This Whirlwind Tour was underwritten by the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau. The Growler retained editorial control of the content.
Nestled beside the St. Croix River and standing athwart the I-94 Minnesota-Wisconsin border crossing, Hudson, Wisconsin, occupies an enviable patch of territory. It’s the metro’s first stopping point in Wisconsin (countless folks probably remember it from runs to Historic Casanova Liquor before the ban on Sunday sales was rescinded in 2017) and it’s Wisconsin’s gateway to the metro.
We came to Hudson for the food, but we couldn’t help but bump into a bit of culture along the way. Among other galleries, we visited the Seasons on St. Croix Gallery and found a remarkably tasteful collection of pottery, visual art, and jewelry that reminded us of the Northern Clay Center, one of our favorite spots in Minneapolis. And if you have a moment after visiting the hopping 2nd Street business district, get on over to scenic Birkmose Park. It’s a few blocks off the beaten path, but it offers a sylvan stroll with a commanding view of the river.
When it comes time to dive into food, you’ll find an amazing cluster of options near the river at 2nd Street and Walnut Street, but trips farther out from Hudson’s core are rewarding, too.
Right in the heart of things, The Wired Robin offers a vibe that is a carefully composed balance between “let’s get down to business” and “let’s linger and enjoy this coffee,” and its menu echoes that—its dishes are workmanlike and simple but made with care and compellingly tasty. We got the Wisconsin Sandwich ($7.25), which unites ham, egg, and tomato on a BitMad Bakery cheddar bun, which contributes just a hint of that pleasant cheese straw-esque cheese bread flavor to this otherwise classic breakfast entree. (431 2nd St., #201, Hudson)
Hudson’s Urban Olive and Vine has picked up a local reputation for its Nordic Duck Sandwich ($8.75) which has to be one of the most successfully creative breakfast entrees in a 100-mile radius. Functionally speaking, it’s like Peking duck meets a mushroom omelette—duck bacon, plum sauce, and portabella mushrooms bring an earthy depth to the dish; eggs and Havarti cheese anchor it to breakfast; and the thin Nordic waffle that contains the mess acts like a crepe, absorbing flavors and uniting all the various ingredients. (520 2nd St., Hudson)
It’s hard to pin down exactly what’s going on at Joe To Go, but it’s a fascinating place that—pound for pound—is easily one of our favorite coffee stops in recent years. The shop itself is essentially a tiny little tollbooth parked in a lot on a frontage road facing I-94. You can pull up to it on the north or south side, but either way the sole employee will help you navigate the surprisingly byzantine coffee menu (the May espresso features menu—just by itself—included 10 different items). We got a cappuccino ($3.50) and it was fine, but Joe To Go shines with its flavored coffees, which are made with surprising balance and restraint. Example: the Green Monkey (a May special, $4.75) combined coffee with banana, dark chocolate, and pistachio flavors. All the flavors were expressed—nothing tasted cloying or artificial. Taken as a whole, it wasn’t what we’d think of coffee per se, but it was what we think of as good—we happily finished the cup. (1800 Coulee Rd., Hudson)
Azul Tequila Bar and Grill presents a classic “fun Mex” facade, and that can be good or bad. For every fun Mex place that is legitimately, well, fun, there’s another that serves miserable, flavorless, overpriced food. Fortunately, Azul is one of the good guys. From our Guacamole Mexicano ($9), a freshly prepared, ripe avocado-forward guac that presented an ideal balance of avocado, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and seasoning, to our ample and well-prepared Chicken Fajita Lunch ($10), to our sweet (but not overly sweet!) and cinnamon-packed Horchata ($2.50), everything we tried was tasty and made with care. (7289 2421 Hanley Rd., #100, Hudson)
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, Knoke’s Chocolates is an ideal stop. The eight-piece Box of Caramels ($7.25) was pleasing and excellent, just a straight-down-the-middle presentation of tender, full-flavored caramel enrobed in good quality chocolate (either light or dark) and sprinkled with a touch of salt (or not). There’s nothing overwrought or overthought about these chocolates and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Similarly good: the Dark Chocolate Caramel Graham Crackers ($6), which combined just a hint of caramel, a fairly austere and balanced chocolate coating, and crispy grahams to make a highly snackable dessert. And the shop’s Thai Curry Cashews ($4) were remarkably deeply flavored; a quick check of the ingredients revealed galangal and lemongrass among the many flavorful items that give these tasty nuts such a complex and pleasing taste. (220 Locust St., Hudson)
Here’s a disclaimer: We are 100 percent serious about Jamaican-style jerk chicken, and make it regularly at home using the not-exactly-simple, “budget about 24 hours” Serious Eats method. When we saw Jamaican Jerk Chicken on the menu at San Pedro Cafe for $18 we took the entree as a challenge: Could it possibly live up to the dish’s potential (and that price)? In a word: Yes. In more than a few words: truly and absolutely yes, as it packed deep waves of spicy heat and flavor that cradled and elevated the moist chicken and played well with the properly cooked beans and rice that rounded out this gem of a dish.
