Ocho Rios on the Hudson
426 Second St., Hudson, Wisconsin; (715) 386-4003
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.
Are these beans the reason people are moving en masse to Hudson, making the town one of Wisconsin's fastest-growing communities? (At least, that's what one of the brochures I picked up said.) Well, I guess it's no wonder, being such an afternoon-vacation powerhouse. (Got a liver that doesn't know the meaning of the word fear? Then get this: Dibbo's bar, down the street, offers three-for-one drink specials!) I'm calling the San Pedro my little Bermuda in Packer-land, and I say it's only a matter of time until some enterprising Caribbean hotelier takes notice. I bet we'll all soon be seeing white-sand beaches dotted with some down-home answers to "Shrimp St. Croix." Who's ready for cheese curds St. Kits?
Q: You've identified Quang as the best Vietnamese restaurant in Minneapolis. But when I ate there, I found only two vegetarian entrées on the menu, both of which were pretty much the same thing. Do you have a favorite veggie-friendly Vietnamese restaurant in town? Thanks!
--Paul C. (Feel free to make up cutesy Meatless in Minneapolis-type name if that's more appropriate.)
A: Paul, you're a genius! Why didn't I think of that? Meatless in Minneapolis? Liver-lacking in Lake Country? Eel-Eschewing in Eagan? I never even thought of making up funny names, but I've got a thesaurus and a lot of time on my hands. Whoopee!
Actually, there is a Vietnamese restaurant I like to take vegetarians (and kids) to. It's the Phuong Café, in the basement of the old VFW hall at 2424 Nicollet Ave. S. in Minneapolis; (612) 874-7560. Vegetarians like it because of the dozen vegetable-laden soups. Kids like it because it's a carpeted, paneled basement with TVs blaring in the corner. If they put a mom at the top of the stairs screaming that the garbage isn't going to take itself out, they could double the prices and call it a theme restaurant. Of course, as with most Southeast Asian food, I'd always assume that if your food is made by immigrants who aren't versed in the intricacies of vegetarian/vegan cuisine, there's a good chance of there being some fish sauce (made from fermented little fishes, and as critical to Southeast Asian cuisine as black pepper is to European food) somewhere in the mix.
Incidentally, here are a couple of vegetarian meals I really like. At Fuji Ya: The oshinko plate ($4.95, a variety of pickled vegetables), and the udon soup with a side of vegetable tempura ($11.50 at dinner, less at lunch). The noodles are delicate as petals, and the tempura on the side is generous. Non-fish eaters, please specify you want fishless dashi (broth) instead of the traditional one seasoned with a little bonito (dried tuna). (Fuji Ya: 600 W. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612-871-4055.)
At Rainbow Chinese: The green beans with preserved cabbage ($8), and the wham-bam garlic eggplant ($10) made with tender slices of little purple eggplants cloaked with a sauce that roars. And if you substitute tofu for the squid in the "squid with preserved mustard greens and black bean sauce," you'll get a salty, sour, piquant combination with crunch. (Rainbow Chinese: 2739 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612-870-7084.)
At Punch Neapolitan Pizza: Basically everything. I have something of a recurrent fantasy about winning the lottery, building an entrée-size teleporter, and being able to teleport pizzas--such as the unlikely-sounding but delectable Dino Z--to wherever I am. The Dino Z ($8.75) features mixed greens, Parmesan, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar tossed on a wood-fired crust already unified with onion, garlic, oregano, and such. It's earthy, salty, herbal, and just huge in the mouth. And I have much respect for the inexpensive wine list here, too. (Punch Neapolitan Pizza: dinner only, 704 Cleveland Ave. S., St Paul; 651-696-1066)
Q: I have become a compulsive City Pages picker-upper for only one reason: your restaurant reviews. Your articles also tend to be inordinately entertaining (i.e., hilarious). Your latest review about Le Bambou was typical. I laughed. I would have cried, except there wasn't anything to cry about. I'm supposed to ask a question. Have you seen Temptation Island?
A: Thanks, and yes, yes, I have seen Temptation Island. And I couldn't be more bent out of shape about it. Clearly this show impinges on my own copyrighted idea for a network television show, Crabs in a Barrel. Based on the hilarious scene oft-found on fishing piers from Vancouver to Vera Cruz, Crabs in a Barrel is exactly what it sounds like, except the crabs are replaced with equal parts cosmetically enhanced strippers, lumberjacks, and genetically altered Rhesus monkeys, and the barrel is replaced with a 150-foot glass-sided pit. Fox network, I'll see you in court!
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