Whirlwind Tour: The food scene is booming in Eau Claire

Music festivals notwithstanding, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, isn’t generally considered a required stop for interstate travelers heading southeast from the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area. It’s too early to be a halfway point and it’s simple enough to blow past its exits.

It’s time to reconsider that attitude. Eau Claire is the beating heart of the fertile Chippewa Valley and its food scene is developing in all directions. That includes a little bit of everything: fine dining, first-generation Mexican and Hmong fare, and farm-to-table efforts that tap into all the things this lush bit of Wisconsin has to offer. 

Breakfast Burrito at the Roadside Ice Cream & Diner / / Photos by Becca Dilley

Roadside Ice Cream and Diner

The Roadside Ice Cream and Diner is a former Dairy Queen that arrived at its current independent identity only after a long legal struggle with its parent entity. The hand of its corporate parent can still be perceived in the hand-made Dilly-esque bars on offer, but otherwise, the menu and concept have drifted aggressively toward a classic small-town diner kind of feel.

We got off on the right foot with this place immediately: our coffee came with complimentary donuts, both of which (a raised glazed and a cream-filled chocolate Long John) were old school in a no-frills-but-tasty way.

The Breakfast Burrito at the Roadside Diner ($12.60) only seems expensive until you see it sprawling across your plate and you realize that you’ve actually ordered breakfast for three or possibly four somewhat hungry people. We’re no fans of the quantity-over-quality food dump, but this burrito was assembled from shockingly good components: a full-flavored, chewy, tender, house-made flour tortilla; incredibly crispy and delicate hash browns; high-quality thick-cut bacon; and a great deal of seriously gooey and flavorful cheddar cheese.

1160 Menomonie St • 715-834-9323

Waffles and Espresso at Shift Cyclery & Coffee Bar / / Photos by Becca Dilley

Shift Cyclery and Coffee Bar

The idea of coffee shop-meets-bicycle shop is popular throughout Minnesota (think Angry Catfish, Chilkoot, Red Raven, and more), and it clearly has legs. The Eau Claire-based incarnation of the concept, Shift Cyclery, is executed with a massive dollop of unpretentious taste and it feels immediately welcoming.

The Shift version of a Liege waffle ($3) is delicious—a little lighter (in density, color, and flavor) than the more caramelized version we’re used to, but it’s quite tasty and nicely studded with crunchy bits of pearl sugar. 

We tried two coffee drinks at Shift (a Cortado and a Cappuccino, both $3.50) and enjoyed them both. They were mellow and mild with distinct but softly spoken notes of coffee amidst the milk.

615 Graham Ave • 715-514-5060

Beef Pho from Egg Roll Plus / / Photo by Becca Dilley

Egg Rolls Plus

When it comes to restaurant hunting, there’s nothing as fun as being let in on a secret. Egg Rolls Plus qualifies: this charming little Hmong / Thai / Chinese-American gem is located in a dumpy space housed in a nondescript building that would never normally invite a second glance. But we knew something was up when we waited in our car for the restaurant to open at 11am and noticed that there were at least three other cars full of people doing the same thing. This is a spot that commands loyalty—by 11:20, it was more than half full with people snacking on eggrolls, pho, curry, and more.

Our small Beef Meatball Pho ($6) evoked the milder, gentler flavors of northern Vietnamese pho—this was no rich, bold, cinnamon-and-anise bomb, but rather a clean, mild broth, tender noodles, and yielding, mellow slices of finely textured beef meatballs.

The restaurant’s Chicken Laab ($8) didn’t hold back—slightly funky and fiercely hot, this was the real deal, offering bold, deep flavor. As a value prospect, the entree delivered with a generous helping of seasoned ground meat and a pile of lettuce leaves in which to enfold it.

2824 London Rd & 1611 Bellinger St • 715-832-6125

Taqueria La Poblanita

Carnitas Tortas from Taqueria La Poblanita / / Photo by Becca Dilley

One of the most remarkable by-products of Mexican and Central American immigration to the United States has been a suburban and rural blossoming of restaurants that do satisfying traditional food with warm hospitality and zero pretense. Taqueria La Poblanita is a casual spot on a low-key stretch of London Road, with a cheerful staff and solid roster of favorites on the menu.

A plate of three tacos al pastor with beans and rice runs $9.15 and it’s good, though not perfect—while the pastor is correctly dry (not greasy or damp), it’s under-flavored. The accompanying green cilantro salsa completes the experience—the condiment is an equal partner in terms of providing a richly flavored and tasty taco entree. 

