26 October 2011

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Kewpee Hamburgers Revisted

Four years ago, I went well out of my way to visit Kewpee Hamburgers in Racine, Wisconsin. I went because the fast food restaurant is one of only six franchises left in what was once a considerable Midwestern chain, and the only one left in Wisconsin. And the obscure inspired me. But I visited on a Sunday and, Racine apparently being a pious burg, everything was shut up tighter than a drum.

It took me until this month to find a second opportunity to visit Kewpee, a hamburger joint that reportedly inspired Dave Thomas to found Wendy's. This time I got in. It was a Thursday afternoon and there were few people about, inside or out. Racine's one of those mid-sized American cities whose downtown heart stopped beating sometime in the 1970s and has never quite sprung back to life. The sidewalks are deserted.

Kewpee was actually founded in Racine, back in the 1920s, though most of the surviving restaurants are today found in Lima, Ohio. The place on Wisconsin Street has gone through a few renovations. It doesn't look anything like it did back in the 1920's (below), but the current building—a facsimile built in the late '90s—is remarkably close to what stood in the 1940s. (You can read about the restaurant's complicated history here.) And it's in the same location it always was. The interior sports old-fashioned diner design, with two curves of counter surrounded by stools that sit remarkably low. (You'll feel like a kid sitting in them.) 

The walls are decorated with tiles featuring the crazy Kewpee Doll mascot, and there's a wide display case filled with Kewpee memorabilia, not all of it specifically associated with the chain. The staff was hilarious, extremely casual and candid, and full of local gossip. 

And the burger? Well, it was fine. Not terribly special, but simply a tasty diner burger. If it wasn't perceptibly square—as Kewpee burgers are supposed to be—neither was it round. It comes with mustard, ketchup, pickle and raw onions if you don't specify otherwise. The burger arrived with lightening speed; I think I waited two minutes. And the food is crazy cheap. Few things on the menu rose above $3.

I bought a Kewpee sweatshirt. I regret not having purchased an official Kewpee wristwatch. I took the shirt home in the bag below. Kewpee has mottos to beat the band. I don't know which I like best. 


nicole said...

I've been reading your blog for awile now, and was sure surprised to see that you came to WI! Racine no less, and the description you gave of it is dead on.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Never know where I'm going to turn up!

Proud NIMBY said...

Brooks, another one of my favorite places revealed!
What gives?

I frequently go to Kewpie's when I visit Racine, which is where I am writing this.
(Btw, Kewpie's was closed last week for some kind of work, but I doubt that it will essentially change the decor.)

I think Kewpie's was empty with that Edward Hopper feel because you visited it in the afternoon.
At lunchtime, it is fairly crowded with office workers from nearby Johnson's Wax and Case Tractor.

It was more crowded back in the 70s, but so many of those buildings around Monument Square are vacant now, as you allude to, which took away a lot of Kewpie's patron base.

They are one of the few places I know anywhere that still sells malteds, as well as the more common, but blander, shakes, possibly because Horlick's Malted Milk started in Racine about 100 years ago.

A salacious tidbit you neglected to mention about Kewpie's is that its founder had multiple marriages, and, oddly for the 1940s, his second wife insisted that the divorced first wife come along on their honeymoon. No details exist of what transpired!

However, you did miss a gem in Racine: Tortero's, located on Meade Street on the south side, a formerly Italian neighborhood, in what is now the rough part of town.

Tortero's has been operating as an Italian restaurant since 1939 in a wood-frame house which old man Tortero purchased when the former one-room school house formerly located there had just been closed.
His son and daughter run it, and the inside hasn't changed much in 70 years, except for some sports memorabilia accumulated over the decades.
There is an attractive old wooden bar and a beautiful Wurlitzer that doesn't work, and which the owner won't bother to repair. "It's there for show."

What is really odd about Tortero's is that there is no waiter service, and it is only open for lunch, Tuesday through Friday, only sits about 25-30, and the family only serve one or two selections: a pasta dish (the type of pasta changes daily) with one sauce, red, or a sausage hero.

The only sign is a small, old plastic one that just says "Tortero's", not even the word "restaurant".
But it is packed, with people even calling in at 9 am to reserve an order in case they run out of the day's pasta, which often happens. (not a seat reservation: an order reservation, mind you)

Here's how it works. You walk in, grab a plate from a pile, walk to the back kitchen, request the pasta of the day, which has the same homemade red sauce every day, or the sausage hero. The ladies dish it out to you and you bring it back to the table, where the regulars at once will recognize you as a newcomer and engage in conversation. (Those Badgers sure are friendly.)

The brother tends bar and the sister, Angie, cooks the food and dishes out the pasta, with the help of an assistant.
Unfortunately, they told me this week that their kids "went to college and want no part of the business".

It should be around however for a few more years, so, if you are ever back in Racine, try to drop by. It is open for only two hours, 11:30 to 1:00.

In case you wonder why I am in Racine, I often come here, among other reasons, to get away from the invasion of that annoying Little Wisco clique that has invaded downtown of late, who took over Fedora's and have even ventured into the San Gennaro feast, to name just a couple examples of their recent attempted hegemony in Gotham.

Eating well is the best revenge!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Can't believe you've been to Kewpee, NIMBY. What are the odds? Tortero's sounds fantastic. I will go on my next trip to WI.

Proud NIMBY said...

Went to Kewpie's yesterday.

The "renovation" was merely to remove a step at the front entrance. At noon it was packed with quite an interesting and amusing assortment of diverse individuals.
All is well!

Yeah, Tortero's would make a great "who goes there".