Madison, Wisconsin: the Dairy State’s crown jewel, and home to an overwhelming host of venues serving the irresistible bar snack Wisconsinites proudly hail as the deep-fried cheese curd. Upscale restaurants on Madison’s Capitol Square have re-imagined the curd, innovating and elevating it as a gourmet hors d’oeuvre. And for the first time in cheese curd history, one woman is taking deep-fried curds to the streets with her one-of-a-kind food cart.
Madison, meet Curd Girl.
By day, she works full-time as an intellectual property assistant for the University of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and her name is Jessica Wartenweiler.
By night, weekend, and special reservation, she’s Curd Girl, the hero Madison needs.
All right, maybe not hero, but you get the idea.
Around Christmastime 2012, Wartenweiler and her lifelong best friend Kayla Zeal noticed something was missing in Madison’s food cart scene. Ever the entrepreneurial spirits, the University of Wisconsin graduates knew from the start that food carts were gaining popularity, and after considering a couple products, the Monroe natives soon settled on deep-fried cheese curds. If they thought pinpointing their product was difficult, though, the next eight months would prove nearly impossible. Even more daunting, Zeal lived and worked as a teacher in California, only visiting Wisconsin during her summers off.
If there ever existed a to-do list for opening a fully functional trailer-kitchen hybrid licensed to cook and serve food to the public, Wartenweiler knows nothing of it. Hours of endless research and decision-making consumed her nights and weekends. From branding and marketing her start-up, to perfecting recipes, designing a cart, and obtaining all the necessary licenses, Wartenwieler did it all. And by August of 2013, right on track according to the regular gestation period for a food cart* Curd Girl was up and running. Though not without a hitch…
*Don’t be silly, there is no gestation period for food carts.
Located on South Pickney St. just steps from the Capitol Square, Merchant offers an elegant but casual atmosphere. Expect a modern, upscale crowd and cocktails served with fresh herbs and citrus zest alongside an order of Merchant's delectable cheese curds. Executive Chef Anna Dickson prepares crumb-coated white and yellow curds sourced from Cedar Grove Cheese and pairs them with a mouth-watering ranch sauce—the kind of ranch you secretly hope you’ll drop each curd in by accident. Unique to Merchant, Dickson also offers buffalo-style curds, the same as her regular curds but generously doused with buffalo sauce for a kick.
According to Curd Girl, there are three components to the perfect deep-fried cheese curd.
The curd itself.
Curd Girl insists the freshness is of the utmost importance, so the fresher the cheese, the better. Seriously, don’t even think about a frozen crud. Wartenweiler sources her curds from Maple Leaf Cheese Factory out of Monroe—one of Wisconsin’s best known cheese making communities and her hometown.
The breading or batter is the vehicle for much of the flavor in a deep-fried cheese curd. Equal parts sweet and salty, Curd Girl’s secret beer batter fries to a deep golden brown. After months of development, she guards the recipe closely—she won’t even admit the kind of beer she uses.
The grease factor.
Nobody likes a curd saturated with oil, so Curd Girl keeps a close eye while frying. As soon as the curds hit the combination of peanut and soybean oils, she watchfully turns each curd as they sizzle to perfection.
As soon as the curds emerge from the fryer, it’s into a paper basket then out the window. Customers have the option to pair their order with one of a handful of homemade dipping sauces expertly crafted with seasonal ingredients. This spring’s sauces include Blackberry-Basil Jalapeño, Sriracha Honey, and of course the timeless Ranch, but Wartenweiler keeps nine recipes on file.
On a sweltering July morning Wartenweiler rose early, ready to seize the day for at 8 a.m. she and her business partner were scheduled to meet with a city health inspector. If everything went according to plan, Curd Girl would be licensed and ready to serve to the public. And after failing to pass their first inspection due to a faulty cooling apparatus in the refrigerator, everything needed to go as planned.
With a new fridge installed, the women affixed the food cart to a very old, very rusty Isuzu SUV they affectionately named Rodayo. Leaving a little extra time for traffic, they set off for the inspection.
At approximately 7:55 it happened. Perhaps Wartenweiler and Zeal failed to take into consideration the weight of their cart, or they encountered unfavorable road conditions. At this point, the cause of the matter was irrelevant. After hearing a loud THUMP!, then another, the women stole a glance in the rearview mirror. Detached from Rodayo with a downward pointing hitch that sent sparks flying into the air, the women watched in paralyzed horror as their cart careened along Winnebago without them. In a matter of seconds that felt like hours, the cart finally came to a stop near the curb.
