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November 09, 2011

Wisconsin Trek

Cheese Curds Dominic Armato

"I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but it's possible I've never had a really good, fresh, squeaky cheese curd. Which is your favorite?"

Judging from her reaction, you'd think the two-year-old riding on my shoulders had just broken out into a flawless rendition of Get On The Good Foot. The other woman working the counter, crouched over a table ten yards away, bolted upright and came rushing over to rescue the first, who seemed unable to speak.

"W-w-w-well, right over there," she stammered. "Those are the ones that were made fresh this morning!"

Yeah, it's true. At least I think it is. I mean, I've had cheese curds before. Heck, I practically ate my weight in poutine during that bachelor weekend in Montreal (for better or worse, the only vice in which I overindulged). But I don't think I'd ever had cheese curds like these cheese curds, which put me in the unusual position of using "rubbery" in a complimentary fashion. What's to say? They're salty and they squeak and beyond the textural novelty, I think they're better suited to frying. But we'll get to that.

Corned Beef SandwichDominic Armato

It was over four years ago that my sister-in-law and her husband left Chicago for Wausau, Wisconsin, meaning that a jaunt north of the border was long overdue, and a three week trip home provided the perfect opportunity. So last weekend we made the trek, and I crammed in as many road eats as seemed practical, which basically meant stopping in Milwaukee in both directions. Tacking an extra three hours onto a five hour drive, crisscrossing the state in search of something else meaty and cheesy, while a beautiful dream to me, is a dubious mission with kids in the back seat. But going fifteen minutes out of your way to hit McBob's Pub & Grill is not only reasonable but downright practical, especially given the great eats to be found there. Jake's is the big name in Milwaukee corned beef, but McBob's -- just a couple of miles down North Avenue -- has a devoted following. I opted for the underdog. The fact that it was a Friday and I could also nab a little fish fry, killing two birds with one stone, might also have had something to do with it.

Fish Fry with Potato PancakesDominic Armato

McBob's is an Irish pub, though the little ones were welcome at lunch, and a sizable menu ensures that it's as much an eating as a drinking establishment. The carving station is right up front as you walk in the door, where large chunks of tender, steamy, rough-hewn corned beef are sandwiched between bread that, let's be honest, barely qualifies as rye. When my ladylove, who vigorously decries "bad seeds" has no issues with your rye, your rye has issues. But this shortcoming aside, there's so much to like here that I'm not going to let a little misguided house variation get in the way of recognizing one hell of a sandwich. Mine arrived still steaming and incredibly fragrant. The beef stops just shy of too salty, is warm and meltingly tender, and would have been a little lean for my tastes if not for the fact that it also included a few thin slices of a darker, fattier cut working in concert with the rest. A thin slick of tart and lightly sweet horseradish mustard and some potato chips on the side and this is a fabulous plate.

The fish fry evoked some childhood memories of my father bringing home a pile of lake perch, dusting them with flour and slapping them in a cast iron pan with butter and Crisco. Lake perch are more than a little difficult to come by these days, and though it's been a long time I doubt these were the perch of my childhood, but McBob's fish fry is awfully tasty nonetheless. Deep fried, in a thin, crisp and heavily seasoned coat, the fish is flaky and moist and -- when you get the super combo that includes perch, walleye and grouper -- a great object lesson for a four year old ("White fish doesn't always taste the same!"). Fries would be the safe choice, but potato pancakes seemed a whole lot more interesting, and they were... thick with an almost creamy texture, and if I weren't assured by the fellow helping us that there was no cheese involved, I would have thought they'd slipped some in there. I'd ordinarily consider a non-crisp potato pancake a mortal sin, but against the crisply fried fish it actually kind of worked. Two for two at McBob's.

Kopp's Interior or Coen Dream Sequence? Dominic Armato

Vague childhood memories seems to be the theme here, and the theme continued through our visit to Kopp's, if only for the custard. The decor, an odd modern industrial motif with a courtyard that looks like a Battlestar Galactica location shoot and an interior that looks like a Coen Brothers' dream sequence, may appeal to my pop culture sensibilities, but doesn't exactly awaken warm fuzzy feelings of decades past.

Vanilla Frozen CustardDominic Armato

The custard is another matter, though. It's been eons since I had real frozen custard, and my memory is of my seven-year-old mind being blown by chocolate more intense than I thought possible in a frozen confection. Though Kopp's offers two daily specials and chocolate, I went with a classic vanilla, wanting to get at the unadorned heart of the matter. And it turns out the heart of the matter inspires visions of jolly, rotund, 8000 pound cows waddling their way around a grassy field, occasionally stopping by the barn to relieve themselves of a few buckets of pure butterfat. Let's just say this stuff is rich. I've heard complaints that Kopp's vanilla is possessed of a certain artificial character, and while I agree that it doesn't taste like a bushel of fresh vanilla beans were dumped into the hopper, it has a kind of classic vanilla extract flavor that's both retro and delectable. My ladylove's chocolate also had a throwback vibe, not especially dark or complex, but rather evoking a cup of hot cocoa, except in cold form. The true winner, however, was the little fella, who surprised us all by picking pomegranate. That little bit of tartness kept the custard from being a total butterfat bomb, and I would've swapped with him in a heartbeat. Good call, buddy.

