About Wisconsin: food, restaurants, offbeat places for travelers

2-motorMuch of my work feels like a treasure hunt. Road trips and research sometimes begin with a set of priorities and assumptions that unravel or are enriched with unexpected surprises.

At year’s end, my archives are always packed with many interesting tidbits. Here are 10 examples.

Soda Pops, 125 S. Railroad St., Eagle River – Expect an excess of choices. For craft beverage fans, that means a menu of 150 types of pop in bottles. Order a burger and dress it up with an array of relishes, veggies, mustards and other enticements at the 70-item condiment bar.

An antique soda fountain pumps out phosphates, malts, flavored colas and more. Add decorative leaded glass on cozy booths, a restored metal ceiling and hardwood maple floors. soda-pops.com, 715-479-9424

Sweets Boutique, 1529 Oregon St., Oshkosh – “Cake Guru” is baker Tamara Mugerauer’s nickname, and her flavors go way beyond chocolate and buttercream. Tamara’s elegant and tasty cupcake display at this year’s Wisconsin Restaurant Expo earned her the title of Cupcake Warrior Champ.

The baker’s beautifully creative combos – think lemon-blueberry-chardonnay – and other liquor-infused flavors have proved to be particularly delicious substitutes for the traditional wedding cake. Dozens of possibilities exist, with and without alcohol. cakeguru.com, 920-236-9144

Motor, 401 W. Canal St., Milwaukee – Hearty comfort foods with a gourmet spin are a specialty at this edgy-casual restaurant on the Harley-Davidson Museum campus.

Pay attention to the sassy sandwiches, which include barbecued pork topped with coleslaw and pulled chicken doused with hot sauce and bleu cheese. motorrestaurant.com, 414-287-2778

American Cheese Society Competition – The 2013 event was in Madison, and most workshops cater to the uber-serious cheesehead who either is in the business or feels fanatical about fromage production and excellence.

Astounding to any dairy product lover was the end-of-event sale of cheese for rock-bottom prices, to raise money for scholarships. Table after table of cheeses from top award winners were going for $5 per fat block or wedge. The ACS eventually will head back to Wisconsin, and when it does, this cheese sale will be my priority, not an afterthought. cheesesociety.org

Goodwill Outlet Store, 1341 W. Spencer St., Appleton – Recycling is good for the earth and pocketbook. Thrifty shoppers help the disadvantaged while saving money at Goodwill stores all over the U.S. and Canada, but this one is where some of the leftovers go.

Merchandise fills 100-plus tables and bins at this 15,000-square-foot sales site. Most items are sold by the pound, and fresh inventory appears often. When friends and I visited, it was $1.49 per pound for textiles to 49 cents for glass and ceramics. We saw families gather back-to-school wardrobes for kids, found near-new snowsuits and Packer jackets. Some customers wear gloves while sorting through the mishmash of eclectic goods. It’s a my-trash-your-treasure experience. goodwillncw.org, 920-560-1234

West of the Lake Gardens, 915 Memorial Dr., Manitowoc – Take the time to hug the lakefront instead of the interstate, and look for this exquisite, 6-acre haven between Manitowoc and Two Rivers.

Ten distinct flower gardens have Lake Michigan as their backdrop. The former estate of a shipbuilding company exec is shared with the public from Mother’s Day weekend to mid October, and admission is free. westfoundation.us, 920-684-6110

Jay Lee Inn, 444 S. Lake St., Elkhart Lake – This tiny lakeside town is known for its large resorts, but Road America car-racing fans and others have this as a more intimate option for lodging. In some of the seven guest rooms, the innkeeper welcomes well-behaved, crate-trained dogs to stay with their owners.

The 1902 Victorian house is across from the popular, grassy beach of Fireman’s Park. The village hops during Schnee Days activities, Feb. 21-23. Sometimes groups book the entire house for retreats, craft weekends or catered murder-mystery packages. jayleeinn.com, 920-876-2910

Mount Horeb Scandihoovian Fest – Got cabin fever? Restless residents in this community of 7,000 break up winter with a spelling bee for adults, skiing by candlelight, flipping lots of ’jacks for breakfast and showing off vintage snowmobiles.

Admission is free for this sometimes-silly, wholesome and second annual event, Jan. 31 to Feb. 2. Don’t leave before indulging at Fisher King Winery (which showcases Wisconsin ingredients) and Sjolinds Chocolate House, both on Main Street. trollway.com, 608-437-5914

Madison Children’s Museum, 100 N. Hamilton St., Madison – We know the five-story building – with four-season rooftop playground, complete with gardens, chickens and pigeons – delights children. But it’s not unusual for adults to occasionally take over on evenings and weekends.

A friend had her 60th birthday party here, setting up cocktails and appetizers between exhibits. The next public Adult Swim, an anti-Valentine’s party on Feb. 14, encourages bad-date storytelling and making teddy bears with recycled goods. More innocent is a pajama party for kids on Jan. 24. madisonchildrensmuseum.org, 608-256-6445

PJ Campbell’s at The Depot, 114 Depot Rd., Plymouth – The release of my “Eat Smart in Germany” book this year took me to several new and interesting places. That includes this dinner-only restaurant in an 1859 railroad depot. Start with a fat and warm Bavarian pretzel, which fills a dinner plate, making it big enough to share with friends.

Chef-owner Patrick Campbell in 2011 brought his love of German cooking to the historic site, much to the approval of the locals, who tend to identify strongly with this ethnic group. Expect a menu of schnitzels, pork hocks, rouladen and sauerbraten. pjcampbellsathedepot.com, 920-893-8600