After an afternoon spent following your children around and around — and, did I mention, around — a lazy river at a Wisconsin Dells water park, fending off the teenagers with Olympic-level water polo moves and, after hearing the lifeguard’s whistle for the 257th time, unsuccessfully fighting the urge to shout, “Did you hear her? She said everyone must be in a tube?!”… I digress. After such an afternoon, you might think that what you really need is a beer and a burger — a really big one, covered in bacon and cheese. And then another beer.
It’s just possible that in this instance, you might be wrong.
What you might need instead is a nourishing, dare I say uplifting, plate of mushroom stroganoff, entirely vegetarian, and served in an atmosphere of wholesome temperance. What you might need is the Cheese Factory.
In a land where ordering a cheese-covered side salad with your ButterBurger constitutes cutting back on the red meat, the Cheese Factory stands out. Or, rather, it would stand out if it weren’t housed in an unassuming little blue building — a former cheese factory — nearly covered in blooming flowers. The menu is entirely vegetarian, in a comforting 1980s-throwback kind of way (yes, the restaurant opened in 1992). There’s the Portobello mushroom sandwich, the East-meets-West noodle dishes, the hummus platter, the spanakopita, and that delicious goulash. It’s a menu that would do that ’80s classic, The Silver Palate Cookbook, proud.
To be clear: That “throwback” comment is not meant to be the least bit disparaging. Early vegetarians, let’s say post-Diet for a Small Planet and pre-Skinny Bitch in the Kitch, did stick-to-your-ribs like nobody else did. Cheese, sour cream, mushrooms cooked in butter, pounds and pounds of tempeh and tofu — there’s small wonder they never missed meat. And that’s the kind of vegetarian comfort food you’ll find at the Cheese Factory. (Vegans, do not despair, there is a special menu for you. Same goes for you celiacs.)
That revivifying stroganoff, made with chunky quartered button mushroom and served over egg noodles, hits all the right Eastern European notes, with a thick, meaty broth and a hint of sage. And the tofu goulash — words that would make the very ground shudder a little in Hungary — is exactly right. It’s rich, tomatoey, and tangy, with a pleasant sheen of oil floating on top. So what if it’s fermented soybeans floating in there, rather than brisket? And alongside: four potato dumplings and a pan-fried slab of sauerkraut. It almost makes the water park a distant memory.
The only complaint you might make is that the rich flavors of Eastern Europe make you crave a beer. Or a deep, dry red wine. Nope. No beer for you. No wine, either. The Cheese Factory is dry. And it’s been smoke-free since it opened almost 20 years ago, long before anyone ever imagined that Wisconsin, of all places, could pass a smoking ban. That, and the rack of Christian literature by the door, are clues to the Cheese Factory’s origins. Founded by a chef who came to the Dells seeking spiritual guidance, the restaurant now employs only people who have completed A Course In Miracles: A Direct Encounter with Jesus Christ in the Evolution and Enlightenment of the Human Species. What a coincidence, really, that they’re also great cooks and servers.
Although the soda fountain at the center of the restaurant no longer works (no more phosphates and egg creams), there are plenty of treats for kids. The old-style revolving pastry case holds complex multilayered cakes and concoctions (some are even vegan), including the house specialty, Cloud Nine — an edifice of white chocolate mousse encasing a slim bar of devil’s food cake. But the kids will look straight past that to the blue-frosted cupcakes studded with candy. (I’m telling you, this is the way to be vegetarian.) And, hell, they had to endure the whistles and the teenagers and the endless roar and gag-inducing humidity of the water park all day, too. A cupcake for them. Cloud Nine for you. No beer, no burger needed.
The Cheese Factory
Vegetarian restaurant in Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin Dells, WI 53965
Winter: Thu-Sun 11am-9pm
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / During peak season
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Entirely / Often
ENTREE RANGE: $9-15