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 

Monday, September 26, 2022

Daisy's Po' Boy and Tavern

-Grubbing in Chicago  
New to the Scene

Chef Erick Williams of Virtue has added another spot to his growing portfolio with the opening of Daisy’s Po' Boy and Tavern in Hyde Park. The James Beard winning chef wanted to open a place where people could watch a sporting event while eating some good gameday grub. Even if you’re not hungry it’s a place to grab a drink and catch a game or just hang out with friends. I was invited to come check it out and brought a buddy who’s a Hyde Park resident that likes to get out and about. 

Newly Opened in Hyde Park 

At heart this is a sports bar but it’s also a place where live music will be played and in a lot of ways it reminded me of a Lettuce Entertain You type of establishment as it’s big and bright and inviting. A smoothly run spot that can get very lively. The vibes on our weeknight visit were excellent, not just at the restaurant but in the neighborhood as a whole. We walked past a Sweetgreens to get there so places like Daisy’s are much needed in this area with a deep African-American history. The ordering process is pretty simple in that you walk up to the counter where you place order and pay. After that you find some seats and your food is brought out to you. Patrons sitting at the bar are served by the bartenders. As far as the drinks go they offer a nice selection of alcoholic options including big frosty mugs of ice cold Abita Amber and traditional NOLA style cocktails like a frozen hurricane that was great for dessert. 

Frozen Hurricane at Daisy's Po' Boy and Tavern 

The food is an ode to New Orleans, the cuisine which has basically been adopted by America as a whole as places like Daisy’s are commonly found across the United States. But Daisy’s does it better than most of them outside of Louisiana. The menu features all the classics including gumbo and red beans and rice. I tried both of those and each of them were done really well. The seafood gumbo has a nicely colored roux and leans thick which will pair well with the long Chicago winters. The red beans and rice hit the spot but I still haven’t found better than Popeye’s as far as around here goes. 

Gumbo / Red Beans and Rice 

With them putting po' boy in the restaurants name I figured they would be taking those seriously and it shows in the bread which they get shipped from New Orleans. It’s pretty fresh despite the fact it’s not made here (French bread can go south pretty quickly). I tried a fried shrimp po' boy bc that’s the classic and although it’s a pretty straight forward sandwich it’s not easy to perfect in part bc the frying job of the shrimp needs to be pristine. Daisy’s accomplishes just that with crisp and plump gulf shrimp that overflows from inside the roll. The combo of fried shrimp with lettuce, tomato, and creole mayo on fresh French bread is one of the worlds best regional sandwich recipes and Daisy’s does a very good version. I left impressed with just about everything so I’m already thinking about when I can return to try some of the other po' boys like the bbq shrimp and homemade hot sausage. The food is not an afterthought at this sports bar and for that I can’t wait to get back and catch a game while grubbing.

Fried Shrimp Po Boy ay Daisy's Po' Boy and Tavern 

Daisy's Po' Boy and Tavern
5215 S Harper Ave
Chicago, IL 60615
(773) 675-8767 

Friday, September 23, 2022

Tengoku Aburiya

-Grubbing in Chicago  
Izakaya Eats in the West Loop

Tengoku Aburiya has been open since the summer of Covid (2020). It’s the sister spot to the Michelin starred Omakase Yume that sits next door. Tengoku is an izakaya meaning Japanese bar food is what they do. It’s a casual space that can typically take walk-ins so basically the opposite of the upscale omakase next door. The whole purpose of an izakaya is to present the customer a comfortable spot to have a bite to eat with some drinks on a low key. My type of place so I don’t why it took me so long to finally get over here as Japanese bar food is second to none. 

Locals Favorite in the West Loop

If there’s gyoza on the menu I have to get an order. Tengoku does a pan fried beef and vegetable version that was soupy from being so juicy. Really good. Moving on we also got a pristinely made Korean pancake off the daily specials board. I didn’t get a pic but it was one of the better ones I’ve had in part due to a bunch of chopped scallions tossed in some sort of spicy oil concoction and loaded on top. Both the pancakes and scallion mix were a textural pleasure with plenty of crunch coming from both of them.

