The Boxcar and Schumacher's Grill 212

Restaurants worth the road trip

A Monday night in Prescott, Wisconsin, means that the kid manning the register at Price Rite is apologizing. Without its typical maze of stacked bottles, cans, and cases, the supposed liquor store looks more like an urban loft—it's nearly wiped out of inventory. If we're looking to buy beer, the kid says, we'll have to try the gas station.

Monday night also means that the Boxcar restaurant, just around the corner, is out of both the ribs and the caramel pecan cheesecake, so we settled for country-fried steak and a sweet pint of whiskey-spiked cider. Frankly, I was a little surprised to find the Boxcar open. When I'd called the day before, the phone number listed on the website was disconnected. Must have been quite a weekend.

What a difference 30 miles makes. There I was, breathing secondhand smoke and swigging Spotted Cow, a sweet, yeasty farmhouse ale that I consider one of the best-tasting easy-drinking beers in the country—and one that's nearly impossible to find outside of Wisconsin, since New Glarus Brewing only distributes in its home state. These days, indoor smoking seems as nostalgic as toddlers riding shotgun on a parent's lap or lovers saying their goodbyes at an airport gate. Who knew that crossing the Mississippi could make you feel like you'd traveled to a Third World country?

Scratch cooking sets the Boxcar apart from other beer-and-burger joints
Robert Meyer
Scratch cooking sets the Boxcar apart from other beer-and-burger joints

Location Info

Map

The Boxcar

211 Broad St.
Prescott, MN 54021

Category: Restaurant > Southern

Region: Wisconsin

Details

The Boxcar
211 Broad St., Prescott, Wisconsin
715.262.2026; Web site
appetizers $4-$6; entrées $8-$16

Schumacher's Grill 212
12 W. Main St., New Prague
952.758.2133; Web site
appetizers $6-$14; entrées $15-$20

The Boxcar's radio was tuned to Minnesota's own up-to-the-moment music station, 89.3 the Current, and for good reason: Chef-owner Johnny Solomon's band, Communist Daughter, recently reached the coveted No. 1 spot on the Current's chart show with its melancholy pop hit "Not the Kid." (Diners, too, can bask in their own few seconds of fame while primping in front of a bathroom mirror under the phrase "Boxcar Rock Star.") There will always be musicians waiting tables and slinging hash, but what was a bona-fide indie-rock idol doing owning and operating his own restaurant?

Well, a few years ago, Solomon thought he might leave the Twin Cities and settle in San Diego—instead, he made his way to Prescott and decided to set up a restaurant. The business seems to have been built on similar spontaneity. Nik Anderson, a friend of a Communist Daughter bandmate, says he ended up moving to Prescott after grabbing his backpack and jumping into Solomon's car one night after a show. Now he's the Boxcar's general manager.

The Boxcar was originally located just down the block, but after less than a year Solomon and company decided to move into the former home of the town's fine-dining gem, the late, lamented Confluence. Cozy booths and gambling machines make the space feel casual, but the scratch-cooked food and black linens on the tables set it apart from the typical small-town beer-and-burger joint. "We're not out in the country with the barn door open," Solomon says. Solomon, who originally hails from Kansas City, says he learned to cook from his Southern family and friends, including a Baptist minister's wife who taught him the luxury of buttermilk and bacon fat. The Boxcar is Solomon's first restaurant, which he initially pursued with the idea of "settling down" from his music life. He's now realized his naïveté. "There's nothing settled about the restaurant world," he says. "I was ignorant enough to think I could open my own place, and now I'm too stubborn to quit."

Solomon makes his ribs in a smoker out behind the restaurant with a method he calls "more artistic than scientific," and the result is simply delicious. The meat is tender, yet toothsome enough to make you work to ply it off the bones—inevitably you will strip them clean of every last sinew. Because Solomon divides his time between the kitchen and the stage, using cooking to relieve the stress of playing music and vice versa, he says he's been forced to make his improvisational style more consistent in order to train the other cooks. "I have to explain what's a smidge or a dash," he says.

Solomon's pulled pork is marinated in Guinness, garlic, and rosemary and caramelized a bit on the edges so it falls apart in threads. Like the ribs, it's good enough to eat without sauce, though it'd be a shame to pass up a few squirts of the house-made, Kansas City-style sweet molasses, or the spicy Texas-Oklahoma slather whose secret weapon is a can of Dr. Pepper, or the ruddy liquid that's simply labeled "Hot" but isn't overly so. Slow cooking makes the pork taste fantastic, but the method isn't so responsive to consumer demand. "If we're out of ribs and pulled pork," Solomon says, "there's nothing we can do but wait eight hours."

If that's the case on your visit, you won't be disappointed by the crawdad cakes, crispy little nuggets that when dipped in the soy vinaigrette or spicy mayo could give any decent crab cake a run for its money. The blackened catfish, cooked in a cast-iron skillet, is wonderfully moist and lightly spiced to hold up to a pile of buttery rice.

The fried chicken had tender meat but suffered from the same problem as the country-fried steak: The batter got too thick in some areas and left a layer of raw, floury paste between the crusty exterior and the flesh. My Southern-raised friends said the country-fried steak resembled those that used to show up on their elementary-school lunch trays. I abandoned it for a side of melted greens with thick hunks of bacon and hints of vinegar and sugar.

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