Roadside Wisconsin, Part 3: Ella’s Deli, Madison

It’s Space Exploration Day. Always a good thing to think about.

Ella’s Deli in Madison, Wisconsin, is on E. Washington Ave. If you’re driving on that street, it’s hard to miss.

Ella's Deli, Madison, WisconsinElla's Deli, Madison, WisconsinWashington Ave. happens to be a good way to get from I-90/I-39, which runs east of Madison, into the city. Right into downtown, in fact: straight to the capitol, the university, the lakes, and so on. Over the years I’ve noticed Ella’s as I passed by, but never stopped. This time, I drove on Washington Ave. specifically to get there.

A bit from Ella’s web site: “In the early 1960s Ella Hirschfeld owned and operated Ella’s on State Street as a small kosher style deli/grocery/restaurant. At that time Ella’s provided an outlet for the Jewish community and others to buy kosher products over the counter, as well as offering restaurant service for about a dozen tables.

“In 1976, Ella’s opened another location, thanks to the support of Madison’s community… In recent years, Ella’s Deli on East Washington Avenue became the only Ella’s Deli.

“Under the same ownership for over 45 years, Ella’s operates with in-house bakers, full-time cooks that prepare our foods from scratch, and animations designed and built on the premises.”

It was a good choice, both as a place to eat, and a place to see odd things. For instance, a robot-like entity meets you inside the door.

Ella's Deli, Madison, Wisconsin

The restaurant doesn’t exactly have a theme, though I’ve seen it referred to elsewhere as “a place to take your children.” Certainly, but like some things supposedly for children, it isn’t just for them.

Mostly, it’s just whimsical. Most of the decoration, which is near the ceiling, seems to have been picked to add to the place’s overall whimsy. You can appreciate whimsy at any age. More when you’re older, if you’ve a certain cast of mind.
Ella's Deli, Madison, WisconsinA number of figures attached to small motors whirred back and forth on wires stretched across the ceiling. Such as the Man of Steel.
Ella's Deli, Madison, WisconsinPopeye riding a rocket.
Ella's Deli, Madison, WisconsinNot sure who this sort-of astronaut is supposed to be, but he and the Aladdin Genie were just over our table. Or aquanaut? Note the golden seahorses.

Ella's Deli, Madison, WisconsinElsewhere were tableaux, such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Ella's Deli, Madison, WisconsinHere’s a Chicago Coin’s Band-Box.

Ella's Deli, Madison, Wisconsin

When I looked at it, I didn’t realize that it’s part of a little world of its own. According to the Chicago Coin’s Bandbox site, these manikins, made only from 1950 to ’52 in Chicago, were really part of a remote wall-mounted speaker for a jukebox. Drop and coin for a song and you get a little show, too.

“The jukebox closes a switch which causes the band box lights to go on and the curtains to open, revealing a seven-piece band with their instruments. They move as if they are playing the music. The figures were made of sponge rubber which decays over time.”

Apparently the company made them and other mechanical contrivances, but went bust by the 1980s. At that time, a fellow named Brad Frank in California bought all the rights and trademarks of the former company, and he still makes the Band Boxes, along with replacement parts.

Just goes to show you the things you can learn by looking at the stuff on the walls. Followed by short Internet searches.

There’s more. Most of Ella’s tables were glass-topped, with various items displayed inside. Such as yo-yos.

Ella's Deli

Or assorted gewgaws and gimcracks.
Ella's Deli, Madison, WisconsinSo Ella’s was a very interesting place, visually speaking, to sit down for a meal. But all would have been for naught, and I probably wouldn’t write about it, if the food weren’t worth eating. Fortunately, it was.

In fact, “deli” in the name is no idle affectation. I opted for a Reuben sandwich, and it was the best Reuben I’ve had anywhere outside of New York. Everyone else reported satisfaction with their choices. Next time, I’ll try the ice cream.

Roadside Wisconsin, Part 2: Just About 45°N, 90°W

Wausau, Wisconsin, has a pleasant town square, a park surrounded by an assortment of shops and restaurants. No one but me remembered visiting there before, but we did in 2003, taking lunch at the Mint Cafe on the square. This year we went back to the cafe on the way up to the UP, on the last day of June. I think we even sat in the same booth.

