It's not just cheese curds and popcorn at your local brewpub. Madison brewpubs have upped their menus in recent years, offering food whose quality and inventiveness can rival more food-focused establishments. Each day this week, we'll be looking at the menu of a different brewpub in and around Madison.
When Ale Asylum finally started serving fries this summer, it was a relief to the waitstaff.
If she had a nickel for every time a customer asked for fries, said Hathaway Dilba, partner and director of promotions, she would be eating bonbons on a private beach.
The long history of frylessness wasn’t a health stance; it was the result of a space constraint. They finally made it work and started dishing out sweet potato tots and fries (covered in dry rub) in mid-June.
But Ale Asylum doesn’t let cramped kitchen space at 2002 Pankratz St. stop it from offering a full menu of appetizers, sandwiches, burgers and salads, as well as a five-option fish fry (cod, bluegill, shrimp, lake perch and walleye) every Friday.
Despite its comprehensive menu, the emphasis is on the beer. Ale Asylum staff have said they don't want to be known as a bar and restaurant, but as a brewery and tasting room. They resist the term "brewpub," Dilba said, which is inaccurate since they distribute beer to three states. Ale Asylum is one of the largest craft breweries in Wisconsin, and churns out thousands of barrels of its hit Hopalicious, its hoppy, flagship beer.
This is all impressive, but completely lost on me. I don’t like beer. I don't live anywhere close to Ale Asylum, out by the Dane County Regional Airport. But I am champing at the bit to return to the tasting room for Ale Asylum’s crowd-favorites like Duck Poppers ($11) and Lemon Pepper Shrimp Tacos ($12). The tacos were missing from the menu for a while, but came back after customers kept requesting them en masse. One time a military service member asked them to please bring back the tacos when he was on leave.
I posted up on the outdoor patio, and one bite into the lemon pepper jumbo shrimp, greens, pico de gallo and lemon garlic horseradish aioli, and I immediately empathized with that individual. The pico de gallo adds a light sweetness that plays well in the dish, Dilba said.
Those duck poppers are no losers either, with duck breast and jalapeno wrapped in cold-smoked bacon and served on roasted jalapeno cream cheese and a balsamic reduction. I would happily eat any two of those things in combination (balsamic bacon sounds great, no?) but with their forces combined, it’s no wonder these poppers “fly out of the kitchen,” Dilba said.
“If we took these off a future menu, we would literally get hate mail,” she said.
And at Ale Asylum, the beer isn't just for drinking. They use India Pale Ales to caramelize onions, drizzle their Contorter Porter reduction sauce on their Asylum Burger, offer IPA cheese sauce on their cheesesteak or as a side to chips, and of course, beer-batter cod, shrimp or bluegill in their Curl Pilsner. That's the kind of beer I can get behind.