Veterans versus Rookies
For almost 40 years, Fox Cities Magazine has been bringing dining stories to our readers: about fanciful dishes, mouthwatering flavors, restaurant updates and everything in-between. Perhaps the most popular food installment, the Golden Fork Awards, reaches its 28th year in this issue.
We’re always proud to celebrate our local restaurants, but there’s something particularly special about honoring what our area foodies have to say to allow their voices to be heard. Voters are keeping it interesting this year, both with longstanding winners holding their titles and others proving there’s nothing wrong with being the new kid.
*Scroll to bottom for a full list of 2022 gold and silver winners.
There’s nothing more exciting than celebrating new success when it comes to food in the Fox Cities. Here are a few:
Best Overall: SALT
SALT in Kaukauna is relatively new on the scene, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made an impact. Case in point: the modern restaurant has picked up nine first place awards this year, including Best Overall.
“I’m super humbled by it,” Manny Gandara, Executive Chef, says. “I have to give a lot of credit to my staff…. from all of our backgrounds, whatever they may be, all of our different walks of life… it’s a beautiful thing when it all comes together. Let’s have fun with it. Let’s make it taste good. Cooking is supposed to be fun!”
The area’s Best Happy Hour, according to voters, happens from 4-6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
“We do $2 off of everything. And we are now the home of the $8 martini,” Brittany Sack, bar manager, says. “The Smokey S’more Martini is one of the most popular.” It consists of Pinnacle Whipped Vodka, Chocolate Liquor and sports a Graham Cracker Rim and Torched Marshmallow.
Other favorite options include The Maple: Ice Sphere, Smoke, Bulleit Bourbon, Local Wisconsin Maple Syrup, Cherry Juice, Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters and Canadian Bacon.
SALT wins Best Seasonal Menu for its ever-changing offerings with fresh produce and proteins, including heartier options this fall with apples and squash amongst the Best Salad Entrees. The title can also be attached to their Best Ambiance award. While elevating diners’ experiences year-round, the last thing the team wants the restaurant to be is stuffy or intimidating.
“You don’t have to dress up. You can if you want, but you don’t have to. Come as you are!” Gandara urges. “Our patio has been expanded this summer… we’re going to do fire tables for fall. Igloos will be back for winter. It’s fun.”
Best Appetizers include Seafood Nachos with queso, chorizo, shrimp, pico and poblano; Chicken Wings and Angus Sliders. And a state staple, Fried Cheese.
“It’s not a cheese curd!” Gandara is sure to clarify. “It’s not breaded. It’s a queso blanco. We cube it and fry it. It’s fun. It comes with Ranch and Chipotle Ranch because we’re in Wisconsin!”
Unique to SALT, and making the eatery so aptly named, is their use of salt blocks to cook this year’s Best Steak. Gandara says it begins with Certified Angus Prime Steaks and is catapulted further with the use of the iconic block.
“The mineral itself will let out a flavor onto the steak that’s hard to explain. We pan sear the steak right on the salt block. It heats up just like a pizza stone, if you will. It can hold up to 500 degrees. When we’re cooking it, it’s gathering all of those minerals from the salt. It’s (then) presented on the salt block.”
He credits freshness and simple preparation for winning the Best Seafood category.
“I think it really just comes down to being fresh. That’s the biggest thing,” he says. “And using plenty of butter! Butter, wine and garlic go a long way.”
Fan favorites include scallops and Grilled Branzino.
“I wasn’t sure if grilling the whole fish with the head on was going to go over well, but there are so many people who really enjoy it,” Gandara explains. “We stuff it with lemon, thyme, rosemary and oranges. We top it with a lemon beurre blanc: a butter and wine sauce. We serve it with a sweet pea risotto and asparagus.”
Sweeping the big categories to create a full meal wouldn’t be complete without Best Dessert, a category that offers new weekly specials and one that SALT. They’re known for their cheesecake made with mascarpone and topped with made-from-scratch sauces like caramel and recently a Berry and Red Wine reduction. They also include playful and interactive favorites for guests.
