Contrary to popular belief, Asian Kitchen is not the best option for Asian food in Madison. Yes, their lip-smacking, MSG-ridden General Tso’s chicken is the perfect drunk food, and yes, the location is ideal for stumbling into, but if you are looking for more than Americanized question mark meats, Madison has much more to offer.
I will admit I have spent no time in Asian countries, and I love a good lo mein as much as the next college student, but throughout my perusing of Madison restaurants I have found campus Asian restaurants do no justice to what the rest of Madison has to offer. Outside our little bubble, restaurants are hand-making their noodles, slaving over curries and crafting inventive dumplings. While resisting the siren song of Asian Kitchen may be difficult at first, give these restaurants a try and you will not want to go back.
First up is Willy Street’s Wah Kee Wonton Noodle Restaurant. While the d?cor is underwhelming and the strip mall location slightly off-putting, the restaurant boasts rave reviews and delicious homemade noodles. The menu is extensive but lacks descriptions of the dishes, so if you are like me and want to know what is in “Buddha’s Delight” or have no idea what pomfrit is, I recommend asking your server for more details.
Although there are dozens of options for more traditional offerings like fried rice, lo mein and sweet and sour dishes, deviating from house noodles at Wah Kee is like going to The Tornado Room and ordering a salad – foolish. Luckily, there are 21 special noodle dishes ranging from rice noodles to udon noodles to basic white noodles, all coming in between $9 and $10. For the less daring, the shiitake and chicken noodle soup is a winner, but noodles marked in red denote spice and excitement. Service is rather spotty, but for those of us who cannot bear to wait, the restaurant does offer takeout.
If Wah Kee is packed and you are not feeling like takeout, Lao-Laan Xang is just a hop, skip and a jump away with locations on both Willy Street and Atwood Avenue. The Laotian restaurant won the silver award in Madison Magazine’s Thai/Indonesian category, but in my opinion, their curry blows gold winner Sa-Bai Thong out of the water.
The mango curry is my hands-down favorite, but the curry squash is up there too, both delivering much more flavor than their names suggest. Lao-Laan Xang’s eight curries can come with chicken, tofu, mock dock, catfish, shrimp or “meat,” but if ordering the last option I would get clarification on just what “animal” you are ordering. Curries run around $12, but you can expect to get two meals at the very least out of the large portions. And who does not love leftover curry for breakfast?
Where Lao-Laan Xang drifts into the Pacific, Hilldale Mall’s Dumpling Haus pulls you back to the continent, in name anyway. The order-at-the-counter restaurant took over the vacant Ben and Jerry’s, creating a small dining area with an exposed kitchen beyond the bar where you can watch the staff wrap up your dumplings.
As the name would suggest, dumplings are the go-to item, though steamed bao zi buns, wontons and noodles are also available. Dumpling Haus still seems to be playing with its menu, and I am crossing my fingers that the vegetarian wontons I had the last time make the final version – I could actually distinguish vegetables among the fried taste. If you do not like pork or vegetarian items, skip the trip to Hilldale, but if you are looking for authentic, hand-crafted Beijing dumplings, eight to 10 of them can be yours for less than $10.
Those willing to stray slightly from campus will find countless opportunities to experience Asian food as authentic as it gets in Wisconsin. So while these options may be a smidge pricier than campus offerings, your taste buds and digestive system will thank you a hundred times over.
Allegra Dimperio (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in journalism.