Bar Eats: Explore the Wilds of Wisconsin at Will's Northwoods Inn

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[Photograph: Josh Conley]

Will's Northwoods Inn calls itself a lot of things. The front door self-applies the titles "biergarten," "supper club," and "tavern," and they're all true. The place is a huge mish-mash of sorts, from the working aquarium in the front window to the assorted taxidermy adorning the walls to, yes, a life-sized fake moose outside. But it's all tied together with the thematic twine of "a little bit of God's country in the heart of south Lakeview."

Better known for heartiness over refinement, Wisconsin cuisine evokes images of summer sausage, curds, brats, and other beer soaker-uppers. Probably fried, with butter on top. Not exactly on the health plan, this is stuff to warm you through iced-in winters and extended tailgating sessions. No pretenses, no fancy pants required here; stop in and become an honorary Wisconsian. Wisconsinite? Whatever, a cheesehead.

Like fried Twinkies or fried Snickers bars, the fried cheese curds ($7.25) are totally unnecessary, wholly gluttonous, yet somehow irresistible. A crunchy shell from the beer batter ensures that no curds are mangled in the cooking process, though they do come out sans that tell-tale squeak. They are dangerously easy to put away en masse, and they are served with a good housemade buttermilk ranch, just in case your pants aren't tight enough.

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The walleye pike bites ($8) have a very different batter, thanks to the Leine's Honey Weiss added in. They are light, airy, even delicate, but the hand-cut nuggets inside have good texture and a mild, buttery taste. These are not your school cafeteria fish nuggets and come served with lemon and tartar sauce.

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The moose knuckles ($8.50) are short ribs served on a bed of fries. They are nice and meaty, and pull right off the bone, but are missing some depth of flavor. As a barbecue fan, I could have gone for some permeating smoke on them, because the flavorless sauce does them no favors. I kept trying it, thinking I was missing something, but there was nothing to miss. The skin-on fries are well-salted and crisp.

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Pickled herring ($5) is not something you see on too many bar menus. This herring leans to the sweeter end of the spectrum, with big allspice and coriander flavors. The fish has a great, firm texture, but some sauce of some sort could really have helped balance the sweetness.

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If you dislike carbs for some reason, then the stuffed tomato salad ($6.50) is for you. It is quite literally a tomato split open then absolutely piled high with tuna salad, served on lettuce. The tuna salad is solid, if a bit non-committal—not too creamy, not too salty. But it tastes like your best friend's mom made it this morning, and it is fortified with hefty crunch from some chunky red onion and celery, plus the tomato is nice and juicy.

Food-wise, Will's is mostly what you expect—simple, homey, belt-busting fare. Luckily, you can work off some of the calories playing pool or darts, or taking a seat in their weekly cribbage tournament. They also host events like Packerpalooza and Musky Fest.

Much like the Bourbon Street flavor of Maple Street Inn or the ode to England that is Red Lion Lincoln Square, Will's is clearly a labor of love—a cluttered homage to canoes, beer, the Packers, and everything else Wisconsin. And I say lay your passion out, and I'll not only forgive the kitsch, but revel in it.

Will's Northwoods Inn

3030 North Racine Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657 (map)
773-528-4400
willsnorthwoodsinn.shutterfly.com

Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.

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