Less than a year after "gastro-cantina" King and Mane opened - and subsequently closed - Michael Banas, Patrick O'Halloran and Sue Kirton are trying again in the same King Street space with the Tipsy Cow pub. King and Mane was praised for luxurious tapas and knocked for inconsistency. Tipsy Cow, well, tips the other direction. Whether diners will see that as a good or a bad thing is the question.
What has taken the place of albondigas, lamb barbacoa and tortas is the type of food you can find in any Wisconsin bar or bowling alley, done a notch higher with ingredients from high-quality local purveyors. Usinger's kielbasa is piled high with sauerkraut; Knoche's Market beef patties grace the burgers. Widmer's cheese, Nueske's bacon and Clasen's breads also figure prominently, as does Spotted Cow beer batter on fries, cheese curds and fish.
Given the change in culinary focus, the Tipsy Cow team has repurposed a surprisingly large section of King and Mane's menu. The tomato soup is the same: intensely rich, a little sweet, only this time it has cheese curds on top instead of a Chihuahua cheese crouton. The Sonoran hot dog has shed its poncho for a dollop of spicy pink coleslaw. Blue-cheese-stuffed figs have been swapped for fries with blue cheese dressing. The Marcona almonds with sea salt and rosemary are gone; the Marcona almond and chocolate chip cookie survives. I wish they'd held over the nachos. I know the menu's Wisconsin-themed, but I feel like nachos have been wholeheartedly adopted.
"Fried" is a big thing here - it's Wisconsin pub food, after all. You'll have to navigate the menu carefully to avoid fried stuff, if that's your thing. Be careful even if you aren't avoiding, lest you eat yourself into a state of temporary immobility. The healthy appetizer is homemade pickles, a little sweet with a nice crunch. It all goes nutritionally downhill from there, although the delectable cheese curds, onion rings the size of Farmers' Market doughnuts, fried string cheese, and buffalo wings are perfect with one of a nice selection of craft beers on tap.
There are also several types of fries, chili cheese and truffle among them. Even the plain beer-battered fries are decadent, with a craggy, golden outer layer. On Mondays, all fries are half price, so for only a buck you can get enough to share.
Tipsy Cow's burgers are solid and can be ordered In and Out-style with one or more patties. The Tipsy burger, the gilded lily of the bunch, is a behemoth, with two quarter-pound patties, two kinds of cheese, bacon, tipsy sauce (that's a mellow chipotle mayo to you) and pickles. I liked the 1x1 cheeseburger, a simple affair. It didn't need any additions to be delicious, but I like fried onions, so I went there.
The sandwiches stay within the realm of the usual: grilled cheese, grilled ham and cheese, grilled or crispy chicken, turkey and burgers. Touches like truffle oil and Roth Kase gruyere on the portabella sandwich, and a Yuppie Hill egg on the Cobb salad, serve as reminders that you are not in a backwater bowling alley, and better for it.
Specials include a guacamole burger - again, my thought was that plain was better, although my companion appreciated the chunky homemade guac - and the Friday fish fry. The three pieces of fish, not enough for heartier eaters, had a pleasant light batter and two good dipping sauces, but the fish was mushy, not meaty, nearly falling apart at a touch.
The outlier corner of the menu is certainly the soups and salads, of which there are two each: the aforementioned tomato soup and a triple-meat, triple-bean chili; and Cobb or house salads. I tried the house, a soggy affair that the crunch of iceberg couldn't save.
Desserts are also familiar. Just as at King and Mane, it's a cookie, a few choices of ice cream, and a brownie sundae, this time without the notes of cinnamon and cayenne. Too bad. You can also get a Black Cow (a float made with chocolate ice cream and cream soda) or a root beer float.
So Tipsy Cow, while new, isn't new. But I still think that it may be the success that King and Mane was not. Tipsy's menu is accessible to more people, including those who attempt dinner at the Old Fashioned and find themselves overwhelmed by the noise or the 45-minute wait for a table. Plus, Tipsy Cow hits a lower price point. And finally, crucially, this restaurant now makes sense. King and Mane was all over the place - the elegant interior that felt lonely and dark, the menu that, while intriguing, seemed at times to have an identity crisis. The Tipsy Cow is inviting and surefooted in a way that King and Mane never was, and that alone may be enough to keep this Cow on the concourse for good.