MINERAL POINT — The limestone and sandstone buildings here that are home to art galleries, gift shops and restaurants were at one time clothing and grocery stores, bakeries, butcher shops and banks.
The city’s first fire station, just a few doors up the hill from the Mineral Point Opera House, was later used to store grain before it was a clothing store and, in more recent years, a karate studio.
Ruth Ann Steuber, an Iowa native who spent 30 years in the San Francisco area, saw more potential. In 2004, she bought the dilapidated building for $70,000 and invested thousands more to open her home décor, arts and gift shop, Phoebe’s Nest, in 2006.
“You come (to Mineral Point) and something just grabs you,” Steuber said. “It’s magical. There’s very interesting characters here.”
Two of them are across the street in a building that once housed a mortuary.
In the past 17 months, Hiroko and Chris Messer transformed an 1860s building into a working-class Japanese restaurant. Sushi and tempura are nowhere to be found on the menu. Instead, their Kusaka restaurant features udon noodles, dumplings, curry rice and cinnamon rolls with apple, rum and raisins.
This is where you learn that authentic ramen doesn’t come in cheap plastic wrapping and is a noodle several times thicker than what you buy in the store for 19 cents a package. The aluminum foil seasoning packet is replaced with homemade broth with fresh slices of green onions.
The Messers, who married in 2010, also have a compelling story.
They had been living in Sendai, Japan, where Chris taught English at a private school and where the couple owned a coffee shop. They left their business behind in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami damaged the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and forced an evacuation.
Chris, a Cuba City High School graduate, and Hiroko moved to the U.S., where they now live with his mother, Diane Messer, the Dodgeville School District superintendent. Just over a year later, the Messers opened their restaurant, sans business plan or pockets full of capital.
“We’re really guerilla entrepreneurs,” Chris Messer said, after rolling out dough and cutting strands of udon, which are thicker than ramen but also served in broth. “Mineral Point is such an open community. They don’t judge you right away. They get to know you.”
Chris, a graduate of Eastern New Mexico University and the son of a nomadic Division III college football coach, had bopped around at various jobs that included working at a Walmart in Michigan, producing interactive sports training videos in Kansas and a stint at a Chinese restaurant in Platteville. In 2002, he decided a change was in order and headed to Japan to teach English.
Hiroko has been trained in traditional Japanese cooking, has a head chef’s license and is a certified breads teacher. Her husband speaks fluent Japanese. Her English is improving.
“I like it here. It’s a good town,” Hiroko said, Chris helping with her translation. “It’s different because of the language, but it’s a lot more relaxing. It’s not such a hectic pace.”
The couple’s 1,200-square-foot restaurant has just six tables, a tin ceiling, Japanese memorabilia and, instead of holiday greens and red bows, a Japanese prayer rope, called a shimenawa, that hangs over the front door.
Kusaka, which means “under the sun” in Japanese, is just two doors down from the Red Rooster Café, next door to Simply Scarfs and a few doors up from the Pabst sign that announces the Midway Bar & Grill. Less than a half a block away is where on July 4, 1836, Henry Dodge was sworn in as the first governor of the newly formed Wisconsin Territory.
The Messers’ restaurant adds to the culinary flavor of this tourist haunt that includes Hook’s Cheese, famous for its 15-year-old cheddar that sells for more than $60 a pound; Brewery Creek, a combination inn and brewpub located in an 1854 warehouse and MP Dining Company, co-owned by Chef Charlie Socher, who trained in Paris and spent 30 years cooking in Chicago.
So while the Messers’ Japanese restaurant would seem out of place in most Wisconsin communities of 2,600, Kusaka fits right in. But running a restaurant is tough business, regardless of location, condition of the economy or quality of the food.
“Is it sustainable? I don’t know,” Chris Messer said of his business. “It’s tough. You work with what you have. The trick is to make money.”
Critics who have reviewed the restaurant have had nothing but praise. But this is still a small town, and some days can be painfully slow. Only three customers took in lunch last Thursday when photographer John Hart and I paid a visit. We were the fourth seating. Using chop sticks and a soup spoon, I awkwardly gobbled down ramen miso while Hart used a fork to scarf down his spicy curry rice. We split a plate of gyoza, Japanese dumplings filled with pork and vegetables that are steamed then pan fried.
We didn’t try the okonomiyaki, but it looked like a dish that a Cornish miner likely would have cherished after a long day of digging for lead. The entrée is a potato pancake made with cabbage, flour, potato, carrots, green onions and pork.
In the kitchen, Hiroko was busy filling and folding dumplings while Chris, who is 6-foot-3 and more than 300 pounds, used a custom-made stainless steel noodle knife that is bigger than most but easily fits his massive hands. He uses unleavened flour from Lonesome Stone Milling in Lone Rock to make the dough for his udon. The pork comes from Weber Meats in Cuba City.
Vicky Smith, 69, of Greenfield and Mary Margaret Wacker, 61, of Waukesha were in town for a quilting session at the Jones Mansion. Their lunch table last week at Kusaka was filled with salmon fried rice, dumplings, kimchi and maki rolls stuffed with rice, shrimp and cucumber. They were thrilled, sampling each other’s food as if it were a mini-buffet.
“It’s unreal to have this kind of ethnic restaurant in this size of town,” Smith said. “I hope they can make it work.”