Fried Cheese CurdsDominic Armato

Our time in Wausau was mostly spent nesting, cooking and eating at home and caring for the family's newest addition, possessed of big cheeks and little desire to sleep. But one outing took us to the thematically abundant Wausau Mine Co., where I'm not sure I can say much for the menu on the whole, except for the fact that they provided an opportunity to get my hands on some fried cheese curds. Really, what's not to like here? It's cheese, lightly dusted in a very fine breading and fried until it's toasty and sandy on the outside and... well, not exactly melting, but kind of non-Newtonian on the inside. In contrast, take the mozzarella stick. The breading is crisp, the middle goes gooey. Not so with cheese curds, apparently, whose unusual physical properties grant them an almost spongy texture when fried. It's like they squish and then rebound a bit, before finally relenting when pressed. Setting aside that they seem to defy the laws of physics, they make for a remarkably satisfying subgenre of fried cheese.

The Counter at Solly's Dominic Armato

A few days later, on the way home, I decided that we obviously hadn't consumed enough cholesterol for the trip, so we stopped again in Milwaukee, this time at Solly's for butter burgers. There's nothing about Solly's that looks like a restaurant from the outside, but tucked into the ground floor of a building that kind of vaguely resembles Norman Bates' house (but only because it was Halloween weekend) is a small short order diner that serves breakfast and burgers.

ChiliDominic Armato

Solly's is a charming little place featuring two yellow, melamine, horseshoe-shaped counters seating a dozen each, behind which stands the kitchen and a small crew of ladies who are friendly and laid back and in absolutely no rush whatsoever, which for a place like this suits me just fine. It being the lunching hour, I zipped right past the breakfast offerings and, sadly, missed the rosti which I would have liked to have sampled. So instead I got a cup of chili, some fries and rings for the family to share, and butter burgers straight across the board... the standard variety, though the menu is stuffed with quite a few variations. The chili (avert your eyes, anti-bean folk!) was a house concoction, a touch watery -- more like thick soup with lots of ground meat and beans -- but lightly sweet and nicely seasoned with a great mix of spices. Fries were prefab and I'm pretty sure the rings were too, but they were fried up hot and crispy and did the trick, which is to say they provided an occasional respite in our attack on the butter burgers. Yes, to eat some fries and onion rings was to temporarily take the fat level down a notch.

Butter BurgerDominic Armato

Upon first tasting this remarkable sandwich -- the first butter burger for us all -- my ladylove leaned over and said, "I'm kind of shocked that this is a food." Which isn't to say that she disapproved. Or at least if she did, it was the doctor and not the diner talking. Rather, she loved it, as did I. But in this day and age, it's a little shocking to get this much butter on anything, much less something that's already pretty well set in the lipids department. The bun was warm and soft and otherwise nondescript, and the thin patty was, sadly, cooked to within an inch of its life (not that the menu didn't give us fair warning), but the heart and soul of this delicious beast was the gooey mass in the middle, comprised of onions, American cheese, and lots and lots of butter. The onions weren't griddled, but rather chopped and "stewed," which meant that when combined with a high-moisture cheese and what must've been a quarter cup of butter, they made a kind of squishy, gooey, sweet and salty mass that oozed into every pore of both bun and beef. I found that just a tiny squirt of brown mustard, in classic yellow squeeze bottles on the counter, provided a touch of balance, though the burger was entirely capable of standing on its own. My ladylove took another bite, savored it, turned to me and said, "Don't you dare try making these at home." She's right, of course. They're far too dangerous.

McBob's Pub & Grill
4919 W. North Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53208
Mon - Sat8 AM - 12 AM
Sun8 AM - 10 PM
Kopp's Frozen Custard
7631 W. Layton Avenue
Greenfield, WI 53220
Mon - Sun10:30 AM - 11 PM

Wausau Mine Co.
3904 W. Stewart Avenue
Wausau, WI 54401
Mon - Sun11 AM - ???
Solly's Grille
4629 N. Port Washington Road
Milwaukee, WI 53212
Mon8 AM - 8 PM
Tue - Sat6:30 AM - 8 PM
Sun8 AM - 4 PM


My brother went to UW. Visiting him in the summer was a parade of beer, brats and butter burgers. Not what you would call sophisticated, but damn good fun! And yes, frozen custard is a pleasant treat, one I wish I could find in Boston.

So much to talk about and ASK even though I spent half of my life in Wisconsin and I know about squeeky curds. Squeekiness is a function of freshness and low to no refrigeration.

Never been to the pub you mentioned on the West side or Solly's. I was always South side or Lower East in Milwaukee.

Kopps. I'm surprised you didn't mention the AZ connection with Elsa's Deli and Kopps being Milwaukee Karl Kopp enterprises and AZ88 and Hanny's being his Phoenix businesses. As for Custard, you can get it here and there (Culvers) in Phoenix. In Milwaukee, I probably went to Kopps more than Leons, but Leon's gets my vote (unless I'm getting a burger too, then we're back at Kopps).

Wausau. There's a street named after my grandfather in Wausau. I'm glad there are places to go up there.

Usingers? C'mon man you had to have gone!

olllllo... I actually wasn't aware of the Kopp connection! Though I'm considerably more enamored of Kopp's than I am of AZ88. Still haven't tried Culver's, and Kopp's vs. Leon's was a tough call. Both weren't in the cards, sadly.

I'm getting the impression that there are... not so many places to go in Wausau. But I had a pretty decent bowl of pho, oddly enough.

Usingers... I know, I know. So little time :-/

Culvers is good! They have that oddly friendly Midwestern thing going, reinforced by butter fried burgers and frozen custard. The guy behind the counter seemed genuinely happy to serve us. A little unnerving, but we soldiered on somehow.

I love the fact that you managed to bring non-newtonian fluids into a discussion of cheese curds - and that it managed to make perfect sense. Bless your heart, Dom.

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