“I do a Bananas Foster in the dining room,” Gandara says. “People love to see when I’m out there with the fire. It’s an interaction with the guest.”
Best New Restaurant: Mill City Public House
Opening in June 2022 and securing two significant spots in the Golden Fork Awards is the highly anticipated Mill City Public House in Appleton, winning for Best New Restaurant and Best Burger.
“(It’s) truly rewarding,” Rusty Leary, co-owner and general manager, says. “We’ve all worked really hard for the past year to design and build this place. We’ve spent countless hours, our families have made sacrifices and supported us, and it’s incredibly gratifying to see people connecting with our vision. We’re beyond grateful for the support and enthusiasm from the community.”
It’s no wonder. Leary’s description of the bar and grill as one with a “quirky, moody atmosphere with a great soundtrack and comforting, approachable food” is perfect for the Fox Cities.
The Oklahoma Onion Burger currently ranks as their most popular: a pile of thinly shaved onions are seared on the griddle and the burger is smashed right into them.
“It’s just fantastic,” Leary simply states. “Our burgers are pretty simple, we just use quality ingredients and treat them right. The Wagyu beef has such a superior flavor and tenderness, it really makes the whole experience. Our second most popular item is actually our Korean Fried Chicken sandwich, which Chef (James) Dudley has been making for a long time. People love it.”
Ron Sosnowksi of Neenah visited recently and loved the friendly and welcoming experience—not to mention the item in which they are known (and won in the Golden Fork Awards!).
“The Bacon Jam Burger was very good and I would like to try some of their specialty cocktails,” he says. “Check it out.”
Along with their “Best Burger”s, Mill City Public House also serves lighter fare like their Salmon BLT and “killer salads.” Open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday, Mill City Public House is looking forward to hosting fun evenings in their event space—both for curated dinners and private rentals. They’re also hoping to have a food truck on the road by next summer.
“We’re more than just a burger joint,” Leary says. “We have a lot up our sleeve, and we’re constantly evolving as we listen to customer feedback. So I would encourage people to keep checking back as we add items to the menu.”
*NEW Category! Best Bakery: Whisk & Arrow
Whisk & Arrow in Appleton takes the inaugural prize for Best Bakery. Described by Nea Hahn, owner and pastry chef, as “classic, honest, straightforward, flavor-focused delicious pastry,” the bakery relies on fresh, high-quality ingredients to produce outstanding results—not to mention a dedication to making from scratch items.
“Our most popular items are cakes and macarons. Our cakes are made entirely from scratch and that is hard to find these days,” Hahn says. “Our clients appreciate knowing they can inquire about ingredients and know there are no additives. Our macarons are naturally flavored and made using a very traditional French recipe.”
The now 32-person team began in 2017 as a “one-woman show,” and has moved to a larger space to accommodate extended hours and an increased variety of desserts offered.
“We are known for quality of ingredients, freshness and transparency. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel or be cool, that was never our thing. We just want to craft mouth watering desserts and drinks. “I am most excited for my team. This is an award for them,” Hahn reflects. “Their hard work and dedication to working together cohesively is admirable and I am thankful for them every day. I am also so happy that our clients voted for us!”
Best Craft Cocktail: 313 Dodge
Constantly changing 313 Dodge in Kaukauna pulls ahead as Best Craft Cocktail winner this year, a new face in the mix of contenders.
“We really kicked things into gear during the lockdowns with our walk-up window. Since then, we have grown,” Kyle Megna, co-owner, says. “Our business is our livelihood and we are always looking for new creative ideas to incorporate at 313 Dodge.”
Megna says there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to their most popular offerings—including their Cabernet Margarita, Port Wine Whiskey Sour and Lemon Lavender Vodka Twist, not to mention highly Instagrammable flights, consisting of mojitos, Old Fashioneds or Slushee Cocktails.
