Riverwest gas station owners want great food, drink and beer producers

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Kristine M. Kierzek

While Bryan Atinsky’s culinary roots begin in Milwaukee, his influences span the globe. Time in the Middle East increased his appreciation for hummus and schnitzels, but if he wanted Thai food he had to teach himself. Living in the southern United States, he has developed a keen interest in anything smoky, a passion for good ribs and catfish. All of this influences his cuisine today.

After losing his wife and children in a car accident, Atinsky decided to stay in Milwaukee. He bought a seized building and in 2013 opened the restaurant he had always dreamed of: The Riverwest gas station, 701 E. Keefe Avenue.

A variety of draft beers was the other essential, as were the beer growlers. Atinsky had to convince the city to change some rules in order to offer growlers, although his success brought this option to take to the region.

Over the past year, Atinsky has closed the dining room, reduced the menu, and become the only cook in the kitchen as they moved on to take out. His wife, Miriam, a native of Brazil who moved to Milwaukee in 2014 and became a citizen last year, looks after the front of the house.

The couple will continue to offer take-out, and they look to May for a possible return of meals there.

Bryan and Miriam Atinsky run the Riverwest filling station, 701 E. Keefe Ave.  in Milwaukee

The roots of the restaurant

Bryan: One of my main interests since I was a teenager has been cooking. When I was in high school, I worked a bit in a fast food restaurant. At university, I worked almost exclusively in the back of the house, from the preparatory cook to the line cook to the sous-chef. … Then I was a full-time journalist and editor of a news organization, but I always ended up cooking. My sister lives in Israel. For years we have been talking about opening a restaurant …

We never did that. I was visiting Milwaukee. There was a car accident. My family was killed in Israel. I had a wife, two children. I did not go back. I stayed here, trying to figure out what to do with my life. Being in journalism, my expertise is journalism in the Middle East and covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. … It was out. OK, I’ll open this restaurant.

Find the space

Bryan: I liked Riverwest. It’s explicitly a neighborhood that has businesses, and it’s the most integrated neighborhood in the most segregated city in the United States. We live above the restaurant.

Pandemic pivot

Bryan: I made the choice to be take out. There was a study on occupations and the death rate between 2019 and 2020. The University of California-San Francisco looked at which jobs had the highest death rate from COVID. It was in California, but they were line cooks. Number one. … I don’t want to be the cause of COVID. There is only me at the back of the house.

Labor of love

Bryan: We do everything from scratch. The bacon I make is pork belly that I put in brine, rub and let sit for days in the brine, then I cold smoke it. The lox is from scratch. The hamburger patties are from scratch. All of our sauces are from scratch. The pork ribs that I rub and smoke. Everything we do is homemade, except most of the breads. We make challah French toast, and we make challah (bread).

The food at Riverwest Filling Station is made entirely from scratch, including the ribs that are rubbed and smoked there.

The menu

Bryan: My menu is the reflection of my life trajectory. Hummus and tahini, schnitzel, it’s because I lived in the Middle East for 15 years. My late wife was Yemeni. His parents were born in Yemen. I have lived in Georgia and the South. … The menu is the reflection of my loves and a way of making them discover to others.

Myriam : When Bryan and I started going out he introduced me to a lot of different cuisines. Every time we went to a restaurant, I tried foods that I never imagined eating. Brazil has a rich culinary tradition… I loved food before, but even more now thanks to Bryan.

Thank the growlers

Myriam : Bryan is the reason the growlers are in Milwaukee.

Bryan: The filling station, there were three main purposes: a place to eat well, have a good drink and a place to find growlers. When I lived in Georgia there were three growler bars within a three minute walk of my house. I returned to Milwaukee. It is the city of beer. We don’t have growlers? To have a restaurant and a bar, I had to have growlers.

I spoke to Nic Kovac, the alderman, and included it in my business plan. He thought it was a great idea. He didn’t know it wasn’t legal. I went to the (health) department and they told me “this is not legal”. But Whole Foods does. I said I just wanted the license from Whole Foods. They said that in fact Whole Foods shouldn’t be doing it. This is what motivated its legalization.

Tips for growlers

Bryan: I invested in the purchase of special taps that seal the bottle before pouring the beer into it. … If a growler stays in the refrigerator for a few weeks, it loses its flavor. The main culprit is oxygen. It oxidizes beer and gives off flavor. One of the ways to keep it longer is to use these growler fillers.

Family and food

Bryan: My father did the daily cooking until I was 13 or 14 and I took over.

Myriam : All the challah here, Bryan’s mother and father would do challah. They would cook for the synagogue and all the holidays. Bryan’s mother, she passed away almost two years ago. Bryan’s father is now 83 years old. Until recently, they were still helping.

Bryan Atinsky says he was drawn to Riverwest because it's

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His drink

Bryan: Beer. I like everything from IPA to stout. It depends on my mood. We have 30 beers on tap, and we change them often. We don’t have anything that’s always available. Why stick to one? I like the variety. I like beer.

Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the daily relationship that local notables (within and outside the food community) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, send an email to [email protected]

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