Serious Eats: Drinks
Milkshakes and Malts at Leon's Frozen Custard, Milwaukee
Frozen custard is about as much of a "Milwaukee thing" as you can get. Beer, cheese curds, and even the word bubbler (you know—a drinking fountain!) may exist in other lands, but our frozen custard culture is unique. Frozen custard exists in other places, but not like it does in Milwaukee. Here, checking the flavor of the day is a daily ritual for some people. We don't "go out for ice cream," we go out for custard. And we all know the difference between the two!
One of the oldest custard stands in Milwaukee is Leon's Frozen Custard on the south side. Rumored to be the inspiration behind Arnold's drive-in in Happy Days, Leon's has been making Milwaukeeans happy since 1942. Employees in crisp white aprons and paper hats scoop up custard—vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan, or a flavor of the day—until midnight every day, even through the Wisconsin winters. It's counter service only, so there's no seating or "inside," meaning no heat. But that doesn't stop us from visiting, even in the dead of winter.
Frozen custard differs from ice cream in that it contains egg yolks, has less air whipped into it during freezing (also known as overrun) and is often served at a slightly warmer temperature. It makes for a superbly smooth, rich and dense treat. As you can imagine, it also makes for awesome shakes and malts.
Both the vanilla malt and a caramel shake that I ordered were the ideal thickness. The straw stands up by itself, but you can still drink it without the help of a spoon. If you prefer a really challenging shake, an extra-thick option is also available. Even without it, these shakes are smooth, rich, and voluptuous.
The vanilla malt had quite a lot of malt powder in it—you definitely wouldn't confuse this with a regular shake. The malt flavor was smooth and didn't drown out the vanilla flavor of the custard; this is a well-balanced malt, and it's justly famous. The caramel shake was a little more understated, with just a subtle caramel flavor.
If you're in Milwaukee, it's essential to start your shake-explorations with a trip to Leon's, if only to reinforce how excellent frozen custard is as a base for shakes and malts. These serious sips are worth standing outside for, even in the coldest Wisconsin weather.