Whether it’s a warming bowl of pho, a fresh plate of herb-filled larb or a plate of indulgent crisp-skinned pork, you’ll find a dish to love at An Ox Cafe, 7411 W. Hampton Ave.
In fact, the newly minted restaurant is a destination for comforting dishes from Southeast Asia, all served up in a beautifully transformed space which was formerly the home to the popular Hmong grocer, Rhino Foods.
Behind the restaurant are owners Sia Xiong and her partner Johnni Sihavong, both of whom have put in nearly four years of work to bring the restaurant to fruition. And it’s that hard work, along with their birth year (both were born in 1973, during the Year of the Ox), which inspired the cafe’s name.
“It represents the community,” says Xiong. “... all the hard working people, the working class. We have so many small businesses in the area, and we want this to be a place for hardworking people to come and enjoy themselves.”
Nearly four years in the making
Xiong, who owns the building with her mother, says that, after they closed the grocery store, they weren’t sure exactly what direction they should take. Initially, she says, they tried to lease it out. But as time moved forward, they realized they loved the space and began to reimagine what it could become.
“We had this big beautiful kitchen,” she says. “And we had always been well known for our deli items, including roast pork, roast beef and sticky rice. So, after giving it some thought, we decided that it might be a good idea to open up a restaurant.”
In 2018, with the assistance of former Alderperson Cavalier Johnson, along with contractors including J&M Remodeling, Lake Country Repairs and SSE, LLC, they gutted the expansive space, dividing into two quadrants connected by a central bar and divided by a sliding beaded curtain divider.
“The goal was to create a space that had a clean, rustic industrial feel,” says Xiong, pointing out the hand-stained wooden paneling, polished concrete floors and walls painted in cool greys and blues.
One side of the restaurant comprises the main dining area, offering seating at a combination of low four-top tables, along with high-top seating at the cafe’s full bar, which features a selection of beer, wine and cocktails including popular picks like the An Ox mojito and Moscow Mule.
Meanwhile a second dining room, complete with its own bar, functions as an event space which can be rented out for parties and gatherings.
The restaurant also boasts a large enclosed patio, which can seat over 30 guests during the warmer weather.
Xiong, who is a home care nurse by trade, says she made it a point to create a space that would be easily accessible for customers with wheel chairs or other mobility issues.
“These are things that are important to me and my family," she says, "We wanted the space to be accessible to everyone.”
Unfortunately, even though construction on the project wrapped up in time for An Ox Cafe to open in spring of 2020, Xiong says they chose to hold off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which had forced restaurants throughout the city to shut down.
Ultimately, they waited to move forward until vaccines became available in 2021, at which time, they reapplied for both their food and liquor licenses, both of which which had lapsed due to the passage of time.
From there, they took a bit of time to introduce the space to the community through a series of pre-opening parties at the end of 2021 before officially opening the restaurant to the public. on Feb. 2, an auspicious date following the dawn of the Lunar New Year.
Take a seat at An Ox Cafe, and you’ll find a menu that reflects Xiong’s Hmong heritage, Sihavong’s Lao background, along with family dishes for Thai cuisine.
“I always describe the menu as Asian comfort food because it’s really filled with things that all of us love, things that we grew up eating,” says Xiong.
That includes a selection of appetizers from deep fried chicken wings (served with An Ox sauce), marinated potato wedges, fried pork egg rolls with sweet chili sauce, chicken satay and crispy deep fried squid served with a sweet chile-based dipping sauce ($4.99-$9.99).
Guests will also find salads, from classic som tum (papaya salad, $11.99) to larb, the traditional Lao meat salad featuring thinly sliced, seasoned beef, fresh lime juice, red onions and fresh mint leaves ($15.99).
There’s also less common finds like nam kow, a beautifully textural salad comprised of deep fried rice mixed with coconut, curry, sausage and fresh lime juice ($11.99).
Soups include selections like the coconut-based tom kha gai and sweet and sour tom yum (both available by the cup for $6 or the bowl for $10), along with pho featuring beef broth teeming with rice noodles, sliced beef, meatballs and beef tendon ($15.99) and kow piek, the comforting Lao chicken noodle soup served with fresh pulled chicken, thick chewy rice noodles and garnished with cilantro, green onions and bean sprouts ($13.99).
Curries – including mild, but flavorful pandang, chile infused green and sweet, lemongrassy red – come with a choice of chicken, beef, pork or vegetables for $14.99. Shrimp can be added for +$3.
Guests can also enjoy noodle dishes, from sweet peanutty pad thai or sweet and salty pad see euw to chewy spicy pad kee mao (drunken noodles). Each comes with a choice of proteins for $14.99.
On the entree side, there are also options like chicken fried rice ($13.99), Volcano chicken ($16.99) sliced crispy duck with vegetables ($24), and the family’s gingery housemade Lao sausage cooked until crisp and served with steamed rice (ask for purple sticky rice!) and house hot sauce ($12.99).
Meanwhile, those who miss staples from the Rhino Foods deli will be delighted to see options like their crispy edged marinated roasted pork (or roasted beef), which is served with steamed rice and house hot sauce ($24).
Xiong says business has been slowly picking up since the opening late last week, and they hope to see a good showing from the community this Sunday when guests are invited to stop by to watch the Super Bowl starting at 5:30 p.m. The full menu will be available and the game will be projected on the big screen in the An Ox event space.
“We’ve gotten so much support from the community and the city,” says Xiong. “It really helped me to keep going and not give up.”
The Kitchen at An Ox Cafe is open Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The bar remains open later. Both dine-in and carry-out are available. Call (414) 336-0064 for carry-out or to reserve the space for an event.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.