Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Roadfood in Southwest Wisconsin

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

- Exploring Wisconsin's Driftless Region 

In my opinion the Midwest is at it's best during the summer months when you can really take full advantage of the Great Lakes and such. But fall is wonderful too when the colors start to change and cider donuts start to pop up at roadside stands and the likes. These are the best times to jump in the car and take a ride around a region typically considered a flyover zone. I did so recently with a weekend trip up to the Driftless region of Wisconsin which is a great place to visit in summer and fall. 

Pics from Wisconsin's Driftless Region

The area is a topographical and cultural region consisting of southwest Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and the extreme northwestern corner of Illinois. It was never covered by ice during the ice age so it lacks the glacial deposits known as drift. It’s more like New England than the typical flatland of the Midwest. Our homebase was Cashton which is in the heart of Driftless Wisconsin located about 40 minutes east of La Crosse. The area is home to Wildcat Mountain State Park as well as the Kickapoo Valley Reserve plus a handful of cheese factories and Wisconsin's largest Amish community. It was pretty cool getting to stay at an Airbnb on a corn farm in the middle of it all. The towns of Viroqua and Westby were 5 and 10 minutes away and each of them are cute places worth staying in if you can find the right spot. Popular activities in the area include some super scenic drives through the rolling hills and canoeing, trout fishing, hunting and some snowmobiling during the winter. It’s also a great replace to sit back and relax. There was something very soothing about sitting on the porch of the airbnb and listening to the sounds of the Amish horse buggies riding by. Oh and the summer sunsets are absolutely spectacular in these parts.

Sunset in Cashton

Food wise this is a pretty desolate area and with that your options are a bit limited. But La Crosse (Pop. 52,000) is close and each little town has a handful of places plus there’s some great butchers and grocery stores carrying locally grown produce. We cooked a meal or two at our place each day after stopping in at Prem Meats in Spring Green and Mr. B’s Smokehouse in Hillsboro on the way up. We got some high quality stuff including steaks, brats, ground beef, bacon. The Viroqua Food Co+op grocery store was a pleasant surprise for local produce and quality products. Plus local farmers sell their stuff at roadside stands and such. You can also stock up on cheese at handfuls of creameries each of them producing something that's won awards somewhere. I should make note of the curds from Old Country Cheese in Cashton which are the squeakiest I’ve ever had. The key to these is staying away from the curds they keep in the fridge and buying the packages on the table up front. The squeak is at it's peak when the curds are at their freshest so you want ones that are still warm.

Pics from the Driftless 

Activities wise we got rain on a couple days but managed to check out most of the popular outdoor spots the highlight of which was a cruise down the Mississippi River from La Crosse into Prairie du Chien. I’ve always been fascinated with river towns especially those on the Mighty Mississippi and we had perfect weather that day. There’s plenty of state parks and places to sit on the river as well as some cool bars and restaurants found up and down both sides of Minnesota and Iowa and Wisconsin.

Pics from the Great River Road 

Ring's Bar (Plain, WI)

First up was a return to Ring’s in Plain, WI. One hour northwest of Madison on the outskirts of the Driftless Region. It's one of a handful of candidates for my best burger in the state, and the country by extension. What makes these great is the old school broiler device used to make them. That and the fact the beef comes from directly across the street from Straka Meats. Also of note is the locally baked bun that’s soft but stable enough to hold all the liquid that seeps into it. These are thick and juicy and come with a hearty slice of Wisconsin cheddar plus house pickles, onion, brown mustard. Since 1951.

Cheeseburger at Ring's Bar

Footjoy Farm (Cashton, WI)

It was a Friday Fish Fry when we drove up but the Driftless Region is home to a handful of pizza farms which are popular on weekends in the warmer months. So the truth is the best fish fry's are closer to the Great Lakes and not all the way over here near the Mississippi where most spots serve cod and a few do catfish but there’s no signs of lake perch and few when it comes to walleye. So I decided to check out a Pizza Farm which are popular in these parts. They’re exactly as they sound. This one is also a brewery and the beer is very good but the pizza is why I visited. It’s a base of sourdough made with Ingmar Red and Edison White Wheat sustainably grown on their local farm. Most of the toppings are also locally sourced while the pizza options range from traditional to chef driven. I’m a purist with pizza but will venture out of my comfort zone at places like this so I landed somewhere in the middle as far as the style goes. A supreme is served up with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, black olives, red onions, and mozzarella cheese and I mean no shade when I say that it reminded me of what Digiorno Pizza wants to be. Don’t get me wrong I’d eat this again without qualm but I haven’t had a frozen pizza in a decade and it’s been longer since I ate a Digiorno but that’s what I thought of with this. Maybe it was the supreme toppings or bc this pizza was one of the sturdier versions I've come across in the same way a frozen well done pizza comes out. 