“We mix and muddle everything fresh at 313 Dodge,” he says. “A lot of the work behind the scenes is us making our own cocktail syrup and shopping weekly for fresh ingredients… we even do our own barrel pick for our bourbon we use!”
Stay tuned: The Wine Loft @ 313 Dodge, an area where you have a wide selection of wine for retail and for consumption, will be coming soon to the upper level.
Best Diner/Cafe: Kaukauna Coffee & Tea
Mamie Toppe, owner of Kaukauna Coffee & Tea, took over the business in January of this year. To win four prominent categories in the Golden Fork Awards so quickly is particularly significant for her.
“To only be in it for this short of a period of time and win means a lot. I’m not even sure I can explain it,” she admits. “I feel like it’s made all of the hard work, all of the stuff I’ve had to learn really quickly, worth it.”
The Best Diner/Cafe is lovingly referred to as “eclectic grandma’s kitchen” by Toppe, who knew what to update and what to keep the same when it came to her arriving on scene.
“One of the questions I got most when I was purchasing the business is, ‘Are you going to change how it feels?’” she says. “It’s a huge deal for the people who come here. They call it homey. It’s very warm and inviting.”
The Kaukauna Coffee & Tea team also welcomes guests warmly and whip up orders efficiently to win Best Waitstaff/Service.
“I have always told my staff that a lot of people come here on their lunch breaks. They come here on their way to work. They don’t have a lot of time,” Toppe says. “A lot of people don’t like to wait for things. To think ‘Oh shoot I didn’t order ahead or I didn’t order online and I have 30 minutes’ and those people know they can still come and be able to get in and out says a lot.”
Best Sandwich: “We put a lot of pride into the sandwiches… I want someone to know that if they always order the Chicken Bacon Ranch, they’re always going to get it the way they want it no matter who is making it.”
Popular options include said Chicken Bacon Ranch: on flatbread with chicken, bacon bits, provolone cheese, ranch, onions and spinach; the Asiago Bold: chicken, feta, provolone, red pepper hummus, onions and spinach on an asiago cheese focaccia; and the Breakfast Wrap: cream cheese, stone ground mustard, egg patty, feta cheese, bell peppers, tomatoes and spinach. Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options are also available.
Particularly unique to, and popular at, Kaukauna Coffee & Tea is the “Haze,” a combination of Red Bull, lemonade and one of several flavored syrups, like Pomegranate, Red Raspberry, Lime and Guava.
“It’s probably the worst kept secret in Kaukauna because everybody knows about it,” Toppe laughs. “If you can’t decide on one flavor you can do a Haze Flight.”
Best Outdoor Dining: “I’ve had people say that our outdoor dining is one of the hidden gems of Kaukauna,” she says. “You’re overlooking the water. You have the trees, the whole building next to it is covered in gorgeous ivy. I have a ton of plants back there. It’s really nice.”
Best Pizza: Stuc’s Pizza
Stuc’s Pizza has been bringing the Italian favorite to the Fox Cities since 1993. Erik Anderson, owner/operator, has been with the Appleton establishment for 26 of those 29 years.
“I think something that is really cool for me personally is that I have been at this job since I was 14,” reflects. “Some of the same equipment I used when I was a kid is still in production and some of the co-workers I had, their children now work for me! The legacy continues.”
Anderson says the Best Pizza winner is a “hearty meal” in itself, using a special sauce and unique recipe for its sausage.
“The most popular pizza is a hard one… I would say the most popular combination is our Stuc’s Special… it’s a classic flavor of sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, onion and green pepper.”
Stuc’s Pizza is also known for its Chicago Style Deep Dish pizza and Calzones, and unique pizzas like the Mighty Meng (hot sausage, pepperoni, chicken, mushroom, bacon, sausa blanca and barbeque sauce) and Italian Vegetarian (onions, tomatoes, green olives, kalamata olives and pecorino Romano cheese).
Fun fact about Stuc’s Pizza: “The oven has never been turned off, ever,” Anderson says.
