Tag Archives: Madison

Peruvian chicken in Madison: Estacion Inka

We were so sad to hear that one of our original beloved Peruvian restaurants, Inka Heritage in Madison had closed! On a recent trip to Madison we looked them up to learn about their hours, only to find out that they were closed for good. Fortunately, we learned that the owners went and opened up another restaurant, this time a more casual spot in downtown Madison: Estacion Inka (604 University Ave, Madison, WI 53715). Unlike the more upscale vibe of Inka Heritage, Estacion Inka is a casual quick service place where you order at the counter and sit at the few tables in this clean, bright storefront. However, don’t be fooled by the restaurant’s simple appearance, the menu has many of the same favorites as Inka Heritage.

Here, the focus is on roast rotisserie chicken, which comes in a variety of sizes and permutations. Peru is known for its obsession with the perfect roast chicken, and we have tried a few dedicated Peruvian chicken spots in Chicago like D’Candela, so we are glad to see this type of restaurant come to Madison. We were at Estacion Inka on a weekday for lunch, and there is even a very attractive lunch special of a quarter chicken with rice and beans for a staggeringly cheap $5.65. You can also get a quarter ($7.99), half ($9.99) or whole roast chicken with one side: French Fries, Black Beans, White Rice, Cilantro Rice, Sweet Plantains, Fried Yucca, or Salad. There are some pre-defined options if you can’t choose, including the Caribbean special with rice, black beans and plantains ($8.99). We ordered the lunch special and Caribbean plate, and devoured every bite.

The chicken was tender and juicy with crispy skin, and the sides were on point. Another key element is the slightly spicy aji pepper sauce to slather on your chicken, which really brought it up a notch. Smoothies round out the menu, including M’s favorite flavor, Lucuma ($4). The tres leches cake ($3.50) and the alfajores looked tempting, but we were so full from our lunch that we had to stop at the smoothie. While we mourn the loss of Inka Heritage, Estacion Inka is a great stop for anyone in Madison craving some Peruvian flavor at a great price.

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Greenbush Bar: An Italian Speakeasy in Madison

Greenbush Bar
914 Regent St
Madison, WI

ItalySicilySpeakeasy. Tiny. Crowded. Delicious. That’s Greenbush Bar in a nutshell. One of our go-to places in Madison, we have been there countless times since Matt started graduate school in 2006. Serving Italian-American fare (though the website says “Sicilian“) with Midwestern charm, we have been so often, until two days ago we were not even sure if we had taken photos there or not, or even gotten started on a review. Perhaps that’s fitting for a place that is difficult to find for the uninitiated. Greenbush boasts no oversize, catchy sign advertising its existence; no large windows to let jealous passers-by gaze inside. Instead, Greenbush thrives on being a bit of a hidden gem, yet seemingly everybody knows about it.

Madison's Italian Workmen's Club (via Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

Madison’s Italian Workmen’s Club (via Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

More than any place else we have ever been, Greenbush feels like a speakeasy. You enter the front door of the old Italian Workmen’s Club, and descend down a small flight of stares to a wooden door that says simply, “Please wait to be seated.” Every time we open that door, without fail, we are shocked to find people on the other side. Yet we always do, and it is always full. Greenbush does not take reservations, and going after 6:30pm or so, especially on Friday or Saturday, virtually guarantees a long wait. We’ve learned to go around 5pm for the best shot at a table underneath Greenbush’s signature kitschy, yet surprisingly charming, year-round Christmas light ceiling display.


Every time we go to Greenbush, we order the same things. An order of the #1 crostini, topped with prosciutto, goat cheese, and tomatoes ($6.75). These are big pieces of bread, so do not expect small portions for an appetizer that could easily be an entree for some people. Savoring these, our entrees invariably arrive together, at the exact moment we finish our appetizer. Lindsay has ordered an 8-inch thick pizza, topped with nothing but mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. Cut into four pieces, the constant assumption (but only occasional reality) is that we will split it equally. One of the best pizzas in Madison, this simple yet perfect preparation never disappoints for those seeking a high-quality version of the pizza we all known and love.


