Each dining establishment takes on its own persona over time. Sometimes restaurants change that persona to attract clientele. And others are lucky enough to find a position on the landscape such that the establishment glistens because it is different from the rest, with no change needed.
The Billygoat Tavern and Grill in Chicago is known for its menu simplicity and character. The standard line hollered at customers from behind the counter received a “Saturday Night Live” skit back when it was considered quality programming.
While horribly embellished on TV, the “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No fries, cheeps! No Pepsi, Coke!” line exemplified the simplistic manner in which the place is run. This line communicated the limited number of menu choices available.
In contrast, some food establishments often maximize the number of combinations you can create. Chipotle, for example, notes that possible burrito-topping combinations run into the thousands.
For a town like Madison, the minimalist eating experience is unheard of. Most visitors, including one I met over the weekend, are shocked to see such plentiful variety in so many places to eat.
Pelmeni is a dumpling eatery that adds to the capital eating variety but cuts down on unneeded choices. With six food combination possibilities and nothing else to order, the dumplings are elevated to a pedestal that implies visitors should feel privileged with the choice they have.
Inside, the décor is quite simple. Five tables are spread about the dining area and a bar on the side of the kitchen provides additional seating. Most likely, no renovation work was ever completed before it opened almost a year ago with the walls split between dark yellow and light blue. Nothing says “Let’s eat!” like funky colors on the walls and stickers on the front counter.
The front window is adorned with a green neon sign that vertically reads “open.” The sign, outlined in purple, pushes the bounds of unnecessary due to the steady stream of patrons there on recommendation and repeat business.
Almost every customer in Pelmeni brought first-timers to dine with them. A student told his friend, “You just get addicted to it.” The friend replied, “Maybe I’ll get addicted to it, too.” Interestingly enough, people had no problem dragging one skeptical friend after another inside. Many others, it seems, are addicted to the price.
The menu, written on a whiteboard, is extremely simple to understand. The first choice is a decision between beef or potato dumplings, with a third possibility of ordering both. Doing so is as simple as asking for half and half.
Next, choose how the dumplings should be served. The traditional way is the dumplings soaked in butter sauce. A spicy order gives the wraps more flair with added curry, hot sauce and cilantro sprinkled on top. Spicy isn’t a bad way to go to cut through the butter sauce and liven up the dish. In addition, sour cream can top off the bits wrapped in pasta.
Prices for the dumplings range from $5 for a regular size dumpling order to $7 for the jumbo size. A jumbo order of dumplings can easily satisfy the hungers of two diners. Otherwise, plan on leftovers.
Orders include a beverage of diners’ choice and a piece of bread. Soft drinks are kept in a cooler accessible to the public so the staff can focus on dumplings. Be sure to snag a mini-tub of sour cream, which can serve as an especially good compliment with the spicy order.
Waiting times for dumplings ranged from 10 to 20 minutes during my visit. Calling ahead to order is encouraged to avoid waiting around even though the scenery is vaguely interesting in an authentic way.
Even though Pelmeni is not the flashiest dining place on State Street and dumplings cannot be served in thousands of combinations, it is definitely an authentic eatery worth exploring.
Compared to other places, Pelmeni is quaint, though it is authentic to itself in a “here we are, we make dumplings and that’s it” way. Though Pelmeni may not be ideal for all, make sure to try the menu yourself before taking a friend out for dinner.
Tom McGrath is a fifth-year senior majoring in journalism and mass communications, among other things. He is interested in new and different foods including the cooking of those … foods. Tom can be reached at [email protected]