Beet Guide to Eating Local (Eastern/Central Wisconsin Edition)

June 17, 2011 at 11:54 am

Tom Keith

Wisconsin is a land of many local culinary treasures. You don’t need to check out the girth of many natives to know it.

Every year since I was born (several centuries ago), I’ve made the trek from the Chicago area to Northern Wisconsin. We have a family place about half way between Manitowish Waters and Boulder Junction. It’s a long drive (about six hours, if the Wisconsin police are all safely stowed away in their local doughnut shops), but there are plenty of highlights along the way.

For anyone who wants to drive from Chicagoland to the Northwoods in the Minocqua/Eagle River area, there are two primary routes — through Milwaukee, or through Madison. In this installment, we’ll explore the Milwaukee route.

Here, for your touring pleasure, is a non-comprehensive, totally idiosyncratic list of a few possibly interesting stops:

On your way out of the Chicago area, taking I-94 is usually the fastest route. But taking a slightly more leisurely route along US 41 allows a few stops you’d otherwise miss.

Captain Porky’s, at the corner of US Route 41 and Wadsworth Rd. is a great place for seafood (much of it fried), and many items fresh from the family farm.

Captain Porky’s also offers BBQ, but if that’s what you’re in the mood for, make your stop a little sooner. Big Ed’s (2501 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. North Chicago) is the place to go – friendly staff, an authentic Chicago-style aquarium smoker, and BBQ at the same level as many of the better joints in the city. And unlike some of the city’s best BBQ purveyors, you don’t have to order through bulletproof glass at Big Ed’s.

US 41 merges into I-94 just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border. Crossing over into the land of beer, brats and cheese, The Brat Stop (12304 75th Street, Kenosha, is a classic. And not just for brats (almost 14 million sold) – there’s entertainment, too – stars gracing the stage have included The Charlie Daniels Band, Styx, Cheap Trick, Foghat, The Guess Who, Molly Hatchet, Joan Jett, Eddie Money, Trace Adkins and Sugar Land, just to mention a few…..

The Brat Stop also is a source for novelty-shaped cheese (and, being as ecumenical as they are, they offer shapes for fans of either the Green Bay Packers or the Chicago Bears) … but if your goal is good, interesting cheese, not just average cheese in a funky shape, there’s better cheese a little further up the road.

In fact, virtually any major Wisconsin cheese, beer or wine you could ever want is just up the road, at Woodman’s, a massive grocery just off I-94 to the east on 120th Avenue, still in Kenosha. As a beer guy, I can say not only is the beer selection excellent, but prices are, too.

photo courtesy

photo courtesy

But possibly the best selection of beer, cheese, sausages, wines, and other local Wisconsin foodstuffs is at the iconic Mars’ Cheese Castle – same exit as Woodman’s, but just west of the expressway (2800 120th Avenue). Ensconced in new, larger digs this year, the building really does now look more-than-vaguely like a castle, and is filled with all sorts of Wisconsin’s finest foods.  Order lunch at the counter, and maybe accompany it with a great Wisconsin beer at the bar (we’re big on anything from New Glarus).

For a smaller, less touristy place, Bobby Nelson’s (2924 120th Avenue) is right down the street, with, again, local cheeses and sausages, but also pickled eggs, pickled asparagus, pickled green beans and mushrooms. The shop’s namesake was a former pro wrestler who passed away in 2002 (and, despite speculation by some, he was not the inventor of the half-nelson and full-nelson wrestling holds). Celebrate his legacy by buying your cheese curds from his place.

Among the better family-friendly food experiences, Apple Holler is a few exits further up I-94, at 5006 S. Sylvania Avenue in Sturtevant. Basically an elaborate farm with many u-pick options, a down-home friendly restaurant, and many kids’ activities – even kid-friendly theater performances – it’s worth a stop.

Getting up to Milwaukee, we’ve already reported on Milwaukee breweries and brewpubs worth visiting.

Milwaukee has other local food options, too – most of them beer-friendly. For example, Usingers is a Milwaukee classic, making traditional old-world style sausages since 1880. Look for it at 1030 N. Old World Third Street.

Compared to, say, Cleveland’s West Side Market, or Montreal’s Marche Jean Talon, Milwaukee’s Public Market (400 North Water St.) is smaller, and may be a bit more glitzy/commercial. But it’s a great source for local Wisconsin foods, and it has tastings, cooking classes, and other features. It’s in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward area, so if you choose not to eat at the market, there are plenty of restaurants, not to mention all the shops and galleries, within a few blocks.

Heading north out of Milwaukee on US 41 toward Oshkosh is Held’s Meat Market, at 480 Kettle Moraine Dr N in Slinger. Known for their beef jerky, Held’s has been producing meats and sausages since 1886, and they claim to use an old-fashioned smoking style for their meats that modern equipment can’t match.

Glacier Ridge Animal Farm is a working bison farm that’s also a small, kid-friendly zoo (including a petting zoo area). It’s nine miles north of Fond du Lac at the Hwy N exit, at N9458 Ridge Road in Van Dyne. Buy your bison and elk meat to take home here.