At the same time, Matt has ordered his go-to, the “Gorgonzola Cream Sauce,” a fettucine dish with smoked chicken, toasted walnuts, scallions, lemon, and mushrooms mixed its eponymous sauce. Again, like all good Italian cuisine, nothing sophisticated about this preparation: well-sourced ingredients (many from Wisconsin), balanced together. The heavy cream works wonderfully with the lemon and scallions, and the mushrooms add a distinct texture while absorbing the rest of the flavors from in the dish. Again, we are never disappointed – and we have never ordered anything else. We then spend the next hour or more eating back and forth off each others’ plates, switching when need be, until we slowly work our way through the pizza and pasta. Typically, if we still have room, we finish with one of Greenbush’s rotating dessert options. Frequently this is a cannoli – a real cannoli, filled with real ricotta, and real pistachios on the sides (not some other nut with green food coloring).

Greenbush may not be fancy, it may not be trendy, but remains romantic and comforting, just like the food it serves. We will be going back forever, ordering the same dishes every time, and always getting the same Italian Midwestern speakeasy experience. And we would not have it any other way.

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The story behind Madison favorite, Stella’s Spicy Cheese Bread

We absolutely love the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison. It is gigantic, and you can get pretty much any type of produce or baked good there. However, we are creatures of habit, and we make a fairly predictable round of purchases (Hook’s Cheddar, Heirloom Tomatoes, Cilantro, possibly honey, and a few others). One of things we have to get every time we visit is Stella’s hot and spicy cheese bread (which is as awesome as it sounds), and we know many others who feel the same. However, we never really knew the backstory behind the bread. WXOW has the inside scoop, and you may be surprised to learn its origins are actually related to tamale production. You can find the bread in other locations around town, but getting it at the farmer’s market is the best since it is delivered fresh and hot several times throughout the day. If you are far from Madison and craving some cheese bread, Stella’s ships. Or for the more ambitious, Badgerlicious has a DiY recipe.

Stella's Spicy Cheese Bread Stall

Stella’s Spicy Cheese Bread Stall & Crowd by Adam Fagen

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Solid Indian buffet in Madison: Maharaja

Maharaja Restaurant
6713 Odana Rd #12
Madison, WI

We are totally into Indian Buffets and long story short: this is the Best Indian Buffet in Madison! Yes we are bolding it. We have been there several times, and are never disappointed in terms of quality or selection. The price of $9.95 for the lunch buffett ain’t bad either.

The buffet is tucked away in a back room of a pretty standard, if expansive (in a banquet-hall sort of way), Indian restaurant. The last time we were there the buffet had:

  • Palak Pakora – fried spinach and onion
  • Tandoori Chicken
  • Garlic Naan (Yes – we HATE when buffets charge extra for naan)
  • Masala Dosa – Indian crepe
  • Iddli – Tamil rice dumplings
  • Sambaar – Tamarind vegetable stew
  • Aloo Gobi – Spiced potatoes and cauliflour
  • Palak Paneer – Creamed spinach
  • Lamb Curry
  • Salad bar as well as soup
  • Dessert Selection: sorbets and gulab jamun

And of course we had a Mango Lassi to wash it all down.


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Delicious French Crêperie in Madison: Bradbury’s

127 North Hamilton Street
Madison, WI

Madison has an impressive number of homegrown coffee shops, though it definitely had less of a “crepe” presence. However, now both aspects of the Mad-town dining scene get a boost with Bradbury’s which specializes in both. Bradbury’s is primarily a breakfast and lunch space, located right off of the square. It is a cozy space (on the smallish side), swimming in windows and packed with tiny tables. The menu is written on the walls above the windows on one side of the cafe and consists of mostly coffee drinks a some sweet and savory crepe selections.

M, a particular oddity for grad students, doesn’t like coffee, so he enjoyed a generous bowl of hot chocolate. L got her caffeine fix through a macchiato. Also on the menus are more “advanced” coffee options like the Japanese Siphon coffee, which seemed to come with a neat cadre of serving implements. No seriously, it looks like a chemistry set of a mad scientist.

For our breakfast proper, we indulged in 2 chocolaty crepes (could it really be anything else?) L opted for the almond and nutella crepe ($4.5), which also came with bananas, but she opted for the non-fruit route, while M went for the dark chocolate and marmalade crepe ($5.5). After sampling each, L prefered the classic hazelnut/chocolate nutella crepe, while M, the chocolate purist, thought his crepe had a richer taste. For both crepes, the pancake itself was perfectly uniform and thin, something crepe carts often get wrong.

