Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Target Bluff

Let's face it; when it comes to dining along any interstate highway, there just ain't much for choices if you want a good meal.  Between Chicago and Minneapolis, I can only think of two.  One is the Norske Nook in Osseo.  But that's not exactly on the interstate.  The other is the Target Bluff German Hous in Camp Douglas. (  And I'll tell you what, the Target Bluff is, to me, everything a "supper club" should be.  The bar is staffed with professional bartenders who know how to mix drinks and carry on a pleasant conversation.  The food is prepared the same way it was forty years ago, from scratch with love.

Camp Douglas isn't a very large town, only about 600.  When I have driven through it, it's a pleasant-looking town, though it's looking as run-down as many small towns are these days.  But I am thinking now that I will have to check it out some time.  There are a few bars there, and of course they will be needing a visit.

Target Bluff isn't in town though.  It's at the foot of a huge bluff just off the interstate, in a strip along Highway 12/I-90/94 that is lined with a couple of gas stations and a hotel.  I had gone there long ago, back in the seventies and I recall being struck at how good the food was, even in an age when McDonalds and Hardee's were taking over the scene.  But then I moved away to a different life, and for many years the only time I saw Target Bluff was in passing along the interstate.

Then last fall my friend, J, called up and told me that we had to go there.  "We have to go this week.  They're having smorgasbord!"  And I don't know about you, but the thought of "smorgasbord" always conjures up the taste of instant mashed potatoes and dried-up meat and canned gravy all set out in a hot table for hours on end.  I was skeptical.  But J insisted that it was good, and some of his relatives were coming along.  They were always a good time, so I decided that they would all make the ride worthwhile even if the food was bad.

We got there early, as was the plan, solely to hang out at the bar for a while.  "You can't do the supper club thing without sitting at the bar first," J's niece told me.  When we walked in, we were greeted by festive German music.  I recognized it right away as the "Pennsylvania Polka".  If you've ever seen "Groundhog Day", you'd know the tune.  I was feeling better about this already.  (Oh, I hope I have the name of that polka right!)

The bar area was quiet, but the two bartenders looked as if they were expecting and ready for a crowd.  There were six of us, and we lined up along the bar and ordered.  I decided that I wanted an Old Fashioned.  And really, in so many places if you ask for an Old Fashioned, you'll see the bartender pull out a bottle of mix and a bottle of brandy and serve it up.  But not here!  The bartender--who the women in our group called,"Raoul" for no reason I could think of--asked me what brandy I wanted, and then recommended a good one.  Then he mixed the drink right there, with sugar and spices and a cinnamon stick and some garnish.  It was a work of art that he had ready in seconds, and it tasted at least as good as it looked.

The "Pennsylvania Polka" ended, and a waltz came on.  We all sat back with our drinks while people started filling up the large open dining room.  I could see waitstaff moving quickly and efficiently around in there, and the hot tables were all set up and steaming.  One table after another got up to join the line of diners filling their plates.  We all sat and finished our drinks, then ordered more.  At one end of the bar, two old couples sat down with their shots of brandy and glasses of St. Pauli girl.  I realized that they were speaking in German to each other, though they looked like retired local farmers.  They are a breed that I was familiar with when I was growing up, the men and women who had worked without electricity or indoor plumbing, who had raised and butchered their own meat, grown their own food.  They have a look about them that's unlike anything you see today, a hard but friendly look.  I hate to generalize about any group, even if it's a family of brawlers--and there are some of them that I have known--or even people who go into business or advertizing.  I'm sure there are good and bad in any of them, and they're not all alike.  But there is a generation, one that's disappearing here, of people who grew up and made a living, and even retired, on a hundred acres of land.  I've known many of them.  And they value hard physical work, and family, and neighbors.  They put their names on their mailboxes so people could find them if they had to.  They shared labor at harvest time, they helped one another in bad times.  My own father was one of those people.  I found that out a few years ago when I ran into a neighbor in town who told of my father coming over to help him with chores after his wife had died.  I never knew about this, I was too young.  But that meant that my father would have had to milk his own cows and take care of them, and then drive over there, morning and night, for as long as he felt necessary.  Forty years later, this man remembered what I had never known.

Where was I?  Yes, at the bar.  We had a couple of drinks, and visited, then finally told Raul that we were ready for a table.  One opened up in a few minutes.  We took our drinks in and then went to the food.  And I'll say right now that this was no banquet for a vegetarian.  Everything here was meat-centric.  There were trays of cabbage rolls (cabbage leaves rolled around meat and veggies) and meat rolls (thin-sliced meat wrapped around vegetables).  There was saurbraten, bratwurst, pork hocks.  There were mashed potatoes, and German potato salad.  And the food was prepared there, not out of a box.  The potatoes were fresh, as were the meat.  This was all basic German food, nothing fancy, but not really simple either, not to be this good.  It took time to slice the meats for the meat rolls, time to stuff the cabbage leaves, to mash the potatoes.  It was worth the trip (and I was so glad that we had a designated driver!) to be able to get food this good, and service this good, and an atmosphere that was just happy all around.  I don't think it was just the time at the bar that made me feel this way.

