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Monroe, Wis., gets props for its lively food scene

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MONROE, Wis. — When entering a Mexican-tinged barbecue restaurant with Wisconsin flair, the only thing to do is embrace your fear (and if a Mexican-tinged barbecue restaurant with Wisconsin flair doesn't scare you, it should).

So upon taking a seat at Pancho & Lefty's one weekday afternoon, I ordered the most preposterous thing on the bright yellow menu: a burrito stuffed with a grilled brat, beans, cheese, sauerkraut and a house-made spicy cheese sauce. It was, appropriately, called The Badger. The menu called it "surprisingly outstanding!"

Even more surprising, I thought, was that such a burrito existed.

Sipping one of the handful of Wisconsin craft beers on tap — Ale Asylum's fresh, biting Hopalicious pale ale — I leaned back to take in the sights. Pancho & Lefty's sports a cozy, worn-in feel that belies its 4-year-old youth: deep red walls, dark wood booths, stuffed animal heads on the walls and the warm glow of Pabst, Schlitz and Hamm's signs make the place seem as if it has been there a generation or two.

One waitress discussed how excited she was about an upcoming Bon Jovi concert. Another shared details of her recent camping trip. So it's that kind of place.

Soon, The Badger arrived. Even if the plate seemed to weigh about 14 pounds, the burrito looked innocent enough — just a bulging flour tortilla with no further frills. But what I found within those flour walls was a culinary conquest: salty, tangy, meaty, creamy, hearty, smoky and gut-busting. It was as gluttonously glorious as glorious gluttony can be. It was as silly as it was fantastic — which is probably the point of a Mexican-tinged barbecue restaurant with Wisconsin flair.

Local flair, in fact, is strong in the restaurants of tiny Monroe, which sits 130 miles northwest of Chicago, in the heart of Wisconsin cheese country.

Though Monroe dining may not be a destination unto itself, if you're driving on the New Glarus-Madison corridor, the food is certainly worth a stop. So is Monroe itself. Arranged like many wonderful small Midwestern towns — the old well-kept brick courthouse, ringed by businesses on all sides, is the center of the action — Monroe amplifies its charm with spotless streets, handsome landscaping and classical music that floats across the central square. Let your mind drift, and you could be on a theater set.

And then there is the food. Monroe's is a small but mighty food scene, boasting a legendary "cheese store and tavern" (Baumgartner's), fresh breakfast and lunch (Cafe Claudeen) and one of the largest breweries in the Midwest (Minhas Craft Brewery), a new spot serving locally raised beef (Laughing Trout) and Pancho & Lefty's' well-executed unpredictability.

As if the burrito weren't audacious enough, I also tried Pancho & Lefty's barbecue. My sampler platter of brisket, pulled pork and ribs was rich, tender and tangy. With just a touch of barbecue sweetness, the house-smoked corned beef was succulently fatty enough to make Jewish and Irish grandmothers weep in united admiration.

When finally hungry again — it took a while — I headed across the square to Baumgartner's, which calls itself a "cheese store and tavern." In its shop upfront, Baumgartner's sells about 25 local cheeses, such as jalepeno havarti and smoked baby Swiss. Then you notice the sign that says, "Through this portal you can get the best cheese sandwiches in the world." Big words.

I strolled through that portal into the tavern, to find a long wood bar beneath a mural of Champagne bottles at war with beer steins. The menu tacked above the bar seemed intended for an old-school audience, and indeed, half of it is identical to Baumgartner's original 1931 menu, said my server, Justin Laws. Brick, Swiss and cheddar cheese sandwiches cost $3. Limburger, salami and braunschweiger sandwiches cost $3.25. All cheese sandwiches are served room temperature "to bring out the flavor in the cheese," Laws said.

In recent months, Baumgartner's has introduced more mainstream Wisconsin fare, with "exotic brats" every Thursday at lunch. The restaurant offers two or three per week from a rotation of about 50, including a "Thai brat" (pork and coconut sausage topped with a coconut milk and bean sprout slaw) and a "French onion brat" (pork and Swiss brat with caramelized onion, Swiss cheese and croutons).

But this day, I asked Laws for the most true-to-Monroe cheese sandwich I could have, and he returned with the Limburger spread on dark rye and topped with red onion. He suggested adding mustard, but I couldn't get that far. The sandwich smelled like funky toes, which is apparently a common sentiment. There's a reason for it: The bacteria that grow on our feet is the same bacteria used to ferment Limburger.

Yet despite every instinct that said, "Don't eat what smells like stinky feet," I took a small nibble to discover that, yes, Limburger cheese tastes like it smells.

"It's a hit-or-miss thing," Laws said. "I just had a 5-year-old girl in here eating the heck out of it."

Fortunately, one of the bartenders gladly finished my sandwich so it would not go to waste. Unfortunately, there's a 5-year-old girl somewhere with braver taste buds than mine.

If you go

Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern (1023 16th Ave., 608-325-6157, baumgartnercheese.com). As old school as old school gets. Who wouldn't be charmed by a self-professed "cheese store and tavern"?

Cafe Claudeen (1014 17th Ave., 608-329-5899, cafeclaudeen.com). Mostly known for its lunches, but breakfast shines with a homemade quiche of the day. It has several homemade pastries and pies.

Laughing Trout (407 Sixth St., 608-328-4545, laughingtrout.com). The menu at this new spot is heavy on fish, but when I heard the beef came from a farm less than 10 miles away, I ordered a mushroom-Swiss burger. Sure enough, it was delicious — fresh, juicy, earthy and almost a little tangy.

Minhas Craft Brewery (1208 14th Ave., 608-325-3191, minhasbrewery.com). The beer is mostly lousy, but Minhas makes many brands, so one might strike you. Otherwise, the brewery tour gets raves, and the collection of beer memorabilia in the basement is fascinating.

Pancho & Lefty's (1018 17th Ave., 608-426-6116, panchoandleftysgrill.com). A stunningly wonderful hybrid of Mexican food, barbecue and Wisconsin decadence (which in this case is generally code for cheese).

jbnoel@tribune.com

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