“The Center of the Middle of Nowhere” is where we turned up for brunch in northern Wisconsin on a Tuesday morning. Along a forested stretch of highway a converted 1940s train car was packed with locals and a few of us the hostess affectionately identified as “newbies”. Lake Superior is only about 25 miles away, and some visitors pass through this area en route to their lake cabin or campsite. “Popular” is a relative term in such a remote setting, but Delta Diner could at least be described as bustling that day, and it’s safe to say this hole in the wall is putting the tiny non-town of Delta on the Midwestern foodie map.
My dad moved to the wilderness about 50 miles from here, and his neighbor tipped him off about it. The diner’s gotten some outside attention after word-of-mouth made its way to the press rooms. They even have a website, where you can buy your Delta Diner merch and find out about the Burger Monday policy. (Burgers are not served Tuesday through Sunday!) I wish I had discovered this place, or that it was maybe a dream I had, but it’s for real and I would be doing Wisconsin itself a disservice to keep quiet about it. Beer and cheese curds alone do not a state tourism campaign make.
The kitchen was bustling, so we ordered some shakes while we waited, and the waitress came by to “walk us through” the menu. She was friendly and casual, leaning against the wall after she was finished to explain how they treat their staff. Tips are factored into the total bill and each employee is paid a higher wage accordingly. They have interns. They believe in nurturing the personal growth of their staff. Did we have any questions about that? She took her time, and she seemed to genuinely care. How long has it been since I left the Midwest, that this seeemed like a novelty?
The menu varies a little with each passing day, but the “blue plate” specials that day were Norwegian pancakes, french toast stuffed with mascarpone cheese, bacon-eggs-toast, a cheeseburger omelette (big points for upping the American ante), The Big Boy, Pedro’s Mex Benny, a breakfast “sammich”, and The Lucky Denny. Their standard menu also offered sandwiches — the PBLT, grilled cheese or deli meats, as well as deep-fried mac-n-cheese, onion rings and fries. Also, delightfully, mimosas are on the drinks menu next to beer, wine and the requisite malts and shakes.
The food arrived within about 20 minutes and was consumed within 10. There wasn’t a bad choice on our table, and where the chefs sought to mix up the traditional diner menu, they succeeded in spades. The pancakes came with a pat of vanilla-bourbon butter. My PBLT was enriched with battered local perch and rugged fries, all predictably hearty but balanced with strikingly fresh veggies. And if you think a cheeseburger omelette is pushing the envelope, you did not behold my sister’s Pedro’s Mex Benny: a Mexican variation on eggs Benedict that boasted green chili cornbread, softly poached eggs, chipotle peppers and chorizo. All framed by a serving of toast that, frankly, could have been a meal on its own.
Delta Diner pushes the kitsch buttons in its design, all bright and retro, and pushes them hard. This is exactly the place you want to show your friend from another country, or even another state. But those who turn a blind eye to cultural nostalgia will still walk away with a full stomach and vivid memories of imaginative, intensely flavored dishes. This kind of food reminds us of our American heritage while acknowledging that we’ve moved beyond bland and canned. It was a privilege, in this case, to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.
14385 County Highway H, Delta, WI 54856, www.deltadiner.com