And while we can’t endorse San Pedro’s so-so $14 Ceviche (which, like many American spins on the dish, suffers from a rigid overcuring / overcooking of the seafood), we will sign off on the restaurant’s pulled pork Street Tacos. Despite being a strange hybrid between legit street tacos and gringo fare (example: pulled pork with a ton of depth and flavor, but accompanied by piles of shredded yellow cheese) they mostly worked, and the build-your-own nature of the dish lets you steer around (or embrace) whatever cultural nuances you’d like to.
Our San Pedro Mojito ($8) could have been a $12 cocktail and we still would recommend it. It had a sense of poise and balance that’s rare and welcome, with sweetness, booze, effervescence, and natural mint all playing together in harmonious proportions. A Golden Margarita (100% agave tequila, house lime mix, orange liqueur, $8) didn’t quite hit the same heights but still put its decent tequila in the spotlight and presented an organized, refreshing face. (426 2nd St., Hudson)
As Stillwater has Domaćin, so Hudson has The Nova Wine Bar, a charming little spot that offers a carefully curated wine list, bites that range from light to substantial, and both indoor and outdoor seating. The Nova’s grotto-like deck is surprisingly secluded from nearby Coulee Road, and is the perfect place for a few small tastes and select goblets of vino. We got a glass of the Nortico Alvarinho ($9) and were pleased by how its fresh, juicy, and mineral-tinted flavor played so well in a sunny patio setting. The restaurant’s Fig Salad ($10) offered similar balance and poise, bringing together blue cheese, candied walnuts, bright dressing, and chewy, sweet slices of fig to create a push-and-pull between sugary, earthy, and astringent flavors. Our Daily Pasta Special ($12) was more of a one-note deal, but not in a bad way—its combination of tortellini in a parmesan cream sauce with green garlic and chopped clams was soothing, salty, and comforting. (236 Coulee Rd., Hudson)
If there is space in your heart for a classic old Upper Midwestern German-American restaurant, get down to the gleefully kitsch-bedecked cellar environs of Winzer Stube, where the ordinary but tasty (and warm) Soft Pretzel ($5.50) is followed unexpectedly by an entire round miniature loaf of bread on the house (“More carbs for you!” chirped our server, happily, as she deposited it at our booth). We thought our Goulash with Spaetzle ($12) missed the mark—it tasted overcooked and heavy (even for goulash), with spaetzle that were much closer to overcooked pasta shells than the nobbly little chewy nuggets of heaven that they can be. But we enjoyed our smartly dressed Currywurst ($11 for one), which boasted a fine, smooth grind, a pleasant depth of spice, and a well-balanced flavor overall. (516 2nd St., Hudson)
There’s one big thing to like at Bricks Neapolitan Pizza of Hudson, and that their pizzas’ crusts—they’ve got that lovely chewy / crispy / carbon-kissed thing going on, plus a perfect salt level, and they’re tasty enough to eat on their own. Everything else seems to follow suit—our Pizza di Bricks ($13) boasted some enjoyably rich little bits of sausage and bold roasted red peppers with a nice ratio of crust to cheese to sauce. All the toppings were good; atop the restaurant’s crust, they were delicious. Likewise, while we had some bones to pick with the restaurant’s Gun Slinger special pizza ($14)—mostly that the sliced mango that topped it overpowered the other ingredients and the nduja (surprisingly!) got totally lost in the shuffle—the crust saved it and made the whole thing palatable if not enjoyable. And the restaurant’s Citrus Salad ($6.50 for a small) had a nice zing to it and was anchored effectively by craisins and candied almonds. (407 2nd St., #2, Hudson)
The Wisconsin mini-chain Milwaukee Burger Company (six locations, only two of which are near Milwaukee) seems to be on a roll—the vibe is buttoned-down corporate fun (a la a mid-sized, mid-priced chain like Red Robin) and it positions its cheese curds on the menu with real flair and panache. The curds really live up to the billing—we tried the Cheese Curd Sampler ($11) and thought all four varieties were the perfect mix of gently crispy, beautifully browned exterior and stretchy, milky interior. The Fair variety (classic little battered Ellsworth curds) were the standout with a perfect crispy-to-chewy ratio, but the big ol’ in-house curds were great, too—everything from the Mozzarella (really chewy and rich), to the Pepper Jack (some pleasant spicy heat), to the Classic (thick typical curds hit by a growth ray). We dug the short rib, chuck, and brisket blended burger we ordered—The Grind Cheeseburger ($13)—which had a pleasant richness, was properly cooked (medium rare!), and offered a reasonable balance between bun, melted cheese, and meat. (2420 Gateway Ct., Hudson)