Exchanging panicked looks, the women dismissed all hopes of passing their inspection. While the food cart remained in tact, they slowly discovered that Rodayo had not. The SUV’s undercarriage was rusted out completely, and the cart's weight pulled away the mount entirely, sealing poor Rodayo's fate. Quickly the women regrouped.
Luckily the cart came to its stop outside of Fords Gym, a fitness center known particularly for its bodybuilding amenities. After calling for a backup truck and enlisting the muscle of three sturdy men to reattach the cart, Wartenweiler rescheduled the health inspection for later in the day. She saved the metal mount that ripped off of Rodayo to keep as a trophy. Fittingly Curd Girl passed the health inspection that afternoon, and her new trophy took on even more value.
Tucked just off of the Capitol Square on King St., the Tipsy Cow serves the quintessential curd: salty, greasy, and perfectly melted. Sourced from Vern’s Cheese in Chilton, the folks at Tipsy Cow smother their white cheese curds in a rich Spotted Cow beer batter. Served in a plastic basket lined with red-checkered paper, these curds are delightful pub fare sure to stick to your bones so order a bottle of Spotted Cow to wash them down.
The problem with opening a food cart in August in Wisconsin, or any state for that matter, is answering to your only true boss—Mother Nature. With summer coming to its end and colder weather soon approaching, most of Madison’s gastronomical festivals and events had come and gone. But after eight long months of preparation, Wartenweiler knew now was the the time to make her debut. Given little choice, Curd Girl hunkered down on Broom St. to serve the late night masses after bar close, and made several sporadic dinnertime appearances around the city.
Seeing a promising turnout, she kept this routine for two months before winterizing her cart and storing it for the off-season. Encouraged, Curd Girl began preparations for 2014 and her first full curding season.
Every Saturday morning from April through September, Madison’s Capitol Square transforms into a bustling marketplace known as the Dane County Farmers Market. Between produce, bakery, meats, and cheeses, spending the better part of the day browsing is not out of the question. In fact, young adults and families alike come from all across the city and make it a tradition to attend, if only for the samples.
This particular Saturday is different and special. Today Curd Girl is making her Farmers Market debut at the 2014 season opener. After rising with the birds, Wartenweiler carefully loads the supplies she prepped last night into her silver Ford F-150—rest in pieces, Rodayo. She hitches her food cart, then double checks the attachment. Without another thought, Wartenweiler shifts into drive, ready to begin a tradition of her own.
It’s cool and sunny at the Capitol Square. Looking out from her screened cart situated at the head of State Street in the shadow of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Wartenweiler has a direct view of the Capitol building. In no time at all a customer approaches. Wartenweiler batters and fries a dozen or so curds, places them in a paper basket, pairs them with a dipping sauce, and sends them out the window with a smile. One order down, 30 pounds to go.
Situated on Pinckney St. with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Capitol building, Graze offers curds unlike any others found in Madison. Executive Chef Tory Miller sources massive yellow curds out of Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus. Previously unheard of in the cheese curd world, Miller inventively smothers his curds with a vodka batter. By nature of its high alcohol content, the vodka evaporates rapidly, aiding in a flash-frying process the instant the curds hit the oil. The result is a smooth, thin, golden-brown coat, lighter and less greasy than a traditional beer batter. And because the curds are so large, the cheese-to-batter ratio spotlights the curd like no other recipe can manage, ensuring at least two mouthfuls of molten cheese per curd.
With more than a month’s worth of Farmers Market appearances under her belt, Curd Girl has established herself as a regular vendor. Market-goers are learning the name, the brand, and the woman behind the curds. Zeal will return to Wisconsin when her school year in California concludes, and the women have big plans for the summer and fall.
Once again Curd Girl has committed to setting up downtown on Saturdays for late night snacks. New this year, Curd Girl will make regular appearances at Concerts on the Square, a weekly concert series with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on the Capitol Square. Working with Let’s Eat Out Madison, Curd Girl will travel all across the city bringing her irresistible curds to even more hungry customers. Since she missed out on so much last season, Wartenweiler has made a goal to appear at as many Madison festivals and events this season as possible, outings like Taste of Madison and the Willy St. Fair. And believe it or not, Curd Girl also caters private events and wedding receptions all across the state.
With twice the business comes twice the work, so Wartenweiler hired two employees to learn the Curd Girl ways. And while she can’t be there to see the smile spread across every customer's face, at the end of the day knowing that they’re smiling is all that matters.