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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 25, 2014

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In Dining

The Israeli breakfast at Irina's Kitchen consists of beef brisket, latkes, applesauce and a scrambled egg-fried matzo mix.

Irina's Kitchen competes against the heavyweights


Ukrainian immigrants Roman and Irina Kit's slice of the American dream is a classic case of David versus Goliath. Across the street from their cozy but humble 44-seat cafe is a Who's Who of restaurant industry heavyweights --- Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen, Bar Louie, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebee's and 18 more.

The Kits' eatery shares a neighborhood with the Bayshore Town Center. Irina's Kitchen is on the ground floor of a nondescript two-story building on the corner of Mohawk Ave. and Silver Spring Dr. The business illustrates the old story of survival by working harder and offering the public something different.

The couple unlocks the restaurant's doors at 7 every morning and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from a large menu Monday through Friday before closing at 8. On Saturday and Sunday, the hours are 7 to 2.

Irina's Kitchen, 325 W. Silver Spring Dr., is open 79 hours a week with only one full-time and one part-time employee helping the Kits. "We consider Saturday and Sunday our days off, because we close at 2," Roman says.

Reflecting their own international background, the couple mixes standard American diner fare with ethnic items. Fifteen varieties of omelets are offered until 11:45 a.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends.

You can order burgers, hot dogs and a reuben sandwich made with your choice of corned beef or pastrami. Trendier items include a Caesar salad, portabella melt on a pita and a Santa Fe wrap, which consists of chicken breast, spinach, red onion, cheddar cheese and mild salsa.

The sandwiches come with a choice of a side, including Irina's homemade Ukrainian-style cabbage slaw. Roman says his wife's spices distinguish it from common cole slaws. It is slightly sweeter than most.

Dinners include orange roughy ($12.95), chicken parmesan ($10.95) and an 8-ounce ribeye ($10.95). Irina makes her own soups of the day from scratch.

A group of international breakfast specials ($9.95) pay tribute to the favorite tastes of various nationalities. The Italian breakfast includes Italian sausage, green peppers and onions, two eggs any style, red sauce and toast. The German contains bratwurst, french fries, sauerkraut, two eggs any style and toast.

An Israeli breakfast consists of beef brisket, latkes (potato pancakes) with apple sauce, and matzo fried with scrambled eggs. The Ukrainian has sausage made with a recipe from the Kits' home country as well as sauerkraut, french fries, two eggs any style and toast.

"Ukrainian sauerkraut is not quite as sour as German," Roman explains. "We bake our own bread -- white, whole wheat, rye and pumpernickel -- from my grandmother's recipe. It is heavy bread."

The Ukrainian sausage finds its way onto plates in other items at Irina's. A Ukrainian sub sandwich includes the sausage, fried onions and sauerkraut. The Ukrainian dinner special features the sausage with potato and cheese pierogi, fried onions, sour cream and Irina's cole slaw.

The Kits also make what Roman calls a Ukrainian calzone. It is a large dough pocket stuffed with spiced ground chicken breast that is deep fried.

All of these items can be washed down with six different kinds of imported Ukrainian beer. The restaurant offers other beer selections and wine.

The genealogy of Irina's Kitchen goes back to a bagel restaurant named Jonathan's, which many aficionados thought made the best bagels in the city. The Kit family moved here in 1992, and after working factory jobs in Hartford and Milwaukee, Roman realized a dream to own a restaurant when he and his wife bought Jonathan's in 2004.

"My wife was a professional chef in Ukraine," he said during a recent chat. "She has spent her entire life in the kitchen."

The couple were operating a weekly dinner at their church, St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church, before they purchased Jonathan's. They initially retained the old name and the bagel business.

Every weekend daughter Marianna came home from UW-Whitewater to help in the restaurant. She is now in banking and pursuing an MBA.

Roman got up at 3 every morning to begin the bagel-baking process by 3:45. The Kits had seven or eight wholesale bagel accounts, including Benji's Deli and Sendik's, that involved daily deliveries.

But the bagel business is in general decline, according to Roman, because of healthier eating habits, and he grew weary of the alarm clock ringing in the middle of the night. Jonathan's morphed into Irina's Kitchen.

The Kits still offer the option of having your sandwich on a bagel, and you can still order a bagel with lox, capers and cream cheese. But the bagel now comes from the restaurant's general food supplier.

Children are clearly welcome at Irina's Kitchen, which has a mix of booth, table and counter seating. Toys and crayons are piled on a table near the back door, and place mat art of varying degrees of competence is posted on a wall.

That matches the restaurant's homey and eclectic decor. If shopping mall slick is what you are seeking, go across the street. Irina's Kitchen is more like your kitchen.

As the Kits' logo says, this is "Real Homemade Food."


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