Having lived in this town for three years now, I’ll be the first to tell you Madison is not lacking in great food. The local produce and epicurean sensibilities surrounding the University of Wisconsin make it a nesting ground for myriad eclectic, excellent, individually-owned restaurants. These establishments cover a wide range of food styles and nationalities, and all of them are just begging you to have a taste. Unfortunately, there’s no way to try them all.
Some diners, like the fine people at www.madisonatoz.com, solve the problem by making a list and eating at each and every one of them in alphabetical order. Others, like you and me, just take pot shots into the culinary abyss and hope we come up satisfied.
What follows is my small form of guidance to you – the three dishes that have stuck out in my mind as the best meals I’ve ever had in Madison. There are no set categories here – no “Top 5 Chinese Restaurants” or “Best Burger” competitions – only eyes-popping-out-of-your-head deliciousness.
In that regard, it all comes down to a smoothie, a salad and a pizza.
I wrote about Fair Trade Coffee House’s (418 State Street) strawberry-spinach smoothie in my very first food column, and it still sticks out in my mind as one of the most unique and surprising “meals” the streets of Madison have divvied up. I say “meals” because with the addition of spinach, this smoothie could almost be a meal.
Now, I know spinach doesn’t typically conjure up images of frosty treats, but I’m begging you to keep an open mind here. The creamy strawberry flavor you would expect from a regular strawberry smoothie still dominates Fair Trade’s strawberry-spinach smoothie. The spinach comes in the form of little dark green bits dispersed throughout the glass and does not have much taste. Rather, the iron-rich vegetable subtly adds a meaty, fibrous texture to the drink, making you think you’re drinking something more indulgent than you actually are.
The next dish to make my best meals in Madison list is the Orange Jicama Salad with Bob’s Mango/Curry dressing from Jolly Bob’s Jamaican restaurant (1210 Williamson Street). Don’t be fooled by Jolly Bob’s exterior. It may look run-down, but inside the music, pictures and staff all combine to create a true feeling of Jamaica.
For this dish, the actual salad takes backstage to the amazing Mango/Curry dressing. “Blending is beneficial,” my eccentric professor Tim Allen once told our freshman Botany class, with regard to everything food and drink. Nothing could be more truthful. The best dishes are created by blending ingredients you usually wouldn’t expect to go together – like curry and mango. The sweetness of the mango combines with the smokiness of the curry to create a flavor that is somehow bright, savory and creamy-cool all at once.
In the land of beer and cheese, the best of the best actually comes out of the ovens of a little pizza shop on Monroe Street.
The last, and most mind-blowingly flavorful, dish of the bunch is the margherita pizza from Pizza Brutta (1805 Monroe Street). Or anything off their pizza rosso list, for that matter. Pizza Brutta makes authentic-style Neapolitan pizzas using a scorching hot wood-fired oven they keep roaring in plain sight on the back wall. Their secret is using simple, imported ingredients sparingly and skillfully so as to maximize their pizza’s flavor. They really know their stuff, and it shows.
When you walk in, the smell of simmering garlic and tomato and freshly-cut basil is almost enough to bowl you over with pleasure. You’ll think you’ve hit cloud nine until you actually take that rich, chewy and slightly crispy first bite – only then will you know you’ve really gone to heaven.
Madison has tons of great dishes to offer – the Old Fashioned Burger from The Old Fashioned, The Scrambler from Mickey’s Dairy Bar, Blue Moon ice cream from The Chocolate Shoppe – and I hope you try many of them in your time at UW. But if you get the time, I hope you make an effort to try one in this trinity. Trust me; you won’t be disappointed.