The allure of a Wisconsin supper club is that each one is unique, and yet you know what to expect when you visit. However, a supper club can mean something different depending on which part of the country it’s in. Its beginnings are far from the Midwest, but it’s easy to see why Wisconsin claims supper club supremacy.
Some think it’s a bizarre Wisconsin tradition to sit down to a meal of hot ham and rolls after church on Sunday. Bizarre? No! Delicious? Yes! The genius hack of wrapping the thinly sliced, baked or boiled deli ham in foil-lined packaging keeps it warm on the way home. The sandwich bread is, conventionally, a crusty “hard” roll – the German Kaiser roll, oftentimes. (Some folks like them with mayo or mustard.)
3) Cannibal Sandwich
You might know it by its fancy name, steak tartare. Raw ground beef served open-faced on rye bread is still a tradition, particularly during the holidays. The origins of this fleshy (dare we say) delight date to the 19th century, in German and Polish communities, but other ethnic groups serve variations of it. In the old days, home cooks would grind the meat at home, spread it on buttered rye bread and top with raw onion – the sharpness of the onion countering the blandness of the meat. Milwaukee’s Bunzel’s Meat Market offers fresh ground sirloin every day, along with its house-baked salted rye bread. Though some folks question its safety, this sandwich has more than a cult following: Bunzel’s Jeff Zupan reports it sold 1,200-1,400 pounds of ground sirloin, just for tartare, over the 2017 holiday season.
Each week, to produce some 70 varieties of sausages, Usinger’s (1030 N. Old World Third St.) takes delivery of 700 pounds of onions and 200 pounds of garlic. “It smells great!” laughs Fritz Usinger, great-grandson of the company’s founder. “Using fresh ingredients is more cumbersome, but we try to remain as true as possible to the recipes of my great-grandfather.” The German and European heritages in Milwaukee cemented the popularity of braunschweiger and summer sausage, but Fritz says the dairy industry helped, providing veal and lean beef. Another factor helped, too: “Sausage is such an accompaniment to beer!” It was also practical, a way to preserve meat over the winter. Usinger’s produces blood sausage, head cheese and exotic varieties that require hand labor and artistry, but bratwurst is the rock star, achieving national acceptance. “I remember back when people didn’t know what it was and pronounced it brat-wurst,” says Fritz, rhyming it with fat-wurst.
Get the recipe from Miller Time Pub & Grill’s famous soup.
6) Wisconsin Old Fashioned
While it’s now all the rage, we loved this supper club cocktail – made with brandy (natch) and topped with a maraschino cherry – long before it was cool.
7) Butter Burger
As we keep a vise grip on our belief that Seymour, Wis., was the one true place and 1885 the honest-to-god year of the hamburger’s invention, Solly’s Grille (4629 N. Port Washington Rd.) lays claim to making the first butter burger in Milwaukee in 1936 (around the time Green Bay burger joint Kroll’s introduced the same technique). Owner Glenn Fieber, whose stepfather was founder Kenneth “Solly” Salmon, says the key to the gloriously drippy burger’s longevity is “keeping the food as it was 80 years ago.” The beef is 100-percent sirloin, and a “good mounted teaspoon” of Wisconsin butter is globbed on the hot cooked patty so it “leaves a pool of butter on the plate.” Even the “mouthfeel” of the stewed onions is crucial. Imagine someone calling Solly’s to request a burger order for a dying relative. Fieber says it’s happened – and more than just once.
The year 2013 was very good to the Racine kringle. That’s when the oval-shaped Danish pastry of exponentially rich and sweet proportions earned the official title that would make a clan of badgers proud: Wisconsin’s state pastry! O&H Bakery celebrated by making a giant cream cheese-filled version shaped like our fair state. The only contestable detail is which Racine bakery makes it best. There’s 69-year-old O&H, where President Barack Obama got his fix in 2010; Lehmann’s, with locations in Racine and Sturtevant; and Bendtsen’s, oldest of them all, at 84. Whether it’s the blood sugar spike or unstoppable scrumptiousness, you can’t be mad and eat kringle.
In the mid-19th century dairying surfaced as the most viable alternative to wheat, which had dominated this state until then. Rapid dairy expansion followed. Why? Many new farmers were from New York (then a dairy behemoth), plus the University of Wisconsin heavily promoted the dairy industry. A win-win for those Holsteins!
10) The Grand Curd
Battered or breaded, whisked in and out of the deep-fryer, cheese curds are a Dairy State pride-and-joy. Here are three can’t-miss curds:
434 S. Second St.
The basket holds a half-pound of curds that were made just “350 feet away,” at Clock Shadow Creamery. Hand-breaded and fried right behind the bar, these tongue-singeing babies come with a modern sweet-pickly Russian dressing.
West Allis Cheese & Sausage
6832 W. Becher St., and Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St.
A crisp batter encases these gooey, chewy balls of dairy divinity. They’ll even add beef chili to them to make … chili curds. Mmm.
Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W. Florida St.
These plump battered curds are worth fighting over. Clock Shadow again provides the basis for this golden, crisp snack, served with zesty chipotle ranch.
