While Madison is home to an incredible amount of bars serving up standard pub fare, food in Wisconsin’s capitol is anything but exclusively burgers and cheese curds. Confront the new and explore a unique culinary scene that is rich flavor, culture and creativity. The following is a list of the city’s best to get you started.
Avocado Toast at Crescendo Espresso Bar + Music Cafe
Buy into the trend that is blowing up your Instagram feed and feast on avocado toast done right. Crescendo serves theirs on a hearty slice of warmed honey whole wheat bread from local Silly Yak Bakery and it is perfect. While avocado toast is simplistic and can be easily recreated in your own kitchen, the combination of fresh bread with a healthy mash of avocado, salt, pepper and olive oil makes Crescendo’s variation too addicting to pass up.
Avocado Spring Roll at Luang Prabang
This roll is freshness at its finest. Prepare your taste buds for a Thai classic resembling a burrito in size and appearance, yet stuffed with lettuces, cucumber, carrot and creamy avocado slices. When wrapped in a thin rice paper and dressed with their addicting peanut sauce, this spring roll will quickly become your best friend. It’s satisfying, reasonably priced and a quick option to grab between classes.
Gruyere Croissant at Batch Bakehouse
I’ll take a flaky pastry any day, especially when it’s stuffed with cheese and made at Batch Bakehouse, arguably the finest bakery in town. Although quite delicious, this is one messy indulgence. With each bite, the exterior layers of buttery croissant will crackle, exposing soft, pillowy dough inside. At this point, the generous helping of gruyere will be distinguishable as it coats the perimeter of the savory pastry. Preposterously delicious.
Peanut Butter Chicken at QQ Express
The best option for generous portions of cheap food near Engineering Mall, QQ has long been a favorite amongst the Engineering kids trapped on this side of campus. Pass up on the General Tso’s and go to town on the Peanut Chicken. Deep fried and slathered in peanut butter sauce, this will fuel your craving for Chinese takeout like no other. It’s so bad that it’s good, so wrong that it’s right.
Mac n’ Cheese Pizza at Ian’s Pizza
The mac n’ cheese pizza at Ian’s captures all that is good in the world. It is way too cheesy, but that’s how we like it. The unctuousness — known as “gooey yum yum” to you late-night patrons — sticks to the crust like peanut butter sticks to jelly. It’s creamy, wonderful richness seeps into the nooks and crannies of the thin yet supple dough that forms the crust. Take a bite and watch the resiliency at work as the cheese stretches and stretches until you can’t take the elasticity anymore. “Get in ma belly,” you say. This is the kind of pizza you dream about at night when you’re super hungry and nothing but Ian’s pizza will fill the void. Be warned.
Smoked Wings at That BBQ Joint
Oh heavens, the smoked wings at That BBQ Joint are otherworldly. The quality of the meat combined with the perfect layer of seasoning and a wonderful smoky bite earn these guys high marks. What makes That BBQ Joint a truly beautiful place is the fact that they do not need to drown their meats in an excessive amount of barbecue sauce. In this way, the meat’s flavor is dependent upon the quality of spices and cooking technique, instead of the sauce’s sweetness. Try the wings and you will look upon all other wings with a haughty realization That BBQ Joint is better.
Grilled Cheese at Johnson Public House
This grilled cheese makes me want to get up and do back flips. Gooey cheddar cheese and toasty country wheat bread is your canvas. Rejoice at the freedom as you can layer the goodness with your choice of tomato, ham, pesto or caramelized onion for a minimal upcharge. I recommend the pesto and onion duo. Although when the base ingredients are such quality, you can keep the sandwich undressed and still want to take that back flip.
Apple (or Blueberry) Fritter at Greenbush Bakery
Madison is blessed with a healthy slew of local coffee spots. Typically these go part and parcel with the American favorite for breakfast — the donut — but Madison does things differently. There is but one business delegated with the lustrous task of feeding the town with rings of deep fried dough — Greenbush Bakery. Why, you ask? They know what they’re doing. An old fashioned variety will more than suffice, but it’s truly the fritters that take this place to the top. They are bigger than your head and will induce a sugar coma if eaten in their entirety, but they’re a necessary part of visiting and living in Madison. Whether it’s an apple fritter or the blueberry, if it has fritter in the name and it’s from this place, you are sitting pretty.
Tequila and Cajeta Ice Cream at La Michoacana
Embrace early the fact that you will be consuming copious amounts of dairy in this city. Stray from the standard options and venture to Madison’s West Side for some of the freshest, wackiest ice creams on the market at La Michoacana where it’s all homemade on site. Go for the Cajeta flavor that’s made with a caramelized goat’s milk and delivers an intense caramel flavor without tasting too sugary. Another winner is the Tequila variety. Don’t be fooled by its resemblance to vanilla ice cream as this flavor packs a pronounced and proud flavor that will make you scoff at traditional ice cream.
Horchata at Los Gemelos
Gems of all ethnicities reign supreme on the Isthmus, so forego the accustomed iced beverage and sip on the Latin American delight that is Horchata. This cinnamon-infused, rice milk’s consistency is perfection at the hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint just off State Street, Los Gemelos. Their horchata is spiced and sugared and oh-so-good. Many restaurants tend to dull this drink down so it’s thin as water and way too sugary, but Los Gemelos does the Horchata way right. Rich, delicately spiced and refreshing.