Campfire party, northern Wisconsin

We spent the weekend visiting family up north.

You can see an antonishing mess of stars in the sky up there. You can also find a hell of a lot of ticks crawling on you after a short walk.

It is not the wilderness. America’s franchise/sprawl culture is sprouting its mushrooms all over the place.

There was, however, a sense of being near the fringe. It was possible to use a Sprint phone, but only in analog roam. Our motel had no phones in the rooms and did not take credit cards. We did not see a bear, but we easily could have. And there are no restaurants that serve actual Mexican food, no matter what the Blind Duck Inn may claim.

The most notable local food item is the pasty. We did not sample any pasties this time, but I was very tempted when we passed the Dobber’s Pasties store in Iron Mountain, Michigan. I also witnessed kids in a supermarket grabbing pasties from a special case similar to the soft drink cases you see in supermarkets everywhere.

A drive to Marinette gave us a chance to visit their holy grotto of hamburgers — a little hut called Mickey Lu Bar-B-Q. I had seen the joint mentioned on, and my sister-in-law who works in Menominee, Michigan had been meaning to check it out, so we went.

Mickey Lu Bar-B-Q restaurant, Marinette, Wisconsin

The charm of Mickey Lu’s is that the room has apparently been unaltered since the restaurant was established in 1942. The Formica counter, the stools, the jukebox, the tables — everything looks original. There was a news clipping on the wall about a couple who spent their first date at Mickey Lu’s returning to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

The hamburgers are flame broiled in a charcoal oven right behind the counter, and “served on warm Zemal hard rolls with your choice of catsup, onion, pickles, and our pat of butter.” Having never heard of a “Zemal” roll before, I asked what that meant and was told it was a type of hard roll. Running a Google search didn’t help much either. Our waitress explained that toasting the hard rolls on the grill surrounding the meat softened them, which seems counterintuitive.

[Update, October 28, 2008 — A reader emails the following: “Read your review on Mickey Lu’s in Marinette….and to give you a little background… the hard roll is actually a semmel roll. In Germany and Austria they are referred to as a semmel or zemmel rolls a pretty similar consistancy to a kaiser roll. Kroll’s in Green Bay has been serving this kind of roll on their burger for years and I have been driving by Mickey Lu’s for a couple of years and just recently have been told this is the place to rival Kroll’s burgers and for about half the cost. The family of a buddy of mine owned the bakery in Marinette that baked the rolls for Mickey Lu’s for many many years.”]

The paper-wrapped burger (no plate, no basket, no nothing) is served cut into halves, and the remainder of the pat of butter on mine plopped out when I lifted the first half to my mouth. Adding gobs of butter to meat is a classic Wisconsin preparation, but to me it’s cheating. The beef should stand on its own.

My cheeseburger was pretty darned good, but a little too small for perfection. Mickey Lu Bar-B-Q was very much worth a visit. It’s ridiculously inexpensive and startlingly authentic — but if I’m going somewhere based on their burgers, I’m still going to Charlie Beinlich’s in Northbrook, Illinois.

One other restaurant worth mentioning is the Heinemann’s in Grafton that we hit for breakfast on the way up. The atmosphere was bland but clean and the coffee was so-so, but the service was very fast and the food really hit the spot. My corned beef hash was made with real corned beef (not the canned stuff, which would have been fine with me) and my egg was perfectly poached. It was the ideal place to grab some quick, decent food and get back on the road feeling satisfied. Heinemann’s has nine Milwaukee locations.

We took the main highways on the way up for speed, but coming back on Memorial Day, we went scenic. Amy drove, and I pulled out our DeLorme Wisconsin Atlas and Gazetteer. This outstanding atlas shrinks the USGS maps for our state into handy book form, meaning that pretty much every road — whether paved or gravel or dirt — is shown. Instead of staring at the bumpers of all the other holiday drivers, we were virtually all by ourselves for much of the trip home, enjoying postcard-perfect farms, cheese stores, quirky little towns like Oconto Falls and Chilton, and winding roads in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. It was like being in a car commercial.

Delorme publishes a separate atlas for every one of the United States, and when you have one you can turn any car trip into a tour.