Twelve months of dining scene updates, broken down in one digestible review
These pandemic-born businesses are briging new flavors to the Fox Cities
SNAPS Wraps, Neenah
Easy, quick and socially distanced, drive-thru is a winning pandemic concept that also, on the flip side, often means unhealthy food from non-local chains. “People want convenience, and being able to choose healthy AND convenient is a big win,” says Snaps Wraps owner Sophie Swingle, who showed the Fox Cities that drive-thru could not only be quick and healthy, but local too. After half a decade of bringing drive-thru wraps, paninis, soups and salads to Appleton, Swingle decided it was time to expand into Neenah in October 2020. “We got an overwhelming response from the community … since, with COVID, drive-thru was kind of the new way of eating. During this period … I was able to find the building in Neenah [and] our discussions turned to reality!” For the Neenah community looking for a healthy lunch, Swingle says her favorites on the menu are the grilled chicken and avocado-based Snaps wrap, roast beef wrap or gyro wrap. Swingle hopes Snaps’ Neenah opening is the beginning of her goal to positively change people’s thoughts on eating healthy. “I want to expand and share this healthy, fast option with different cities across Wisconsin.”
Let it Bee, Greenville
This year, especially as customers primarily bring food home during the pandemic, sit-in restaurants aren’t the only notable food-service openings. In addition to products for maintaining apiaries and offering classes for the budding beekeeper, Let It Bee also fills its wares with a variety of honey-themed foodstuffs. Let It Bee co-owner Michelle Spindler initially started the business out of her home last February, but moved shop to the former Honey Bee Wares location in July. While the business initially focused on industrial beekeeping maintenance products, they decided to also expand into the food sales side of honey. “We sold a little honey and honey candies and things like that, but now we’ve grown, and a lot of people seem to like those products,” says Spindler. From honey spreads to honey candies, honey crystals which replace sugar, to raw honey sold by the pound, Let It Bee is the place to go for any and all honey cravings.
Lawlss Coffee, Neenah
Last July, Neenah residents mourned the closure of downtown coffee treasure Timshel Café, but since September, Lawlss Coffee has quickly filled the gap thanks to its delightful brews and inventive seasonal menu. This isn’t owner Stephan Witchell’s first coffeehouse foray – he was a founding member of Tempest Coffee Collective and Sturgeon Bay’s own Lawlss Coffee location. “I’ve wanted to expand to multiple locations for a while,” he says. “It was a no-brainer to expand to Neenah in a space that proved historical success as a coffee shop.” Lawlss patrons value the selection of strong coffee shop classics, but also have something new to look forward to each season. Lawlss is currently celebrating the flowering beauty of spring with its orange blossom and lavender lattes, among others. “We’ve received lots of comments from our regulars about how grateful and excited they are to have a coffee shop again in Downtown Neenah. Many former Timshel regulars are now Lawlss regulars.”
Taco House, Appleton
Joint owners Carlos Martinez and his uncle Roberto Martinez opened Taco House in May 2020. It’s far from your average Mexican restaurant in the Valley; Carlos describes it as more of a taqueria, or taco stand, because they offer mainly tacos, burritos, tortas (sandwiches) and quesadillas. What really sets them apart are the seven types of specialty meats they offer — steak, chicken, al pastor (pork), cow tongue, pork head, braised goat and barbacoa steak. The braised goat and barbacoa steak both take four hours to prepare. The unique menu items have drawn many people to Taco House. “To be honest with you, I think a lot of people do enjoy the food, because not every restaurant has all those kinds of meats,” Carlos says. “Some people are skeptical to try [them], but once they [do], they’re like ‘This is so good.’ So, I honestly think that we’re doing good as far as the community responding to us; we’re getting a lot of nice and pretty good reviews, so thanks to God we’re doing okay.”
