Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with fried cheese curds from Wisconsin, which joined the union on May 29, 1848.
The state: Wisconsin gave birth to the Republican party, but liberals shouldn't hold that against it. After all, this is also the state that brought us Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life. The legendary beer companies have since left the Badger State behind, but Wisconsin still has two major exports: Cheese and football.
The food: When it comes to curds, nothing beats the fair. Each year, Wisconsinites of all ages flock to their local fairground to sample the bite-sized globules of salty, springy cheese. While they originated as byproducts of the cheese-making process, curds have become so popular that Wisconsin factories now manufacture them daily to keep up with demand. The classic fair version of the meal uses curds that are fresh, rubbery and squeak when you bite into them. They're lightly battered and deep-fried, in so much hot oil that you need a full dispenser of napkins or an extra pair of pants on hand to eat them.
Other foods considered and rejected: Wisconsin cheddar, beer cheese soup, brats and beer, fried walleye, frozen custard, a brandy Old Fashioned, a can of PBR.
Get it from: The curds at the Savoy Tavern (2500 SE Clinton St., 808-9999, savoypdx.com) are a nice, chewy happy hour snack, but the cheese is buried in a thick coat of breading. Perhaps to compensate for the low cheese-to-bread ratio, Savoy also salts its curds—a big no-no at the fair—and includes no sauce on the side to temper the saltiness. While the curds clump together in typical fair fashion, they should be much gooier: When my dining companion pulled a curd apart, snapping it in half, a pair of Wisconsin transplants at the next table remarked that one should be able to pull two halves of a curd a foot apart and still keep an unbroken string of cheese between them. These curds were more like what you'd find at your local Culver's fast-food joint, our neighbors said. Tasty in their own right, but far from those vaunted little nubs that soak through thousands of paper trays each summer.
Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.