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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Showboat Saloon brings sanity to Wisconsin Dells
Beer-geek oasis
on
The house-made, cracker-thin-crust Ghost Molly pizza.

To call Wisconsin Dells a sensory assault should neither surprise nor offend anyone. Neon novelty T-shirts, amusement museums and ghost tours aren't the attractions of the subtle tourist destination. I admit I'm far more likely to visit the Dells for a coffee en route to the Twin Cities than I am to hit a waterpark. But eager vacationers and resigned visitors alike stand to be in need of a break sometime, and if you're a fan of craft beer, boy does Showboat Saloon deliver.

Showboat's transformation is relatively new. Even promotional photos on the Dells' website still show a server there pulling a tap handle of Blatz over a plastic pitcher. So it's startling to walk in now, look over the massive tap list, and order an 18% ABV, 120-some IBU Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA.

Lest you think this is solely a hangout for the beer expert, who turns up his nose at the wrong glassware, rest assured: Every single glass of beer comes sliding your way in a frosty, straight-sided shaker pint -- the glass that's easy to handle, cheap to replace, and doesn't do a thing to enhance your beer. It's the common-denominator glass.

So you might order a One Barrel Commuter Kolsch first, and then crank it up to a hoppier Observatory Pale Ale from House of Brews, or a MobCraft Batshit Crazy, a richly coffee-infused brown ale. Maybe you close it out with a juicy PseudoSue from Toppling Goliath, or Demento, one of Ale Asylum's limited tap-only beers. All of them top out at $6 each.

And that's just during prime time. From open to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and all day on Sunday, nearly every beer is $2.50 per pint. (Only the rare taps remain full price, like that 120 Minute or Three Floyds gems like Blackheart and Boom Over Pow.) Basic cheese pizzas are half-price on Tuesdays, too.

Yes, it's easy to get barreled over by the tap list, but the food menu is nothing to sniff at. Showboat's pizzas are made in-house, never frozen. The crust is cracker-crisp and cut into triangles, which I'm sure drives the Chicagoans crazy. Dictate your own toppings from a pretty standard list, or order off the menu. The Backyard BBQ is smothered by meats, though not by the house-made barbecue sauce. It's surprisingly delicate, actually.

The menu describes Showboat's hamburger as the eleventh-best in town, and that's fair. It's a burger, all right, probably pre-pattied, lacking in big flavor. The BLT, on the other hand, is described: "Duh." While the sandwich as delivered is totally un-tweaked -- no goat cheese, caramelized onions, green goddess dressing -- it will nevertheless utterly satisfy a summertime BLT craving.

I'm less than crazy about the Lobster Claw, a grab-machine-turned-aquarium that will, for $2, give you a chance to grab a live lobster. Winners get dinner; yes, Showboat will cook your lobster. Losers have fruitlessly taunted a living creature.

A steak sandwich looked like it was cooked right, but resisted all but the angriest attempts at chewing. The Italian beef is massive, swathed in bubbly mozzarella and almost too messy to eat with hands -- almost. (I'm nothing if not determined.) Fries are standard-issue, but the onion rings are crunchy and ideally salty.

Nine dollars for an order of bar nachos might seem steep, but there are a few things you need to know. It's huge. It has a perfect ratio of topping to chip. And lastly: honest-to-god nacho cheese. Shredded cheddar is fine for some things, but gooey nacho cheese is called nacho cheese because that's where it belongs, darn it.

Showboat Saloon's service at the main bar is goofy but warm and the clientele is eclectic -- tourist, local and beer explorer in equal measure. If you're vacationing in the Dells and have had your fill of waterslides or need a break from choosing between four different "Pug Life" T-shirts, Showboat is located in the heart of the action. And if you're in the Dells area for a camping trip, business conference or family reunion that you absolutely must escape, Showboat Saloon is your sweet, sweet respite.

Showboat Saloon

24 Broadway, Wisconsin Dells

608-253-2628; showboatsaloon.com

11 am-2 am Sun.-Thurs., 11 am-2:30 am Fri.-Sat.; $4-$21

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