Ocho Rios on the Hudson

San Pedro Cafe
426 Second St., Hudson, Wisconsin; (715) 386-4003
www.sanpedrocafe.com
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and Friday; 8:00 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Thursday

 

Sometimes I lie abed at night, wondering: How do Caribbean hotel-hoppers sense impending madness? I know how snowbound Minneapolitans learn it. You turn down a local alley and, seeing neighbors' trashcans brightly festooned with bright orange tags, feel a sharp smile of cruel glee curling your mouth.

Now, if you don't know already, those orange tags are bald-faced threats delivered by the local garbage-carters, threats that if you don't shovel out your garbage cans posthaste they'll shovel them out for you, at $25 per, you lazy good-for-nothing snow-ignorer, and do you think that ice ridge around the cans is going to hack itself to bits? And if that's what you think, missy, you've got another think coming--and that goes for whatever mountains the plow makes, too. And quit lying around in bed wondering about Caribbean hotel-hoppers!

What to do when cabin fever strikes so forcibly--and so early--in the winter? Well, one option is to make for Hudson, Wisconsin, and the San Pedro Cafe, and spend a few hours dining like a real Caribbean hotel-hopper, sipping mango daiquiris ($4.50) and gobbling platefuls of ceviche and jerk chicken until ice-dams begin to sound like something that only happens in fairy tales.

Now, I'd never been to Hudson before. I'd always figured it was just that neon stretch of Interstate 94 boasting truck stops and fast food. Wrong. In fact, Hudson is a classic little river town with quaint 19th-century streets following the path of the St. Croix, a riverside park full of ducks who do the cutest things if you fling bread at them, and a main drag filled with coffee shops, antique stores, and lighting shops. (Inland a bit is a stately residential district boasting grand old 19th-century houses, perfect for the taking of whirlpools and eating of muffins; many are bed-and-breakfasts.) Hudson is also a quick, straight shot from the metro area: It's right off I-94, about 24 miles from where the freeway crosses the Mississippi here in town. Which is to say, you can probably get there from your place in less than half an hour.

Right in the heart of Hudson sits the San Pedro Cafe, which opened ten months ago. In summer a large patio offers airier dining, but in winter the space is a miracle of doing more with less. Look carefully and you'll see the modest amount of seating is amplified by smart positioning of tables at different heights and by inserting counters where floor space would be otherwise lost. Sit at the bar facing the jam-packed, teensy-weensy open kitchen, and you're likely to question the basic principles of physics. If matter can be neither created nor destroyed, how does chef Christopher Ray feed hundreds from a kitchen with as much floor space as a canoe?

That the kitchen feeds these hundreds well is a stirring testament to the triumph of the human spirit--or maybe a refutation of gravity. Anyhoo, the place makes good use of its biggest element, a vast hardwood-fired brick oven. Many of the best items come from its smoky heart. Like the very, very thin-crust pizzas, which are available every which way. I tried one with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and fresh-cut basil ($8.50), and it was everything it should have been; the mozzarella was pleasantly fresh and briny, if distributed a bit thickly for my taste. (But who can blame them? Everybody knows about that one guy who got ten years' hard time for skimping on cheese in Wisconsin.) Other appetizers, such as bruschetta and an artichoke dip, benefit from the smoke of the oven too.

The very best thing I had was a veal-chop dinner special ($17.95). For this, a rack of veal was spiced with mustard and smoked with hardwoods, then cut into chops and sizzled to temperature on a cast-iron grill, a treatment that resulted in a beautifully subtle, smoky, unforgettable piece of meat. Dinner specials are available on Fridays and Saturdays at 5:00 p.m., and I recommend bee-lining for them. Another I tried was equally lovely: a fillet of grouper ($16.95) partially split down the center, one half curled around a crab filling, the other left alone, the whole thing roasted in the oven until the edges were crisp and chewy. The dish was graced with a cream sauce laden with tender slices of shiitake mushroom, and presented with buttery mashed potatoes and a handful of vegetables made savory by residence in the wood oven. Marvelous.

From the everyday menu, "Shrimp St. Croix" ($15.95) is quite nice. The shrimp are sautéed with garlic and served on linguine generously plied with a buttery lemon-lime sauce--an inspired version of scampi, unlikely as it sounds. Desserts, too, are impressive. Key lime pie ($4.95) was some of the best I've had in the region, and the individual warm chocolate cakes are so dizzyingly fragrant a dozen heads turned each time one left the kitchen.

I tried a whole range of other things but didn't find any more diamonds. In fact, much of the rest of the menu reminded me of nothing so much as actual resort-hotel food: accented with the flavor of a place, but mostly just pleasant and friendly. An appetizer of jerk chicken with pineapple-mango salsa ($4.95) was sweet, lacked any heat, and seemed, of all things, buttery. The shrimp in the shrimp cocktail ($7.95) were bland and wet, lacking the briny resilience of the best shrimp. Although the mango-horseradish cocktail sauce was nice, it reminded me, oddly, of everything I like about marmalade. Ceviche ($4.95) was likewise featureless, tasting more like unseasoned seafood salad than ceviche, and crab cakes were both bursting with crab and mild as mild could be. Yucatan pork stew ($10.95) was hot and oniony, but it lacked complexity. The best thing about the plate was the beans in the rice and beans that accompanied it, plump pintos laced with onions, chiles, tomatoes, and cilantro. If half the beans around here were half this good, we'd be one happy greater metropolitan area.

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