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It’s the staple of the baseball stadium, the biergarten and the bar-food menu. Here in Wisconsin, it’s practically its own food group. There’s just something quintessentially Midwestern about an enormous, fluffy-soft, salt-drenched, Bavarian-style pretzel. Especially if it’s large enough to use as a replacement tire or impromptu manhole cover. We don’t care if the giant pretzels are baked on-site or outsourced to a talented local bakery. We’d just prefer that you please tear us off another piece. The pretzels at these places are guaranteed to twist your taste buds into salty ecstasy.
The Biergarten at Olbrich Park
Clasen’s European Bakery provides the pretzel power at this outdoor east-side haunt, so you needn’t worry about the quality (or size) of the salty, crispy carbs. Along with the gorgeous lakeside view, it’s the sides that make this particular outdoor journey essential — not so much dips, but spreads, rich with tradition and flavor. Don’t bother choosing between the traditional Bavarian obatzda beer cheese spread, thick with chunks of brie, or the Liptauer cheese spread, punched up with the power of capers — just splurge and get both. Not feeling so cheesy? Banzo hummus and honey mustard, the other two options, have you covered. 3527 Atwood Ave., 237-3548
Beer pairing: New Glarus Brewing Co.’s Moon Man
Outside of a ballpark, there’s no better place to enjoy a pretzel than at an outdoor biergarten, and there’s no better pretzel partnership than the Middleton-based pairing between Capital Brewery and Clasen’s European Bakery. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to try to scale the Bavarian heights of Clasen’s chewy pretzel dusted with huge flakes of salt, with a freshly tapped local beer at the ready? It’s like the very definition of a summer evening in Wisconsin. 7734 Terrace Ave., Middleton, 836-7100
Beer Pairing: Capital Brewery’s Munich Dark
Chef Cooper Booth knows the pretzel’s place in the pub firmament. “We use the pretzel to complement the beer,” he says. “It goes back to the casual way of thinking about food — breaking bread together with a pint of something in your hand.” The tavern uses an unusual vendor — the Turano Baking Co. in Chicago. Turano’s pretzels are soft yet hefty, with the lightest dusting of salt. The in-house dipping options are no second-thought sauces: a Guinness mustard that’s thick with caraway seeds and, even better, a creamy beer-cheese dip made from the remains of the Emmi Roth and Carr Valley cheeses that fuel the tavern’s charcuterie platters. Now that’s high-class beer cheese. 200 W. Mifflin St., 256-1600
Beer Pairing: Krombacher Brauerei’s German Pilsner
Locals know there’s no shortage of reasons to head to the Memorial Union in the summer, starting with the terrace and the beautiful lakeview. While you’re there, why not avail yourself of another one by trying the giant Bavarian Hot Pretzel? The shareable version is a sizable beast that easily serves four people, managing to split the difference between the hard and crispy texture you’d find in your typical bag of pretzels and a softer side. In other words, there’s something for everybody. The same is true for your sauce options, which include two from a list that offers stone-ground or Dusseldorf mustard and beer cheese dip. Your best choice, as ever, is the spicy Rath sauce. 800 Langdon St., 262-7324
Beer Pairing: New Glarus Brewing Co.’s Spotted Cow
We’ll give assistant manager Evan Christiansen props for nailing the description of the 17-ounce, Batch Bakery-created giant pretzel at Dexter’s, a breaded octopus that overruns the edges of the pub’s standard dinner platter. “They’re bigger than your face,” he says. Some of the sauces that accompany this delicious monster, provided daily by Madison’s own Batch Bakery, feel like they’ve punched you in the face — in the best possible way. There are six to choose from — including two crowd faves, the Peppadew mustard and the habanero mustard — that pack enough heat to have you reaching early and often for the nearest beer stein. Heat not your beat? No worries. The sweet and smooth honey mustard dip, also made on-site, makes everything go down smoothly. 301 North St., 244-3535
Beer pairing: Any of Dexter’s Pub’s six to eight rotating IPAs
Drumlin Ridge Winery
Beer is the preferred pairing for most pretzel lovers, but at Drumlin Ridge, it’s possible to wash your pretzel down with a refreshing glass of Wauna White — or Wauna Red, if you’d rather — or any of the other wines on offer at this family-owned winery. Milwaukee Pretzel Co. provides the 8- to 9-inch pretzels, which are great to pair with Drumlin’s Dijon mustard with white wine or queso-like beer cheese dip. 6000 River Road, Waunakee, 849-9463
Wine pairing: Wauna White or Wauna Red
About a year ago, Graze’s bakery chef, Katie Dramm, made a couple of important changes to the way in which her restaurant puts together the soft pretzels that appear on all of Graze’s menus. Instead of boiling the dough in baking soda and salt, a process she found makes the pretzels too tough, she switched to bathing them in lye. The difference is obvious the moment you break off a piece and pop it in your mouth. This pretzel tastes light and fluffy — like a croissant, perfect for soaking up any of the three mustards (honey, stone-ground and spicy) that come with it. Condiment No. 4 may be where it’s really at: a creamy white cheese spread from Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wisconsin. Let’s put it this way: This plate is designed for sharing, but you honestly may not want to. 1 S. Pinckney St., 251-2700
Beer Pairing: O’so Brewing Co.’s Infectious Groove
Grumpy Troll Brew Pub