Supreme Pizza at Footjoy Farm

Neuie's Vogue (La Crosse, WI)

La Crosse is a river town and a brewing town which means there's a ton of bars. I can't confirm this but someone there told me they have the most bars per capita but lots of spots lay claim to that fact. What I can confirm is that at one time La Crosse held the record for most bars on one street in the Guinness Book of World Records. Before riding down the Mississippi we got some breakfast at one of the towns many watering holes. Neuie's Vogue had a nice setup paired with a typical menu that included at least one item you wont find elsewhere, their famous Flash Burger. It's a hamburger steak smothered with mushrooms, onions, green peppers, jalapenos, bacon and cheesy hash browns. Pic'd below is the medium sized offering (the entire length of a full size dinner plate). You could tell this was cooked with care. I ate half of it and was stuffed. Wisconsin bar food is in a weight class all it's own. 

The Flash Burger at Neuie's Vogue

Pete's Hamburger Stand (Prairie du Chien, WI)

One of the main reasons for my visit to the Driftless was so that I could revisit Pete’s Hamburgers in the Mississippi River town of Prairie du Chien (seriously). Where do we begin with this one? For starters it’s what I believe to be the 2nd oldest hamburger stand in the country dating back to 1909. They make the burgers the same way today that they did back then as the stand and it's old time cooking method is grandfathered in with the town. Fresh balls of beef are cooked on a steaming hot flattop in a puddle of water and onions unlike anywhere else. The end result is a flavor bomb of grilled onions and beef that can’t be beat. No cheese here as cheeseburgers weren’t a thing when they opened 113 years ago. You can add ketchup, mustard, or horseradish mustard but they’re best enjoyed in an unadulterated manner. It was twelve years between visits but they wrere exactly as I remember them to be - the best hamburger anywhere. I don’t care if the price has almost doubled ($3.25 in 2010) I would pay double todays price as there’s nothing else like these limited edition burgers available wkds only while the weather is warm. Some of the best street food in the States. 

Hamburger from Pete's Hamburgers 

Borgen's Cafe (Westby, WI)

The word Westby is Norwegian for "Western City" and Westby Wisconsin is a town where many Norwegians first settled going all the way back to 1848. The town of just 2300 celebrates it's Norwegian roots with statues, gift stores and restaurants like Borgen's Cafe. I decided to try their homemade meatballs in gravy served with lefse on what felt like the first day of Fall. Lefse is a Norwegian style flatbread that can include riced potatoes as well as butter, milk, and lard. This was pretty good comfort food but not anything worth going out of the way for. The lefse was pretty plain. 

Meatballs with Lefse at Borgen's Cafe

Rockton Bar (La Farge, WI)

Our final stop was another spot I was very much looking forward to checking out. Sunday Charcoal Chicken in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve is a thing and that's bc at the end of every week this bar in the middle of the Driftless Region grills up anywhere from 100 to 200 lbs of chicken attracting bikers, canoers, campers and locals alike. I was a bit disappointed that there was no chicken on the grill when I arrived but the smell of it was was obvious as was the taste which was full of smoke in a way that can only be achieved with live fire being used. The chicken itself was a really good quality but I wanted some jerk sauce or nam jim jaew to go with it. Charcoal chicken dinners have become popular in these parts and I’m pretty sure Rockton Bar is the reason why. It was rather dead on my visit around noon on a Sunday and I soon realized that was because the Packers were playing at 3:15p. 

Pics from Rockton Bar's Sunday Charcoal Chicken Dinner

Note: Click HERE for a Google Maps Guide to all the spots featured in this post.

See ya next time @chibbqking 

1 comment:

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