It's fitting that an old-old-old-school restaurant like Roxbury's Dorf Haus would be the one in the area to serve snapping turtle. It's such a throwback food item, one that very few people under 60 in America would even think to turn to as a red meat alternative. My stepfather recalls his father teaching him how to butcher a turtle when he was a kid in northeastern Wisconsin -- this would have been not long after the Dorf Haus opened, back in 1959 -- but it was a tradition already slipping away at that point.
The dish is only served on Lenten Fridays, and each platter will set you back about $16. This is a fair price, as the platter includes a heap of roast turtle and gravy, mashed potatoes and more gravy, and simple cooked carrots. A salad bar trip is optional, and extra.
Somehow, Dorf Haus' annual turtle cookery escaped my notice until last month, and I'm the guy who has eaten lutefisk and raccoon for Isthmus' Fringe Foods column. I scheduled a road trip almost as soon as possible, but by the time my roughly two-hour wait was up on Feb. 27, that week's supply of turtle had run out. More turtle had been sold in the first 45 minutes of service that day, I was told, than in the entirety of the first Friday of Lent.
Part of the complication is that Dorf Haus also serves one of the best fish fry dinners in south central Wisconsin. All-you-can-eat fried haddock is the main draw, and rightly so. It did give me something delicious to eat after that long wait -- there are no reservations at Dorf Haus, except for parties of eight or more -- but I was determined to go back and avoid that whipcrack of disappointment by having a portion reserved for me the following week. (This is something any turtle aficionado can do; one needn't be a food writer.)
And it worked, though by this Friday business had settled down and there would have been plenty. Dorf Haus co-owner Rebecca Maier-Frey recognized my face -- among so many, how? -- when I arrived at her hostess station. Our excellent server, Beth, mentioned finally having her first taste of turtle the previous week, after three years of working at the Dorf Haus.
Roasted turtle is so much like red meat it's no wonder the Dorf Haus has confirmed with religious authorities that it conforms with Lenten rules on red meat abstinence. The texture is never mushy, but rather like the most tender pot roast you'll ever encounter. There are, however, the occasional bites that are distinctly lakeshore, as fish-tasting as anything with fins and scales would be. It's an unusual but not unpleasant juxtaposition.
The wait is long at the Dorf Haus, but the beers are hearty and Germanic, and the old fashioneds are made from scratch. You could do a lot worse than killing an hour or two at one of the Dorf Haus' two bars before settling in for some excellent fish.
Or, if you're up for the challenge, like me and Beth, snap up some turtle before Lent is done.
Dorf Haus 8931 Hwy. Y, Roxbury 608-643-3980; foodspot.com/dorfhaus 5-9 pm Wed.-Thurs., 5-10 pm Fri.-Sat., 11:30 am-8:30 pm Sun. $10-$22