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