I seldom order the buffet.  I never eat enough to make it worthwhile.  But this time I went back for seconds.  The waitress kept our drinks full, kept the water glasses full, and stayed really cheerful.  I don't know how they do that, but I admire that ability.  We all decided at once that we were full, and retired once more to the bar.  Raoul was still smoothly serving up drinks.  A group of military kids from Camp Williams/ Volk Field, which is just across the interstate, filled a table.  They were mostly drinking light beers, as far as I could see.  It seemed like such a waste, with the good German beers that were stocked here.  But there ya go.  We sat and relaxed with another cocktail while our designated driver looked a little annoyed/amused at the womenfolk who were getting kind of loud now.  He was in for a fun ride home.  I planned on napping the whole way.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Joe's Bar

I'm going to start out with a reminiscence.  What the heck, I have to start somewhere.  And the thing is that for me, Joe's Bar was the epitome of a Wisconsin tavern.  Or any other state's tavern, for that matter.
The Joe's Bar I'm talking about was in Union Center, Wisconsin, on a quiet back street just across from the railroad tracks.  Joe owned it all through the sixties and seventies.  He was there every day, as far as I know.  I seldom went in there when he wasn't there.  He was a skinny dark-haired guy who always had an unlit cigar in his mouth, chewing it all the way down to a stub, spitting the flecks of tobacco into the garbage while he worked behind the bar.  He was energetic, and made sure he knew everyone who stopped in more than once.  People like me would drive for miles just to stop on that quiet back street for a cold beer and some dinner.

Joe made his french fries from fresh potatoes.  He had a french fry slicer mounted over beside his grill, and whenever he had a free moment he'd run some potatoes through it, and they would fall into a bucket he kept on the floor.  When he had enough potatoes in it, he'd cover it with water and put the bucket into the cooler for later.  When I think back on it, Joe's wasn't unique for slicing his own fries.  Other bars in the area did it too.  But I think he stuck with it long after many of them went to the frozen ones.  There is nothing to compare today, except in some of the more upscale taverns in the larger cities.  It's funny how something that used to be so commonplace is now a delicacy.

Joe also had his meat cut from a local market.  And once again, perhaps everyone did.  Joe's is the one I remember.  If you went in asking for steak and taters, you got a nice t-bone and a pile of fried potatoes, with or without onions, all of it fresh and good.  It was a mighty fine meal at the end of a working day.

Joe wasn't just a tavern owner.  He was a host and an entertainer.  He knew jokes and stories, he had a little dancing puppet that bounced on a board whenever the jukebox played "Happy Birthday".
But then the bar changed hands sometime in the eighties.  And then the bar owners opened up down by the highway instead, and it changed hands yet again.  And as the owners changed, so did the food.  Now instead of steaks from the grocery up the road, they get pre-packaged and somewhat tasteless and mealy slabs of some cheap cuts.  The fries come frozen in a bag, and the potatoes come in a bag sloshing with some brine that keeps them from browning.  It's kind of sad fare compared to Joe's.  The bar is dreary, and so is the food, and anyone who believes otherwise is pretending.

So in starting this blog, I'm going to check out other taverns and restaurants, maybe even a supper club or two, to see how they measure up with what I think is good honest food.  I'm sure there are some out there.  I hear rumors all the time, from friends and acquaintances, of places to check out and places to avoid.  We'll see what happens.

And me?  Well, I'll keep that to myself for now.  Today I painted interior trim for most of the day.  It was a Fine Day for it.  But at the end of the day as I was cleaning up, I heard water hissing from somewhere.  I asked the owner about this.  She didn't know what to make of it, but asked if I could look at it.  I didn't want to, really.  I know this house, and most of the plumbing runs through a crawlspace that's only about a foot or so high.  But it's my job, it pays the bills.  Sometimes.  I went into the cellar, and looked into the access hole.  And way back there in one corner, through a slurry of mud, was a fitting for some old-style plastic tubing that had been popular back in the eighties, but since outlawed.  Or just discontinued.  *sigh*.  I didn't have much choice at this point, not after seeing this.  I climbed up through the hole and pulled myself along on my belly.  The cold mud soaked immediately through my couple of layers of clothing.  It was nasty and dirty and smelled of small dead animals and insects.  I finally reached the fitting and was able, after a while, to tighten it up enough so it only dripped.  One can only hand-tighten those old fittings, and that's what I did.

There was no way to turn around.  All I could do was back out, while my shirt slid up, up.  By the time I got out, there was mud on my belly and in my pants.  It was cold and oozing.  I went back up to tell her it was fixed for now.  I'm not sure she realized what I had just gone through in those ten minutes.  But on the plus side, she wants me to re-plumb that section.  Anything for a buck.