Segment by Michaela Branagan
Little Siam, Neenah
After initially opening in May for carryout only, Little Siam opened for limited indoor dining in July as co-owner Yee Lee Vue’s third venture into the Fox Cities Asian restaurant scene. While Bowl 91 is ramen focused, and Big Pot and Grill brings a novel Vietnamese-Cajun fusion, Vue says Little Siam was an opportunity to fill the gaps in Thai offerings left by Sabino’s Latin and Asian Bistro. It was also a chance to start a business in Neenah, a city special to Vue. “We relocated to Neenah when we moved back from Madison [and] fell in love with that community, but at that time there was no space that was available. [Little Siam] was a great opportunity to continue creating traditional dishes in Neenah.” Opening for dine-in in July meant that customers got to see Little Siam’s atmosphere for the first time. For the décor, Vue was inspired by the beauty of modern houses in Thailand. “We wanted to give it that feeling of being in a very beautiful, small, cozy space, but still have that nice, elegant atmosphere.” In addition to the classic Pad Thai, Little Siam’s menu is complete with Thai dishes not found anywhere else in the Fox Cities, like the Pad Ka Pao, a stir-fry dish with ground meat and a fried egg in a basil sauce. “That’s become popular too, and we want to get people to be interested in those types of flavors and go out of their comfort zones.”
Urban Modern Kitchen, Appleton
Located in the old Pizza King at Wisconsin and Meade Streets, Urban Modern Kitchen opened January 19 of this year. The new restaurant has a wide variety of menu items, including Asian, Italian, American and Mexican dishes. “We have a pretty diverse menu,” says bartender/server Chancel Andreini. “We have ahi tuna [which is] very high quality; we have paninis, we have flatbreads, a few signature entrees, a lot of signature sandwiches — pretty much a little bit of everything.” Owners Shirley and Luis Vasquez, who also own Draft Gastropub, wanted a soft opening to ease employees into working at the new restaurant. Andreini says the community response has been very positive. “It’s been great, actually,” Andreini says. “It’s been nothing but amazing. We’re getting busier and busier each day, and we’ve been getting some really positive reviews so far since we opened.”
Segment by Michaela Branagan
Jimmy’s Chicken and Fish, Appleton
In December, Appleton welcomed a new fried chicken hot spot, Jimmy’s Chicken and Fish, which owner James “Jimmy” Jackson says is a must-try for anyone in the mood for hot, fresh chicken and fish. “I noticed there was a demand for this type of restaurant in the Appleton area.” Fried chicken and fish are ubiquitous American staples for a reason, but Jackson felt disillusioned by the many restaurants with these items sidelined on a menu and often sitting under a heat lamp. “Everyone else cooks frozen chicken,” Jackson says. He’s shaking the formula up with a special breading and seasoning, along with a streamlined menu with just the essentials to ensure his dishes ship out hot and fresh every time. Customers can choose between classic fried chicken dinners, wings, tenders or fried catfish, but Jackson recommends the Jimmy Combo on the first visit, which provides a mix of catfish and wings. Jimmy’s is currently delivery-only through EatStreet and Uber Eats.
Bare Bones Brewery, Menasha
After their February 19 soft opening, Bare Bones Brewery’s Menasha location was the next step toward Bare Bones craft beer becoming a household name. For co-owner Dan Dringoli, who has run the Oshkosh brewery for almost six years, brewing beer is the dream, but selling it is the career. “We talked about doing another taproom for probably the last two or three years,” Dringoli says, explaining that being a local brewer and distributor isn’t as profitable as running a taproom, so growing the brewery meant growing the taproom operations. As Menasha’s Downtown scene grew and a building became available, Dringoli saw the potential in opening a new taproom. As the Oshkosh location produces Bare Bones craft brews like the flagship Dog Daze IPA along with a seasonal rotation, the Menasha location serves Bare Bones originals on location. Since the other side of the location is, technically, a separate building by legal standards, Bare Bones is able to serve original whiskeys, vodkas and other liquors produced out of adjacent business Tight Barrel Distillery. In the next phase of development, Dringoli hopes to offer light restaurant services for appetizer fare.
