Chicken Shahi Korma at Ray’s Southside in Baldwin, WI

James Norton / Heavy Table

Nineteen miles over the border into Wisconsin on Hwy 94, mere yards from the exit marked “Baldwin,” there is a Mobil station.

If you stop at this Mobil station and fill up, you may glance over and notice a sign in the window that is unlike any other sign on any other gas station (Mobil or not) between St. Paul and Chicago.

It reads: “WE SERVE AMERICAN AND EAST INDIAN FOOD IN RESTAURANT — CURRY TANDOORI SHAKES LASSI VEG SPECIALTY CHAI.”

Six months ago I noted this with interest. There is no commercial reason to be serving Indian food off the side of Highway 90 / 94, a notorious food desert. Locals won’t clamor for it. Passers-through are close enough to or from Minneapolis-St. Paul that they won’t pull over and eat a sit-down meal. The only real explanation for the sign is this: Somebody is so bloody determined to serve Indian food that they’re doing it, commercial imperatives be damned. The sign smacked of hopeless, pointless, beautiful love.

I promptly forgot that the sign and the Mobil station existed. But this week, driving back from Madison and half-mad with both curiosity and hunger, I pulled over to check it out. The assumption was that whatever quixotic impulse had led to its construction had burned out. But, no. The sign was still there.

The Mobil station’s restaurant is called Ray’s Southside, and it’s a tired-looking place. Swinging wooden shutters separate the counter from the kitchen; one shutter dangles half off of its hinges, and swings at a 45 degree angle. On a Tuesday afternoon, multiple groups of old men in overalls were eating chicken wing “wing dings” and hamburgers. One of the waitresses was aware that the Super Bowl was being played the next weekend, but couldn’t think of who was in it; the old man at the counter only knew that the Packers weren’t, so he didn’t much care.

But there on the specials board — right below “wing dings” — was the Indian special of the day, “Chicken Shahi Korma,” for $6.99.

I ordered it, and was asked if I’d like my dish mild, medium, or hot. I blurted out “mild” without thinking, and then immediately regretted my answer. Ordering a “mild” anything in a bad-to-mediocre Indian restaurant is the kiss of death, and will result in a castrated dish, devoid of flavor.

So when I put the first bite to my lips, I was braced for blast of bland. But no; the food had depth of spice, it had balance, and it even had a mild but pleasant kick of heat at the back of each bite. The dish was rich without being caked with an artless, cream-based sauce — much of the pleasure from the plate came from the full-flavored paneer, the raisins, the almonds, and the multidimensional sauce that brought all the various elements together. And when the dish hit my table, it was not barely warm, congealed from hanging out under a heat lamp, but delightfully piping hot.

Korma is often creamier and more almond-driven — this version had a tomato base, and consequently more acid than you might expect. Still: legitimately delicious. And serendipitous. (Hunger is the best sauce; serendipity is the second best best sauce, and they layer beautifully.)

I talked to my waitress about the dish and my experience. The dish, she said, was a “team effort,” put together by everyone in the kitchen. The Indian food isn’t typically available on weekends. It has been served at Ray’s Southside “for some time now.”

Clearly getting nowhere, I settled my check and tried the East Indian woman working the counter at the gas station half of the establishment. She was pleased but slightly bemused to hear that I enjoyed the food. She said that she had no idea if it was a family recipe, or, even, what exactly it was doing there. “My husband makes it,” she said, disclaiming responsibility with what may have been a faintly detectable rolling of eyes.

Next time I’ll talk my way into the kitchen and shake the hand of the chef. But he probably won’t need to hear my words, as he is clearly cooking for himself.

Ray’s Southside
American and East Indian Food in Baldwin, WI
501 US Highway 63
Baldwin, WI 54002
715.684.4729
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Possibly
ENTREE RANGE: $5-10

Facebook Comments

comments

James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of a book about Minnesota sandwiches and the people who eat them, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a daily video blogger for CHOW. His latest book is a guide to the food and restaurants of Minneapolis and St. Paul called the Food Lovers’ Guide to the Twin Cities. Norton has written about food for Culture: The Word on Cheese, Salon, Gastronomica, Popular Science, Saveur.com, Minnesota Monthly, and City Pages (as a weekly restaurant reviewer).

Visit Website

11 Comments

  1. I’m very happy to hear about this. All the times I’ve been through Baldwin, I’ve never even noticed the Mobil station. Which side of 94 is it on?

    Brett

  2. Author

    It’s on Hwy 63, just yards south of 94 when you pull off the highway. You can see the Mobil sign from 94, although it’s not massive.

  3. Steve Young-Burns02/03/2012Reply

    One cold evening last winter eating dinner at Ray’s became one of my funnier Facebook posts. “Crabby American diner waitress, cramped plastic booths, long-haul drivers lingering at the counter over bad coffee in a 24 hr truck stop near Baldwin, WI…and the best Indian food we have had (“in the States,” says Julie). Me: “We want to try the Indian food.” Waitress: “Oh…you want THAT menu.” They had Friday fish fry, potato latkes, and incredible Indian food. This was the strangest eating experience since Twin Peaks. “Damned fine plate of vegie korma, ma’am…” The waitress insulted Obama several times, demeaned people with albinism, and kept referring to their fishfry as carp…Then there was the incredibly nice young Indian man we talked to after dinner in the convenience store on the other side. Could not have been nicer, loved hearing about Julie’s trip to India, and made a really good cup of chai.”

  4. Author

    Steve, great story. Twin Peaks is not a bad reference point when trying to explain the vibe. I agree with the quality assessment of the food, too – compares favorably to much of the stuff I used to enjoy in Boston and Chicago. Based on the one dish I tried, it’s in my top five.

  5. I very much enjoyed learning about this spot but wonder if people will get confused by the reference to “Interstate 90/94?” I-90 runs south of Rochester, through Albert Lea, MN; nowhere near the Twin Cities.

    As for location, to anyone curious, the Hwy. 63/Baldwin exit is the first exit east of Hwy. 65 (where the TA truck stop is located, and its hard-miss-miss sign). Turn south onto Hwy. 63, toward Baldwin. That would make it ~20-25 minute drive from downtown St. Paul.

  6. Steve Young-Burns02/03/2012Reply

    You are right noodleman, it is on Interstate 94. The two (90 and 94) are together from Tomah to Madison but not in Ray’s Mini Indian territory.

  7. Author

    Yep, that’s right. I think of it as 90/94 but you’re right about the Tomah split. I’ll amend the story a bit.

  8. There’s a gas station (Holiday?) on highway 8 near Lindstrom(?) that has a similar sign, only they serve middle eastern food. I’ve been meaning to try it forever but still haven’t. I have a gut feeling it’s really, really good food.

  9. Author

    Good tip, Kit. I’ll check it out next time I’m up that way.

  10. I noted the spot as I drove back to town today. Look forward to trying it. Now, who’s got the dope on that supper club in the same quadrant?

    Brett

    ps~ Technicality, but as I drive this stretch A LOT: the TA truck stop is at the US Hwy 12 exit; then it’s 65, Roberts; county T, Hammond; then WI Hwy 63, Baldwin, around milepost 18, as Jim notes.

Trackbacks for this post

  1. [...] simulation on Aug. 18, a taste of Ray’s Southside Indian at the Baldwin exit in Wisconsin (here’s our review), a nice shot of wild boar at Birdhouse (here’s our Birdhouse review), analysis of Cold [...]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*