Monday, September 13, 2021

Eating BIG in Madison

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Mad City's Fast Growing Food Scene  

Madison is a spot that I get to somewhat often. Although it had been a minute since my most recent trip (covid) I've basically spent more time in Madison than anywhere except Chicago. This can be attributed to my time in college there as I haven't really lived anywhere else save for Tampa one year before four years in Madison. Today's post is a collection of spots visited over a few different trips. My most recent coming just this past August on what was a scorching hot weekend. Madison is still a college town but it's also a booming town being one of the Midwest's largest growing especially with the younger tech work crowd. It's changed dramatically since my time there in the early 2000's and this comes after people often telling me how much it had changed back when I was living there. One benefactor of it's rapid growth is the local food scene. Madison is as good a spot as ever to eat out. Today's post is a nice mix of both old and new and it includes some of the spots I put in a recent list I did for Eater Chicago on where to eat while in town. Click HERE for past Wisconsin posts. 

Sights from Madison 

Toby's Supper Club 

As I've mentioned many times before if you're in Wisconsin and it's a Friday you have to attend a Friday Fish Fry, I don't make the laws folks but in this case I do follow it. There's lots of spots to get a Fish Fry in Madison (pretty much every bar and then some) but only a few spots where you can grab one daily. Toby's is the spot for lake perch on every day it's not Friday but then also Friday's too. Toby's is one of my old stomping grounds (circa 2004) where I most always got a plate of lake perch with hash browns and cheese for my choice of potato. Plus a soup and relish tray. All for $20 (cheaper back when). A fancy night out for a college kid or a regular old Friday night out if you're an experienced Sconnie. The atmosphere here was just as it’s always been. We had ab hour plus wait with the sun still up and half the patrons were in in red (Badgers gear). Meanwhile behind the bar Old Fashioneds were flying out at a rapid pace. Madison’s best supper club. The steaks are also popular. 

Friday Night Fish Fry (lake perch) at Toby's Supper Club 


I recently crushed a Laotian feast at the new age Laotian restaurant called Ahan (food in Lao). They’re currently popping up inside The Bur Oak which is a local music venue. They're serving up terrific Lao forward food using local ingredients when possible (Dane County has a world class farmers market completely driven by local butchers and farmers). You can dine on the outside deck or take their food to go. With the outside humidity and 90 degree heat on our August visit it almost felt like we where somewhere in SE Asia and the food was as much a part of that as was the heat. 

Laotian Snack Platter

The Laotian Snack Platter you see sitting pretty up above was one of the more memorable plates of food I’ve had so far this year. I loved every last offering from the housemade Laotian sausage with lemongrass to the ginger garlic beef jerky, and the Laotian play on the scotch egg called a Son In Law Egg made with hard boiled egg filled with pork, cabbage, carrot, scallion, and vermicelli noodles. It’s battered and fried. All that plus sticky rice and Jeow Som dipping sauce. Next up an order of Khao Soi but not the type common in Chiang Mai that I’m more familiar with. Ahan makes a version of Khao Soi similar to the Luang Prabang style of Northern Laos. Clear chicken broth is mixed with ground pork, thin rice noodles, roasted tomato, fermented soybean, chili, cilantro, scallion, bean sprout, and fried garlic. It also comes with lime, a side of chili oil, and a bag of crispy puffed rice for garnish. Excellent.

Khao Soi at Ahan


Banzo is a Madison food cart success story. They stated out slanging falafel as one of the city's first food carts allowed to cook on the cart. They became very popular for their healthy made from scratch Mediterranean flavors. They were successful enough to where they opened a brick and mortar a few years ago. It reminded of a spot I'd find in Austin Texas. It 's off in a newly developing neighborhood on the east side of Lake Mendota. I got the falafel plate and came away very pleased. It was fantastic.

Falafel Plate at Banzo


Fromagination is located on the capitol square. Back when I was in school I always wondered why the only cheese shops in town were those attached to the gas stations and such. Then Fromagination opened sometime after I left. They're first and foremost cheese monger but they also make sandwiches with high quality local ingredients. I tried a turkey and liked it as snack after walking around the Farmers Market one Sat. morning. But the reason to come here is the local cheese.

Sandwich at Fromagination

Canteen Taqueria

This spot was new maybe 3 or 4 years ago. Right around the time modern taquerias were taking America by storm. Of course this type of operation is going to be very popular in a big college town like Madison. I was actually surprised by the fried cauliflower taco. Not the tortilla but the pieces of fresh fried cauliflower battered in Tecate and and tossed in a guajillo chile sauce. Not bad at all.

Fried Cauliflower Taco at Canteen Taqueria

Mediterranean Cafe

This longtime State street resident has a special place in my heart. It's probably the first food spot in Madison that I was a regular at. Over my four year stay many spots became a part of my regular rotation but this was the first. I always got the lamb/beef pita wrap. At something like $5 if not less it was a great deal. While nothing is particularly high quality in it it's all fresh and served with a smile by the family that's here for more than 25 years. It's the type of spot that would be popular on any campus.