Chicago’s owner Wilona Young didn’t expect bringing a Chicago-style sandwich shop to the Fox Cities would be part of her 2020, but she says the pieces all fell into place thanks to her upbringing in Chicago’s south side and an Instagram-worthy hoagie she made one day. “I posted it because I post all my food,” she says. “And my inbox just went crazy. People will message me like, ‘Where did you get that from? Did you go to Chicago?’ and I was like ‘No, I made that in my kitchen.’”
After some successful tasting parties and positive feedback, Young decided to start the business last August. Currently, Chicago’s is open for delivery service with Wednesday pre-orders for Thursday delivery starting at noon. Unlike most restaurants with limited delivery ranges, Young has delivered from Appleton to Green Bay, with scaling delivery fees.
“Everything on our menu is authentic to Chicago,” Young says, from the spicy Chicago-style turkey hoagie to the chips and soda, which are sourced from Chicago-based companies. Though the current menu is limited, Young hopes to roll out the full menu in early to mid-April.
Il Bar Coffeehouse & Bistro, Kimberly
Opening to the public on May 13, Il Bar is less than three weeks old and the Fox Cities’ latest coffee shop. For owners Paul and Jane Driessen, the foray into the coffee business was a natural fit since Paul’s remodeling company, Timber Innovations, had extra space for a new business. “Kimberly didn’t really have a coffee shop in downtown, but Kimberly has been improving the downtown, and we felt like it was a really good fit.” A good location isn’t the only way the Driessens have strived to differentiate – in addition to the full survey of coffee shop items from lattes to mochas to tea, they’ve looked to international influences. “We’ve got beans from Puetro Rico and beans coming from Italy, paninis, pressed sandwiches, Cubanos. It’s all about things we’re familiar with but not yet commonplace around the Valley.” Paul brought his remodeling expertise to the bar, describing the atmosphere as “contemporary rustic,” incorporating white oak furnishing and live edge window seating in view of Downtown Kimberly.
Shortly after the Safer at Home measures, EatStreet regulars may have seen Oshkosh’s first and only Indian restaurant, Steph’s Curries, pop up out of nowhere, along with a mysterious social media presence complete with an unnamed owner, snarky posts in all-lowercase letters and top-notch graphic design. However, the name may be misleading, since there is no Steph.
At least, that’s what beckets owner Kris Larson tells us as he describes his rationale for opening the ghost kitchen last March. “It was just kind of at the right time and the right idea at the right place,” Larson says, explaining that when COVID hit, fewer people were going out and more people were ordering delivery. At first glance, branching out into Indian cuisine is an odd choice for a restaurant whose specialty is modern American food, but as Larson searched for creative ways to keep revenue up, he found that his culinary team had a hidden talent for curry, not to mention quarantined Oshkosh residents were missing the Indian cuisine only available in Appleton’s Sai Ram and India Darbar restaurants.
“We have unbelievable chefs here who do all kinds of cooking on their own who just happen to be really good at making curry,” Larson says.
Officially, Steph’s is a separate operation, but the beckets culinary team prepares three Indian comfort foods in-house for EatStreet delivery only: chicken tikka masala, beef vindaloo, and a vegan yellow curry, with sides of jasmine rice and naan bread.
Larson says he chose the name Steph’s “because it’s hilarious.” Also, yellow curry is an on-the-nose menu choice for a restaurant named for NBA basketball player Stephen “Steph” Curry and his team’s yellow iconography, a feature also seen in the restaurant’s marketing and graphic design.
The mastermind behind Steph’s has been a more or less a secret since the beginning, but now Larson wants the local restaurant industry to embrace unprecedented and creative strategies in response to an unprecedented time. While ghost kitchens have a reputation of saturating the delivery market with near-identical options – as was the case with Chuck E. Cheese’s and its ghost kitchen Pasqually’s Pizza – Larson says the concept not only helped his business through the pandemic, but brought more options to Oshkosh.
“It’s a fun concept, and there’s still not a ton of people doing it around here,” Larson says. “I hope people get the fun joke that is Steph’s Curries, and it’s good for the restaurant and people here in the city.”