The top card is from our ’03 visit. The bottom, from the recent visit. I like the ’03 card better. Less busy.
The Mint Cafe, WausauLunch was just as good this time around. Hamburgers, fish, that kind of thing, in a uncontrived diner atmosphere. No one at the Mint was wearing a tux, as far as I could see.

Afterward we strolled around the square and a nearby street or two. We happened on the office of the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention & Visitors Bureau. Mostly we went in to use the restroom, but I also picked up a four-color glossy promo magazine suitably called Wausau, subtitled “Central Wisconsin.” On the off chance that it offered useful information. It did.

The magazine reminded me that not far from Wausau is a sign marking 45°N latitude, 90°W longitude. Or, as the magazine puts it, “Center of the North Half of the Western Hemisphere.” Also included: a nicely detailed map to help you get to that place (and other points of interest).

I learned about the location years ago. I think in high school, or even in junior high, I wondered where those four points on the Earth might be. So I got out the atlas and looked. Two were in remote southern oceans. One was in the absolute middle of nowhere in central Asia. And one was… in Wisconsin.

Years later, a coworker of mine originally from Wisconsin told me about the site — he’d grown up not too far away. And then I read about it, probably on Roadside America. Even so, I would have forgotten to visit on this trip had the magazine not reminded me. I was inspired. If we can stand on the Prime Meridian and Lilly can stand on the Equator, then by gar, we can stand at 45°N, 90°W.

So on July 2, after lunch again in Wausau on the way home — this time at a sandwich shop, part of a small local chain — we headed west on I-29 out of Wausau. The map’s directions are clear. I-29 west to Exit 150, then take Wisconsin H north to Wisconsin U, turn west. Follow U as it curves north and then curves west again. A sign marking 45°N, 90°W will be just past the second curve.

So we followed the directions. Got to the second curve. And then: nothing. No easily visible sign anyway. I’d had a somewhat hard time explaining to the rest of my family what we were doing out in the farm fields of central Wisconsin, when we could have been heading home, so things got a little testy in the car.

We turned around and went for another look, noticing a fellow mowing the grass around his house on a large riding mower (the rest of the nearby area was farmland). We stopped and rolled down our passenger side window, and looked his direction.

At once he took his earphones off, hopped off the mower, and came toward us. He looked the part of a modern farmer: a large man about my age in overalls and a short-sleeved shirt, with a pink face and gray in his hair. He also looked genuinely glad to see us.

“I’ll bet you know what we’re looking for,” I said.

He did. He explained that Marathon County had removed the existing sign just the week before, as part of putting a sign in the correct place. I had read that the sign wasn’t exactly at 45°N, 90°W. It was about 1,000+ feet off. Back whenever the county had first installed the sign, no one had GPS, so that wasn’t an issue. Now it is. (This is an issue for the tourist Equator and Prime Meridian, too.)

“They didn’t seem to think anyone would miss the sign,” he said. “I told them people come looking for it every day.”

The sign might be gone, but the original survey marker was still in embedded in concrete at the site, he said. He told us where to look. Remarkable how the mood in the car changed for the better after our short chat with a friendly farmer.

Before long we were there. This is what we found.

45°N, 90°W Marathon County, Wisconsin45°N, 90°W Marathon County, WisconsinIt might not be exactly 45°N, 90°W, but I wasn’t about to not stand at the point. Yuriko and Ann did too, in their turn. By now everyone was game.
45°N, 90°W Marathon County, WisconsinThe small temporary sign near the marker, to the right of me in the picture, was erected by Marathon County. It says:

45°N-90°W Geographic Marker
Site currently under
construction/relocation
Reopening September 12, 2017

There’s also a helpful map of the planned new site fixed to the temporary sign. The old site will be a small parking lot, with a path, or maybe a paved path, leading to the new and presumably GPS-correct marker.

On July 2, work had already started on the path.
45°N, 90°W Marathon County, WisconsinWe didn’t walk the 1,000 or so feet to the new site. If we’re ever back this way — and this part of central Wisconsin would make a good long weekend someday — we’ll surely take a look at the new marker.