Passing through Oshkosh (b’gosh!) our normal route takes us west on US 10, toward Stevens Point – now becoming a mini beer mecca

But before we get to Stevens Point, there’s a necessary stop for cheese, about 5 miles off US 10. There are lots of smaller, artisanal cheese producers in Wisconsin, but Union Star 7742 County Road II, in Fremont (actually, Zittau) is possibly the quintessential example of a tiny, family-run old-school cheesemaker. The shop consists of four or five tables and a few refrigerated cases in one corner of the barn-like factory. You won’t find hi-falutin’ bries or goat cheeses made here – instead, think of classic versions of brick, Colby, and, especially, aged cheddars – many with additional flavorings mixed in.

Not all the people who visit Union Star look this questionable

Not all the people who visit Union Star look this questionable

Less than an hour from Union Star is the most ecologically friendly brewery in Wisconsin – Central Waters, in an industrial park at 351 Allen St. in Amherst – just east of Stevens Point. 24 solar panels, energy efficient heating, recycled-product packaging – the packaging may not be as flashy as others, but it’s all eminently recyclable. Oh, and the beers? Be sure to try some of the hoppier offerings, like Happy Heron Pale Ale and Glacial Trail IPA. These guys know their hops. Unfortunately, the tap room is open only Fridays and Saturdays, late afternoon to 9 pm.

Central Waters' nondescript building

Central Waters' nondescript building

Sadly, the tap house at Central Waters is only open two days a week

Sadly, the tap house at Central Waters is only open two days a week

Another small brewer, just south of Stevens Point, is O’so Brewing, in a strip mall at 1812 Post Road in Plover. O’so prides itself on “Freestyle Brewing.” Due to their limited distribution, I haven’t been able to try some of their newer, more experimental brews, but the mainstream beers have been solid, to say the least. One of their lighter beers – probably closest to a Kölsch style, takes its name from the brewery’s name – it’s called “The Big O.” Don’t ask me about the disgusting story I have regarding this excellent, flavorful beer.

The big guy (relatively speaking) in the area is Stevens Point Brewing – the fifth oldest continually operating brewery in the country. Point, at 2617 Water St. in Stevens Point, has fascinating tours through the historic brewery, ending with samples. Once a brewer of mainstream lawnmower beer for the surrounding area (as they said, “When you’re out of Point, you’re out of town.”), Point has become a significant craft brewer, especially with its Whole Hog line of specialty beers. Point also does a significant amount of contract brewing – for example, it brews most of Capital Brewing’s (from Middleton, near Madison) bottled beers, and it also acquired the James Page beer business, formerly of Minnesota. In our family, we know we’re in Wisconsin when we’re drinking Point Beer.

Only if you're here, are you not out of Point

Only if you're here, are you not out of Point

From Stevens Point, we head north on US 51 (aka I-39) toward Wausau. Along the way, and a few miles off the highway, is perhaps the best-known and most widely distributed of Wisconsin’s premium meat processors — Nueske’s. The smoked hams, bacon, and smoked sausages are not hard to find at better butchers, but the full line is available at the source, 1390 E. Grand Ave. in Wittenberg.

From Nueske’s, we’re only about two hours from our destination — Manitowish Waters. But first, driving up along US 51, around Wausau, you can’t help but notice small fields with dark agricultural fabric suspended four feet or so above the ground. It’s one of Wisconsin’s most interesting crops. It’s ginseng. Wisconsin, and the Wausau area in particular, has unique microclimates and soil qualities that make Wisconsin ginseng among the most valuable worldwide – particularly among Asian ginseng connoisseurs. In the area, you can even buy locally grown ginseng products in some of the larger gas stations.

As you head north out of Wausau, you’ll notice farmland giving way to forests and lakes. Two crops dominate the Northwoods around our destination — cranberries and wild rice

Over half the nation’s cranberries are grown in Wisconsin. Most people would probably guess Massachusetts – after all, the best-known brand associated with cranberries is Ocean Spray (a Massachusetts-based agricultural cooperative), and not much spray from any ocean finds its way into Wisconsin. Cranberry growers offer free tours every Friday morning at 10 a.m. in season, starting at the Manitowish Waters Community Center, then going out to a working cranberry bog. Another good family activity.…/cranberry-marsh-tours.html

I have read tales from my aunts and uncles about how, in the early 20th century, the Indians would come through our lake in their canoes, to get to Rice Creek, where they would use long poles to thresh the wild rice off its stalks. The rice would drop into the bottom of their canoes, and then they’d take it, let it ferment in the sun, then toss it in the wind to get rid of the chaff. Today, it’s not uncommon in the area to see gas stations selling various grades of wild rice, for as little as $2.50/lb. We’ve discussed wild rice, and Minoqua Brewing’s Wild Rice Beer, here.

Of course, this merely scratches the surface of Wisconsin’s food treasures. Maybe sometime we’ll get into the area around Madison and areas west and north from there. In the meantime, get going, and travel north into Wisconsin, and tell me about any significant stops I’ve probably missed.