Fair Food Frenzy

Local restaurants offer sweet & savory options with a side of nostalgia

As the days grow longer and Wisconsinites head outdoors to soak in summer, the warmer weather also ushers in the start of fair season. This time-honored tradition brings communities together for several days of agricultural education, carnival fun and loads of culinary delights. Walking the midway of any county fair, a visitor can’t help but be entranced by the delicious smells of sweet batter frying. There are the mounds of crunchy, gooey fried cheese bits piled high and drizzled with ranch, a handful of crispy, glistening golden french fries snuggly fit into a paper cone, and beehive-sized swirls of sticky, pastel-hued cotton candy to keep us satiated. 

If you leave a county fair without eating a foot-long corn dog or a lifetime supply of cheese curds — while holding a bag of live goldfish — have you really lived?

The past year was a tough one for most county fairs in the area but as we move toward this summer’s offerings, however they may look, a variety of restaurants in the Fox Valley offer a taste of that same nostalgia and feeling of comfort the midway has offered us for decades.

Milwaukee Burger Company, Appleton

Nothing screams “fair food” quite like a cheese curd can, and Milwaukee Burger Company is famous for its outrageously sized curds. Andrew Jordan, general manager of the Appleton location, says the company was looking for something to really impress patrons. They start with a 40-pound block of cheese, cut it into squares, beer-batter them in a batter with secret seasoning, and then deep fry the nuggets of goodness.

“Getting nine to an order, the size of a golf ball, is insane when you see it,” he says. 

In addition to the giant cheese curds, Milwaukee Burger Company also offers an item they call fair curds, which are Wisconsin cheddar curds hand-battered and fried until they’re golden-brown and delicious.

If you’re looking to make it a full fair-inspired meal, Jordan says the peanut butter and jelly burger is also a popular item. A burger that’s a bit outside the box, like so many carnival eats can be, it’s served on a toasted brioche bun, with a slather of peanut butter, from-scratch brown-sugar bacon, and a smear of jalapeño jelly. 

“We don’t like to be a traditional place,” he adds. “When you come here and spend money, you know you’re leaving full, number one, and you should be leaving happy.”

Draft Gastropub, Appleton

A walk down the midway of any fair or carnival finds a worthy accompaniment in a large, soft Bavarian pretzel clutched in one’s hand. Draft Gastropub offers its version of this salty, savory snack year-round on its menu.

“Our jumbo pretzel is one of our most popular appetizers,” says Regina Hueckman, a manager at Draft Gastropub. “It seems to be an item that everyone at the table can agree on; who isn’t always in the mood for a Bavarian pretzel that’s the size of your head?”

The 10-inch pretzel gets its chewy crust on the outside, and soft, pillowy inside from the use of food-grade Lye, which enhances the Maillard reaction on the outside of the dough. The use of the food-grade Lye is what separates the Bavarian pretzel from its standard ballpark pretzel brethren, explains Hueckman. Add Draft Gastropub’s house-made queso cheese and IPA mustard for dipping, and you’ve got a great snack to pair with beer and share with friends.

“The pretzel came to be on the menu pretty easily,” adds Hueckman. “Nothing pairs better with a cold pint of beer than a hot, salty Bavarian pretzel. With our 18 craft beer taps, it seemed like a classic fit for us, and it came to be a guest favorite.”

The Bar, Appleton

If cheese curds are the start of any nostalgic trip down county-fair lane, let The Bar’s famous funnel cake fries be the finish. The dessert, a menu staple for about a decade at The Bar’s two Appleton locations, is a popular pick for patrons getting their grub on, young and old alike. The fried strips of sweet dough are topped with powdered sugar, then served with a choice of cherry dipping sauce or Nutella.

“It’s more of a fun item in a sports bar setting,” says co-owner Dan Timmers. “We can’t get too decadent in the sports bar side of things; we can scratch the surface a little bit, but you’re looking for fun items, too.”

All The Bar locations are family friendly, furthers Timmers, so the funnel cake fries are also a good way to tide over the younger generation and keep them entertained. If a family is more comfortable sticking to pickup, delivery or curbside service, Timmers says the funnel cake fries hot-hold well and make a good dessert option even if it won’t get to your table at home for a bit. 

“They taste great and it’s a good product,” he adds. “We sell them with warmed cherry dipping sauce, Nutella or chocolate syrup. They’re a pretty versatile menu item that way.”

Home Burger Bar, Appleton

The Luther burger from Home Burger Bar in Appleton starts out innocuously at first glance — take a delicious third-pound burger, top it with American cheese and add sizzling, thick-cut bacon. But that’s where Home Burger Bar turns the dial up on delicious and pairs the burger with what else, but a glazed doughnut they cut in half and toast on the grill. 

The doughnut-based burger is named after Luther Vandross, explains Home Burger Bar owner James Ferg. It was reportedly the favorite of the popular singer-songwriter and a carry-over on the menu from the restaurant that came before Home Burger Bar.

“It fit the unique theme of our burgers,” Ferg furthers. 

Unique and rich in creativity — like so many of our fair and carnival favorites — the Luther burger is complemented on Home Burger Bar’s menu by other fun offerings, like the Badger Beer Dip burger. It’s a burger topped with smashed cheese curds, homemade Spotted Cow beer dip, and crispy onion rings on a pretzel bun.

“Every month we have a new burger of the month,” Ferg adds. “Some have had elote on them, another had a Caesar salad. You really never know what we will come up with next. I think that is part of what keeps customers interested.”

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