When I informed my friends of our planned stopping place in Wausau, about 70 percent of the way to the cabin in northern Wisconsin that was our destination, the scoffing began at once.
“Ooh, ‘artisan food,’” one emailed, having inspected Red Eye Brewing Company’s web presence. “IT’S WAUSAU. THEY’RE TRYING. CUT THEM SOME SLACK,” I responded, with an all-caps vehemence that telegraphed my true feelings: “Yeah, yeah, I get it; it’s a small town. But it could be good! Let’s give it a try!”
Although beer and pizza are, in fact, rocket science — doing either really well takes a great deal of thought — Red Eye seemed to be entirely earnest about its mission, and its online halo shone fairly brightly. So when we arrived at the place, our hopes were high.
For the most part, our faith was rewarded. Take, for example, the wood-fired Margherita pizza ($12). It was crisp and chewy with a nice bright sauce, whole basil leaves, and excellent Wisconsin cheese. In terms of enjoyment, I’d log it below Pizza Nea but above Punch — not that there’s anything wrong with Punch. Red Eye just makes a mean Margherita.
Our happiness wavered, however, when we tried the pesto-based Prosciutto and Arugula ($13.50). What would we have liked to taste? The prosciutto, and the arugula — and maybe the golden raisins, which seemed like a nice touch. What did we taste, to the exclusion of everything else? A jungle-funky blast of garlicy pesto. This thing was a swing and a miss, albeit a well-intentioned one.
The rest of our food was seriously solid. The Wisconsin Burger ($13) was a little too salty but otherwise pretty killer — the smoky Nueske’s bacon and sharp Carr Valley cheddar paired up beautifully with the grass-fed beef and caramelized onions. This is a burger we wish would cross the border. The Cowboy Panini ($9), with bacon, turkey, and cranberry barbecue sauce, was utterly decent (perfectly toasted, crunchy bread went a long way here), but the Truffle Parmesan Tots we ordered as a side were out of control good — delicately crunchy, tender interior, great potato flavor, not too much truffle oil, and a balanced hit of nutty cheese.
On the beer front, Red Eye is doing some legitimate things. For starters, the brewery’s beer signage is an education unto itself. Brew names are listed alongside styles, OG, IBU, and ABV data points, and upcoming beers are teased just to get you stoked for what’s to come. We tried five beverages and quite liked one, liked a couple others, and had no real love — or distaste, really — for the last two. From worst to best: the Oh My Gourd Imperial Pumpkin Ale (second from left, below) was 8.1 percent ABV and tasted like it. It had a boozy and acetaldehyde-evocative paint thing going on that undermined its core strengths: namely that it wasn’t too sweet and the “pumpkin spice” aspect of the beer was nicely done. The Eden Belgian Raspberry (far left, below) had a sodalike thing going on, and not in a good way. The raspberry flavor seemed too insistent and powerful to be natural.
Better was the Festbier Märzen (far right), which was a straightforward but pleasant affair, well-balanced with a welcoming malt-forward bent. The Scarlet Dubbel (second from right) was a lovely malt-caramel bomb — a bit sweet but not insanely so, and a lot of fun to drink. The brewery’s Thrust IPA was the top of the heap — a perfect amount of balanced bite, and quite refreshing despite a decently aggressive 7 percent ABV.
But we finished it. Everybody killed their quarter. Why? How had this happened? The light, warm, chewy dough of the calzone (not brick hard or greasy) was a lovely complement to the chocolate hazelnut of the Nutella, and the exterior sweetness ensured that every bite tasted like dessert. We’d gone in hostile, but the hulking monster had won us over — at a price point of $2 a person for a big, lovely dessert, to boot.
At the end of the meal, our leftover pizza was packed up in a foil swan, our favorite way to carry excess food.
After lunch, which had spiraled into an hourlong affair, we were eager to stumble upon a coffeehouse and then hit the road for points north. The stumbling took us about 30 seconds: next door to Red Eye is Patina, a coffeehouse that we would have settled for no matter its appearance. But in this case it beckoned to us, sirenlike, with a Collectivo Coffee sign that promised real beverages made by people who cared.
We ordered a variety of coffees and teas from the inviting menu board and lingered around waiting for them to be made. In the meantime, something caught our eye: a sign promoting Fire Cider, a mix of apple cider vinegar, onions, ginger, horseradish, habanero peppers, and citrus that initially made us think of Superior Switchel.
Fire Cider is nothing like Superior Switchel. Patina pours sample shots of Fire Cider for the curious, and we gave it a go. It’s like — well, fire’s not quite right, but it really is lively. The ginger and peppers really duke it out, and then you’re left with a garlic-vinegar blaze that burns for a few minutes after the last drops have gone down. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it thing, and of the three of us who imbibed, we split 2:1 in favor of the stuff.
Everything we ordered from Patina — coffee, an espresso drink, and an ass-kicking tea — was to our liking, and we knew that we’d be back the next time travel took us through Wausau.