We Minnesotans love our summer weekends at the lake. And regardless of what may separate us in the colder months from our cousins on the other side of the St. Croix, Wisconsinites also love their summer weekends at the lake. Should you ever find yourself, a Minnesotan, absconding for Wisconsin’s lake country, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself in the town of Hayward, home to the Lumberjack World Championships, American Birkebeiner, and the delightfully out-of-place Angry Minnow brew pub.
As you approach Hayward going north on US 63, billboards herald your arrival, advertising ice cream shops, gift shops, and hotels. Judging by the number of billboards, the Angry Minnow is the only place without an ad on the way into town. And if you aren’t looking for it, off to your left as the speed limit slows to 25 and you arrive at downtown Hayward, you might miss it.
The Angry Minnow is housed in a square and stately red brick building, with a wood and metal sign that’s nearly invisible compared to the brightly painted or backlit plastic signs at every other restaurant, gas station, or building center. Built by a lumber baron in the late 1800s, the building is as striking inside as it is outside. You enter through heavy wooden double doors into a dining room centered around a long, two-sided bar, split down the middle by a brick archway with stools all around. The tall, pressed-tin ceilings, worn wooden floors, and stained glass accents are instantly welcoming.
On this June day, we started with the Heirloom Salad ($12), described as “tomatoes, quinoa blend, feta, carrots, asparagus, balsamic vinaigrette.” The salad’s arrival elicited an “Oh, wow!” and nods across the table acknowledging the beautiful presentation. Two half carrots, one yellow and one purple, reached across the plate, crossed by full spears of steamed asparagus, supporting a bed of spinach, slices of heirloom tomato, and a heap of quinoa and grains, sprinkled with feta. It was drizzled conservatively with vinaigrette and served alongside salted wheat crackers.
The ingredients were fresh and delicious. The quinoa blend was nutty and cooked to al dente. The heirloom vegetables were sweet — the tomatoes juicy and the carrots crunchy, and the feta crumbs balanced everything out with a touch of saltiness. The only weak spot was the asparagus, slightly overcooked, with the woody ends still attached. Though the presentation was visually impressive, it was functionally curious. The carrots were uncooked so we eventually resorted to eating with our hands. The salad was good overall, if somewhat uneven, and the portion was large enough to serve as a meal by itself, justifying its price as one of the most expensive items on the menu.
Next we tried the smoked turkey piadina ($9). When we asked our server the obvious question, we were told that a piadina is an Italian flatbread sandwich. If it wasn’t so bubbly, soft, and toothsome, we might have wanted to split hairs on the difference between flatbread and tortilla. Whether flatbread or tortilla, it did the hard work of holding the spinach, cheddar, tomato, and turkey together from first bite to last.
We have seen several incarnations of the smoked turkey sandwich at the Angry Minnow and they’ve all been excellent. The piadina was no exception. The cheese and vegetables were generously portioned and fresh, but it’s the house-smoked turkey that makes this sandwich so good. It was browned on the edges, slightly pink, and so mouthwateringly tender, you could put it between two pieces of rawhide and still have a great sandwich. This version, served taco-style with a pile of kettle chips and a crunchy pickle was delightful.
We were at the Angry Minnow on Thursday, which must be near enough to Friday to serve fish in Wisconsin. Your choices are white fish (baked, spicy baked, or pan-fried for $9) or pan-fried perch for $13.50. Previous experience has shown that when the Angry Minnow says “spicy” they mean it, and not in a Midwestern “kinda hot” way (try the Surley or the Minnow Cheese Steak if you don’t believe it), so we ordered the spicy baked white fish.
Served over spinach and rice and beans, the fish was tasty, delicate, and flaky. It had a great Cajun flavor, but wasn’t as punishingly spicy as we hoped, though the mango salsa on top of the fish supplemented the kick. The rice and beans were an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mix of pinto, black, and kidney beans; white and wild rice; black and brown quinoa; orzo; and bits of tomato and peppers thrown in. The beans were soft but retained some firmness, and again the grains were al dente. Altogether it’s a great dish (and a great value) if you are there on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.
The food at Angry Minnow is thoughtfully prepared and (for the most part) perfectly cooked, and they clearly put the same care into their beer. Sampling from the impressive number of taps proves that the brewers at Angry Minnow are capable of hitting many different notes. The Oaky’s Oatmeal Stout, River Pig Pale Ale, Honey Wheat, and Minnow Lite are available year-round, but we’ve seen our favorite, the Rye IPA, on tap in the fall and the summer, long after liquor stores have run out of early-spring seasonal rye beers.
As long as it stays in season (and it always has so far), the well-balanced Rye IPA is a must-have. This is the beer that we make a point to stop in for. It’s slightly bitter with a floral hop aroma and a dry finish. It seems that everyone has come out with a rye beer in the last year or two, and the Angry Minnow’s version is more sophisticated than most.
We also tried the Last Notch Wheat (pictured) and found it to be summery, light, and thirst quenching. Avoiding the overly fruity pitfall that catches so many wheat beers, this one is bright in color, bubbly and opaque, and refreshing enough to make a great session beer.
We found the River Pig Pale Ale to be a serviceable pale. It’s hoppy and pleasantly bitter – similar in profile to the Rye IPA, but with a malty sweetness that weighs it down more than other pale ales. On previous visits, we found that compared to the River Pig, McStukie’s Scotch Ale ramps up the maltiness and tones down the hops, and we tremendously enjoyed the Oaky’s Stout for its smoky, sweet flavor, and creamy, unexpectedly light body.
All of the beer is brewed on site (you can see down into the brewery from the vestibule and from a balcony in the back room). The River Pig and Oaky’s are available in 16-oz. cans, and they’ll fill a growler with anything available on tap. Sit at the bar if you want to ask questions about the beer – some of the servers appear to be too young to imbibe, so knowledge on the floor can be spotty. If you are looking for variety, beer flights are available, or if circumstances call for something stronger, there is a full bar, with top-shelf whiskey and tequila, and wine.
Compared to the diners and pizza buffets elsewhere in town, the Angry Minnow’s menu is chef-driven and deliberate (it’s certainly the only place in town where they serve spinach on a burger). The food is self-consciously quirky yet true to the Northwoods. You’ll find local and seasonal ingredients, but you’ll also find guacamole and spinach-artichoke dip. Their menu rotates with the seasons and with the whims of the chef, so don’t get too attached to any dish (when the Angry Minnow jettisoned their deep fryers, the mainstay French fries were off the menu). Their beer is varied in style and well executed without exception. The atmosphere is casual and fun, without being Northwoods kitchy.
If you find yourself in Hayward, Wisconsin, don’t miss the Angry Minnow (it’s easy to do if you don’t keep an eye out). And if Hayward isn’t your final destination, it’s the kind of place that’s worth altering your route from A to B to make sure you pass through town (just not on Sunday, when they’re closed). Whether you are a world champion lumberjack, a cross-country skier, or just a vacationing Vikings fan, you’re sure to find something great to eat and drink.
Angry Minnow Brew Pub
Brew pub in Hayward, WI
10440 Florida Ave
Hayward, WI 54843
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
ENTREE RANGE: $11-30