Summer is not over! Tune out those who say so, leave your picnic basket at home and start lickin' your lips. Here are three suggestions for casual culinary day trips, perfect destinations for these lingering warm days. Depending on where in town you're starting from, these drives should take no longer than an hour or two.
From chocolate malts and banana splits to Limburger cheese sandwiches, Belgian fries and microbrewery beer, there are treats in this list to motivate everyone. Go to mapquest.com to get directions, then turn the radio on and buckle up your appetite. We're going on a road trip.
Ferch's Malt Shoppe & Grille
5636 Broad St., Greendale
Swiveling on a red and chrome stool at the counter of Ferch's Malt Shoppe & Grille in Greendale, I was mesmerized by the rainbow of flavored elixirs in glass cruets, and the glass ice cream parfait dishes reflecting in the mirror behind the soda fountain. Just a little over an hour from the east side of Madison in Waukesha County, Greendale is one of three "Greenbelt Communities" built during the Great Depression under the New Deal. It was a planned community that provided jobs and reasonably priced housing. Interesting concept.
But we're not thinking about that now. We're thinking about malts made with fresh custard. Ferch's - a '50s-style diner owned by Jeff and Betty Ferchoff - boasts of offering over one million flavors. That's right! Freshly made custard is customized to your liking with an endless selection of flavors and mix-ins.
Here's how it works. First, you plug the jukebox. Then choose a serving size: single, double or triple. Then you choose the medium - dish, waffle or cake cone - and finally your flavor or mix-ins, or both. Working right in front of you on frozen slabs of marble, servers slap on custard and work the toppings in with a paddle.
But what about the malts, sundaes, phosphates, floats and ice cream sodas, you ask. They're all there too, in royal nostalgic glory. Just ask my flashback boyfriend, who ordered a Green River soda and a chocolate Coke while we were there, and then a Blue Moon sundae to go.
What's popular? According to manager Theresa Schwickert, chocolate malts are so far out in first place that the runner-up flavor, mint, is almost an afterthought. She said they also sell a lot of cherry-vanilla Cokes and butter pecan custard, as well as a sundae made with green apple extract, hot caramel syrup and chopped peanuts. Reminiscent of a caramel apple, this creation is constantly in demand.
If you must round off your dessert with a meal, Ferch's offers sandwiches, wraps and dogs - and salads, in a slight nod toward health. The burgers all are made with Black Angus beef, and other menu highlights include cheese steaks, patty melts, tuna melts and a selection of quarter-pound all-beef hot dogs. French fries are extra but worth it, says Schwickert: "They're crinkle cut and sprinkled with a really good seasoning salt, and our garlic fries have little pieces of real garlic on them."
But mainly, Ferch's is a safe space for acting like a kid again. So c'mon: Order some Blue Moon, and let's see that blue tongue.
Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern
1023 16th Ave., Monroe
The first thing you see when you walk into Baumgartner's is a sign that reads, "Through this portal are the best cheese sandwiches in the world." No small claim. Located in Green County, 40 minutes from the west side of Madison, this 1931 Swiss tavern and cheese store features some of the best cheeses Wisconsin has, a lot of them from right there in Green County.
Former employees and current owners, brothers Chris and Tyler Soukup purchased Baumgartner's in May 2005. "We're casual, fun, very laid-back and suitable for all ages," says Chris. "Everybody gets treated like it's home, unless they come from a bad home, and then it's only kinda like home."
The fare is simple, consisting of cheese and deli sandwiches, soup and chili. On your cheese sandwich you can have brick, Swiss or cheddar cheese, as well as the pure, unadulterated essence of Baumgartner's: Limburger. Says Chris, "The Limburger sandwich is what we sell the most of. It's what we're known for, 'cause it's the stinky cheese." Don't bother asking for lettuce and tomato, as I did when I ordered my Limburger sandwich. They don't have lettuce and tomato. And guess what? The sandwich didn't need them. Served only with a slice of onion on soft dark rye, it was absolutely delicious.
Baumgartner's Limburger comes from Monroe master cheesemaker Myron Olson, who owns Chalet Cheese, the only cheese factory in the United States still producing Limburger. Other sandwiches include roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, turkey, ham and braunschweiger, each served on light rye.
Oh: If you don't like rye bread, get over it. That's all they have.
After the Limburger sandwich, the most popular meal is a bowl of chili and a brick cheese sandwich. The Soukups claim their sweet and chunky, three-bean, three-meat chili is the world's second best. Why only second best? Because, they say, Mom makes the best.
Some nights feature special dishes, among them summer Sundays, when the Soukups fire up the grill outside for burgers, and Wednesday evenings throughout the year, when there are delicious baby back ribs.
Limburger, chili, ribs...hmm, this calls for beer. Offering a full bar with cheap drinks, Baumgartner's also proudly sells taps of local beer, and only local beer. In Monroe, local means, of course, the Joseph Huber Brewery.
All over Baumgartner's are clever signs. Think of them as entertainment. "Unattended children will be given a shot and a free puppy," one says. "Good food takes time to prepare, yours will be ready in a minute," reads another. And this one sums up the comfort Baumgartner's has been bestowing since 1931: "In a world that always changes, isn't it nice that one place stays the same?"
The Brewery Creek Inn
23 Commerce St., Mineral Point
In June 1998, in the artsy community of Mineral Point, Deborah and Jeff Donaghue took an empty stone shell, turned it into a brewery, restaurant and inn and christened it the Brewery Creek Inn.
"We built a good-size brewery here, and started out thinking we were going to be beer distributors," says Deborah. "But from day one, the food took over. So we just never had time to do what we thought we were going to do." Here's a sign of quality: Madison restaurateur Tami Lax (Harvest, the Old Fashioned) helped create the original menu. From there, the Donaghues just added on.
Their philosophy is simple. "You get the best ingredients you can, and do good cooking with it," says Deborah. "My husband is a vegetarian of 26 years, so we have a lot of vegetarian food on the menu." A far cry from Limburger on rye, Brewery Creek's sandwiches include mango chicken, crispy cod and pesto portabella, as well as walnut burgers and the Brewery Burger. The latter features hormone-free Angus beef, Colby cheese and aioli, among other things; Wisconsin Trails declared it divine.
At night steaks are popular, including a bourbon steak draped in a sauce of reduced bourbon whiskey and shallots. And then there are the side dishes. First: Belgian fries, fried twice the traditional way, and sprinkled with kosher salt. Second: the baked corn soufflé, made with creamed corn, butter and eggs. Choosing between them is a horrible dilemma. I'd get both, if I were you.
Rounding out the menu is a selection of entrée salads, some topped with salmon, some with chicken; salmon entrées; and pasta dishes.
And let us not forget the beverages! This is a brewery, after all, and brewmaster Jeff Donaghue always has three or four on hand. (Recent selections: golden ale, amber, stout.) Also on tap are the brewery's root beer and shandy, the British summer drink that is made up of equal parts lemonade and ale.
The structure housing the Brewery Creek Inn was built in 1854, as a warehouse for the Mineral Point Railroad. Says Deborah, "The atmosphere here is really intimate and unparalleled, with exposed limestone walls, large windows, hand-hewn timbers, mismatched tables and a really big bar."
Brewery Creek is 45 minutes from the west side of Madison. If you go, make sure they're open before you make the trek. Through October, they are closed Monday, and to accommodate their overnight guests, the kitchen takes last orders at 8 p.m. weeknights, 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.
Check out the events section on Brewery Creek's Web site, and piggyback a visit to a Mineral Point art gallery or two.
And don't forget to order both side dishes.