Bradbury’s a great place for a crepe and some coffee, and were were definitely tantalized by the range of savory options, like the spinach potato and cheddar ($6.5) or the chorizo and chevre ($7.5). We think a lunch may be in our future.

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Cafe Costa Rica in Madison

500px-Flag_of_Costa_Rica_(state).svgCafe Costa Rica

141 South Butler Street
Madison, WI 53704

Specifically Costa Rican restaurants are tough to come by, so loyal readers are probably wondering why it took us so long to meander over to the one in our own backyard. The short answer is a bit of indecision: country-specific it may be, but we were concerned with Costa Rica Cafe’s reviews. We hard it all: potentially spotty food, horrendously slow service, and very overpriced. But finally we made it to see for ourselves – and every complaint we heard turned out to be wrong.CCRExterior - CopyCCR inhabits a former house in downtown Madison, decked out in party chairs and fake plastic palm trees outside that must make for a kitschy but amusing summer evening, yet were no good on this chilly and rainy night. We were concerned when we walked into the seating area downstairs, mostly because CCR turned out to be one of the tiniest restaurant’s we’ve been in (about the same size as Bien Trucha) and all the seats were taken. Luckily a nice couple, who were just paying their bill, got up and gave us their seats, so we nestled ourselves into a cozy corner and began to scope the place out. Check out the view from our table – yes this is the entire place!

CCRInteriorFirst good sign: they grow their own habaneros. In little plants right on the main counter. People familiar with M’s culinary escapades can imagine how excited he was at this. Second good sign: The table has two bottles of salsa, but homemade, one based on said habaneros (“Mango Man Sauce”) – meaning the peppers are not for decor, they actually use them in cooking. As such, the menu piqued our interest. We decided to mix it up as much as we could given our budget. For appetizers, a plate of fried plantains (an ETW favorite) with the aforementioned habanero sauce ($5.95) and a cheese empanada ($3.95). Main course: we split an order of pork tacos (under the assumption that one order ($11.95) would be enough for both of us.

PlantainsandEmpanadaThe plantains were soft, sweet, and delightful, and the habanero sauce added a good flavorful kick. M could have eaten three plates of them and called it dinner. L was enamored with the empanada, soft and cheesy and flaky, doing good on her cheese/carbs combo love. But it was really those tacos that blew us away: piled high with shredded pork marinated in the habanero sauce, garnished with generous helpings of cilantro (another ETW fav we can never get enough of), lettuce, tomatoes, and more habanero sauce in a corn tortilla. The marinade absolutely made the meal, and we were really happy to see someone making tacos in corn tortillas that really broke out of the ubiquitous Mexican mold into other regions, and to do it so well.

The meal ended with us having spent $20 on what we thought was really well-price food given the amount we got, in addition to really friendly, unpretentious service. We really have to ask the naysayers about this place: what on earth were you all complaining about? We’ll go back if you don’t want to. We can’t help but take CCR and Bien Trucha together to think that a small seating area and simple, unpretentious service and decor make for a great restaurant. The smaller it is, the better we like it!

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South America: Farewell, Restaurant Magnus

800px-Flag_of_South_America.svg Restaurant Magnus
120 E Wilson
Madison, WI

IL00004On May 31, I walked up to the door of Restaurant Magnus in Madison, hoping to sample some of my favorites from its South American-inspired menu before the restaurant’s dramatic shift the next day (signaled by the Norwegian flag fluttering over the canopy). It was locked. An employee eating outside quickly walked up to me, saying – with a wide smile – that the restaurant was closed to the evening to prepare for their exciting new menu the next day. But all the dishes I wanted were on the old menu, and when Magnus got rid of them on June 1, both L and I were disappointed and frankly a little angry.

We’ve had great experiences at Magnus before – in fact, it is L’s official birthday place. The funky interior always got things rolling: live soft bossa nova or Spanish guitar music playing in the background formed a strange, but ultimately satisfying romance with deer antler chandeliers and brown leather seats. But as always, we come for the food. We start with an order of chimichurri ($3.00) paired with light and fluffy foccacia (the tomato-flavored was our favorite). The chimichurri was unlike any we had seen: parsley, red wine vinegar, coriander, and honey made for a creamy dip that was nothing short of the perfect appetizer.