Best Worth the Drive: Fox and Crow Bistro
Fox and Crow Bistro, “an approachable fine dining experience in historic downtown Ripon,” wins for Worth the Drive in this year’s Golden Fork Awards.
Co-owners Patrick (chef) and Katie (front-of-house) Isajiw have created an intentionally intimate setting of just 40 seats.
“Having a smaller footprint allows our amazing team to give every one of our guests the treatment they deserve,” they say. “You could have gone anywhere but you chose to come here? We don’t take that lightly.
“We want to be unique to the area, unique to anywhere, really. We’re constantly reinventing and reevaluating ourselves to make sure we’re giving our guests the best version of Fox and Crow that we can be. It means a lot (to win); we’re honored to be mentioned among the heavy hitters!” they say. “It’s awesome to be recognized as another reason to come to our beautiful city. Not only are we worth the drive but Ripon in its entirety is worth the drive!” Most popular dishes, so far, include their “Nearly Famous Pork Belly,” “Wisco Pork Schnitzel” and the bistro’s playful desserts.
While the Fox Cities dining scene is constantly changing, and dare we say, improving and innovating, the area also has some mainstays that consistently rise to the top of voters’ minds:
Best Asian Food: Basil Cafe
When it comes to Best Asian Food, voters know authenticity is a key ingredient. Perhaps that’s why Basil Café in Appleton, featuring traditional Lao cuisine, has won the category for several years in a row.
“I think what helps us stand apart from other Asian restaurants is the food that we offer, the consistency in the flavors of the dishes and how they’re prepared,” Larry Chomsisengphet, general manager, says. “We’re able to present it in a way that stays traditional, yet approachable.”
Popular dishes include well-known favorites and those unique to Basil Café.
“I don’t know of another restaurant in the Fox Cities that has Nam Khao, a traditional Lao Style Crispy Fried Rice dish mixed with freshly roasted peanuts, cilantro, green onions, freshly squeezed lime juice, and a pickled pork sausage,” Chomsisengphet says. “Or Crispy Quails, or Mok, chicken or fish with glass noodles, lemongrass, fresh chili peppers, makrut lime leaves, roasted ground sticky rice and marinated in a little coconut milk, and then wrapped into a banana leaf and then steamed.”
While the food served at Basil Cafe is of a wide variety that packs a punch of flavor, Chomsisengphet says being considered Most Vegetarian Friendly comes naturally.
“Because our food is made to order, basically 95% of the menu can be made vegan or vegetarian, it’s just a matter of excluding egg, or substituting for tofu or mixed veggies,” he says. “The Bánh Xèo (Vietnamese Crepe) is always a popular favorite and can be made vegetarian or vegan… traditionally it’s filled with ground pork, shrimp and beansprouts, but for our vegetarian/vegan option we fill it with seasoned tofu and bean sprouts.”
Other popular options include Thum Mak Huong, or Papaya Salad: green unripened papaya mashed into a mortar and pestle with garlic, fresh Bird’s Eye Chili peppers, peanuts, long green beans, Lao eggplant, and typically fish sauce but “veganized” uses a white/thin soy sauce.
Best Breakfast/Brunch: SAP
Nicole DeFranza and sister Kristen DeFranza, co-owners of SAP in Appleton (and neighboring restaurant Carmella’s), opened the brunch spot in May of 2015. Described as “a casual brunch restaurant focusing on American classics with a commitment to sourcing locally when possible,” SAP has become a destination for fresh, consistently delicious meals. Not only that, but the pair also supports area food vendors whenever possible.
“We use only organic eggs for all our breakfast and lunch dishes that come right from Kellner Back Acre Farm in Green Bay,” Nicole says. “In addition, you’ll find all the incredible local artisans and farmers used in-house listed on our menu.
“It’s hard to say what the most popular dish is, but I think we’d all agree that the benedicts, our huevos rancheros, chicken and waffles (Sundays only) and a new hit, our chilaquiles, lead the pack!”
Nicole is quick to give credit to the SAP family, expressing gratitude for the team whose dedication she credits for the Best Breakfast/Brunch win.