You could think of it as a ridiculous tourist attraction, considering how arbitrary it is. After all, the Prime Meridian would be running through Paris had the French had their way — 2°20′14.03″ to the east, which would put 45°N, 90°W pretty close to, or even in, Green Bay. The body of water, not the town. I’m not going to figure it out exactly, though.

Somehow, I like the arbitrariness. It also reminds me that I’d like to visit Four Corners, too, which is even more arbitrary.

Summertime Beer

Old friends were over on Saturday for a grilling and gabfest, though it was too windy for an outdoor grilling, so I cooked inside. We did sit outside, however, for eating and drinking, and when it was over, some empty beer bottles were left behind.

beer

That’s five of the seven, with two other duplicates, consumed by six of us. We aren’t much in the way of drinkers, though a bit of wine went down, too. In any case, there was some label and geographic variety.

Leinenkugel’s, of course, is a Wisconsin brew. One of these days I might make it to Chippewa Falls for a tour of the brewery. The bottle is refreshingly clear of marketing blarney, and unapologetic about its Indian maiden mascot.

DAB is German, brewed in Dortmund. That stands for Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei. That’s the one I drank. Found it satisfying. Hard to go wrong with a German brew. The label claims Dortmund is the “brewcity of Germany,” but that’s like all those places that claim to have the world’s best hamburger.

Sierra Nevade Pale Ale is either from California or North Carolina. The bottle claims both locations. According to one online commentator at least, “Over the course of more than three decades, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (henceforth “SNPA”) has evolved from an industry outlier to trusty dive-bar standby, all the while maintaining fierce allegiance among aficionados.”

Exiled Angel is the local selection, brewed in not-far-away Algonquin, Ill. Exiled Angel is a Belgian Strong Pale Ale-style beer brewed by Scorched Earth Brewing Co. I didn’t get to try it. But Exiled Angel was my favorite label of the evening.

Exiled Angel

Reminded me some of last year’s Stone, with its diablo design. Seems like there should be a whole subset of beer named after evil characters. How about evil Old Testament figures? Cain IPA. Men of Sodom Pale Ale. Ba’al Bitter. Jezebel Stout.

There’s some diabolical revisionism on the label. “Lucifer, Satan and the Devil — names cast upon heaven’s Exiled Angel — marked as deceptive, seductive, and powerful: characteristics closely associated with the Belgian Style Golden Ale.” Sure, whatever you say.

Hop Jockey — I like that name — isn’t from much further away, Milwaukee. The beer columnist (now there’s a gig) for the Wisconsin State Journal seems to like it.

Lou Mitchell’s

On Easter Saturday, which was clear and pleasantly warm, we took our first Chicago Architectural Foundation tour of the year, more about which later. To get there, we took a train to Union Station, timing things so that we could eat before the tour. I figured the place to go was Lou Mitchell’s. It had been a while, though more recently than 2005.

I might be misremembering, but I think my friend Rich took me to Lou Mitchell’s for the first time during my first visit to Chicago in 1981. Or if not then, sometime during a visit in the 1980s. Even then it was an institution of a diner, and Lou Mitchell himself was still around, giving away either doughnut holes or tiny packs of Milk Duds to patrons as they came in.

So much of an institution that the National Park Service devotes a page to the restaurant as part of its Route 66 series. “Built in 1949, Lou Mitchell’s is located at 565 West Jackson Boulevard, a few blocks west of Lake Michigan and the eastern terminus of Route 66,” the page notes.

Lou Mitchell’s itself claims a 1923 founding by Lou Mitchell’s father, but presumably that was a different location. In ’49, the Mitchells probably thought nothing of the fact that W. Jackson happened to be US 66 at that point, just that it was a good city street to be on. These days, there’s a bit of Route 66 decor on the walls, but not too much.

“Visitors immediately focus on the original aluminum and glass storefront,” the NPS continues. “Rising up from the upper front façade and extending the entire length of the building is the eye catching, original 1949 neon sign that proudly states ‘Lou Mitchell’s Serving the World’s Best [sic] Coffee.’
Lou Mitchell's facade 2017“Another original sign, this one extolling the restaurant’s handmade bakery goods, is still hanging on the front façade. Aside from timely upgrades of the kitchen and bathrooms, the interior of Lou Mitchell’s has not been significantly altered since 1949. The dining room retains its original black and white terrazzo flooring, and most of the dining and counter areas are unchanged.