IL00006For main dishes, we tended to migrate toward the ever-changing tapas menu, but there were some old favorites that kept bringing us back (and Magnus knew it, because they kept putting them on. The Peruvian bay scallop ceviche ($12) was an interesting take on an old classic, with diced scallops placed in a makeshift bowl of cucumber slices, garnished with minced mixed sweet peppers, avocado, and drizzled with mango-habanero (M’s favorite combo) vinaigrette. It was smaller than similarly priced ceviches but the inventiveness was worth it.

Same with the Cana de Oveja ($14). Spanish cheese in phyllo dough, garnished with figs (another of M’s favorites), pistachios (OK, so that was a bit confusing), sherry butter sauce, and habanero syrup. This is a dish we didn’t really know how to classify, most because the multitude of flavor options on any given bite always kept us guessing – and that is what made it good.

IL00007And then there was the Xinxim. Take a Brazilian staple and create the hell out of it, and you get Magnus’ Xinxim. It sounds simple enough on the menu: chorizo verde, blackened chicken, blackened beef all in a bowl, sitting in a special cream sauce of habanero and coconut milk and cashews. But this seemingly simple dish was, unquestionably, my favorite meal of all time. The coconut milk worked to take down the habanero’s heat enough to let its fruity tropical flavor beam through, and combined with the cashews, the effect was deliriously perfect. The chorizo was always spiced to perfection, and the chicken, beef, and shrimp provided a wide set of texture and flavor options that always worked in tandem with what I am sure will remain the best cream sauce I have ever eaten.

There were others, of course: cheese plates, small desserts, etc. too numerous to name here. But the bottom line is that they are all now gone. Replaced with cod, venison and the other staples of Norwegian cuisine that, to us, make obvious the reasons why no Scandinavian restaurant has ever really succeeded in this most Scandinavian of states. We understand the reason for the change, at least on a cultural level. The restaurant’s sous chef – of Norwegian descent – was promoted to the head spot (and there is a now a triumphant photo of him planting the Norwegian flag on the restaurant’s redesigned website). All the owners are Norwegian. The restaurant is even named for a Norwegian grandfather. But culinary, we can’t say this move makes any sense. IL00005Scandinavian restaurants have had a tough time of it in this country, and Wisconsin would seem like a logical place to start one if, well, Scandinavian food had ever succeeded here before.

The chimichurri is still on the menu, though hiked in price by a dollar and paired with rye bread instead of foccacia. Will we try the new menu? Probably. We got an email coupon for a free first course. But aquavit mussels and pickled cabbage not only sound less than appealing – they will never replace that xinxim. All we can say is they had better give us the recipe.

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Peru: Inka Heritage

peru Inka Heritage [Closed]
602 S Park Street
Madison, WI

First off, Inka Heritage gets major cultural awareness points for using Juan Velasco’s 1975 Quechua orthography that spells “Inka” with a K instead of a C (which is an Imperial Spanish spelling). Velasco wasn’t the best guy, but his transliterations were top-notch. Well done. Now on to the food.

We tend to review a fair amount of Peruvian restaurants, and with good reason – we feel that Peruvian cuisine is well on its way to competing with Thai food as a major player in the US food scene. Which is why we were so excited when Inka Heritage, the first Peruvian restaurant in the Madison city limits, opened in 2007. We have been back multiple times since our first visit shortly after the opening (when they could not make nearly half the items on their own menu) but are happy to report that the restaurant has grown into its own with great interpretations of all the classic Peruvian dishes, as well as the best lúcuma mousse we’ve found outside Peru.


At most Peruvian restaurants, I have my set of usuals: anticuchos, an originally Afro-Peruvian dish of skewered, marinated pieces of beef heart with a side a ají, and ceviche pescado acid cooked in citrus juice and garnished with sweet potatoes and big corn (I still don’t know the proper name for it). L likes to get the aji de pollo, shredded chicken smothered in an aji cream sauce garnished with a hard-boiled egg and served with rice. And for dessert, we split the aforementioned lúcuma mousse; made from an Andean fruit rarely available outside of South America with a taste somewhere between sweet potatoes, maple syrup, and cashews. It is delectable.

