Ask An Expert: Local Restaurant Critics

Story by Danielle Ryan

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Honors Program Director Jefford Vahlbusch and English professor Audrey Fessler have been reviewing restaurants for the Leader-Telegram since 2003. These local food experts were generous enough to share some recommendations for your next dining experience. Interview by Currents editor Danielle Ryan.

First, can you two give me a little background on what you write for the Leader-Telegram?

JV: We do two pieces a month; we do a full-blown restaurant review once a month, and we do a column called Diner’s Notebook once a month.

AF: The full-blown restaurant review is called Main Course and it’s 800 words long, which actually feels quite short to us … It focuses on all aspects of a restaurant.

…On purpose, we don’t review chains. Our intention is to reveal the one-of-a-kind, the mom-and-pop style little place without much advertising budget, so we can at least help by drawing the attention of “localites.” And we only review restaurants that we think generally do a very positive job. We don’t want simply to negate the work of a place or slam a place, because we feel this is too important – these are family businesses.

So if a student was looking to go on a date to a relatively inexpensive and off-the-beaten-path restaurant, where might you recommend?

AF: I think that a modestly priced spot that’s really good for friends who might be really interested in starting to date – you know, it’s brightly lit and not too intimidatingly romantic in the interior – but the food is wonderful and the prices are pretty modest … is Tacos Juanita, for folks who like authentic Mexican food (located at 2873 E. Hamilton Ave).

JV: We love the three Hmong restaurants in town, and there’s also the Thai restaurant, Pad Thai (203 N. Barstow St.). Any and all of those are wonderful, that is, Noodle Wrap (3021 Mall Dr.), Asian Café (2121 Eddy Lane), and Egg Roll-Plus (1611 Bellinger St.). Any three of those would be lots of fun for people to experience.

Moving past the first date, if someone was just looking for a more casual recommendation that was simply quite cheap, where might you point them?

AF: The Court’n House has a deal on burgers, and it’s really kind of fun.

JV: Stella Blues (306 Madison St.) has a menu that goes from high-end expensive to relatively low-end. It’s got atmosphere, it’s got verve and vibe, it’s got some unusual food, and I think that for a special experience, it would not be a bad place. Houligans Steak & Seafood Pub as well (415 S. Barstow St.).

AF: I was going to recommend that as well. It’s a splurge!

JV: Well, you can spend $30 on a steak, but you can also spend $8.50 on a hamburger … So, possible to eat at Houligans and have a very wonderful kind of atmosphere.

There are three tables behind the bar which, if you ask for a quiet, maybe even romantic table, they’ll always seat you there. That’s a nice place to go.

Which under-visited restaurants do you wish more students and Eau Claire residents knew about?

JV: Manny’s (4207 Oakwood Hills Pkwy) is a very good date restaurant: nice atmosphere, good service. The food is interesting, the menu is huge. So again, you can buy an outstanding sea bass off the daily menu and maybe spend $32 on just one dish, and you can also get the incredibly wonderful fish tacos for about eight bucks. So that’s a wonderful place to take people.

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