Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Each year from 2003 to 2013 my wife, my son, and your humble writer headed out on a long road trip to anywhere but here. Our 2014 road trip represented a milestone of sorts: our first vacation in over a decade without my son tagging along for the ride. At my wife’s prodding, I examined our vacation options and decided we ought to make this year a milestone in another way — our first sequel vacation. This year’s objective, then: a return to Wisconsin and Minnesota. In my mind, our 2006 road trip was a good start, but in some ways a surface-skimming of what each state has to offer. I wanted a do-over.
Our Day One drive through Wisconsin took us in the late afternoon from downtown Milwaukee to the state capital of Madison. We’d driven through Wisconsin in 2006 and 2009, but this was our first time detouring in Madison’s direction. If you’re only looking for roadside oddities, nearly everything on their to-do list is located along a five-mile stretch of Washington Avenue running diagonally southwest-to-northeast between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. Our hotel was at the northeast end; the State Capitol was at the southwest end. Plotting directions was a cinch.
Between the two endpoints was our dinner destination, Ella’s Deli and Ice Cream Parlor, all decked out like a TGIFriday’s hoarding novelty antiques.
Once you get past the decor, the Ella’s menu is a twenty-page, square-bound catalog that requires a lot of time to examine to its fullest if you’ve never been there before — dozens and dozens of burgers, deli sandwiches, non-burger non-deli sandwiches (melts, franks, and blintzes merit a full page of selections each), salads, salad sandwiches, salad platters, veggie meals, deli platters, homestyle dinners, and more more more.
But the decor slaps you in the eyes first. Even the tables are no mere slabs of wood. Each contains a glass-roofed diorama built into the tabletop, some with moving parts that keep rotating beneath your plates while you eat.
While we waited for service, we took note of the larger-than-life personalities that had us surrounded.
Also, there was food. Eventually.
It was Saturday night. Hungry crowds and service delays are to be expected. Waiting for a table wasn’t so bad. Waiting to order took a while. Waiting for our appetizer was another while. We ordered polenta, which was served in wedges and had the taste and consistency of solid, crisped cornbread. We’d never had polenta before and we have no idea if that was normal or not. Curiously, as of this evening, polenta is no longer listed on the online PDF copy of their menu.
Our main courses took yet another while. In case we thought we were imagining it, our waitress assured us otherwise, “Sorry. The kitchen is really slow.” We appreciated the candid reality check.
My wife ordered a reuben and had no complaints. I ordered a specialty called the Roundhouse Burger, which the menu described as a burger stuffed with pastrami and corned beef. How could I not crave a groundbreaking comfort-invention like meat jam-packed with two more meats as a delicious meaty center?
The meat patty on the sandwich I received, once I tore into it, appeared on the inside to contain only beef, beef coloring, beef texture, beef density, and, as far as I could tell, beef. No sign of deli meats rising above their station. At all. The patty was a quarter-pound at most and, you’ll note in the photo, was served on two bun tops and no bun bottom. (In the industry parlance, that’s two crowns and no heel. When I was a restaurant manager, we mocked 16-year-olds who did this whenever their attention strayed.)
Either the pastrami and corned beef self-destructed on the grill, or someone slapped the wrong kind of patty on my sandwich. By this time too many whiles had passed and I wasn’t in the mood to renegotiate and wait three more whiles for a substitute. I ate my undersized burger, my modest side dishes, and my wife’s leftovers. Curiously, as of this evening the Roundhouse Burger is also no longer listed on the online PDF copy of their menu. The reuben lives on, of course.
In front of Ella’s was the grandest knickknack of all: a working carousel! Whee!
After our meal, we declined to check out their ice cream parlor and we bade them adieu. Ice cream is cool, and quasi-animatronics are keen to a point, but as an adult you learn that sometimes snacks and toys have no power over you and can’t make up for everything.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]