Gyoza at Tengoku

It’s pretty typical for an izakaya to specialize in some sort of dish and Tengoku chooses to give special attention to it’s Kushiyaki (a generic term for skewered grilled meats). For those wondering yakitori (skewered chicken) is a form of Kuskiyaki. We each ordered a chefs special kushiyaki platter which consists of four skewers of the chefs choosing (4 meats + 1 vegetable). Each of us was presented with a different set. Mine came with a Negima Yakitori (chicken and scallion), chicken skin, enoki mushroom wrapped with a thin strip of beef, and fried shishitos. They were all good with the crispy chicken skin being my favorite of the bunch.

Kushiyaki Set

Next up was the chefs choice nigiri set for each of us. I’m not a big sushi person but it’s something I do enjoy getting every now and then and my dining companions wanted to get some so I rolled with the flow. We each got five pieces of chefs choice nigiri and a roll of tuna tekkamaki to go with it. One of the reasons I don’t eat a ton of sushi is I have trouble distinguishing the good from the really good. I typically enjoy it no matter the price. One of my dining companions was a regular sushi eater and he called our sets “good but not great” so I’d suggest doing the omakase next door if you’re looking for sushi that really shines. I thought it was pretty good and it hit the spot as I hadn’t had sushi in a minute leading up to our visit.

Nigiri Set 

Last up was an order of Mazasoba which the three of us split. Though this dish is typcially called Taiwan Mazesoba it's said to have originated in Nagoya. This is a dry noodle dish mixed with ground pork, fish flakes, seaweed, green onion, chives, minced garlic, sesame seeds, and egg yolk, served with a side of rice. The picture below is how it looks when it comes out before being tossed. There’s a pool of liquid at the bottom of the bowl which coats the noodles when tossed. This one hit all the high notes with thick and chewy noodles coated in an umami laden sauce. An excellent ending.

Mazesoba at Tengoku Aburiya

Tengoku Aburiya
651 W Washington Blvd Suite #101A
Chicago, IL 60661
(312) 846-6633

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Babba Grill

-Grubbing in Chicago(land)  
Macedonian Street Food in Darien  

Babba Grill is hidden in a strip mall in the sleepy suburb of Darien. They make Macedonian street food and that caught my attention as there’s plenty of Balkan restaurants in Chicagoland but I’ve never come across any making Macedonian food. It’s a cuisine influenced by the Ottoman Turkish Empire as well as other Balkan countries. As I learned when looking into Babba Grill, the Macedonian Hamburger is a popular dish and according to the reviews Babba Grill makes a good one. So I made a mental note for if and when I was anywhere near there which was the case a couple weeks ago.

Locals Favorite in Darien 

The Macedonian Hamburger just might be the world heavyweight champion of burgers. It’s a knockout mix of meat and starch consisting of a thick cevapi like patty stuffed into a hinged sesame seed bun filled with cabbage salad, tomato, cucumber, and fries drizzled with ketchup and made in-house mayo. It’s popular in the streets of North Macedonia and the online pics from there look identical to the one served here. I started by eating the fries off one by one until it could be held without making a mess. I've seen similar sandwiches in South American countries like Brazil and Colombia but it's the meat and bun that make this burger distinctly Balkan. A beast of a feast.

Macedonian Hamburger at Babba Grill 

Babba Grill 
801 Plainfield Rd
Darien, IL 60561
(630) 568-3263

Monday, September 19, 2022

Red Light Chicken

-Grubbing in Chicago  
Fried Chicken in Lincoln Park 

If you were unaware that Red Light Chicken exists that’s bc they’re not trying to get your attention on Instagram or Tock. It’s a low key spot (no phone) in a not so low key neighborhood, the DePaul area of Lincoln Park. The only reason I knew about Red Light Chicken is bc it’s on Sheffield in the space where Devil Dawg’s first opened. The name brand hot dog stand lasted about ten years before deciding to close that location and focus on the others that opened after it. The building is a small space making it a good homebase for something of the fast and casual variety. Something like fried chicken sandwiches which these days are as much a part of the American diet as the cheeseburger. There’s never a time when these fried chicken sandwich shops are not opening so at first I thought “great another fried chicken sandwich spot.” 