“The booths have their original wood tables, coat racks, and seats, although the seats sport new upholstery. The multi-sided counters with individual stools are original but have newer laminated surfaces and upholstery. Much of the wood and Formica wall paneling dates to 1949.”

Add to these things the hum of talking people, the clink of silverware and the distinct pleasant smell of a diner, and that’s the atmosphere you get at Lou Mitchell’s. None of that would matter without the food, which has been uniformly good over the years I’ve eaten there. Mostly breakfast items for me, such as the sapid ham and cheese omelette I had recently, which comes with cubed potatoes and toast. My kind of eats.

New Product Thursday

Trader Joe’s is always good for some novelty or oddity. That’s the way that store does things. Lately I picked up a Trader Joe’s Quasar Bar, a 1.8 oz. candy bar, on impulse. There’s no indication on the packaging who actually makes the bar for the grocery store chain, but no doubt it’s one of the major confectioners, since it’s a high-quality bar.

Naturally it has an astronomical name. After all, there’s Mars and Milky Way and Starbursts and probably others I don’t know about. The verbiage on the package: “With whipped chocolate and rich caramel enrobed in dark chocolate.” Interesting choice of a verb, enrobed. A very Trader Joe’s touch.

The Quasar Bar’s compared to the Milky Way, and there’s something to that, but I thought of it more as the love child of a Milky Way Midnight Dark Chocolate and a 3 Musketeers. The combination works well. Not worth a trip to Trader Joe’s by itself, but a good impulse purchase if you’re there. More about it here, at an entire blog devoted to that grocery store.

Sad to say, Trader Joe’s Low Calorie Lemonade, in the 8 fl. oz. plastic bottle, isn’t nearly as good. It’s neither very sweet nor particularly tart. I prefer my lemonade on the tart side, but not too tart, though I can understand those who like it sweet. This lemonade tastes like lemon juice added to water.

At first I thought I hadn’t shaken it vigorously enough, but after a good shaking, it still tasted like lemon juice added to water. It might be made from organic, fair-traded, non-GMO, gluten-free lemons, but that doesn’t make it any good (actually, it only says organic).

On to Costco, where Yuriko picked up a 30 oz. package of Aussie Bites, a product of Best Express Foods, not of Australia, but Hayward, Calif. A Delicious Health Snack! the package promises.

Some ingredients are in large type on the package: rolled oats, dried apricots, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, honey, coconut, quinoa, chia seeds. In standard ingredient-label smaller type: all those, plus various kinds of sugar, butter, sea salt, baking soda, rice flour, etc. ZERO TRANS FATS is in all caps.

They’re essentially cookies, though not disk shaped, but more like small, densely packed muffins. Quite tasty, but also very filling. It’s taken us more than a month to eat most of them.

Peanut Butter, Honey & Banana

Around lunchtime today, I had a hankering for a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich. It had been good while. All of the ingredients were on hand, so voila!

I don’t take nearly enough pictures of the food I’m about to eat, so here it is. (I don’t think it’ll end up on Facebook, though.)

peanut butter, honey and bananaTom’s Tabooley in Austin used to serve a dandy pbh&b sandwich for a very modest price. At least it did in the summer of 1981, when I would eat there occasionally. I checked today and discovered that Tom’s Tabooley has closed. That didn’t surprise me — that’s the way it is in the restaurant trade — but what did surprise me was that it closed in 2016.

As I enjoyed my homemade pbh&b creation, it occurred to me that Elvis was fond of them, too. Or at least I thought I’d read that some years ago in Amazing But True Elvis Facts by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo (1995), which I picked up on a remainder table sometime in the late ’90s. I know that because the price tag on the back of the book says, “Originally $6.95 SALE PRICE $.97,” a bargain for sure.

