I have eaten my way through Miller Park and Wisconsin State Fair, but this is the first time I took on the culinary side of Summerfest. What is perhaps most surprising is unlike the baseball stadium and our annual fair — where the more over-the-top foods, the better — Summerfest’s eating selections are pretty tame. There are of course new foods to try this year. But say you don’t want to just eat at Summerfest; you want to eat well. Is it possible to do that? Maybe… I even surprised myself with what I liked best.
First stop: Ethnic Village, for a little bit of everything
Just before the gates opened on Day 1, I headed over with my Mil Mag colleague Emma Fisher, who graciously agreed to help sample food. Our first stop? The Ethnic Village, site of three of the local vendors on my list: Greek Village, Divino and Ward’s House of Prime.
1. Greek Village: Village combo, which features pork shish kebab, a gyro and rice; and spanakopita (spinach pie) with rice
It was all about the gyro. And I do love a good gyro – it’s salty and messy and the tzatziki (cucumber yogurt) adds a cool, creamy finish. And after closing the bars at 2 a.m., it tastes even better (but that’s a different story). This one was bar-time perfect. I like to pick off stray pieces of gyro meat and dip it in the tzatziki. The shish kebab was salty and a bit dry, but I’d rather it a little overcooked than underdone. The rice was a creamy tomato Spanish-style creation that reminded me of a casserole I used to eat when I was growing up. But that gyro. Eat all the onions if you really don’t want to get hit on at Summerfest. Or, just drink more beer.
Spinach pie can be amazing when the phyllo is buttery, flaky and crisp, none of which translated to this pie square. But the filling was suitably salty and stuffed with spinach and cheese.
2. Divino: caprese salad with burrata cheese; two Italian rice balls
One thing you won’t find much of at Summerfest is a plate of vegetables. Plus, I can’t refuse burrata cheese, a fresh cheese (mix of mozzarella and cream) that comes in a jiggly blob. It might be pushing it to call this a caprese salad because it didn’t include fresh basil. But the pile of mixed greens, sliced tomato and cheese drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette was light, cold and refreshing.
The deep-fried rice balls are available stuffed with meat or spinach and cheese and served under a gob of marinara sauce. There’s no way to eat these balls other than with a fork. They were really mushy, with not much of a crust. Flavor-wise, the cheese-spinach version was the winner, but it was also cheesy goo — as much goo as rice.
3. Ward’s House of Prime: Scotch eggs-on-a-stick, prime rib sandwich
Not sure what I was thinking ordering the eggs. But Summerfest is kind of a fair, and the idea of walking and eating a Scotch egg while watching the Eddie Butts Band at JoJo’s Martini Lounge sounded really appealing. You can even get Scotch eggs for two. Man, they can be so good when you’re at the right British pub. But no, you’re at Summerfest. So it was fine — absolutely nothing to write home about. The breading was rather thin, but there was a decent sausage casing around the hard-boiled egg. (Scotch eggs are typically served hard or soft-boiled.)
The prime rib sandwich needed several things — a warm bun, an au jus, more flavor. I ordered it with cheese, onions and mushrooms for a couple-buck up-charge. That helped about 10 percent. The best thing here were the seasoned fries, though they weren’t hot enough.
Next stop: Northwestern Mutual Children’s Theater and Playzone, plus burgers and tacos
1. A.J. Bombers: The Big Gig burger and a Beyond Burger, with tater tots
Let’s start off with the tots. I grew up eating baking sheet loads of them. Somehow, I never discovered how much better they are when they’re fried crisp, as opposed to baked. They certainly have a better texture. These were crispy nuggets, pretty solid.
The Big Gig is one of the better things devoured on our quest. The thin patty tasted char-grilled, plus it was topped with Applewood smoked bacon. The soft bun weakened it. Do they have the ability to toast buns back there? I wanted to ask. It makes a huge difference.
The need to address the plant-based eaters of Summerfest compelled me to order the Beyond Burger, a veggie burger whose flavor and texture was similar to commercial Boca Burgers. Let’s leave it at that.
2. BelAir Cantina: spicy pollo tacos, esquite
I give BelAir some props for replicating the quality of their stand-alone restaurants, which follow a “Oaxaca-meets-LA-food-truck” theme. These tacos were surprisingly good. The warm flour tortillas were stuffed with spicy, saucy chicken (in chile arbol sauce) and topped with citrus slaw.
“Esquite” is an off-the-cob version of Mexican corn (elotes). The BelAir corn is slathered in cream and cheese and dusted with chile powder. It doesn’t have the lime flavor I look for, and it’s plenty salty and creamy. And it has a comfort food appeal that I can’t deny.
Last stop: American Family Insurance Forecourt, for pizza and eggplant fries
1. Pizza Man: slice of the special pizza, eggplant fries with marinara
Pizza is one of those foods that should be hard to mess up. And it wasn’t messed up. In fact, the crust was thin and crisp and the deluxe toppings (pepperoni, sausage, green pepper, onions, mushrooms) were layered on in equitable fashion. Festival-grounds tasty? Yes.
Potato fries should not be droopy, floppy and soft. It’s that flaccid texture that deep-sixed the long strips of fried eggplant. Mushy and flavorless. If you’re undeterred by this description, dunk them generously in marinara sauce sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
You can check out Summerfest’s complete food and beverage lineup, here. It includes locations and dietary information.