan Road is a bit of a challenge. Oak Creek has a traffic control design that doesn't allow for left hand turns within what seems like a quarter mile of major intersections. You have to either go east of S. Howell, do a U-turn and head back to Erv's, or do like I did - go south on Howell, do a U-turn, then take a left at the light back on to westbound Ryan, then to Erv's Mug that sits just past the Walgreen's. In fact, the old Oak Chalet stood where the Walgreen's now stands. (see map) Getting out of Erv's if you want to go east on Ryan Road is also a hassle, as in you have to go west and do a U-turn to go east. Thankfully, I just had to go west back out to Interstate 94 when I left.
Pulling into the parking lot, there were a number of cars at 1:30 in the afternoon telling me it's a popular place. I went inside and came into the bar area with a back bar with well over two dozen beer spigots on the wall. Just one gentleman was seated at the bar, so I went back to the entry of the dining area. I looked inside and noticed that most of the people in there were older - as of possibly retired-aged people. The dining room looked friendly with a number of decorations on the wall and hanging from the ceiling. I understand that Erv and Barb used to make regular trips to similar family-type taverns in the Chicago area to get ideas for their place including decorations.
A hostess came up to greet me and I asked if I could get lunch at the bar. She said, "Oh sure! You can get food at the bar." I walked over to find a seat at the bar and she dropped off a menu for me to look at. The bartender/server - Jason - came over to greet me. He asked me if I wanted anything to drink and I took a long hard look at the over two dozen beer taps that were in front of me. He said, "Here, we have a beer menu, too." They certainly had a lot of eclectic beers on tap and in bottles at Erv's Mug. But I found one of my favorites on tap that is tough to find outside of the state of Wisconsin - Wisconsin Amber from the Capital Brewery.
The bar area at Erv's Mug had a lot of natural light coming in from the south facing windows and featured some interesting beer signs - many of them attached to the ceiling. There was a nice old fireplace along one wall with a number of old beer spigots on a shelf rack over the mantle. The bar area was cozy with some small tables and I could see where the place could get pretty packed some evenings with people waiting for tables in the dining area.
The lunch menu at Erv's is somewhat different from the dinner menu that they serve after 5 p.m. While both menus feature a number of burgers, sandwiches and appetizers, the entrees served at lunch are smaller in size and selection from their dinner entrees. They do feature a filet steak at lunch, but they have five different types of steaks to choose from at dinner. Ribs and a number of seafood and lakefish entrees are available in the evening, as well.
As I was looking through the menu, Jason pointed out their special that day was something called the "Garbage Sandwich." He explained to me that they take the leftover cuts of roasts, prime rib and steaks, cooking them in an au jus sauce with leftover chunks of vegetables, then serving them on ciabatta bread. He said, "We call it the garbage sandwich because if we didn't make it this way, they'd just go into the garbage. It's pretty good, one of our most popular sandwiches."
I had been looking at either getting the reuben, the prime rib sandwich, or something that was called the Bavarian Triple Decker - cold turkey and corned beef topped with Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and a creamy horseradish sauce and served on black Bavarian rye bread. But after Jason described the sandwich, I couldn't pass it up. He said, "It also comes with a side of our apple pecan baked beans." Apple pecan baked beans? I don't care for pecans much and I don't like apples. But, what the hell. I'd give it a shot.
Jason brought my sandwich out and it was cut in half flanking a small bowl of the baked beans. An interesting barbecue-type sauce also came on the side - sort of a honey-mustard barbecue sauce. The beef had been pulled apart and was more shredded than sliced. The ciabatta bread was airy and spongy with a nice crisp outer shell.
The sandwich was, well, it was all right. I mean, I guess I thought it was going to be some taste sensation that would blow me away. The beef was tender, but not too flavorful. The interesting barbecue sauce helped give the sandwich a little more zip in taste, but it wasn't spicy by any sense.
I will have to say that I was surprised by the beans. Although I don't like the taste of apples, there was a subtle and sweet apple taste to the beans. I couldn't detect any taste of pecans in the beans, but that doesn't mean they weren't there. They were actually very good and very different from any type of baked beans I've had at anytime.
One of the cool things about Erv's Mug is that the third Tuesday of each month they have a "Beer Dinner". They pair a number of eclectic craft beers with a menu their in-house chef comes up with. It's a four-course dinner that starts with a beer-based soup, then it goes on to a salad with ingredients that go well with a specific beer. The main course is usually a meat or seafood entree, then followed by a dessert. Beer dinners at Erv's begin at 6 p.m. and I saw on the poster they had on the wall that reservations are strongly recommended.
Even though the sandwich was just sort of average in my category, I enjoyed my visit to Erv's Mug immensely. They had a great selection of beers, it looked like much of the items were made from scratch, and it was the type of place that I wished we had in our neighborhood back home. It's easy to see why Erv's Mug is such a popular place and has been for nearly 35 years. I probably won't go with a Garbage Sandwich on my next visit, but with as extensive of a menu that they have I'm sure I'll be able to find something that trips my trigger.