So I checked. I wasn’t quite right. Memory is an unreliable narrator. P. 59: “At home, [Elvis] loved to munch a sandwich of peanut butter, sliced bananas, and crisp bacon.”

In the same book, p. 143, you can also discover that, “Elvis’s favorite film was Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It featured one of the King’s favorite actors, Peter Sellers, in three different roles. Elvis watched the 1964 British-made film at least fifty times in his life.”

Remarkable, considering he only lived to be 42. Apocryphal or not, that “amazing true Elvis fact” makes me smile.

The Courtyards of Plaka, 1987

Ah, Greek food. A fine thing. I’ve had it in a number of places, including Sydney, but unfortunately not Greece. There was none to be found in San Antonio of the 1970s, nor Nashville of the early ’80s, or at least I made no effort to find it.

March20.1987 (2)So I never had any until sometime in the mid-80s, probably in Chicago. One of the things to do during visits to the city in those days was seek out various kinds of food you couldn’t find at home, relying on word-of-mouth or luck in those pre-look-it-up-on-your-electronic-box days, to get commentary from a crowd of strangers. Will future generations believe people used to live like that?

Based on online evidence, the Courtyards of Plaka seems to be closed, but I’m not entirely sure, and don’t feel like calling them unless I’m going there. In any case, 30 years ago was long enough ago that a lot of restaurants still gave away matches, rather than cards. Now I sometimes can’t find either.

I picked up some matches when I went with my friends Neal and Michele, who lived in Chicago at the time. I just had moved there the month before. I don’t usually write anything on the matches or cards I find at restaurants, but for some reason I did that time. Maybe I should have more often.

March20.1987Can’t say that I remember much about that evening, though I’m sure we had a fine time. A short 1993 description of the restaurant in the Tribune said: “A lively place, especially once the live piano music gets underway. A handsome bar overlooks the stage-perfect for those who just stop in for a drink. The pretty, two-level dining room is awash in shades of terra cotta, with dark green accents; a series of white wooden slats suspended from the ceiling creates a canopy effect that makes you feel as though you’re eating outdoors.

“The menu lists a fair number of mezedes, the tapas-like tasting portions that lend themselves to grazing. There are also solid, sizable entrees: a pair of double lamb chops, a bit too chewy but quite tasty, and pair of expertly grilled, gently seasoned quail.”

Thursday Flotsam

I think I was in the 8th grade when I learned the difference between flotsam and jetsam. Mr. Allen’s English class. He was firm in his belief that you should learn things in school. I suppose most teachers feel that way, but he was particularly adamant. Once a wiseacre named Tim asked Mr. Allen why anyone had to learn what he was teaching. “Because if you don’t know it, you’ll be ignorant,” was his answer.

Saw La La Land recently. It was everything it needed to be. Namely, skillfully made and visually appealing light entertainment, with an especial fine use of the Griffith Observatory as a setting, and an ending a bit above the usual formula. A lot else has been written about it, of course. Endless commentary. As far as I’m concerned, that’s overthinking the matter.

My parents’ and grandparents’ generations weren’t right about everything, but I think they had a healthy take on song-and-dance movies. Mostly light entertainment, though there was the song that was just as powerful a weapon as any cannon or battleship in the First World War.

Speaking of war, after posting about the evacuation of Fort Moultrie on December 26, 1860, I found the digital version of The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies to see if Maj. Anderson’s telegram was indeed the first item in that sprawling compendium. It is.

I was amused by the second item, also a telegram, dated December 27.

Major Anderson, Fort Moultrie:
Intelligence has reached here this morning that you have abandoned Fort Moultrie, spiked your guns, burned the carriages, and gone to Fort Sumter. It is not believed, because there is no order for any such movement. Explain the meaning of this report.
— J.B. Floyd, Secretary of War

Or as Sec. Floyd might have said privately, “The deuced you say! He did what?” Three days later, Floyd resigned as Secretary of War, and is remembered — when he’s remembered at all — for suspicious behavior in that office, at least as far as the Union was concerned, and as an incompetent Confederate general.

