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?
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.
Solomon supplements the Boxcar's Southern repertoire with more regional Wisconsin fare, such as a seasonal tasting menu inspired by farmers' market produce and a thick, juicy burger with French fries so crispy and addictive you'll wonder if they're fried in crack oil. Solomon says he's also looking into making his own bratwurst this summer.
But first he's working on converting the locals to his first South'sconsin creation: smoked cheese curds, served warm and soft. At first locals resisted the curds, but they're apparently growing to love them—along with Solomon's devotion to creative expression. "If I did what everyone else wanted, I'd probably open a McDonald's," he says.
THE BUILDING THAT HOUSES SCHUMACHER'S restaurant and hotel has been anchoring Main Street in New Prague since 1891. Upon approach, it seems far more appropriate to arrive by stagecoach than Japanese-made automobile, but no matter. The stately brick building was designed by Minnesota's most famous architect, Cass Gilbert, and purchased in 1974 by John Schumacher, who ran the establishment for nearly 31 years before shuttering it in 2005. When John and his wife, Kathleen, announced their plans to close Schumacher's, the phone rang off the hook with condolences and last-minute bookings.
After trying unsuccessfully to sell the place (two major deals fell through during their four-year hiatus), the Schumachers decided to give up their longtime Minnesota State Fair booth and focus on their core business. After an extensive remodel, they converted the inn's 12 rooms to six suites and reopened last September.
The new Schumacher's doesn't feel so different from the old as you pass through the heavy wooden doors into the lobby, with its grand staircase, carved wood, and stained glass. The main dining room has blond wood paneling, a tin ceiling, and a fireplace. The opposite side of the building feels more relaxed with its cozy bar and sunny porch. While some of the furnishings may be the same, including the 1970s wooden chairs painted with ornate bouquets and vines by the folk artist Pipka, the restaurant's fare is less formal. There's still much of Schumacher's signature wild game and Old World, central European fare, but it's offered at a lower price point for more casual dining.
The Sampler Plate tastes like classic Schumacher's: three types of house-made sausage (the best is the pheasant), sweet pickled cucumbers with celery salt, blue-cheese-stuffed peppers, a mound of pâté, and stacks of pumpernickel toast, which are served with fresh grated horseradish, a fantastic and underutilized condiment. Some of the entrées, like the pork schnitzel, are good for what they are, though what they are isn't much to get excited about: cutlet that's pounded, breaded, and browned. All the entrées are priced at less than $20 and come with a choice of two sides, including the likes of roasted carrots, braised red cabbage, sauerkraut with caraway seeds, and Czech dumplings that are a bit like log-shaped gnocchi smothered in a rich, sweet gravy.
The elk steak doesn't make a great impression. The meat is tender, but even wrapped in bacon, the mild-flavored steak wasn't as juicy or decadent as some of its beefy cousins. In sandwich form, though, the meat was a pleasure: sliced with piles of crimini mushrooms and onions, served open-face on a ciabatta bun with a slather of sour cream and side of fresh horseradish.
My favorite among the old-style dishes was the Czech-style roast duck, an item that's been on the menu since the hotel opened more than a century ago. The elegant bird is plated as if it's flying off the platter, and its tender meat is covered by a fatty-crisp skin that melts into a crackling unctuousness. But the best entrée I tried wasn't traditional at all: the brown-sugar-cured, pekoe-tea-smoked salmon. The fillet arrived with a broiled crust on its sugar-glazed exterior, its buttery flesh cooked just to the point of setting up, custard-like, and not a second longer. It had the same campfire richness of smoked salmon, without the leathery texture. As with the duck, the fish was a perfect partner for Schumacher's house-made cranberry chutney. The only change I'd suggest would be raising the price a few bucks and sourcing a non-Atlantic salmon.
John Schumacher, hair turning as white as his chef's coat but still sporting his trademark mustache, exhibits no lack of energy for his 63 years as he spins through the dining room, often shadowed by his two fluffy dogs. (I'd guess he's one of the hardest-working chefs of his age in the state. "I'm kind of a fiery old goat underneath it all," he proclaims.) One night Schumacher arrived with a hot pan in hand, doling out samples of a new recipe of rib tips in sweet-and-sour sauce, with all the panache of a Food Network personality. After greeting nearly half of his guests by name, Schumacher was effusively thanked by a man wearing a Sweden sweatshirt, who told him how much the place had been missed.
The best way to end your Schumacher's meal is with a soft block of Junk in the Trunk bread pudding—a spongy sugariness of leftover sweet rolls with the texture of pumpkin pie and a similar cinnamon-nutmeg spark. The pudding is served in a puddle of caramel with a ball of whipped cream. It's a rich enough indulgence to inspire one to postpone the drive home and retire to one of the suites upstairs for a night or two. If a diner makes a hotel reservation right after finishing a meal, Schumacher's offers a second night free.