Caleb Westphal hasn’t missed a Friday fish fry since 2013. Follow his never-ending adventures—sponsored by Miller High Life—HERE. This week: fish fry #523, Joe Mama’s Bar & Grill in Colgate, Wisconsin.
How did I miss it? I had seen only brandy and soda go into the glass, but when I was handed the Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet there were cherries smashed at the bottom, and a floating orange wedge too. Only somewhat befuddled, I settled in next to a window—since all the bar seats were taken—and started my weekend. The Old Fashioned ($7.50) was bitters forward and had a hint of cinnamon, and was served in a pint glass without a garnish. Five or so minutes later someone else ordered an Old Fashioned, and then I saw what I had missed: that the same pre-muddled, pint glass system that I encountered at Kick Switch Bar And Grill in November is implemented at Joe Mama’s Bar & Grill (4600 County Line Rd. Q; 262-628-9211).
Joe Mama’s opened in 2016 to the west of Colgate, near Lake Five, and is owned by Joe Vella and Al Wasley, who since 2021 have also owned Woody’s Bar & Grill in nearby North Lake. The name Joe Mama’s isn’t in reference to Joe’s mama, your mama, or anyone else’s mama, but came about when ideas for names for the new bar were being spitballed. Joe Mama’s has a wide-ranging menu, with one of its jewels being their inventive macaroni and cheese, which has even appeared on the Travel Channel. According to the Richfield Historical Society, the Joe Mama’s building was built as a home in 1876, and later became the Lake Five Hotel and Saloon, being “the center of much activity in the community.” In more recent years it was the Roadside (or Roadside Inn), and then Uncle Johnny’s Saloon & Grill, before becoming Joe Mama’s.
As I nursed by Old Fashioned, the camaraderie between the clientele and the bartenders was palpable. “Want a shot of Malört?” someone was asked as they walked in. (They didn’t go for it, and for a moment I almost decided to go for it myself.) The bartender took a selfie over the bar with others. A steady stream of early-aughts hits—and “Don’t Stop Believin'”—played overhead. The crowd continued to swell around the long bar, with most people waiting for one of the 15 or so tables in the dining area—an area beyond the bar and separated from it in no real way. At 5:50 p.m., just shy of 50 minutes after I’d arrived, my table was ready.
The Friday fish fry options at Joe Mama’s are fried, baked, or baked cajun cod ($14.95), walleye ($15.95), and bluegill ($15.95). They also have a regular seafood special. Some weeks it has been a seafood sampler or perch, but on this particular Friday it was a seared salmon BLT. Potato choices are french fries or homemade potato pancakes, and clam chowder is available by the cup ($4.95) or bowl ($5.95). I’ve had bluegill on my mind since Brewski’s, and couldn’t resist it again. In fact, a photo I had seen of the bluegill at Joe Mama’s was partly why I had ended up there in the first place. I didn’t spend much time with other decisions, either. Of course potato pancakes would be chosen; of course clam chowder would be picked.
The cup of chowder, which looked more like a bowl, had a lip-smacking sweetness and saltiness, with an average amount of clams and potatoes of all sizes, and was topped with fresh parsley. While it didn’t come out right after I ordered it, it butted itself up to the fish fry nicely. I finished off its final bites like a ravenous wild boar after I caught the fish fry in the corner of my eye, shimmering its way out of the kitchen like one of the main courses at a Buckingham Palace state banquet.
Perhaps it would be wise for all breads to aspire to a mantra of “soft butter between soft bread,” for that’s what this wholesome, dark marbled rye did, and it scarcely could have been more affecting. The coleslaw, with chunked-up green cabbage and carrots, and spice and sauce aplenty, was like the slaw under the deli cases across America. It’s eaten at graduations and Fourth of July picnics, never asking to be the center of attention, but providing a hit of familiarity in the back of the mind as conversation flows and the wheels of time and progress grind on. Thin and soft, with the lightest of crispness at their edges, the potato pancakes were flecked with some fresh greenery, and very well executed overall.
A generous portion of seven bluegill fillets were piled up on one side of the large platter. I didn’t taste much bluegill with the first couple bites, while the flavor of the breading was at the forefront. But with a few more bites the bluegill stepped forward and the breading took more of a supporting role. Throughout the sunfish journey, elements would trade off the spotlight, as if singing a solo or playing a lead lick, but then come together in unison, as if joining a chorus. But nothing was unbalanced, and as a whole—with the tartar, too—the fish was a song, mixed and mastered with a discerning ear. The bluegill was flavorful but not overbearing. The breading evenly coated the bluegill, and had its own distinct flavor and texture, unlike most I’ve found. I asked if it was made with cornmeal and was told it was a proprietary mix they use on their breaded foods, and that cornmeal was one component of it.
Joe Mama’s Bar & Grill offers a respectable bluegill fry, and with the all-around quality of the rest of the fish fry components, it’s likely the cod and walleye frys are also up to the Friday challenge. There was plenty of food and nothing was lacking, which left room to simply enjoy the meal. While this fish fry might not be one you’ll scream home about, it’s one that might get you to leave your home a second time to try again.
Takeaways: Muddled, bitters forward Old Fashioned; cod, walleye, and bluegill plus a revolving Friday seafood special; Malört available; gets busy and there may be a wait; soft butter between soft rye bread; slaw like that under the deli cases across America; well-executed soft and greenery-flecked potato pancakes; bluegill and breading traded off shining, but ended up like a balanced song.