I love the Wisconsin Dells. I can't help myself. I love the natural areas. And I love the moccasin shops. And I love the waterparks. God help me, I love it all. It is, though, all too easy to end up with a blah meal there, so I was pleasantly surprised with a great ahi tuna sandwich I had last winter at Monk's near the Wilderness Resort.
Monk's has been in business downtown in the Dells since 1947, and has more recently opened the Wilderness location. This past March, Monk's opened a branch in Middleton, in the defunct Applebee's space near Costco.
Maybe I was looking for a mini-shot of Dells vacation euphoria out in the wasteland sprawl off Highway 14. It's difficult, though. The patio area is, well, grim - there's no other way to put it, marooned next to the parking lot with cars racing by on their way from Costco to Greenway Station. Inside, the decor is Badger memorabilia and three different sports tuned in on the numerous flatscreens. Service was prompt and friendly.
Monk's doesn't have a large menu; it's centered on appetizers and burgers, with wraps and salads filling it out a bit. Nothing out of the ordinary, but done well, it's fun food that can be very satisfying - that intoxicating blend of grease and salt that signifies summer vacation in the United States.
The Monk's classic slider appetizers (three or five to an order) are representative of Monk's burgers: not overcooked, nicely pink inside, soft bun, inoffensive and bland. The burger looks terrific but doesn't have flavor. The American cheese lacks flavor. Even the special Monk's sauce (Thousand Island dressing) didn't taste like much of anything.
The ahi tuna sandwich, a seared tuna steak, was again cooked to the right specifications and looked incredible. This was the ahi tuna sandwich I remembered. However, the bright, almost swordfish-like flavor that should come from the sear was missing this time. The whole sandwich, from the tuna to the pico de gallo topping to the "jalapeño mayo" was determinedly not spicy, even bland. This was not the ahi tuna sandwich I remembered after all. It was curious to have food look so good and taste so...little.
The hot potato chippers side, "seasoned with Monk's special blend of spices," was fried nice and crispy, although whatever the blend of spices might have been, it seemed more or less like salt.
Continuing with this theme, the classic Reuben looked great. The corned beef was shredding apart like good corned beef often does, and it seemed to have been grilled separately before being placed in the sandwich. However, I have never had corned beef that tasted so little of corned beef. The good looks and general saltiness of the Reuben could lull a diner into thinking this was pretty good, especially over a few beers while watching a stage of the Tour de France.
A search for menu items that might return more flavor ensued. The deep-fried pickles appetizer was good enough, although with that so-so crunchy batter familiar to anyone who's ordered a fried mozzarella stick; skip the hot ranch dip, which tasted like taco seasoning mix.
The black bean burger, despite ingredients including "peppers and chiles," cilantro, and pico de gallo, tasted mostly of chili powder, though it didn't ruin the almost chocolaty flavor of the black beans.
The El Cubano sandwich finally broke the rule of the food looking better than it tasted. The Cubano, stuffed with pulled pork, shaved ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles, looked terrible, salty greasy meat overpowered by an ungainly hoagie bun.
Going the sweet route was the better choice. A Mandarin Cranberry Chicken Salad yielded fresh mixed greens with a good, chunky raspberry citrus vinaigrette and a savory note with feta and walnuts.
The question I have is, was that first ahi sandwich really better up in the Dells, or was I just under the spell of the place when I ate it, like those people in the Dells commercial who wig out when they see a water sprinkler?