“My sister and I both agree that the staff, both back and front-of-house, are what set us apart,” she says. “Their commitment to excellence across the board is unparalleled and that is what our guests feel, in addition to the food being good for them and for our local community.”
Best Cheese Curds: Milwaukee Burger Company
“I chose Milwaukee Burger Company for best cheese curds because they’re perfectly battered and crunchy on the outside, and the cheese is perfectly melted on the inside. There’s a crunch and then melt-in-your-mouth experience that makes them stand above the rest. They also have a variety of flavors to choose from, which further sets them apart!” —Adam Kleman
Best Coffee: Copper Rock Coffee Co.
In terms of restaurant age, Copper Rock Coffee Co., with two locations in Appleton and within Copper State Brewing Co. in Green Bay, is ancient.
For 19.5 years the coffee shop has been roasting and serving coffee to the masses, differentiating themselves by contracting and roasting high scoring micro-lots from origins all over the world.
“We are constantly trying to find unique and amazing tasting coffees from small farms,” William Heiges, owner/Head Coffee Roaster, says. “Sometimes the farmers’ entire crop of a certain strain of coffee will be 5-10 bags. We are small enough that we can get away with buying small amounts like this and constantly changing our offerings. You never know what we will bring in next and our customers tend to love trying unique coffees from all over the world.”
The coffee shop is known for roasting fresh blends and single origin coffees, but also roast their own espresso used in lattes, frappes and specialty drinks.
“Some favorites include our Mochas and Caramel Creme Lattes,” Heiges says. “We also have constantly changing seasonal specials.”
Best Fish Fry: Mark’s East Side
Alex Shea, owner of Mark’s East Side in Appleton, credits attention to detail and the highest quality ingredients for consistently winning Best Fish Fry.
“We go the extra mile by hand cutting the pieces we would want to eat ourselves, making our tartar sauce in house and finding the perfect rolls to complement,” he explains. “It is more work and there is definitely a faster way to do this but we believe by going the extra mile our customers will continue to enjoy our fish fry for many years to come.
“Our famous fish fry consists of only the best Icelandic haddock. We batter fry it, not beer batter so as to not over power its delicate flavor, to a nice golden brown. We make our coleslaw in house to complement it—a little sweet and a little spicy. Served with piping hot, crispy golden brown fries, our famous homemade tartar sauce and rolls baked from a local bakery.”
As for again winning the Best Supper Club category, Shea says it’s about more than the food.
“The biggest mark of a supper club that still stays true to Mark’s East Side is the amount of time that people like to spend in-house. They’re not coming to have a quick dinner and get out. It’s a time to socialize with loved ones in a welcoming atmosphere,” he says. “When you enter Mark’s East Side, we want you to feel welcome, a part of our community.”
Best Fried/Broasted Chicken: Van Abel’s of Hollandtown
A veteran winner in the Golden Fork Awards, Van Abel’s of Hollandtown has been in business since 1848, with their award-winning broasted chicken coming on the scene in 1965.
“Our recipe is the same as it has been since the beginning,” the local institution shares. “We pride ourselves on small batch marination and special handling that we do with our chicken. There are quicker ways to do it but we choose to take the time and do it right.”
Best Mexican Food: Sangria’s Mexican Grill
In business for 14 years, and no newbie to winning this award, Sangria’s Mexican Grill has always been a favorite, but the Appleton spot has recently upped their game with a double decker outdoor patio and plans for an expansion.
“Sangria’s prides itself in creating a consistent, memorable, fun and approachable menu and dining experience,” Sarah Gregory, owner/operator, says. “Our staff, food, ambiance, community engagement, and consistency have kept our wonderful customers and friends coming back for years. Having our community show up and vote for us every year is a beautiful feather in our proverbial sombrero.”
Menu favorites naturally include Sangria’s Fresca Bowl, margaritas and sangrias, along with unique specialities like Molcajete Lava Bowls and Cancun Pineapple Shrimp.