My grandfather, Don, passed away on June 9, and on the next day my body decided to saddle me with conjunctivitis. It wasn't a banner month, exactly. It's hard to be with family and support them physically and emotionally when you worry about having an infectious shoulder to cry on.
But summer comes all the same, and does its best to reinvigorate; there were big plans in June that helped to clear away some of the clouds. June marked something of a turning point, a new degree investment in experiencing...life, just a little more.
The first half
Burgers and Brew! The second food festival of my summer's calendar, and our first trip back since 2009. In the intervening years, organizers added an all-encompassing tent (good for both excessive rain and shine), as well as what felt like faster-moving lines. Two of my three tickets went to burgers that I'd happily pay full-sized price for: the Weary Traveler Iron Horse burger (topped with whipped blue cheese, pickles and pepperoncini), and Fresco's Bluecy in the Sky with Bacon (annoyingly named, but stuffed with blue cheese and bacon, and incredibly juicy).
Maharani and Lao Laan Xang (Atwood) both served up what would have been great plates; unfortunately, the former's chicken madras deployed some poorly prepped and cooked chicken (gristly, rubbery), and the kitchen at the latter failed to intercept a long strip of metal in my otherwise delicious chicken khua mee. And if you missed it, my review of Dickey's Barbecue Pit ran in June; it's linked over there on the right.
June ended strong; an aggressively mundane shopping trip to Johnson Creek became a handy excuse to try Wedl's Hamburger Stand in Jefferson. The burgers are thin and slicked with delicious grease; there's no "but" to this sentence. If you're in the area, go. If you're not, get there. Closer to home, Manna Cafe's hefty oatcakes impressed, but maybe not enough to make them a regular draw. Buck's Pizza on Cottage Grove begs for a little less cheese and a little more oregano, but its lo-tech oiliness pleases the lizard brain. The banh mi at Kim's Noodles could use a more charismatic bread, but the fillings are sweet, funky, terrific. Set some time aside for (sllllllooooowww) takeout, or pull up to a table.
But we're working backwards from the end of June to what was without question the highlight of the whole month: beersball. The announcement of a Target Field exclusive Surly beer variety brought together three guys with disparate baseball interests, and over a weekend in mid-June, we made some gustatory magic happen. Buffalo chicken mac and cheese and a bacon sloppy joe from the Food Network stall. An excellent (and Pat LaFrieda-stamped) burger overlooking what might have been an escort service transaction -- or possibly a gypsy speed date -- at Brit's Pub. And on Sunday, a highly idiomatic but extraordinary breakfast at James Beard Award winner Al's Breakfast in Dinkytown. The beer was tremendous, and there was even a baseball game! My grandpa would have preferred the Cubs, but I'm sure he would have loved Al's.
The best thing I ate
Madison had a tough hill to climb considering the serious game that the Twin Cities brought in June. The bacon sloppy joe was full of caramelized, smoky bacon, but as good as that was, the buffalo chicken mac and cheese was even better. Fresco's Burgers and Brew entry was something special. But if it were to come down to, say, the four piece mix that turned me around 180 degrees on Harold's Chicken Shack, and the pancakes at Al's...well, this month, I've got to go with what old Donnie would have picked. The atmosphere is severely intimate, the seating regimen (there are only 14 stools) is sympathetically autocratic, and those pancakes have an interior so soft and so hot it's almost molten. The edges are perfectly crisped, and they're neither puny nor wastefully massive.
That song's chorus goes like this.
Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
I don't think pinkeye was what the songwriter had in mind -- neither was a medium-rare burger -- but hey, it works. Enjoy yourself.