Lamb/Beef Pita at Mediterranean Cafe

Taigu Noodles

I've noticed a large uptick in Chinese spots where noodles and dumplings were the focus. This is no doubt in reaction to the fact the percentage of Chinese students attending American universities continues to rise. Taigu is actually located out in a Middleton strip mall. Nonetheless there's a large Asian community in Madison and many of those families were at Taigu when I visited one Sunday afternoon. With noodles being in the name I had to go with those stir fried with shrimp and beef. It was quite a treat. They reminded me of Katy's in Westmont. College me would've loved these.

Stir Fried Noodles at Taigu Noodles

Oakcrest Tavern

No trip to Madison is complete without a tavern burger. Today I have five of them to share with you. First stop up is a place of greatness. The Oakcrest Tavern evaded me until about two years ago when I first stopped in. Not sure what took me so long to find this place bc they've been open since the 1950's. Whenever someone asks me why I think Wisconsin is America's best burger state I use the example of what Oakcrest is doing which is what so many other spots in the state mimic. The 1/3 lb patties of beef come from a longtime butcher across the street, it's all steak trimmings. The buns come from the local bakery also down the street and the cheese choices are always on point as this is Wisconsin after all. Burgers are grilled by the burgertender by which I mean the guy who cooks the burgers behind the bar. I'll be damned if this isn't one of the finest bar burgers in the land. Simple yet succulent. Whenever I'm headed to Madison these days I have to give thought to stopping here. 

Cheddar Burger at Oakcrest Tavern

Alt N Bach's Town Tap (RIP)

Sadly the next stop closed last year as I learned HERE. This is what I had to say when I originally gave my thought over on LTHforum. "Another prototypical Sconnie bar. Personally I cant get enough of them. Heard lots of good stuff about the bacon cheeseburgers from here so that's what I went with. Damn was it good. Maybe not good enough to overtake any spots in the Top 10 in the State Rankings but it was pretty much perfect in that bar burger type of way." It sucks I'll never have another. 

Bacon Cheeseburger from Alt N Bach's Town Tap (CLOSED)

Slices Bar

I attended a friends bachelor party up in Madison about a year and change ago. I went up there with two new to me burger spots to try. I had been recommended them by two separate posters on LTHforum. Again I was surprised I'd never heard of them but I also wasn't in that Madison might be the best burger city in the States by which I mean the number of good burgers available per capita puts them right there in the discussion. This is a product of the city's bars which also ranks right near the top for cities with the most bars per capita. For every college bar there's a spot like Slices. Here I tried the Cheddar Cheeseburger (1/4 lb) made with fresh ground beef from nearby Jenifer Street Market. Slices is a classic Wisconsin dive sitting amongst a bunch of factories near Madison East. This one had great beef, potent fried onions, and was cooked to perfect medium rare by the bartender.

Cheddar Burger at Slices 

Licari's Tavern

Next stop is a cool looking old school Italian bar. Though I witnessed something here I've never seen happen in Wisconsin. I watched the bartender grab my burger from the freezer and plop it onto the flattop. Thus I lost interest in Licari's Tavern real quick. I should point out that the burger itself wasn't one of those hockey pucks lots of fast food stops serve. It very well might've been quality beef I was just taken aback by the fact it was frozen. Never seen that out here. Other than that Licari's is a classic Madison tavern (one of it's oldest) that's most always filled with locals. Cool spot for a beer.

Bacon Cheeseburger at Licari's Tavern

Brothers Three

Ask me where to get the best bar burger in Madison and I would ask whether you want a regular cheeseburger or a bacon cheeseburger. The answer to the latter is Brothers Three. This is the other spot I was rec'd by an LTHforum poster and it was one of the best tips I've received in a minute. Me and another friend who isn't a big red meat nor burger binger were floored by these massive bacon cheeseburgers that were clearly made with care. First of all the bacon itself was super thick and very high quality. It definitely came from one of the many local butchers around town. Same goes for the ground beef which is a full half pound of beef ready to start dripping as soon as it's squeezed. Even the whole sliced onion gets a perfect sear while the bun manages to hold all of this together for about as long as any bun can. It is quite simply the best 1/2 lb burger I've ever had. Just be ready for a nap. 

Bacon Cheeseburger at Brothers Three

Paul's Pelmeni

This is the first spot I mention when the question of “where should I eat in Madison” gets asked. I’m a day one customer going back to its mini OG location at 505 State St. circa 2003. These days it’s a full fledged bar on Gilman pouring $4 anytime you call it drafts. They do one thing here and they do it really well. Russian Dumplings are stuffed with your choice of beef or potato with the option of half and half being the way to go. “The works” which means everything is a magical combination of butter, curry powder, sweet chili sauce, and cilantro. Plus sour cream. I usually stop for these upon my arrival when visiting Madison and then right before I leave. There’s really nothing else like these, save for some spots out west in Washington and Alaska and they’re all connected in one way or the other. 

Mixed Pelmeni at Paul's Pelmeni

See ya next time @chibbqking 

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