One of the biggest mysteries in all of Wisconsin food lore is who can definitively claim to have invented the Smurf-colored, enigmatically flavored Blue Moon ice cream. We choose to go with Milwaukee flavor chemist Bill “Doc” Sidon, as if not the creator of said flavor (often described as like Fruity Pebbles), at least the man who gave it wider reach beginning in the 1940s. Canvass the state and you’ll find the lip-stainer in ice cream parlors from MKE’s The Chocolate Factory to Scoops Ice Cream Shop in Chilton, which lists it as an ever-present “Sweet 16” Flavor.
12) Frozen Custard
Time was, you had to be in Badgerland to get more than soft serve (shudder) in your malt. Now that Sauk City’s own Culver’s chain carries custard across borders, even Minnesotans grasp what the heck Wisconsin’s beloved gooey stuff is. Ice cream, it ain’t.
What’s the diff? Ice cream is milk and cream with air churned into it. Custard skips the air and adds egg yolks, making it dense and creamy. Custard melts and drips on your lap faster than does its less-rich cousin.
Milwaukeeans pledge allegiance to custard brands. Glendale’s Kopp’s draws standing-room-only crowds (well, there’s nowhere to sit), Gilles was the first custard drive-in in 1938, and the lines of eager customers at Leon’s on South 27th are legendary. Leon’s son Ron Schneider says it’s not the cows but Leon’s helpful nature that grew the custard businesses in southern Wisconsin. Leon helped future competitors get in their first licks, training them and helping them buy equipment. “All the old-timers got help from him.”
Even Schneider shakes his head at how Wisconsinites will line up for butter pecan in subzero temps. “We don’t run away and hide from the weather,” he says. “Some of these really cold days, I’ve been surprised with how much business we’ve done.”
13) Spotted Cow
If there is a beer that is Wisconsin today, it is Spotted Cow. New Glarus Brewing’s farmhouse spin on a cream ale – sold only in the Badger State but often bootlegged across the border – is as ubiquitous in the state’s taverns as the frolicking bovine on the label is in its countryside.
Our city’s version is modest but distinctive, defined by a cracker-thin crust and square-cut pieces.
Wisconsin produces more than half of the world’s supply of cranberries, but it wasn’t until 2015 that Massachusetts-based Ocean Spray released a commercial that was filmed in Wisconsin – on a cranberry bog in Warrens. (Collective cheer!) Our state simply rules when it comes to the cranberry.
16) Broasted Chicken
Fried chicken has intriguing variations all over the South. In Wisconsin, we experienced a singular invention in cooking chicken back in the 1950s with the pressured-fried breaded or battered chicken, cooked in a “broaster” marketed by the Broaster Company in Beloit. What’s special about this process is it combines pressure cooking (which requires liquid and reduces cooking time) and deep-frying (which makes food crispy). When you cut into a piece of broasted chicken, the juice oozes out from under a crackly-crisp crust like no fried chicken you’ve ever had. Sheboygan is a mecca for broasted chicken (the German institution Al & Al’s is one source), with scattered examples in Milwaukee (Filippo’s on 124th and Champion Chicken on 87th and Lisbon).
If you’re from northeastern Wisconsin, booyah is the stuff of legend, of large-gathering-eating lore.
One story about the origins of the Wisconsin fish fry is that it started in Appleton as a result of Prohibition. Taverns needed a, er, hook to lure in business, and besides the Catholic tradition of meatless Fridays during Lent, Friday was also the day men got their paychecks.
19) Fish Boil
Make your own authentic Wisconsin fish boil with this recipe from The White Gull Inn in Door County. The inn cooks the fish outside over a wood fire, using a 22-gallon pot and two nets, one for the fish and one for the potatoes. This recipe is for cooking at home on your kitchen stove.
20) Cornish Pasty
A meal in your fist. That’s a pasty, a meat-and-veg pie carried into the mines of Cornwall and brought to Wisconsin in the 1830s by lads looking for work at Mineral Point. Dwellers in states not invaded by the Cornish are baffled by the pronunciation (past, not paste) and impressed by how the turnover retains heat half the day, keeping hands warm and miners’ tummies full. Perhaps due to Cornwall’s proximity to Ireland, pasties are utterly bland. Controversies abound over how to cut the meat – cubes? shredded? – which veggies to add or avoid – carrots? rutabagas? – and whether gravy might help matters (for goodness sake, dip it in something!).
Hit the Kettle Range Meat Co. (5501 W. State St.) or Honeypie (2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.), where nontraditional ingredients add shocking bits of actual flavor, or try The Cornish Society of Greater Milwaukee (What? You didn’t think we had one of those?) annual pasty luncheon each May. For 60-plus years, Reynold’s Pasty Shop (3525 W. Burleigh St.) has produced them from scratch for grocery stores; stop in and take one home. Yinka Adedokun, general manager, praises the pie for being easy for anyone to cook. He’s from Nigeria, not Cornwall, but says “anywhere the British colonized, there are pasties!”
21) Real Chili
What are the real origins of Real Chili? Tarik Moody defends Wisconsin’s claim as the home of chili with spaghetti.