Delta Diner: creative meals in woodsy setting

A dozen miles south of Iron River, off of Highway H and inside Chequamegon National Forest, are the best Swedish pancakes around. They are thin and sweet enough to hold their own without a drenching of syrup.

“First-time customers have to sample the pancakes,” joked the cook, Todd Bucher, who grew up in Fond du Lac. “We lock the door until that happens.”

That is how a little pancake arrived after my order of deep fried mac and cheese (a strange but pleasant snack). The two-course combo is about all that I would not recommend at Delta Diner, which opened about two years ago.

Delta isn’t on the state map, and that is a part of the charm. The diner creeps up quickly, a shiny and neon-bright sight that surely has earned a lot of double takes amid the acres of tall pines and miles of unmarked roads.

Todd likes being in the middle of nowhere, on this land that had long been vacant. The Delta Store used to thrive here, selling fish bait to hot meatloaf until the building burned in 1972.

“That left a real void,” says Todd, 43, who owns Delta Diner with his wife, Nina. “The common perception was that nothing could be built here.”

He is the kind of guy who would drive 40 miles out of his way to get to a good diner, and a believer that others would do the same. “It’s a different feel than a restaurant,” and he seems to thrive on those dynamics. Crowds are fine, he says, but the trade-off is no time to get to know your customers.

When you belly up to the counter for lunch, it’s suburban tourist next to local laborer, PhDs sharing a coffeepot with folks making minimum wage. They’re likely to end up talking, and Todd sees great value in that.

“There’s some good karma going here,” he says, of the intimate, 38-seat dining area. During peak business, it can be an hour wait for a seat, then another 40 minutes to get fed.

Todd is a former advertising/marketing guy who worked for outdoor magazines until deciding to seek a simpler life. Nina operates Taste Budz, a coffeehouse and deli in Iron River. “We’re trying to build this business on word of mouth,” he says.

The menu is both diner fare and atypical. Yes, breakfast is a big deal. All the standard choices are there, plus Mexican Eggs Benedict on Thursdays (two eggs over cornbread and covered with a chipotle sausage sauce). The Greek omelet recently came off the menu (“it takes 26 steps to make”). The Delta Hot Cakes should be taken literally (they have jalapenos).

There are blue plate specials that sometimes include Wild Rice Turkey Casserole or Cajun Red Beans and Rice. Chili is a specialty, but it’s a sea of white – no tomatoes. The desserts? Among the signature pieces: a dense banana cake with chocolate frosting, and Swedish cream with fruit.

The frame of this 1940 Silk City (the manufacturer) diner was broken down and in New York when the Buchers bought it. Most of the rebuilding was done in Ohio; then the structure was hoisted onto a semi-trailer and driven to remote Bayfield County.

Todd calls it the last undeveloped part of Wisconsin. “Check out the canoeing on the White River,” he tells a couple of honeymooners. “It’s not fast water, but there are a lot of curves.”

To learn more about Delta Diner, go to www.deltadiner.com or call (715) 372-6666.

We can thank Joanne Raetz Stuttgen of Indiana for clueing us in about this fine diner, and a couple of others that were visited during our recent 900-mile trek around northern Wisconsin.

Joanne’s newly updated edition of “Café Wisconsin” ($19.95, UW Press) gives the scoop on 133 small town eateries with good home cooking. Another 101 (including Delta Diner, which was too new for her to visit before deadline) are mentioned as Next Best Bets.

The author’s publicist already has made us aware of a University of Wisconsin-Parkside mathematics professor, Don Piele, who used the guide during his 250-mile bike ride from Milwaukee to the tip of Door County.

How enthusiastic is he about the book? He hopes to develop www.CafeWisconsinBikeRides.com online, to share his adventures and those of others.

One of our other stops was to the Island Café in Minocqua, which has bathrooms painted more artistically than any room in most houses. The “everything” muffin resembled carrot cake, but we’re told the contents are subject to change daily.

We also zoomed into The Cottage Café in Port Wing, near the state’s peak. The town is known for its Labor Day weekend fish boil. The café is known for its berry pies and for having Jolene Anderson as a former waitress.

Jolene is a star guard on the UW women’s basketball team and will represent the USA during play in Tunisia this month. Look for her picture behind the cash register.