Chop Suey and Cheese Curds: Bud & Marilyn’s Reviewed

The fad for retro cuisine has come and gone, but can Bud & Marilyn’s recapture the spirit of American cuisine’s misspent youth?

Photo by Neal Santos

Nashville Hot Buns and the interior of Bud & Marilyn’s | Photo by Courtney Apple

My problem with Bud & Marilyn’s is that I always want to be drunk before I go.

There are reasons. This isn’t me confessing to some latent alcohol problem, or anything so pedestrian. No, it’s because they have this chop suey on the menu, and this chop suey in particular (this chop suey more than all other chop sueys I’ve known) is maybe the most perfect drunk food ever created.

I know. No one eats chop suey anymore because chop suey was, is, always will be the avatar of Americanized Chinese food. There are a million stories of its creation. All of them are probably true. And it’s a dish that has lingered in the American consciousness for a century, staling and growing hoary with legend until it’s become the kind of thing you’d expect to find in some tiki’d and Buddha’d gold-flake dining room in suburban Milwaukee in 1977.


Bud & Marilyn’s
1234 Locust Street

CUISINE: American

PRICES: $$ (entreés range from $16 to $24, apps from $7 to $26)

RECOMMENDED: Fried cheese curds ($8) for everyone; meatloaf ($22) for fans of gravy boats.

SNAP JUDGMENT: Retro American cuisine’s moment may have come and gone, but Bud & Marilyn’s does it right by capturing the feel of your weird uncle’s rec room circa 1978, with food that’s both recognizable and ideally balanced for modern tastes.

Which, of course, is why it’s perfect for Bud & Marilyn’s, which is essentially a theme restaurant of American culinary embarrassments and the brilliance of simpler, stupider times. A place where the pu pu platter, a slab of meatloaf and the wedge salad have come to be reborn over a round of rum-heavy planter’s punches knocked back at a bar that wears its wood paneling like a badge of … something.

But chop suey, right? Bud & Marilyn’s version—with the upsell of its country ham fried rice, fermented kohlrabi, summer vegetables, and crown of perfectly fatty seared pork belly and a single over-easy farm egg—is a particular kind of lure. The first time I had it, I recall thinking to myself how good it was. And how much better it would be if I’d had the chance to put away a few more gin and tonics at the bar before it’d arrived.

My first evening at Bud & Marilyn’s was spent entirely at the bar—in a haze of golden light and slick leatherette. Eschewing the flowery and nostalgia-spiked featured cocktails (I don’t like rosemary with my tequila or bitters with my anything), I stuck with gin, and immediately ordered the one thing on the menu I was most excited for: fried cheese curds.

Fried cheese curds are perhaps the second-greatest contribution of the Midwest to American food culture. They aren’t difficult to make, and yet are served only in a few rare, wonderful restaurants where the chef— through upbringing, fortunate discovery, or possibly the sale of his or her soul to some greasy-handed demon—has learned the simple, magical food-based equation stating that cheese + batter + hot oil = The Greatest Appetizer Ever.

Chef and owner Marcie Turney learned her lesson the honest way. She’s got Midwest all over her—grew up in Ripon, Wisconsin, where her grandparents (Bud and Marilyn, natch) owned a restaurant called the Spot, and spent her youth sipping Shirley Temples at their bar. She’s a woman who understands the glory of cheese curds in all their many forms (fried and not-fried). She serves her’s batter-fried, blistering hot, with a side of garlic scape ranch dressing (plus a salsa that can be completely ignored) and sprinkled with chopped parsley, like a joke. And if you don’t order at least one plate of these every single time you come here, you’re a damn fool and we have nothing further to say to each other.

The full menu at Bud & Marilyn’s is one of those documents that, hung beside the door beneath the hot red neon glowing at the corner of 13th and Locust, can draw people in from the street—a perfect mix of comfort and memoir and solid Midwestern foodways that makes you hungry just by reading. Think house-made kielbasa with a smooth porkiness and a snap like biting a rubber band in half. The tangled mound of kohlrabi slaw on top is good but ends up getting shoved off to the side because a good kielbasa needs beer mustard more than it needs a salad as a hat, and Turney makes her own. The horseradish and potato pierogies on the side (in brown butter with capers) are good enough to be a main all on their own.

The Nashville-style hot chicken bun comes mounted on a New England roll with pickle brine slaw and a couple little pickles. The pork chops are brined in sweet tea and served with charred plums, mop sauce and cheddar grits (also available as a side, which is something you ought to make note of for later). The meatloaf looks like something lifted whole and warm from the pages of an old-timey church-group cookbook, only color-corrected for the 21st century and bulked up with fontina and soft, juicy chard. A plain white oval plate, piped mashed potatoes scattered with razor-cut chives, peas and carrots off to the side, and then royal trumpet gravy served in an honest-to-Jesus gravy boat because Turney is playing a deep game here, and even if I’d hated the meatloaf (which I didn’t), I would’ve remembered it fondly just because my grandma used a gravy boat and your grandma used a gravy boat and my grandma is long gone now, so I can barely remember the last time I saw a gravy boat anywhere but at a garage sale.

Were there failures? Sure. Small ones. The short-rib stroganoff needed more horseradish crème fraîche to cut the richness of the sauce. The mounds of slaw atop the buns were bothersome in the same way that gigantic mounds of anything on top of anything can be to someone more interested in eating food than taking pictures of it. The banquettes were too squishy (though it’s possible I’m just growing fat).

But Bud & Marilyn’s is a success. It’s the restaurant that a lot of folks wanted (or tried to make) when that whole fad for retro cuisine oh-so-briefly became the new, shiny thing last year, and it survived the cratering of that trend because it isn’t really retro at all. It doesn’t mimic an age, but a feeling. It doesn’t ape a style, but a sense that there are some dishes that deserve rescuing from our cultural root cellar–that sometimes (a lot of the time), meatloaf and a plate of cheese curds (thoroughly understood and smartly presented) will better fill us than some pickled lemongrass and tenderloin foam. I’m not a Luddite. I just really like fried cheese curds.

And I’m gonna be back again for that chop suey, too. Though I might be rolling in kinda late.

Three Stars – Excellent: Worth the trip from anywhere in the region

Bud & Marilyn’s [Foobooz]