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Where to eat on the way to Chicago: A road tripper's guide

Don't forget to stock up on Wisconsin beer! Cafe Fromage has you covered.

Don't forget to stock up on Wisconsin beer! Cafe Fromage has you covered.

I find that road trippers belong to one of two categories: those who motor leisurely, straying from the Interstate, stopping at flea markets, cheesy roadside attractions, and local diners; and those who just want to take the fastest route from point A to point B, with minimal stops for bathroom or food breaks.

I typically fall into the latter category, but for a recent Chicago foray, I decided to seek out some local sustenance. I had a few rules: First, while I was willing to get off the highway, I wasn’t willing to get too far off the highway – a 10-minute detour was tops. Second, the food had to be relatively fast. I wanted a place where I could sit down and relax, but didn’t want to sacrifice more than an hour or so. Third, the food had to be worth the time it added to my trip.

Here are three places that fit those criteria and were well worth a detour. They are all in Wisconsin, since I have one final road trip rule: no pit stops until you cross the state line. One is close to Minnesota, one is near Madison, and one is right at the Wisconsin/Illinois border, so no matter where you get hungry, you’re not far from some good food. One caveat, check online or call before making a special stop. There were several restaurants on my list that were out of business, as well as one that closed unexpectedly early.

Norske Nook, Osseo, Wisconsin

Heading out from Minneapolis, my first stop was at the Norske Nook in downtown Osseo, about a three-minute drive from Exit 88. If you’ve traveled down I-94, you’ve seen the billboards. After years of thinking, “I need to stop there sometime,” I finally did, and you should, too. Yes, the place is a little kitschy, but the restaurant made me feel like I was in a Norwegian grandmother’s kitchen — if that kitchen had orange booths and grandma wore a full-on Norwegian folk outfit like the waitresses do.

The service is uber friendly in a genuine way, not a TGI Fridays sort of way. The restaurant is obviously a gathering spot for locals as well as a tourist attraction; we were the only ones in the place that the waitress didn’t greet by name. We stopped for breakfast and were full until dinner. The Ultimate Potato Pancake breakfast was a plate-size serving of potato pancakes topped with bacon, two eggs, and a garishly yellow-orange Hollandaise sauce. While the dish looked a hot mess, it hit the spot, with the potato pancakes acting as an inspired stand-in for the usual hash browns. 

The cheese case at Cafe Fromage offers a huge selection of Wisconsin cheeses.

The cheese case at Cafe Fromage offers a huge selection of Wisconsin cheeses.

The corned beef hash and eggs came in a similarly large portion, and the hash featured lots of briny corned beef. The coffee was better than average, and our cups were kept full and hot. At the Norske Nook, lefse isn’t just a holiday tradition, it's proudly offered at every meal. If you go for lunch, try one of the lefse wraps. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and there are gluten-free and vegetarian options for all meals.

Norske Nook is known for its pies. There are so many that they are divided up by category on the menu: double crust, Dutch and praline topped, candy pie, those that are served frozen, meringues, sour cream pies, cream cheese pies. You get the idea. It was tough to pass up all the fabulous looking varieties on display in the bakery case. Perhaps pie for breakfast next time?

Norske Nook

13804 Seventh St., Osseo

715-597-3069

Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin

Salvatore’s Tomato Pies in Sun Prairie, a suburb just east of Madison, is about 10 minutes off the Interstate, but well worth it. It’s a nondescript storefront in a nondescript strip mall — not a place you would just stumble upon. The inside, like the outside, is short on ambience. There are a few pictures on the wall and some standard cafeteria-issue tables and chairs. The pizza, however, is anything but ordinary.

Owner Patrick DePula uses high-quality local ingredients when crafting his tomato pies (pizza to you and me, but tomato pies in Chambersburg, the Italian neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey, where he grew up). You can order one of their specialty pizzas, or design your own with their long list of seasonal ingredients. But the real deal here is the lunch special, which gets you two generous slices of pizza — your choice from the three slices of the day — plus a drink for $6, about what you’d pay for a Big Mac meal at McDonald’s. Going the slice-of-the-day route also saves time, since you won’t have to wait for your pizza to bake.

The day we stopped in, the selections included the special with bacon, mixed peppers, onions, cilantro, and Colby caliente cheese; the veggie with shiitake mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, ricotta, and red sauce; and the classic tomato with mozzarella, Romano, red sauce, and basil. They were all winners. The crust was nicely chewy, and the toppings were fresh and flavorful. Salvatore’s is open for lunch and dinner. This is a place I’d be at every week if it were in my neighborhood.

Salvatore's Tomato Pies

503 W. Main St., Sun Prairie

608-318-1761

Café Fromage, Beloit, Wisconsin

Beloit is home to Beloit College, and Café Fromage is just across the street from the college bookstore downtown. This spot is a coffee shop/cheese shop/sandwich shop/specialty food store mash up. You can relax on the overstuffed sofa and chairs or eat at one of the tables. If it’s a nice day, you might want to get your food to go and walk a block to the Rock River for some picturesque al fresco dining.

The turkey sandwich at Cafe Fromage includes apples and three cheeses.

The turkey sandwich at Cafe Fromage includes apples and three cheeses.

Depending on your mood, you can purchase a couple of pieces of Wisconsin-made cheese and a baguette at the cheese counter, or opt for one of the sandwiches. The sandwiches are all classics, done with care. The BLT didn’t skimp on the bacon, and the toasted multi-grain bread made me feel less guilty about the bacon and mayo. The house-roasted turkey sandwich pumped up the flavor with the addition of an apple and cranberry preserve, three cheeses, and apple slices, all nice and warm from the panini press. At Café Fromage, they take their coffee as seriously as does any big-city barista, which is a welcome relief from gas station caffeine water. The restaurant is open for breakfast as well, with lighter options like a yogurt and fresh fruit parfait and heartier fare like the breakfast sandwich and breakfast burrito.

You can also stock up on local beers here as well as some delicious locally produced food items like charcuterie from Underground Meats and candy bars from Mayana Chocolate (try the Kitchen Sink bar, a decadent combination of peanut butter, pretzel, crispy rice, fleur de sel caramel, and dark chocolate). If you’re like me and your travel souvenirs tend to be food-related, you won’t leave empty-handed.

Cafe Fromage

431 E. Grand Ave., Beloit

608-312-2070

Got a favorite pit stop to share? Tell us about it in the comments section below.