Mission to Mars — A visit to the Cheese Castle
The name is so promising. Mars. Cheese. Castle. Even if all the myths and ideas of Mars hold no charms for you, certainly a cheese castle will make your eyes go wide. Alas, sometimes you can’t judge a cheese castle by its name.
The cheese part is no joke. There’s plenty of it. Mars’ Cheese Castle (est. 1947) proclaims its presence with its unmissable sign looming over I-94 in Kenosha. From the outside, it appears to be another boxy building along the interstate, albeit like a warehouse decorated with castle-like fortifications. Upon entering, however, you find yourself dazed and confused amidst a small gourmet foods store stuffed with specialty items from Wisconsin and other places. Instead of ogling all the haphazardly shelved products immediately, Mr. and Mrs. M. headed toward the back to get some lunch.
There is a sign outside that says, “Cocktails and Sandwiches.” Mrs. M. apparently missed the memo on that one, as she was hoping for something like cheese sampler platters, maybe accompanied by a wine flight. In reality, lunch is ordered from a counter in a small alcove, and the menu consist largely of sandwiches and other mundane selections. Ham and cheese, corned beef, Reuben and other sandwiches range from a low of $4.60 to $6.75. It’s simple food, like something that could be quickly served at a train station or sports arena, accompanied by potato chips or hot German potato salad. Mr. M. was disappointed by the rather bland “King’s Ransom” sandwich for $6.50 which, though it was filled generously enough with Italian meats, cheese and vegetable components, completely betrayed its name (at least the impression its name suggests of a unique and hardy house specialty).
Mr. M.: It’s like picnic food, but indoors.
Mrs. M.: And on paper plates, too. No ants, of course.
And about the gourmet gift shop: Sure, there’s plenty of cheese and sausage, naturally —good ‘ole Wisconsin staples, along with a variety of domestic and imported foods. On closer inspection, you start to realize that basically all of these goodies can be found at upscale groceries like Sendik’s or Grasch Foods. But still, as in all good tourist traps, you’ll find yourself wandering. Tunnel vision sets in and consumer logic turns off as you fill your shopping basket. Before you know it, you’re paying upwards of $17 for a bottle of Door County wine that normally retails for about $10 (doh!). Can you say, “Rip off”?
Mars’ Cheese Castle is no great shakes for cuisine, but it’s really not meant to be. It’s a wayside for weary travelers, for their pocketbooks to be tempted by all manners of food and knickknacks, from the unique and useful to the kitschy and cheap. It’s a place for a novel lunch, particularly as an alternative to the ubiquitous fast-food franchises that line the freeway, and a rather interesting place for people watching, as everyone seems to be on their way somewhere else. The array of vittles and tschotskesis similarly entertaining. All in all, you might not end up over the moon, but you might as well be on Mars.
Mars’ Cheese Castle
2800 120th Avenue, Kenosha
Major credit cards accepted.