When the billboards starting boasting beer and cheese, we knew Wisconsin was in our near future. We got in rather late given the long day’s drive, so opted for a quick dinner before checking in to our AirBnB spot. We tried to stop at a Laotian spot, which was unfortunately closing for the night, so headed on down the road to Pig in a Fur Coat, which is solid! We shared the rabbit rillettes with pistachio and cherries in honey, the house made burrata and heirloom salad, along with the pappardelle with oxtail mushrooms and parm (I think these were all app or “bite” sized dishes, and there were plenty of mains that sounded amazing but we were trying to be quick slash not excessively unhealthy) and enjoyed these over a few glasses of sangiovese. Oh boy, I think that tomato salad may be the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of tomato salads in my day. Is there anything better than a ripe tomato? Mmmm. Maybe a tomato toast trumps the tomato salad, but I’ll take my good tomatoes any way they come. Anywho, this was the first of MANY impressive meals in Madison.
Our bellies full, we headed on over to our AirBnB spot, which was, dare I say, amaze-balls. Patricia and Mike are amazing hosts, and their guest set-up is phenomenal. I adored the place, the people, the service… thumbs up ALL AROUND. Go there, stay with them, thank me later. (Here’s their AirBnB page: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1533109.) Plus side of me being over a month late in writing this and almost completely done with our 3 month road trip, I can honestly say this was one of the top accommodations we had on the entire journey. On top of being a lovely, inviting, homey abode (with world’s most comfortable mattress!) in a phenomenal location, our hosts provided us with stellar recommendations. I could tell our host Mike’s love of architecture stemmed from his Chicago upbringing, and he pointed us toward a wonderful walking tour of the city. He and Patricia both had great ideas for food and various activities. I could go on, but I’ll continue with the highlights of the city itself.
First day in town, we walked up to the capitol square, stopping to admire a little garden outside, where a sign noted that a local brewery was making pepper beer out of the produce grown in that spot! Could this place be any cuter? I remember a few minutes later being suspicious of a man who said hello without wanting something, before I realized he was just exemplifying the Midwestern charm. We checked out the waterfront patio area designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. While lovely, I still can’t quite understand why it’s designed to have the view of the capitol slightly off center. The OCD in me was not cool with this.
Continuing around the square, we began to hear protesters’ chants heard every so often, eventually coming upon a circle of 50 or so people surrounding a group of men playing drums, trombone, guitar, tambourine, and singing, along with much of the crowd, and encouraging others to grab a song book (yes, they had real song books printed up!) and join in. I was impressed. It appeared numerous people knew the lyrics by heart.
On down State Street we checked out some really cute stores with gifts and knick-knacks and lots of Sconnie pride greeting cards, t-shirts, and gifts. We passed lots of amazing restaurants. Of course, it is a college town so there was the obligatory Jimmy Johns and Pita Pit.
Once we arrived at University of Madison campus, we stopped for lunch at the food trucks, enjoying some live music from what I assume was a student band while we waited for our nasi goreng. We brought our Indonesian food over to the memorial union terrace to savor alongside the lakeside view and a beer. Afterwards we continued wandering around campus for a while, celebrating the lovely weather and vibrant college campus.
For dinner we walked back up to capitol square to check out Graze. While I said before that the best tomato salad I’ve ever had was at Pig in a Fur Coat, the best tomatoes were at Graze. MMM. Can you blame me for ordering so many tomato salads with this kind of success rate? We also enjoyed some fried cheese curds, and Alan tried their legendary burger (too ridiculous to try to describe so I’m copy pasting from the website: fresh ground bacon, sirloin, ribeye & short ribs, caramelized onions, Worcestershire-cabernet jus, Swiss Emmental compound butter, SarVecchio sesame brioche, with fries & aioli). Yeah… it placed in his top burger list. And yes, Alan has his top burgers ranked. Fun Fact: Rachel Ray said this is the best burger in America. The restaurant also had a vast selection of beers on tap AND wines on tap. This will be a new trend I suspect. Pretty neat idea for wines by the glass.
Our second day in Wisconsin we started off with a cup of coffee and a nice chat with our hosts, after which we set out for a jog along the bike path and up to the farmer’s market. The Madison Farmer’s Market is somewhat of a legend, and for good reason. A novice might not know to travel counterclockwise around the square, but it’s quite obvious as the masses practically pull you along. I’ve never seen a farmer’s market quite this crowded. You have to jump in and out of the steady current of market-goers as you find stalls that pique your interest. There are of course the usual items – every kind of pepper, squash, tomato, potato, flowers, apple cider, carrots, plums, and so on – and then are some more obscure items like ground cherry, baby rice popcorn (which, we learned, is tender and hull-less), and anything you could want pickled. In addition, there were bakeries aplenty, including a stand of scones rated from super healthy to semi healthy. It was scone heaven at this market, though surprisingly few raisin or currant varieties. I bought one for later and the vendor told me to stick it in the dashboard to heat it up. Interesting idea! We tried the famous hot and spicy cheese bread from Stella’s bakery (my take: not that spicy, and not that incredible for hot fresh bread that is filled with melty cheese, but this is not to say I didn’t eat a half a loaf by the day’s end). We also picked up some brats and onions for our upcoming tailgate (Packers game, you’ll hear about this in my Chicago post, stay tuned). The brat people had an impressive array of sausage flavors, and we opted for the beer and onion and bacon jalapeno. But the highlight by far, was the cheese curds – guaranteed to squeak! And squeak they did!!! I adored the cheese curds. It’s hard to pin down what makes them so great, but it’s like a bite sized cheese stick that tastes better and has a better texture than the grocery store kinds.
After filling our bellies at the market we said goodbye to our most favorite AirBnB hosts and headed east to Milwaukee for a quick afternoon visit. My college roomie, Emily, is from Milwaukee and we were lucky to have her mom as a guide for the afternoon. We started at their home, getting a little tour, including some awesome baby and teenage year photos of Emily (I’m tempted to share…), as well as checking out her mom’s free library. I had never heard of these before, but what a lovely idea! People build little boxes, or “libraries,” in their yards where people can take a book and return a book for free. You can check it out here: Littlefreelibrary.org.
We drove around next, passing Emily’s high school, the Miller beer plant, a Harley plant, and passed the old Pabst brewery. (P.S. I once saw a greeting card that involved some joke of why you shouldn’t let men take phone messages and displayed a note on the fridge that said “your gyno called. He said you need another Pabst beer.” I always think of that now when I see Pabst). You can see the city is a bit past its prime in these areas where the lifeblood was manufacturing in days past. We stopped by the library and the impressive county courthouse which was a building St. Petersburg-esque in its grandeur and monstrosity.
From there we headed to the river walk where we saw a few weddings at the museum on the lake. Emily’s mom said it costs $20k just to rent the space here – holy! Nice park area where summer fest is held, and folks flying kites, biking, and so on. Passed discovery world and the aquarium where they do fish fry and movies in the summer. Our first sight of fish fry country on the trip.
Lastly, we took Lake Drive up past some stunning mansions in the suburbs just outside of Milwaukee. And then to the place of much anticipation – Kopp’s for frozen custard! Emily’s been telling me about this since college, and this one did not disappoint. They have a few flavors every day, and the specials on the day we were there were Reese’s and Bienenstichkuchen. Despite being awkward to order given my absolute inability to pronounce that flavor, I went with the german almond-y concoction and it was fabulous. In addition to the specials they always have vanilla and chocolate. The burgers there smelled incredible and I wished we had tried them.
Alas, from there it was back to Emily’s to pick Sven up and head off to Chicago for some time with the brah-in-law.