Bison Jack's is a new Middleton restaurant that uses bison meat in a food in which Americans usually find beef or pork: sausages. It's as much a nutritional choice to use bison as it is a culinary one. The USDA clocks bison at almost one-third the calories of beef, and about 8% of the fat content.
But in the world of hot dogs, less is not always more. Full-fat hot dogs always satisfy my hankering more than the "healthy" varieties, though the idea that the food you're eating is healthy can certainly increase your enjoyment of it. For those concerned about nitrates, Bison Jack's does not cure its sausages, and bison's flavor is milder, with less stick-to-your-tongue fattiness.
Good-for-you should still, however, be tasty; virtue can't make up for deficiencies. This is also true for toppings, a big deal at Bison Jack's. Take the Texas, from the specialty dog menu. A smoked bison dog comes topped with bison chili, onions, fresh jalapeños and cheese. The warmth of the decent chili dissipates quickly, and the cheese has no time to melt. About 15 seconds under the broiler would do this dog a world of good. And I'd de-seed those jalapeños, unless their raw green heat is meant to overpower the mild chili.
The Reuben uses the same smoked dog to fill the role of pastrami, with pleasant results. It's best not to think about the smoked meat that you're missing, and instead appreciate the flavor and snappy skin of the sausage on its own merits. The sauerkraut is zingy, and the roll (renamed "PumperJack" after questions were raised over the sensitivity of the original, "dark squaw") is up to the challenge.
No hot dog eatery can avoid the albatross around its neck that is the Chicago-style dog. It is a burden not every kitchen can bear. Bison Jack's version is not a hip reconstruction of a Chicago dog; it's just a bad construction of one. Drowning in relish (at least it's the right kind!), no onions, and topped with ketchup? The overwhelmed bison dog gives its all in a losing battle here. This should be particularly galling to Bison Jack's, whose ownership also has a stake in a little baseball organization on the north side of Chicago - the Cubs, perhaps you've heard of them.
Other elements of Bison Jack's are encouraging. Its bison herd is raised via responsible husbandry, including DNA testing to ensure genetic diversity; the processing plant and the restaurant are jointly owned. There is a gluten-free menu. If you don't like the menu's combos, build your own dog from the add-on menu. For most of the numerous hot and cold topping options, there is no additional charge; only chili, coleslaw, cheese sauce and guacamole cost more. A honey wheat roll filled with roasted peppers, chopped onions and green goddess dressing over a fantastic asiago/wild rice sausage is a modest $6.
The one-third-pound bison burger is flavorful and by no means dry. Lean ground bison is a tough patty to cook. It can easily cruise well past medium, so it's no small accomplishment that Bison Jack's pulls it off.
Sides include a rich, satisfying potato salad; a crisp but bland coleslaw; and baked sweet potato tots that can - and should--be tossed in melted butter and brown sugar. (I'm envisioning a Thanksgiving dog topped with those tots, plus a little marshmallow fluff, toasted under the broiler.) There's even wine on offer, with table placards listing ideal sausage/vino pairings. I didn't sample the limited breakfast options, but management indicates that an expanded morning menu is forthcoming, along with additional menu items for the rest of the day's dining.
There are still some rough edges to the operation. Line staff don't seem to have the "food gloves come off when you handle money" thing entirely down pat, and service - though friendly and earnest throughout the day - was a little clunky after 5 p.m.
But there are real gems here, like that nutty, savory wild rice sausage and a juicy Italian sausage redolent of fennel. Not everything works inside those football-shaped rolls, but with the option to build your own at Bison Jack's, you have free rein to try what you want.