Plenty of places that serve giant pretzels stage the dipping sauces in the open spaces between the dough strands, creating that dramatic and crowd-pleasing smiley-face effect. The Troll’s Uff Da Pretzel adds an Edvard Munch “Scream” vibe to the plate with a big ol’ mouth-like ramekin of nacho cheese dip to go alongside the honey mustard and the Dijon mustard beer cheese dip, made with the Troll’s own Spetsnaz Stout. The pretzel itself is a fluffy 1-pounder from Milwaukee Pretzel Co. “It’s ginormous,” says general manager Taylor Zander. 105 S. Second St., Mount Horeb, 437-2739
Beer Pairing: Why not amplify? Grumpy Troll’s Spetsnaz Stout
Pretzels don’t have to be gigantic to pack huge flavor. Witness the pretzel bites, a staple of the appetizer menu at Karben4’s cozy taproom. These triangle-shaped nuggets of pretzel goodness are baked to order daily on-site by kitchen manager Dana Jelle, who works Karben4’s Block Party ale into the dough. Block Party also forms the basis of the Dijon mustard dipping sauce that often accompanies the bites. Every few months, Karben4 switches it up, serving a beer cheese dip anchored by its Lady Luck Imperial Red. “That’s why people come here,” says taproom manager Sammi Ervin of the bites, which also happen to be the top-selling item on the apps menu. “When they’re out, people are upset.” 3698 Kinsman Blvd., 241-4812
Beer Pairing: Karben4’s Chocolate Oatmeal Stout
Longtable Beer Cafe
Like most of the Middleton locations on our list, Longtable relies on Clasen’s European Bakery to provide the pretzel goodness on its appetizer menu. And as we’ve noted elsewhere, it’s a smart choice. Longtable oven-warms and garnishes the pretzels with melted butter and sea salt before serving them, creating a crisp and chewy effect. The beer mustard sauce pairs a grain mustard with a Central Waters Brewing Co. stout, introducing a coffee note to the mix. The beer cheese sauce is a symphony of local players: Hook’s 1-year cheddar mixed with Sassy Cow milk and Capital Brewery’s Wisconsin Amber. That’s something that makes chef Joshua Chavez especially proud. “I’ve been a fan of Hook’s since my Galena days,” says Chavez of the main ingredient. “I know I’m late to the party, but it’s a revelation.” 7545 Hubbard Ave., Middleton
Beer Pairing: Longtable Beer Cafe is all about the bottles. Grab a Belgian-style ale or stout from the massive list and go to town.
One Barrel Brewing Co.
Batch Bakehouse provides the pretzel at this cozy brewpub, and it’s as firm and tasty as it is on the other side of East Washington Avenue (see Dexter’s Pub). What’s unique here are the mustards that flank it when the barkeep places the pretzel board in front of you. Both are One Barrel specialties: On the right is sweet, hot stone-ground mustard that balances smooth and sizzling in a single bite. On the left is scorching chipotle mustard that leaves any sense of sweet lying dead on the wooden floor. 2001 Atwood Ave., 630-9286
Beer Pairing: One Barrel Brewing Co.’s The Commuter
Signature Grill at Vitense Golfland
A pretzel masterpiece of epic proportions lurks on Madison’s west side in one of the last places you might expect — within the bustling, colorful atmosphere of Vitense Golfland. The Signature Grill’s Pretzel Board was a labor of love for owner Sarah Weitz, who developed it in response to customers requesting more shareable items. For several months she was driving to Milwaukee a couple times a week to keep the massive 1-pound giant pretzels from Milwaukee Pretzel Co. in stock. (She’s since convinced her food vendor to begin supplying them.) That pretzel provides a perfect perch for a jaw-dropping list of upscale munchables: Genoa salami, andouille sausage, summer sausage, roasted pecans, grapes and three different types of cheese from Madison’s Rock Cheese Co. And we haven’t even gotten to the dips, including a bacon beer cheese dip. “We don’t want to just run a concession stand,” says Weitz of the grill. With a pretzel like this, they’re definitely not. 5501 Schroeder Road, 271-1411
Beer Pairing: Karben4’s Fantasy Factory
State Street Brats
Regulars know that only the most popular items make it to the signature “Football Menu,” the list of entrees and apps State Street Brats sells on Badger Saturdays when the crowds are as copious as they are voracious. It’s like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame of Food, and yes, the Pretzel Sticks make the cut — a trio of pillowy, butter-drenched sticks only slightly less imposing than the Badger offensive line. Manager Keegan Meuer says some patrons even cut them up and sprinkle the pieces over a signature Red Bratwurst. Now that’s the kind of condiment we can sink our teeth into. 603 State St., 255-5544
Beer Pairing: Ale Asylum’s Hopalicious
Viking Brew Pub
Sometimes when it’s time to enjoy a pretzel, the setting really matters. And the opportunity to enjoy a jumbo soft pretzel at a bar shaped like a Viking ship, complete with a dragon head that spews actual smoke, is simply too much to pass up. Viking’s doughy offering is oh-so-shareable — a huge affair that arrives in front of you on a 12-inch pizza tray. Like a lot of the restaurants on this list, Viking serves the dipping sauces — a honey mustard and a beer cheese made from the pub’s Soot in Your Eye Black IPA — in the pretzel’s open spaces, making them look like eyes in a gargantuan smiley face. “The general reaction when people see it is, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” says owner Lori Malling. “Sometimes we have a hard time keeping them in stock.” 211 E. Main St., Stoughton, 719-8041
Beer Pairing: One of Viking’s beers on tap
Aaron R. Conklin covers the local food and theater scenes for Madison Magazine.