Madison is home to one of the finest universities in the country. But you know that already — otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. What you might not know, or at least fully appreciate, is that Madison is also home to more restaurants than any other city its size, which can make choosing where to eat a daunting task. As students, you likely have more to consider than just the quality of the food, making the choice even harder. So with that in mind, I’ve been tasked with helping you navigate your way through Madison’s exceptional culinary scene.
In this first column, I thought we could start off with something close to home: Cheese Curds. There aren’t many things more Wisconsin than the cheese curd. There are only two ingredients: the cheese and the breading. Yet it’s funny how something so simple can have so many variations. And people who know good cheese curds know that they can also be extremely bad sometimes.
The cheese has to be fresh and the breading needs to be light and crispy. Beyond that, all that’s left is the frying. There is a subtle art to frying foods well. The oil temperature needs to be just right; too cold and the food will get greasy, and too hot will burn the outside before melting the innards. And the cook time needs to be perfect: Just long enough to melt the cheese, but not long enough to make the breading soggy.
Here are a few of the places I’ve been to recently that clearly take pride in their cheese curds:
The Old Fashioned
A lot of people talk about the fish at The Old Fashioned, but their cheese curds are as good, if not better. Some people tout them as the best in Madison, and there’s certainly an argument to be made. The cheese curds at The Old Fashioned melt in your mouth and feature a breading that leaves you wanting more. But although they make my list here, I think there are a couple places that might edge them out for the title of best cheese curds in Madison.
Capital Tap Haus
The Capital Tap Haus is a homage to the “tied houses” that existed in the pre-prohibition era. The idea behind a tied house was that a restaurant or tavern got financial backing from a brewery, and in return, served only featured beers made by that brewery. As its name indicates, Capital Tap Haus only features beer from the Capital Brewery (located in Middleton). In fact, it pairs a suggested beer with almost everything on their menu. But for its delicious cheese curds, the Tap Haus pairs with sauces.
You can taste the freshness of the cheese, and the breading is so light that the curds fall apart when you pick them up. The portion is smaller than what you’ll get at The Old Fashioned, so if you’re sharing with more than one other person, you might want to order two. And although the menu suggests honey Dijon as an accompanying sauce, I always go with ranch.
Chaser’s Bar and Grille
Chaser’s Bar and Grille opened up in the spot that used to house Quinton’s (Quinton’s had to close because they were naughty, but that’s another story). When Chasers opened, they improved upon their predecessor with a much better menu, and they feature some pretty good sandwiches. But this article is about fried cheese, and their ‘Famous’ Fried Cheese is the best thing I’ve eaten that has come out of a deep fryer (maybe even anywhere recently). Don’t mistake their fried cheese for their cheese curds on the menu because they feature both, and the cheese curds pale in comparison. An order of Famous Fried Cheese is made up of just cubes of cheese that are deep-fried without a batter at all. The edges of the cubes of cheese get burnt and crispy and form a sort of replacement batter. The inside of the cheese is melted, but retains some of its firmness, because it isn’t cooked for too long. The fried cheese is served with tangy feta buttermilk ranch sauce (it can come with BBQ sauce instead, but again, I prefer the ranch).
With so many places that take pride in their cheese curds, you shouldn’t let yourself settle for the soggy, greasy blobs that some places serve. If you have a sudden curd craving, try satisfying it at one of these places. After all, any restaurant that cares about its little dishes is bound to care about its big ones too.
Questions? Comments? Think you know where to find the perfect cheese curd? Let us know at [email protected]