The menu at Whitewater’s Second Salem Brewing Company claims the soft pretzel is “bigger than you can imagine.” My table was ready to call the writer’s bluff, and we ordered it.
Then it arrived, as big as a catcher’s mitt, fat twists of shiny dough shaped into a face with mustard- and nacho cheese-tub eyes. We were in awe.
The big pretzel also happened to be quite good, tasting like a pretzel and not just egg-washed dinner roll. The thin honey mustard sauce had sinus-clearing, Chinese mustard-level heat, bringing more than one of us to tears. This pretzel exemplified the surprising bona fides of Second Salem, a young nanobrewery turning out earnest and housemade food alongside a lineup of solid craft beers.
The beer is what drew me 40 miles southeast of Madison to Second Salem, which celebrated its grand opening in December of 2014. Its Bone Orchard India Pale Ale won an audience award for hoppy beers at the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest in January of this year. With this success, plus a big menu that includes weekend breakfast, Second Salem has earned itself some attention.
The name Second Salem refers to a 20th century nickname for Whitewater stemming from rumors that witches met at the town’s Starin Park water tower, aka the Witchtower. Many of Second Salem’s beers are named after southeastern Wisconsin’s spookier legends.
There’s a nice selection of Second Salem beers on tap, shifting slightly from week to week as kegs run dry and new batches are brewed.
Old Main Golden Ale — order it as “OMG” — is sweet and okay if you desire a lighter beer. The Beast of Bray Road is an amber ale with a lot of sticky caramel sweetness, but a welcome lash of bitter hops to balance things out. Hops show up big in Witchtower too, an American pale ale that has a great citrus nose.
Second Salem’s darker and less filtered beers can get a little off the rails, however. The porter delivers a huge puff of smoke that isn’t anywhere in the description; it’s fine, but unexpected. That smokiness also seems to have seeped into the Full Sleeve India black ale, which has an ashy bitterness that undermines what could be a solid IBA otherwise.
I don’t know where Reaper, Second Salem’s trial-run wheat beer, gets its black olive flavor, but it’s...odd, to say the least. More work is required; it’s a great name, though. The aforementioned Bone Orchard, on the other hand, is a hazy golden winner. A big tropical nose leads into prominent mango notes, pretty ideally situating Bone Orchard as an almost-imperial IPA.
Co-owner Christ G. Christon shares in food menu design responsibilities with recently hired chef Cyril Simon, and the kitchen makes more items in-house than is usual for a small-town brewpub. A lazier kitchen could sleepwalk through potato skins, but these have plenty of bacon, cheese and fresh jalapeño. The potato is slightly dried out, but there’s enough added moisture to compensate.
The Greek nachos — an idea so obvious, a combination so natural that it’s a shocker everyone isn’t doing it — is a fun starter, salty and messy and perfect for sharing. The Wisconsin mac and cheese, on the other hand, is too reminiscent of the boxed dinner version of this dish.
The Wisconsin burger piles on cheese curds, cheese soup (it’s very thick) and applewood-smoked bacon — it’s a mess atop a decent burger. The mediocre onion ring corralling all the meltiness doesn’t do the sandwich any favors.
The burger patty was cooked to a requested medium, and other meats at Second Salem are handled well, too. The Harvest Pork sandwich is loaded with smoky pulled pork, apples and sauerkraut. Cheese may have been the standout ingredient on the NY Deli Roast Beef sandwich, but the beef was tender and ample.
It’s not all sandwiches and burgers and ridiculous pretzels. The porter batter on the fried cod, available every day, actually tastes like porter; the cod itself is meaty and flaky. Meatloaf comes out in two medallions, an unusual presentation that maximizes the caramelized crusty bits that everyone loves about meatloaf. Candied tomato slices are strongly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg flavors, and there’s plenty of fragrant whole fennel seeds in the meatloaf.
You might not expect a remote college town brewpub to put together such a culinary flavor profile, but Second Salem is making a habit of exceeding expectations.
Second Salem Brewing
111 W. Whitewater St., Whitewater, Wisconsin, 262-473-2920, secondsalem.com, Kitchen open 11 am-10 pm daily; bar has extended hours. $4-$15