Relax and take things cheesy in this western Wisconsin treasure.
Mike Valley could smoke seven days a week and never catch up with demand. The owner of Valley Fish & Cheese smokes catfish, walleye, bullheads, sturgeons, and perch behind his eclectic provisions shop in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
The focus from September to early November is on flathead catfish, which Valley catches in the Mississippi River, a short jaunt from his place of business. The catfish are smoked and sold as is, but perhaps a better representation of Mississippi Mike’s (his enduring nickname) talents are evidenced in his innovative catfish jerky or, more recently, catfish baloney. People popping into Valley Fish & Cheese—drawn in by the incredible array of loud signage out front or by word of mouth (Valley says they don’t do any advertising because they don’t have to)—may try a catfish jerky sample and immediately wonder why they’ve been eating regular old beef jerky all these years.
Valley was born into a smoking family and has over the years experimented with different varieties because as he succinctly puts it: “You got to have the oddball stuff that [people] will remember and go home and tell their friends and family about.”
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First-time visitors to this small Wisconsin town with a population of about 6,000 on the border of Iowa may not suspect they’ve arrived in a place rich with river seafood, but all it takes is one visit to Valley’s shop, which looks suspiciously like a tourist trap based on the loud exterior, (but is anything but) or a meal at one of Prairie’s charming supper clubs to get a taste for what this undiscovered Crawford County gem is all about.
Fish Fry Supper Clubs
On Friday afternoons, Valley used to close shop early and turn the store into the town’s best fish fry dinner destination. Bob Moses, the gregarious Chamber of Commerce CEO/President, speaks of the fish fry wistfully. “Think you’ll ever bring it back?” he asks Valley during a recent visit. “Maybe even just a couple of times a year?”
Although the Valley Fish & Cheese fish fry is unlikely to return to the small-town dining scene anytime soon, fortunately, for locals and visitors alike, this is the land of the supper club. Supper clubs are more or less restaurants with hearty menus and friendly hospitality. Mostly found in the Midwest, they share no relation to the more recent underground supper clubs that have emerged in cities around the country.
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The revered Friday fish fry can be enjoyed any day of the week at The Barn Restaurant, a supper club featuring Mississippi catfish. Like Valley, Drew Hager the restaurant’s GM, says they can hardly keep up with demand. Thus, fried cod is also always on the menu as well, and while it isn’t locally caught, there’s still plenty of local, old-fashioned goodness to be had here. Take, for instance, the supper club’s fresh salad bar and homemade soups: “Second to none!” Hager promises.
The 128 seat restaurant opened in 1980 and has been bustling pretty much since day one says, Hager. A spacious bar area with marina views seats about 36, and it is one of—if not the best— spots to take in a sunset over this stretch of the Mississippi River. Ordering the fried cheese curds, served with a choice of marinara or ranch for dipping, isn’t mandatory, but it ought to be.
Wisconsin takes its cheese seriously. In fact, it’s the only state where you need to have a license to make and sell cheese, and no visit to Prairie du Chien would be complete without getting your fill of the award-winning cheeses coming out of the state.
There’s enough going on in this small-town gem to keep visitors occupied for several days, but as it’s also not the kind of place to leave your head-spinning with options, and this, it turns out, is a most welcome way to vacation. Outside of winter, biting and brutal in this part of the country, a lazy day by the river is a most welcome way to while away a few hours—especially if there’s cheese curds and smoked fish involved. Pickled vegetables from Valley Fish & Cheese round out the picnic lunch, as does random turtle spotting.
Depending on the time of year, you might even catch (sorry, not sorry!) a glimpse of one of the town’s fishing tournaments, which Moses says brings in huge numbers each year. Riverboat cruises touting cheese and Champagne are also a big draw here, according to Moses who attributes the town’s consistent increase in visitors to its “scenic beauty.”
“Our location is everything,” Moses adds.
If You Go
Many visitors drive over from other parts of the large state: Madison, Green Bay, Milwaukee, and it’s an easy trip for much of Eastern Iowa as well. La Crosse, a Wisconsin city that’s been compared to Boulder, CO, a little more than an hour by car, is the closest airport, but the two-hour drive from the State Capital is a pretty one, dotted with cheese shops, general stores, and tag sales.
Stay at The Waterfront Hotel, a family-owned and operated property in the heart of the quaint downtown. The relatively new hotel (it opened pre-pandemic, enjoyed a bustling couple of months, and then shuttered temporarily before relaunching) features an inviting, open-air lobby boasting river views in every direction.