Big Guys BBQ Roadhouse really lives up to its billing: loud bluesy music blasted us on the way into this stripped-down space located a decent drive from downtown Hudson. Our 1/3rd Rack of Ribs ($14) packed more fight than we’d expected—we generally like “tug off the bone,” not “tear off the bone, velociraptor style”—but the flavor and bark was there, and the house sauces provided welcome sweetness, depth, and heat. A side of Roadhouse Beans ($5) had enough meat and sweetness to get the appetite going without swamping the diner in sugar. And the restaurant’s Smoky Slaw ($5) honestly shouldn’t be missed—the presence of smoke contributed a complimentary note to the crisp tanginess of an otherwise conventional but good coleslaw, elevating the dish. (1237 WI-35, Hudson)
We hoped that the Spaghetti and Meatballs ($13) at Mama Maria’s would be according-to-Hoyle Italian-American classics, and they were—tangy but substantial meat sauce dressed spaghetti with meatballs that were neither doorstops nor insubstantial, a good blend of meat, herbs, and breadcrumbs. Taken in the atmosphere of the restaurant, which is full-throttle Italian grotto with masquerade-themed accents, it’s an instantly familiar and nostalgia-inducing dish. The restaurant is also known for its Monte Cristo sandwich ($12), which is a bit unexpected—other than being a culinary hallmark of a bygone era, there’s not much to link the French toast meets ham-and-cheese Monte Cristo with red sauce dining. That said, the Mama Maria’s version really works—it features a ton of reasonably good-quality melted cheese, a delicate hand on the powdered sugar, and a jammy side sauce that really drives home the whole sweet versus savory duality of the thing. (800 6th St. N., Hudson)
Barker’s Bar and Grill seems well-established and welcoming from the moment you walk through the door, but that’s not the half of it. This charmingly appointed old-school pub has a menu of Wisconsin bar favorites that are executed with real skill and a lot of love. Our Garlic-Creole Wings ($14) were just what we’d hoped: crispy skin, firm juicy meat, and a gentle, natural taste of garlic and spice that supported the chicken without overwhelming it. And our Bullseye Burger ($13) is one of the better burgers we’ve had in recent memory—the rich umami of the thick-cut bacon, cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce, and (properly cooked!) medium-rare patty were offset in a lovely way by the cool pickle, lettuce, and thinly sliced onions. The whole thing held together in a way that reflected real thought and effort. Service deserves a special mention, too: our server was legitimately cheerful and seemed pumped to be at work, and no fewer than four people bid us fond farewells as we stepped out the door at the end of the meal. If we lived in Hudson, we’d be regulars at Barker’s. We weren’t surprised to discover that Barker’s shares ownership with San Pedro Cafe—both spots take real pride in what they do. (413 2nd St., Hudson)
When the weather gets warm, there’s no escaping the rightfully legendary porch of Pier 500, which stretches majestically along the St. Croix River. The view is great, the people-watching is prime, and the menu is chockablock with comfortable mid-American favorites. We’d heard about the restaurant’s Walleye Cakes ($11) and they were worthy of the hype. They were tender, mild, and beautifully browned, well complemented by an accompanying sharp horseradishy mustard sauce and strongly herbed housemade tartar. And we enjoyed Pier 500’s Wood-Fired Rotisserie Chicken ($17/$19 white meat only), which had a crispy, fire-roasted skin and tender, well-marinated meat. The accompanying garlic mashed potatoes were so-so, and the cranberry-almond accents to the green beans tasted like an afterthought, but the beans themselves had a lovely fresh snap and proper seasoning, so they stood on their own. (500 1st St., Hudson)
Find more great dining destinations in The Growler’s past Whirlwind Tours.