Our Carnitas Torta ($8.45) was also surprisingly mild and mellow, picked up and centered by the use of some zippy pickled jalapeños. The sandwich’s bread was toasted and slightly crunchy, a nice offset to the tender bits of pork that dominated the interior. 

2436 London Rd • 715-831-2131

Asada Taco from Supermercado La Luna / / Photo by Becca Dilley

Supermercado La Luna

In contrast to La Poblanita, Supermercado La Luna is a supermarket first and restaurant second. This surprisingly big and well-stocked market features a small dining area in the back of the store. While we were there, the restaurant pumped out polka-like Norteño music while the market itself blasted folksier Latin tunes, making for audio overkill. 

The food made up for the sonic landscape. La Luna’s Asada Taco ($2.75) is one of the better specimens we’ve eaten in the Upper Midwest. Meaty, beefy, bold, tender, and thrillingly rich, this is a taco that will help elevate your whole visit to Eau Claire. The corn tortillas tasted fresh and tender—an added bonus.

Our Lengua Taco ($2.75) was comparatively underpowered, lacking the oomph of the asada. That said: the tongue meat was tender and gently earthy, and made a lovely vehicle for the salsas residing at our table. 

2824 London Rd • 715-831-2100

The Lakely

The Lakely in Eau Claire, Wisconsin / / Photo by Becca Dilley

Somewhere in the mid-aughts, the story of the hotel restaurant really began to evolve. Long a dumping ground for mediocre, overpriced industrial food and tired-out chefs, hotel restaurants started to increasingly tap into local trends and ingredients to stand among the leaders in their culinary communities. Witness The Lakely at The Oxbow Hotel in Eau Claire; its creative menu is worth a diversion whether you’re staying at the Oxbow or trekking over from across town.

The restaurant’s Scandinavian-inspired Koldtbord (“a shareable tour of the land”) is the signature move—the personalized collection of small bites can be scaled up or down based on taste and appetite. (The best way to understand it is to check out the menu online.) It’s an opportunity to tap into regional favorites including Hook’s 10-year-aged cheddar ($4/person), smoked whitefish ($3/person), and Port wine cheddar spread ($2/person). The adjustable balance of vegetables, meat, cheese, and assorted spreads makes this an easily customizable option.

Our New York Strip Steak wasn’t cheap ($33), but it brought a lot to the table. This properly medium-rare, grass-fed Wisconsin Meadows slab of meat came perched regally atop a bed of Dragsmith Farm lacinato kale, Yukon gold potato puree, and a shallot-bacon ragout. From the first bite to the last, it was tender and savory—good meat properly prepared with a minimum of fuss.

On the cocktail front, the Elder Fairy ($10) was a blend of vodka, St. Germain, elderflower tonic, honey lavender syrup, and Gamle Ode Celebration Aquavit that could have easily devolved into perfume or syrupy insolence. The fizzy lift of the tonic and deeply spiced savory complexity of aquavit balanced the drink, which was easy to sip without being dull or cloying.

516 Galloway St • 715-839-0601

Banana Jamma pizza from The Informalist / / Photo by Becca Dilley

The Informalist

When you talk to locals about leaders in the culinary scene, The Informalist at the Doubletree by Hilton comes up in a hurry. Its cool, crisp, stylized dining space is warmed up by a wood-fired pizza oven, and knowing that their ingredients are typically fresh and sourced locally just enhances the appeal. We ordered a Banana Jamma (red sauce, mozzarella, house-made pork sausage, banana peppers, pickled jalapenos, and lime crema; $17) and found it balanced and delectable. The crust was carbon-kissed and a terrific mix of chewy and crispy; the toppings had some heat and acid but not so much that they overwhelmed the rest of the pie; the pork sausage was mild but well-browned and pleasingly rich.

Our Drink Your Caraway cocktail ($8) featured Gamle Ode Celebration Aquavit on Rye, Koval Caraway Liqueur, fig anise demerara syrup, and Angostura bitters, and it worked. The overall impact was a tug-of-war between the aggression of caraway and rye versus the sweetness of the demerara, backed up by a real depth of flavor. 

205 S Barstow St • 715-318-7399

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To dig deeper into the story of food in Eau Claire, read our Minnesota Spoon feature on chef Amy Huo of Locavore Mobile Kitchen.