Here’s something to understand about Eau Claire: it’s a college town. The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus runs along the banks of the Chippewa River, with the old downtown of Eau Claire a quick walk across a bridge. The school’s location in the rolling river lands gives the campus one of its most noticeable features: a giant hill, with dorms at the top and classrooms at the bottom. Thus college students at UWEC trudge up and down the hill frequently, burning lots of calories.
Or so one assumes after visiting restaurants in the old part of Eau Claire and pondering portion sizes. Even in this country, where portion sizes have grown alarmingly, Eau Claire takes it further. Fortunately, you can find appealing things to eat — which is good, because whatever you order, you’ll get a lot of it.
Starting your day at The Nucleus is recommended. Bonus: if you’re not a college student hauling yourself up and down the hill, breakfast may be the only meal you’ll need. This hipster-ish coffee shop and bistro puts out enormous breakfasts with crepes, skillets, and omelets big enough to feed a family. The El Presidente ($9), a giant dish of hash browns scrambled with bell peppers, corn, cotija and jack cheeses, chorizo, and poblanos, was topped with two over-easy eggs, cilantro, and sour cream. One order proved too much for two non-college-student adults to share, to their regret — the hash browns were crisp, the eggs perfect, and the chorizo and poblanos provided a nice touch of heat.
The strawberry-Nutella crepe ($9) was a delirium of sugary goodness. A Paul-Bunyan-sized crepe, very tender, reached a height of two inches with its filling of Nutella, strawberries, and whipped cream. It might be a lot for non-Ironman athletes, but the college student in attendance cleaned his plate and proclaimed himself full and happy.
The unimaginatively named Egg Rolls Plus restaurant isn’t much to look it. Foodwise, it was a bit reminiscent of Goldilocks: of the three dishes we tried, one was fantastic, one was OK, and one left something to be desired, all served in portions for Papa Bear. The best of the three was the steak laab ($8), so ordered because the restaurant was inexplicably out of ground beef at 11:30am on a Tuesday. We ordered it spicy, and spicy it was: not tear-inducing, but helpful for the sinuses. The laab had big chunks of garlic and a wonderfully large helping of cilantro for this cilantro-lover, and the steak was perfectly stir-fried — tender and juicy. It was served with a heaping bowl of sticky rice and lettuce leaves for wrapping.
The shrimp fried rice ($8) was a solid rendition. The shrimp were cooked perfectly, and the rice wasn’t dripping with grease or soy sauce. However, the oddly named Hot and Spicy Beef Stir Fry ($8) arrived, well, hot — as did all the dishes; service was excellent, and very few seconds elapsed from the time the food left the wok and arrived at our table—but spicy? No. Not even in the flavorful, not hot, sense. It was a bland stir fry utterly lacking in fire. It didn’t occur to us that if we ordered something called “Hot and Spicy,” we’d need to ask them to make it spicy, but apparently that’s the case. It may be a consistency issue–a later visit found it pleasantly fiery.
The Livery a.k.a. Cowtown Saloon is housed in a historic former livery building and serves as the congenial bar and grill every college town should have. Of course, as expected by this point, the portion sizes were beyond any superlative we could throw at them.
A Cuban sandwich ($10) was mostly a delight, heaped with good-quality, thinly shaved ham and juicy roast pork, but it came with a fried egg on top. The egg was superfluous, given the overall quality of the sandwich — but hill-climbing college students must need lots of protein. An entree of mesquite-smoked brisket ($16) arrived on two dinner plates, one for the brisket and bacon-roasted potatoes, and another for the coleslaw and baked beans. The beef was tender and smoky, and the bacon in the potatoes made them quite decadent. The coleslaw and beans were standard issue, and given the quantity of beef and potatoes, unnecessary.
In preparing to visit Eau Claire, we did some research to see if there might be a restaurant serving small plates. A local website showed a cafe that specialized in just such a menu. But upon our arrival, it was boarded up. Apparently small plates don’t sell in Eau Claire.
405 Water St
Eau Claire, WI 54703
Egg Rolls Plus
1611 Ellinger St
Eau Claire, WI 54703
316 Wisconsin St
Eau Claire, WI 54703