Wisconsin might not be the first state you think of when you think of great food (or the 2nd, or 3rd, or 10th...) but it should be someplace you consider. Wisconsinites love their food as much as their beer. And there's a lot of regional cuisine you find here that you just can't find anywhere else, hence this (very long) post dedicated to the place I call home.
We flew into Madison, the Berkeley of the Midwest, then drove up north to Appleton, then Stevens Point, on to Green Bay, then made our way back down to Madison (with a stop in my hometown, Fond du Lac). I initially planned on posting everything in chronological order, but that would get confusing. Instead, we're going to explore the state by their unique foods/dishes/brew. And to start, let's go with the beer...
We had some lunch first in Madison, at the Great Dane Brewery. Hubs is a beer nerd, a card-carrying member of Beer Advocate even, so he did his research before our trip and asked that we stop there for lunch. And I gotta say, it was good. The beers are yummy - I had their Mallard Cream Ale, a light beer that lives up to the name - very creamy, almost no aftertaste. Mmmm. Their lunch menu was also good, unfortunately I was too busy eating to get a good picture of any food. Had the Great Dane burger - hamburger smothered in artichoke dip - and it was divine. Tinnie had the prime rib wrap, and Hubs had the brat burger on a pretzel roll (can't get a more WI burger than that).
After lunch we visited Monona Terrace (the last architectural design by Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright) and headed to the shops on State Street. Had a beer at State Street Brats before hitting the road up North, too bad we were full because their brats looked mighty tasty! I totally recommend this place if you ever find yourself in Madison - for happy hour they run a "stock" ticker on the TV screens behind the bar, upping and lowering the costs of beers continuously. You can get a good beer for $1.50 if you watch closely (make sure you're not ordering one at a steeper price too!). Fun fun place, with a great beer garden to boot. That's a shot of my sister pretending to punch Bucky in the nose, by the way. I'm surprised we weren't escorted out at that point.
The night before we flew back to Kansas, we hit up Ale Asylum in Madison as well. Another great brewpub, this one with good dark beers. I had their porter, and it rocked. Hubs was partial to the Hopilicious, and Tinnie got their Gold Digger (a blonde ale). All were very, very good. The decor is very modern-slash-goth and they also serve food, but we skipped that and filled up on the brews instead.
Those were the only microbrews we visited, but definitely do not begin to give you an idea of the amount of great beers found in the state. There's Miller for the cheap goodness, and Leinenkugels (Wisconsinites call them Leinies). Stevens Point has a great brewery where they make their famous Point Beer. Another favorite brewery is New Glarus, and their beer is unavailable outside the state, such a pity. New Glarus Spotted Cow is to die for, and I ordered it whenever I had the chance. We also got a 6-pack to enjoy in our hotel room our last night there.
Fish plays a big role in Wisconsin's "culinary" traditions. Minnesota may be known as the Land of a Thousand Lakes, but Wisconsin takes a close second. All these lakes are filled to the brim with perch, walleye, bluegill, herring, whitefish, you name it. So when in my hometown, we made sure to have a meal at my most favorite seafood restaurant, Salty's. Fond du Lac is at the foot of Lake Winnebago, a lake so big you can't see across it (we had a lighthouse, for goodness sake). Our house was a mere 3 blocks from the lake, and Salty's is only 1 block off the water. It also serves the best seafood in town. It's a small place and the bar takes up more room than seating, nice and dark on the inside as well: the perfect supper club type of place. Did I mention that Wisconsin is also known for its rocking supper clubs?
Anyhoo, back to the food. Hubs had the grilled skate wing. Tinnie had the crab cakes and I got the battered bluegill. All were served with a side of twice-baked potato or German potato salad as well as coleslaw. The bluegill was battered with the skin still on, but it really added to the flavor and the skin so thin you never noticed. Their batter was dotted with lots of spices, I could taste garlic and onion and pepper. Very good. Crab cakes were okay, but the skate was probably the best of the three - the meat was so tender and soft, it fell apart when you put your fork into it. I can't place the taste of it, but it was very good and not "fishy" at all.
We also ordered a bowl of their famous seafood chowder - it was cheddar-cream base full of whitefish and shrimp and veggies. So, so good. We gobbled it down even though we were already full from our meals. Cheesy and thick and every bite had a big chunk of fish. Good stuff.
We also had some Friday Fish Fry (see below), but Salty's is a classic and a place worth stopping by if you ever find yourself passing through Fondy...
