Manyu brought some traditional Chinese medicine back from Taiwan and gave it to a friend of ours. Last week the friend called to invite Manyu and me out for dinner as a way to thank her. The invitation did not surprise me, but his choice of a restaurant did. He recommended Red Pines which, as far as I know, is the last edge-of-town Wisconsin-style supper club still serving food in the immediate La Crosse area. Known for deep-fried cheese curds, deep-fried walleye cheeks, and Friday night fish, it is not the kind of restaurant first generation Chinese Americans tend to frequent.

My friend’s name is Frank, and he is first generation Chinese American. When he socializes with Westerners, he goes by his English name. He and I have known each other for twenty years, and I still don’t know his Chinese first name. I had assumed Frank chose Red Pines because he thought it was a place I would like. That, however, was not the reason. Back in May, he and his wife Haixia had gone to Red Pines on their own, but were so confused by the menu that they didn’t know how to order. They wanted to return with someone who could teach them how to do it.

Frank and Haixia were already seated in a booth when Manyu and I arrived at the restaurant. Four double-sided laminated menus were on the table, and Frank slid two of them our way. “We don’t how to read the menu,” he said. “Show us what to do.”

“Do you want to do it like a Wisconsinite?” I asked.

“Of course,” replied Frank.  “Aren’t you from Wisconsin?”

“I am,” I said, “but I’m still not the best person to ask. This is a supper club, and Manyu and I almost never go to supper clubs. If you want to order like a Wisconsin native, we can’t do it the way I would do it. We have to do it like my mom would. Friday fish at a supper club is almost a weekly event for her. First of all, we will order drinks before dinner, and you need to have an old-fashioned.”

“Okay, please order me an old-fashioned,” said Frank.

“It’s not that easy. There are different kinds of old-fashioneds. The first step is to pick a liquor. I usually get bourbon, but my mom always has whiskey. And a genuine Wisconsin old-fashioned isn’t made with either bourbon or whiskey. It’s made with brandy.”

“What should I get?” Frank asked.

“If you haven’t had bourbon before, don’t get bourbon. It’s an acquired taste. I don’t like brandy. Get whiskey.”

“Okay, I want an old-fashioned with whiskey.”

“Good, but you’re not done yet. Do you want an old-fashioned sweet or an old-fashioned sour? One uses Seven-Up and the other uses Squirt.” By the look on Frank’s face, I could tell that he didn’t know what Squirt was.

“Squirt is like grapefruit pop,” I added, but that description did nothing to clear up Frank’s confusion. I decided to choose for him “Get sour,” I said. “Sweet is too sweet. When the waiter comes, tell him you want a whiskey old-fashioned sour. Say it just like that.”

When the waiter came to take our drink order, Frank said, “I want an old-fashioned.”

“Brandy or whiskey?” asked the waiter.

Frank had forgotten everything I’d told him.  “I don’t know,” he replied, and then he looked at me. 

“Whiskey,” I said. “And sour.” I ordered a Spotted Cow* for myself, and the women both had water.

When our drinks arrived, Frank had a sip through the tiny straw that came with his drink and said, “This is good.”

I looked at his drink and saw that the liquid in his glass had three distinct layers to it. “I think,” I said, “you’re just getting the alcohol. You need to stir up your drink.”

After Frank had done so, he took another sip through the straw. “Oh, this is much different,” he said.

“Okay,” Frank went on. “Now help us order our food.  We don’t know what to get, and we don’t know what sides are.”

I finally took a look at the entrées. The choices did not exactly match a traditional supper club menu. The usual deep-fried fish and bacon cheese burgers were there, but the baked chicken was not. Parts of the menu had been updated for contemporary tastes and included chicken wraps, chicken pizza, and a couple of vegetarian dishes. “You should get whatever you want,” I said. “If today was Friday, we’d order fish. It’s Sunday, but I’m going to get fish anyway. I grew up along Lake Michigan, so I’ll order perch, but there’s walleye and haddock, too.”

“I want perch,” said Frank. “What’s a side?” 

I again perused the menu. From what I could see, everything on the menu except pizza came with two sides. There were seventeen different sides to choose from. They weren’t, however, listed alongside the entrées, but were at the bottom of the back page in a completely separate section. Each side came with a price, so it did not look like they were part of anything in the upper half of the menu. I pointed at them on Frank’s copy of the menu. “Those are the sides you can choose from,” I said. “The menu says they cost $3 or $4 each, but that’s what you pay if you order them à la carte. Two come free with your meal. A real Wisconsin perch dinner usually comes with coleslaw and buttered rye bread, but I don’t see rye bread as one of the options.”

Haixia had questions about some of the sides. She understood the healthy choices, e.g., the green salad, the coleslaw, the steamed mixed vegetables, but was less clear about a few of the greasy options. “What are spicy fries?” she asked. “What are American fries?” “What is Swiss potato mac and cheese?” The last one stumped me, and I had to ask the waiter.

Chinese and Taiwanese friends sometimes ask me what kind of food I consider American food. Now I know I should just take them to Red Pines. 

*  Spotted Cow is an unfiltered beer from the New Glarus Brewing Company. It is sold only in Wisconsin.

Steven Simpson