Kipp Thomas, whose restaurants North American Rotisserie and Kipp's Down-Home Cookin' remain fondly remembered and often missed, never really went away. After opening the short-lived Old Market Bistro, closed Kipp took on executive chef duties at the Coliseum Bar where his legendary mac 'n cheese was more or less hidden on the kid's menu.
But now, while continuing on at the Coliseum Bar, he's also taken on the kitchen at Pooley's, where, until November 2013, the food concession was overseen by Diggity's, a rebirth of sorts of Dog Eat Dog, the busy hot dog spot once located on King Street.
But enough history. Thomas was contacted by Pooley's owners in January about taking over the kitchen. "I had no plans to leave the Coliseum," Thomas says, and decided to stay on while taking on the new venue, which he felt was possible thanks to the fact that he has had many of the same cooks working for him "for eight to ten years." With that loyal staff, Thomas figured managing both places would be possible.
Pooley's, a large sports bar that has two indoor volleyball courts and league play year-round, is a busy place, but the customers needed "a reason to stay there and eat," says Thomas.
He started out by keeping the hot dog and pizza menu that was already in place, and introduced his own menu about a month ago. Its focus is on signature burgers and chicken sandwiches, some carried over from the Old Market Bistro menu, and some of the chicken varieties resurrected from the North American Rotisserie menu.
Other signature sandwiches include Kipp's Butcher Cut Pork Chop Calabrese -- a strategy for fitting a pork chop dinner into a sandwich, says Thomas. "It's a totally different style of sandwich for the hearty eater," he says, explaining that "pork is my favorite meat, but not many people dare to try [serving] it in a sandwich -- it's too easy to under- or over-cook it." The spicy loin is served with sauteed peppers and onions and smoked gouda on marble rye.
The Friday fish fry (cod, catfish, walleye, tilapia or smelt) is done a little differently from most places, Thomas explains. He marinates the fish in beer rather than adding the beer to the batter, as is the usual practice. "It's amazing how much oil gets absorbed with a beer batter," Thomas says. The beer soak infuses flavor and keeps the fish moist; it's then breaded with a light layer of panko crumbs before frying. "It's a delicate, light breading, but you taste that beer." Thomas says he learned this method from the Coliseum Bar.
And the mac and cheese returns as a side -- "World's Greatest Mac & Cheese, 100% Kipp's Opinion, LOL," as the menu has it.
Thomas says he tried to keep the menu items that ongoing Pooley's customers had liked -- he kept a ranch seasoning on the French fries, while changing the French fries themselves, for instance. Pizzas were also given a revamp. More salads and wraps were added to the menu.
While Thomas describes balancing working at both places as a whirlwind at times, he assures diners that whether he's at one place or another at any given time is irrelevant. "People like to see you in the kitchen, but you're going to get good food even if I'm not here."
Most of all, he appreciates that Madison remembers him -- it's gratifying to learn, he says, that he has developed "a name and a following. Unfortunate things can happen, but I'm lucky that people follow me."