Friday Fish Fry
I was too chicken to break out the camera with so much family around, so sadly I have nothing to show for it. The restaurant had versions of fish fry with walleye and shrimp, but as my sister told us, "It's the perch you want." The perch I got and the perch I ate, crispy on the outside and moist yet firm on the inside; absolutely perfect. The fish comes with tartar sauce and that Wisconsin dipping tradition, melted butter. Um, I'm not too fond of the melted butter. But all was so good, we ate our fill and then some. Also? This place meant business when it came to the beer batter. You could taste the beer quite distinctly. A bit of a surprise, but yummy too. Gotta love Wisconsin.
One tradition that blankets the state in general is the Friday Fish Fry. Every Friday night, the people of Wisconsin head out to their favorite restaurant to enjoy their fish fry. Almost every restaurant has a fish special on Friday, and you can find at least one GREAT fish fry restaurant in every town in Wisconsin. Lightly breaded, deep-fried lake fish, a side of fries, coleslaw, bread, and you're there. We went to visit my sister Carole and her family in Appleton, where she took us out to the best fish fry in town: Cinders Restaurant.
I love brats. Saturday we met up with my cousin Joylyn, who just happened to have 4 tickets to the Packers game that evening, close to the field too... Yeah, I'm a lucky b*tch. We breezed into town about 90 minutes before the game, changed and grabbed some rain gear (it was rainy and in the 60s, and the venerable Lambeau Field has no dome), then headed to the game. We got to the stadium just in time to scarf down a brat before finding our seats, perfect timing.
Now, I'm sure most people know Wisconsin is known for their brats, but the best are available anywhere. Johnsonville really is one of the best you can find, and that's what they serve at the stadium. But it's how their made that makes them so good: simmered in beer and onions, then thrown on the grill to brown and crisp up the skins before eating. They mash them in a bun and top with kraut, then send you off to add your own choice of mustard. Only a spicy brown mustard will do for brats, my dear friends. Those stadium brats are perfection on a bun, and I wolfed mine down in no time.
Hubs rather enjoyed his as well.
After the Packers game we met up with Joy's husband at a local pub, where we made sure to order fried cheese curds with our Leinies.
Not sure what a cheese curd is? A one-of-a-kind delight in the state of Wisconsin, these are the balls that first float up during the cheese making process. You can buy/eat them in their original cheese curd state (the best and freshest make a squeak when you bite into them). But better yet: batter or bread and deep fry them, and you have heaven that no other cheese stick product can replace. We ordered a pile of them and finished them in no time. Creamy and cheesy and crispy on the outside, yum. Perfect bar food. You have to try these before you die.
Custard and Blue Moon Ice Cream
Our last evening in Madison, Tinnie and I begged and begged until Hubs took us to our favorite place in town, Ella's Deli. This is a sentimental favorite, as our parents used to take us here for sundaes when we were kids. But I must say, it is quite possibly the best ice cream place on the planet. There's a carasol located right outside the restaurant, and when you walk in it is like being in the middle of a carasol itself. Antique toys attached to strings and pulleys are zooming and dipping at you, covering the entire ceiling. Other toys are out for you to play with in the aisles. All the tables have a toy theme, with the toys encased in the table itself under glass. I can imagine, though, for some parents it's quite headache-inducing.
Ella's Deli serves kosher food, but is really known for its custard and ice cream. Their sundaes are to die for, and we ordered the Turtle Pound Cake. It had a slice of homemade walnut pound cake on the bottom, topped with vanilla custard and then buried in hot fudge and homemade butterscotch. Add whipped cream, and you're all set. Frozen custard is so rich, the vanilla really comes out and isn't overwhelmed by the cake or toppings. We all shared the sundae, as well as a dish of that Wisconsin favorite: blue moon ice cream.
Never heard of it? Blue Moon is a regional flavor mostly found in Wisconsin and Michigan. I had always thought it was a regular flavor everyone had, like mint chocolate chip or butter pecan, until we moved to Kansas and it was never to be found. The ice cream is a bright blue hue and tastes just like Fruity Pebbles cereal. My absolute favorite, and now I'm craving it again. Damn. Sylas and Maddy's in downtown Lawrence will make it (maybe once every few years), so I'll just have to deal until I can find it again.
That's all we sampled while there, but doesn't begin to lift the surface of the state's offerings. If you ever visit, also try to find Racine kringle (pastry), local cherries or cranberries in anything, wild rice salad, and cream puffs (which are best from the state fair). Ahh, I wish we had months to visit instead of just 4 days... Okay, I will go back to pining away for my home state in private, but I hope that gave you a decent idea of the awesomest state in the Union. In my humble opinion.