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Fresh Ancora has never looked nor tasted better

September 28, 2018 GMT

Things were looking grim for the Ancora coffee shop on King Street in 2013, after Milwaukee favorite Colectivo, then known as Alterra Coffee Roasters, opened within sniffing distance.

Three weeks later, Tori Gerding, 23 at the time and then known as Tori Mitchell, bought the King Street shop and its 610-square-foot sister location on University Avenue. She’d worked for Ancora’s original owners, Sue and George Krug, for a year after graduating from UW-Oshkosh.

Gerding said she knew she needed to do something new, so Ancora soon began offering creative grilled cheese sandwiches from a panini press in the King Street location’s tiny prep kitchen. The original University Avenue shop didn’t even have that, so Gerding just continued selling coffee and bakery there.

Then, last year, Gerding moved the University Avenue location five blocks down and across the street, reinventing it in a newly-constructed development across from Whole Foods. There, she established an inviting look, and an exciting, well-conceived food menu.

Now, after losing her lease on King Street, she was able to make a major upgrade to that store, which she re-opened Aug. 8 across the street, close to the Majestic Theatre, which her husband, Matt Gerding, co-owns.

The Majestic owner was a regular customer and the two bonded over their mutual love of the punk band Against Me!, Tori Gerding said. The couple now has a 15-month-old daughter, Evelyn, who was three weeks old when her mom opened the new University Avenue spot.

With the King Street Ancora, Tori Gerding has created an impressive flagship cafe, which is both striking and comfortable.

The new Ancora has a more open layout than the University Avenue location, but picks up on its fresh white-wood-and-teal color scheme with the same casually elegant banquettes by Matthew Nafranowicz and his staff from The Straight Thread on Atwood Avenue. The flowered wallpaper is different, but both make a bold statement.

The chorizo hash ($12) on the brunch or “entrée” menu — served all day — also makes a statement with house-made chorizo, home-fried potatoes, house-pickled jalapeños, Chihuahua cheese, and cherry tomatoes. Avocado slices fanned out on top with two eggs over easy added taste and beauty. With toast on the side, it made for a filling meal.

The egg white scramble ($11) was a healthier counterpoint. Shallots, cremini mushrooms, sautéed spinach and goat cheese provided enjoyably subtle flavors. I appreciated that it came with a side of breakfast potatoes or fruit, and a choice of toast. The multigrain and rye toast were both both excellent.

The sweet entrées were equally rewarding. The French toast ($12) was a stunner, with thick, square slices of challah, strawberry rhubarb filling between the slices, and strawberries on top.

My daughter had the “kiddo” short stack of pancakes ($5) with chocolate chips ($2 extra) and relished it. I was happy to finish what she couldn’t eat.

Both locations have the same menu, and the new fall version, which Ancora’s executive chef, Evan Braun, expected to have out last week, keeps the chorizo hash and egg white scramble, he said.

The French toast was slated to change, but he was excited about new sweet potato pancakes with brown butter, roasted marshmallows and maple-toasted pecans.

When Gerding bought Ancora, Just Coffee took over Ancora’s roasting. A cup of Ancora’s medium-roast house D’Oro coffee was rich and strongly brewed on my brunch visit, and it was a reasonable $2.13 for a 12-ounce mug.

Ancora also offers fantastic smoothies. I was glad to recently discover the distinctive three-flavor mango-mint-pineapple ($5.59) at the University Avenue location.

As far as the new King Street Ancora goes, it has a great restaurant legacy. In the 1990s it was home to Jane Capito’s (Lazy Jane’s Cafe, Mickey’s) great Botticelli’s. After that, Cambridge’s beloved Clay Market Cafe had a short run there.

The last restaurant in the location was an offshoot of Tutto Pasta. In recent years, it was a cookware shop.

Like Botticelli’s, Ancora has extra seating next door in an indoor courtyard Gerding calls the atrium. Because she has 15 seats there, and another 15 on the sidewalk in front, the cafe can have close to 80 seats in nice weather.

So far, Gerding said she hasn’t had to turn customers away. “We’ve always been able to seat people right away,” she said.

The biggest difference, Gerding said, is now that she has a full, from-scratch kitchen, food isn’t ready in three-minutes like it was in the old King Street location. “We are constantly getting faster as the weeks go by,” she said.

Many people still don’t realize Ancora has a full menu with sandwiches as well as brunch entrées, Gerding said. The cafe is about to start promoting its food more heavily on social media, she said.

Founded in 1994, Ancora is about to celebrate 25 years in business. Gerding has proved to be the perfect person to usher it through that milestone and give it an exciting new life.