General Floyd, the commanding officer, who was a man of talent enough for any civil position was no soldier, and possibly, did not possess the elements of one. He was further unfitted for command for the reason that his conscience must have troubled him and made him afraid. As Secretary of War, he had taken a solemn oath to maintain the Constitution of the United States and uphold the same against all enemies. He had betrayed that trust.
— Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

Recommended eatery in Charleston: Bluerose Cafe.

Bluerose Cafe

I started looking for dinner a bit late on a Friday night, and went to one place I’d found on Google maps. It was jammed, and more importantly, so was its parking lot. I went to my second choice. It too was full. Facing the possibility of fast food, which I didn’t really want, I headed back toward to hotel, when I noticed the Bluerose. Plenty of parking there.

The restaurant wasn’t packed either. In fact, at about a half hour before closing, only one table was occupied, with a fellow eating at a counter, and a hostess/waitress behind the counter. The place was simply decorated, but not drab, and the longer I looked around, the more I started noticing Irish touches, such as the sign that said, Céad Míle Fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes).

I sat at the counter as well, and the man eating there said, “I’ll get you something as soon as I’m finished. I haven’t had a chance to eat all day.”

He had a distinct Irish brogue. Turned out he was Denis O’Doherty, the proprietor. I told him not to hurry. We talked a bit, and he told me that he’d come to the United States a good many years ago, living in Boston quite a while, but in Charleston for the last 13 years or so, running the Bluerose. People get around.

I ordered the pan fried flounder before too long, and Mr. O’Doherty went back to the kitchen, which is visible from the counter, to prepare it. While he was at work on that, a woman came in and ordered some food to go, and talked a while with Denis as she sat at the counter. A regular customer. I got the feeling that the place had a lot of regular customers.

He didn’t let the talk distract him too much, because when I got my fish, it was superb. Which was the exact word I used when he asked how the fish was. Sometimes, when it comes to finding good food on the road — even in the age of Yelp and Tripadvisor and all that ya-ya — you just have to get lucky.

Billy Beer Now Counts as an Antique?

First things first. Remember the Alamo.

Not long ago we visited an antique mall in another northwest suburb that we go to occasionally, though this was the first time in a few years. On the whole it’s a likable place stuffed to the gills with debris from across the decades. I like looking around, just to remind myself how much stuff there is in the manmade world. The establishment frowns on photographing its wares, so I have no images.

The mall’s postcards, unfortunately, tend to be $1 or more each. It has to be a special card for me to pay that much. Got enough of them anyway. Several drawers full of old photographs of random strangers were also available, at a lower cost per item. Many were easily taken 100 years ago. That only goes to prove that for most people, any images older than their grandparents might as well be cave paintings.

The most amusing find: a six pack of Billy Beer, apparently unopened. I don’t ever remember actually seeing any, only hearing about it, as everyone did in 1977. A short history of the risible brand, posted in 2010, is at Mental Floss, whose key line is: “That’s about the best summary of Billy Beer that we can find; it was so noxious that not even Billy Carter would drink it.”

As for later: “Billy Beer perfectly fit the mold for a worthless collectible. It was made in giant quantities. Hordes of people had speculatively saved some. It had no intrinsic value.”

I think the price on the cans was $30. Who knows, maybe Billy Beer’s time as a collectible will come someday, as those giant quantities waste away across the decades. But I’m not going to buy any in hopes of finding out.

Winterlude ’17

Time for a winter hiatus. Back on about February 26, when it will still be winter, but at least with the prospect of a less winterish March to look forward to. Winter around here fades like it’s being tuned out by a dimmer switch — in the hands of a three-year-old, so the transition isn’t very smooth.

Before we saw the parade in Chinatown earlier this month, we walked by the Chicago Public Library Chinatown Branch. It’s fairly new and I didn’t remember seeing it before.
Chicago Public Library Chinatown branchIt’s a nice piece of work. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the building won a Library Building Award from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association about a year ago. Being Sunday, it was closed, so we didn’t have a chance to go inside and look around.

Here’s something I saw not long ago when I happened to have a camera in my hand.
It was a drink machine. That it takes credit and debt cards isn’t so strange. Apple Pay, on the other hand, is a new one for me on a vending machine. But maybe I don’t see enough vending machines to notice. At least regular cash is still an option. What’s next, Bitcoin?