Just like Friday fish fries, Jell-O salads, and beer brats, deep-fried cheese curds are uniquely Wisconsin. Once relegated to county fairs, bars, and bowling alleys, the deep-fried delicacy today claims top billing on many an upscale menu. In downtown Madison, dozens of restaurants offer deep-fried cheese curds as an appetizer or side, and some are even transforming the once lowly fair-food into a top-shelf item.
So which downtown Madison restaurants do deep-fried cheese curds the best? To find out, I visited four different restaurants in a two-hour timespan for the ultimate taste test. But first, I had to pick up my photographer to capture the cheesy journey on film, which proved to be the first hurdle in what was to be a tougher writing assignment than first anticipated.
On a Thursday at 1:00 p.m., upon getting into my car, my photographer promptly informed me he had only two hours for the assignment. Unlike me, he has a real job, and two hours was the longest fake dentist appointment he could make without raising the suspicion of his boss. Incredulous, I asked him, “You mean we have to a) drive downtown, b) find a place to park, c) visit four restaurants and order cheese curds at each, d) eat aforementioned cheese curds, and then e) photograph each, all in two hours?” He stared back at me, unresponsive. I sighed. “Well then,” I said, “Challenge accepted.” And we roared off in my cheek geek mobile to hit four restaurants in 120 minutes.
First stop: Tipsy Cow on King Street. Neither of us had been there, and because we had to wait for our order of cheese curds to cook, we asked the bartender to throw in a couple of burgers, too. Fifteen minutes later, the burgers and cheese curds arrived at our table.
Five minutes later, my burger was gone, and my photographer was still trying to get the perfect shot of the $7.99 curds, which had arrived in a plastic basket lined with black and white checkered paper. I assured him that by now, he must have a good shot, and proceeded to taste my first deep-fried cheese curd of the day.
Hand-battered with New Glarus Spotted Cow beer, the white cheddar cheese curds at Tipsy Cow are very good. Light and fluffy, not greasy and not filling—at least at first—they dare you to eat them all, one luscious curd at a time. Stupidly, we did eat almost the entire basket before asking for the check. Strike one.
Second stop: Graze on Pinckney Street (pictured far top, right). We bellied up to the bar, ordered a basket of $8 cheese curds, and chatted with the bartender while he made me an iced latte. Ten minutes later, a very nice silver metal basket filled to the brim with enormous deep-fried cheese curds appeared, along with a bread and butter plate, and fork and knife for each of us. I wrinkled my brow. Typically, cheese curds are finger food. At Graze, however, cheese curds are considered the first course, and are big enough to require utensils. Sourced fresh daily from Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus and dipped into an in-house vodka batter, these cheese curds are the masters of their domain. Did we eat the entire basket? Of course. Strike two.
Third stop: The Old Fashioned, also on Pinckney Street. By this time, it was after 2:00 p.m., and the bar was fairly empty, so we found two stools under a lamp (the photographer was becoming a pro at shooting curds by this time). We ordered two tap root beers and a $6.95 basket of cheese curds. Five minutes later, the curds arrived, along with General Manager Jennifer De Bolt, who had caught wind that a cheese curd writer and photographer were in town.
Offered with a choice of five sauces, including roasted garlic, smoked Spanish paprika, a tiger sauce with horseradish and mayo, a tiger sauce with blue cheese, and the reliable standby of buttermilk ranch, the curds at The Old Fashioned are second to none. Smaller and greasier than the curds at Graze, they are tasty and addictive. Similar to the Tipsy Cow, The Old Fashioned sources their curd from Vern’s Cheese, a distributor in Chilton, Wisconsin. De Bolt said curds are delivered fresh three days a week, and are dipped in buttermilk before being rolled into a secret seasoned flour concoction. The result: pure bliss.
“The key to a good deep fried cheese curd is starting with a fresh curd,” De Bolt told us. “I can tell the difference between a one-day-old curd and three-day-old curd.” By this time, so could we. The curds at Graze had been super fresh—still milky and squeaky, while the curds at the Tipsy Cow had been less stringy and denser. We happily ate nearly the entire bowl of Old Fashioned cheese curds before realizing our mistake. You guessed it, strike three.
Last stop: the Great Dane Pub on East Doty Street. Hoisting ourselves up to the bar, we reluctantly ordered yet another basket of cheese curds. A few minutes later, the $8 curds arrived, along with Executive Chef Matt Moyer, who seemed disappointed to tell us they had stopped making deep-fried curds in-house years ago. Instead, they purchase frozen curd from a manufacturer in Stevens Point, which uses Point Beer in the beer batter. The result is a super-smooth deep-fried cheese curd, perfectly acceptable, but which pales in comparison to fresh, hand-battered curds.
“We do use fresh curds from Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point for our poutine,” Moyer said, “and despite the fact our curds are not made in-house, they are still our number one selling item on the menu at all five restaurants.” We could see why. If ever there was a food made to eat with a pint of beer, it is a deep-fried cheese curd.
With our bellies full of hot oil and cheese, we stumbled back to the car. It was a little past 3:00 p.m., and I asked my photographer if he would get in trouble for being late to work. He shook his head. “There is no possible way I’m going back to work,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “I’m fairly sure the dentist found a problem. In fact, I’m pretty sure I needed a root canal. I’m going home to lie down.” Turns out Madison’s deep-fried cheese curds had beat us both. But we didn’t mind. Challenge accomplished.