Jeffrey Merlot
Mr. and Mrs. M

Mission to Mars — A visit to the Cheese Castle

By - Oct 8th, 2009 09:00 am
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Mars Cheese CastlePIC2x

Signage that looms over 1-94 in Kenosha.

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.

While our sandwiches were being assembled, we shuffled into the bar. The “castle” theme is most apparent here, with crenellated moldings, shields and a bucolic, Germanic-looking wall painting adding a patina of Old World identity. Still, it’s hard to get away from the fact that it’s just a food-and-gift shop complimented by a sandwich stand and bar. The kitschy feel seems geared very much for the transient tourist — it’s a place to pass through, have a snack and maybe take a picture to share with your pals back home in Rockford/Boise/Indianapolis. There’s a weird cultural mix that comes in, but not just from the travelers moving through. The pseudo-European royalty implied by the castle motif is combined with a peculiar type of Midwestern border culture — here in Kenosha, Green Bay Packer signs and Chicago Bears placards both give cheers for their teams.

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.

Categories: Dining, Mr. and Mrs. M.

0 thoughts on “Mr. and Mrs. M: Mission to Mars — A visit to the Cheese Castle”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Should have kept your wallet in your pocket and traveled a little further down the road to the ‘Brat Stop’. No pretense or atmosphere, just the best brats and steak sandwiches on earth (or mars for that matter). Oh, and if you need a cocktail you can get that there too…

  2. Anonymous says:

    How many of us have traveled along that desolate section of 94 and thought “Gee, one day I should stop and check these wacky places out.”

    The truth is there is very little reason to pull off the road and add time to your commute. Their only justification may be to add an iota of family appeal to a stretch otherwise distinguished by a seedy assortment of porn purveyors.

    Apple Holler just north of the Kenosha-Racine county line is a far superior and wholesome food and entertainment destination especially this time of year.

    The petting zoo and hayride are big hits with kids and the pies, ice cream and other food options won’t disappoint. Even the gift shop is vastly superior to those tourist traps down the road.

    But the food and the tschotckes at the Mars Cheese Castle are simply not worth the visit. The apple pie in a bag is probably the highlight but hardly worth a stop.

    Even on the internationally recognized South of the Border measure of schlock, the Mars Cheese Castle barely merits a 2 or 3.

    You may want to take a photo of the Bong State Park sign, especially if you have college age friends or relatives but otherwise my advice is “Keep moving folks, there’s nothing to see here.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    who cares if the place has holes in it? your writing is deliciously lively.

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