in Monroe, Wisconsin, serves up a Limburger cheese
Wis. — When entering a Mexican-tinged barbecue
restaurant with Wisconsin flair, the only thing to do is
embrace your fear (and if a Mexican-tinged barbecue
restaurant with Wisconsin flair doesn’t scare you, it
upon taking a seat at Pancho & Lefty’s one weekday
afternoon, I ordered the most preposterous thing on the
bright yellow menu: a burrito stuffed with a grilled brat,
beans, cheese, sauerkraut and a house-made spicy cheese
sauce. It was, appropriately, called The Badger. The menu
called it "surprisingly outstanding!" Even more
surprising, I thought, was that such a burrito existed.
one of the handful of Wisconsin craft beers on tap — Ale
Asylum’s fresh, biting Hopalicious pale ale — I leaned
back to take in the sights. Pancho & Lefty’s sports
a cozy, worn-in feel that belies its 4-year-old youth:
deep red walls, dark wood booths, stuffed animal heads on
the walls and the warm glow of Pabst, Schlitz and Hamm’s
signs make the place seem as if it has been there a
generation or two.
waitress discussed how excited she was about an upcoming
Bon Jovi concert. Another shared details of her recent
camping trip. So it’s that kind of place.
The Badger arrived. Even if the plate seemed to weigh
about 14 pounds, the burrito looked innocent enough —
just a bulging flour tortilla with no further frills. But
what I found within those flour walls was a culinary
conquest: salty, tangy, meaty, creamy, hearty, smoky and
gut-busting. It was as gluttonously glorious as glorious
gluttony can be. It was as silly as it was fantastic —
which is probably the point of a Mexican-tinged barbecue
restaurant with Wisconsin flair.
flair, in fact, is strong in the restaurants of tiny
Monroe, which sits 130 miles northwest of Chicago, in the
heart of Wisconsin cheese country.
Monroe dining may not be a destination unto itself, if you’re
driving on the New Glarus-Madison corridor, the food is
certainly worth a stop. So is Monroe itself. Arranged like
many wonderful small Midwestern towns — the old
well-kept brick courthouse, ringed by businesses on all
sides, is the center of the action — Monroe amplifies
its charm with spotless streets, handsome landscaping and
classical music that floats across the central square. Let
your mind drift, and you could be on a theater set.
then there is the food. Monroe’s is a small but mighty
food scene, boasting a legendary "cheese store and
tavern" (Baumgartner’s), fresh breakfast and lunch
(Cafe Claudeen) and one of the largest breweries in the
Midwest (Minhas Craft Brewery), a new spot serving locally
raised beef (Laughing Trout) and Pancho & Lefty’s’
if the burrito weren’t audacious enough, I also tried
Pancho & Lefty’s barbecue. My sampler platter of
brisket, pulled pork and ribs was rich, tender and tangy.
With just a touch of barbecue sweetness, the house-smoked
corned beef was succulently fatty enough to make Jewish
and Irish grandmothers weep in united admiration.
finally hungry again — it took a while — I headed
across the square to Baumgartner’s, which calls itself a
"cheese store and tavern." In its shop upfront,
Baumgartner’s sells about 25 local cheeses, such as
jalepeno havarti and smoked baby Swiss. Then you notice
the sign that says, "Through this portal you can get
the best cheese sandwiches in the world." Big words.
strolled through that portal into the tavern, to find a
long wood bar beneath a mural of Champagne bottles at war
with beer steins. The menu tacked above the bar seemed
intended for an old-school audience, and indeed, half of
it is identical to Baumgartner’s original 1931 menu,
said my server, Justin Laws. Brick, Swiss and cheddar
cheese sandwiches cost $3. Limburger, salami and
braunschweiger sandwiches cost $3.25. All cheese
sandwiches are served room temperature "to bring out
the flavor in the cheese," Laws said.
recent months, Baumgartner’s has introduced more
mainstream Wisconsin fare, with "exotic brats"
every Thursday at lunch. The restaurant offers two or
three per week from a rotation of about 50, including a
"Thai brat" (pork and coconut sausage topped
with a coconut milk and bean sprout slaw) and a
"French onion brat" (pork and Swiss brat with
caramelized onion, Swiss cheese and croutons).
this day, I asked Laws for the most true-to-Monroe cheese
sandwich I could have, and he returned with the Limburger
spread on dark rye and topped with red onion. He suggested
adding mustard, but I couldn’t get that far. The
sandwich smelled like funky toes, which is apparently a
common sentiment. There’s a reason for it: The bacteria
that grow on our feet is the same bacteria used to ferment
despite every instinct that said, "Don’t eat what
smells like stinky feet," I took a small nibble to
discover that, yes, Limburger cheese tastes like it
a hit-or-miss thing," Laws said. "I just had a
5-year-old girl in here eating the heck out of it."
Fortunately, one of the bartenders gladly finished my
sandwich so it would not go to waste. Unfortunately, there’s
a 5-year-old girl somewhere with braver taste buds than
Cheese Store and Tavern (1023 16th Ave., 608-325-6157,
baumgartnercheese.com). As old school as old school gets.
Who wouldn’t be charmed by a self-professed "cheese
store and tavern"?
Claudeen (1014 17th Ave., 608-329-5899, cafeclaudeen.com).
Mostly known for its lunches, but breakfast shines with a
homemade quiche of the day. It has several homemade
pastries and pies.
Trout (407 Sixth St., 608-328-4545, laughingtrout.com).
The menu at this new spot is heavy on fish, but when I
heard the beef came from a farm less than 10 miles away, I
ordered a mushroom-Swiss burger. Sure enough, it was
delicious — fresh, juicy, earthy and almost a little
Craft Brewery (1208 14th Ave., 608-325-3191,
minhasbrewery.com). The beer is mostly lousy, but Minhas
makes many brands, so one might strike you. Otherwise, the
brewery tour gets raves, and the collection of beer
memorabilia in the basement is fascinating.
& Lefty’s (1018 17th Ave., 608-426-6116,
panchoandleftysgrill.com). A stunningly wonderful hybrid
of Mexican food, barbecue and Wisconsin decadence (which
in this case is generally code for cheese).