Newly Opened in Lincoln Park

As time went by I often passed Red Light without the taste for a fried chicken sandwich, it’s just not something I crave often. But when the taste for one came calling I knew where to go. The menu is as simple as it gets. They have sandwiches, some nuggets, and the option to add fries, that’s it. The sandwiches can be ordered in a few different ways but I was there for a classic fried chicken sandwich and that’s exactly what I got. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Just a really well made sandwich that takes full advantage of a crisp piece of juicy chicken meat dressed with pickles and mayo plus cheese if you want it. The thinner than normal fries are frozen but fry up nicely. Ask for a side of house-made spicy mayo to use for dipping. I don’t know if it’s possible for a chicken sandwich to be life changing but they can certainly hit the spot and next time I want one I know where I’m going.

Fried Chicken Sandwich and Fries at Red Light Chicken 

Red Light Chicken
2147 N Sheffield Ave
Chicago, IL 60614
(Walk-In Only)

Friday, September 16, 2022

Pizza House

 -The other Chicago-style pizza: Tavern Style

Summer is fading fast so we recently took advantage of the sun and went north up Lake Michigan, for some beach and pizza. To Illinois State Beach and Pizza House in Zion (Lake County) to be exact. 

Locals Favorite in Zion

Pizza House was the first stop as it's only a 10 minute ride from the beach so we wanted to grab our pizza and bring it there. The last time I had been out this way I was given a hot tip in the form of homemade Italian beef in these parts. This was news to me as I’ve had most of Chicagoland's home-made beef offerings but never from here where they’ve been slicing it thin since 1975. But first a pizza bc I liked how the online pictures looked and it came out looking even better. Instagram don’t lie, ok it does, but not here as this was as good as it looked hitting all the high notes as far as thin crust in Chicagoland goes - thin and crisp with a fennel forward sausage, exactly how I like them.
Sausage Pizza at Pizza House 

As for the beef I ended up with one of them on garlic bread as they use a Turano roll so I figured why not. Pizzerias are the spots to get a beef on garlic bread and this was a really good one. The beef was the best part which is always a good thing. I was surprised to find their house hot pepper blend was the fresh jalapeño and celery style made popular by spots like Pop’s on the South Side which is pretty far from here near the Wisconsin border. It shouldn’t be a surprise to find tavern pizza this good halfway between Chicago and Racine but the beef is as good as I’ve had in these parts.

Italian Beef on Garlic at Pizza House 

Pizza House 
2409 Sheridan Rd
Zion, IL 60099
(847) 872-4868

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Punta Cana

-Grubbing in Chicago  
Dominican in Logan Square 

The Logan Square area is home to handfuls of Latino owned restaurants. Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Cuban make up of the majority of them but there's a few "others" like this Dominican mainstay sitting at the corner of Palmer and Kimball. Punta Cana has been around since at least the 90's if I'm not mistaken. It's a smaller space with just a few tables so most of their business is done through takeout which always seems to be steady with repeat customers, the signs of a neighborhood favorite. 

Locals Favorite in Logan Square 

There's not many Dominican restaurants in Chicago compared to places like New York and Boston so I haven't had it as much as some of the other Latin cuisines more common in the area but they're all similar in many ways with each of them having their own signature dishes. In the Dominican Republic they have a traditional breakfast that revolves around mangu which is mashed plantains. It's called Mangú Los Tres Golpes which means the three strikes signifying the fried eggs, fried cheese and fried salami served alongside mangu with pickled onions. It's said mangu derived from Ghanaian 'fufu' as the DR has influences from Africa dating back to the 1500's, a side effect of the slave trade.

Mangú Los Tres Golpes at Punta Cana 

It's tough not to get the breakfast at Punta Cana which is only open until 6p so I typically visit in the morning or early afternoons for that. But sometimes when the taste for oxtail arises I'll head over here for some of that. It hasn't always been on point but when it is it's really perfect. The meat is tender and beefy from it's time sitting in the holding tray while the yellow rice is some of the fluffiest in town. 

Oxtail with Yellow Rice and Peas at Punta Cana

Punta Cana
2200 N Kimball Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 292-7400


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