CIMG1952 Inka Heritage does all these things, and does them well. The anticuchos are true to the original dish, using the best pieces of beef heart muscle (some other restaurants keep the anticuchos marinade but substitute white meat chicken for the beef hearts, which is not only inauthentic but culinary highway robbery) with a slightly spicy, tangy marinade that works well with the ají on the side. The ceviche too is solid, with the right citrus juice mixtures we’ve come to expect – though the very high onions to fish ratio, as well as the smaller serving size, makes us wonder why the price is higher than what we found at Rosa de Lima in Chicago. L’s aji de pollo is a failsafe dish, one we do not always see at other restaurants, and well worth it at Inka Heritage. The dish’s cream sauce is packed with interesting flavor combinations (“yellow pepper, garnished with roasted walnut, fresh parmesan cheese, botija black olive, boiled egg” says the menu) that are probably best suited to the shredded chicken, allowing all the flavors to surround each chicken piece. Mix in with the rice, and it is easily one of Inka Heritage’s best dishes.CIMG1954

The menu does, of course, offer a number of other options outside of our traditional favorites that are well worth sampling, particularly in the seafood department. Overall, Inka Heritage can run a bit on the pricy side (the average entrée is about $13), but the restaurant’s increasingly elegant ambience (considerably moreso now than when it opened) make it a great place for a classy night out with a group or date. Madison has a number of great dining options, but we try to get back as often as we can – especially to introduce friends to Peruvian cuisine who have not tried it before.

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Thailand: Sala Thai

Sala Thai
36 S Fair Oaks Ave
Madison, WI 53714

L and I had long meant to head to Madison’s east side and sample some of the famous curries at The Corner Store on Willy Street, but never had the opportunity. But when I found out that the shop’s owners had opened a full-service Thai restaurant, we had to give it a shot.

Sala Thai is located in an unsuspecting location, a remodeled building tucked between a 50s-style diner and a residential street. Still, the restaurant manages a fine ambiance with intricate Thai wood decorations and carvings, plenty of artwork, and a large, well-lit dining room. From reviews we read previously, service was supposedly notoriously slow, but we found the exact opposite. This may have been because the waitstaff was really on its game, or they had little to care about at 4PM on a Friday. We’ll never know unless we make a return trip, but our small meal was definitely enough to bring us back if we ever again find ourselves in the area.

L had a bowl of the delicious Tom Yum soup. The unsuspecting dish packed a great deal of flavor (provided mostly by lemongrass and ginger), mushrooms, and a good amount of heat. The soup’s broth was thin enough to really put the focus on the big ingredients (although it would have helped if it had a “don’t eat the ginger” sign). For $5.95, it was a great afternoon snack, one we wish we had the recipe for to try to make it at home.

I (M) had one of my classic favorites, Panang Curry. I’ve been frustrated recently by a number of Thai restaurants that pass off glorified soups as curries, sacrificing the hearty thickness of the curry in favor of thinner, more “healthy” curries. But just as advertised, Sala Thai did not disappoint. Thick and full of coconut cream, the curry mixed together carrots and other vegetables with well-prepared chicken (another recent sticking point of Thai restaurants with me) in a sauce that, thick and tasty as it was, could have used a few more peanuts (though I do like peanuts far more than most). At $7.95, the curry was comparably priced in comparison to other Thai restaurants in the city, and didn’t hurt itself with the free large rice.

Final verdict: good food, excellent curries, quick service, good decor, and apparently a brisk takeout business. We wish them well, and will be back should the opportunity present itself.

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FTC: Our favorite cheese store in Madison, Fromagination

12 S. Carroll
Madison, WI

For a town with as much cheese fervor as Madison, WI, it’s a surprise there aren’t more cheese stores. However, Fromagination helps tip the balance in the right direction. Located right on Capitol Square, Fromagination is a nice artisanal cheese shop, which also specialized in gourmet spreads, oils, beer and “foodie” gifts. The store is dominated by a big glass deli counter, packed with cheeses. Piled high between the counters are also wheels of hard cheese, and the shelves are packed with gourmet treats. The selection of cheeses is excellent, about 30 American and international cheeses, with special emphasis, of course on Wisconsin varieties. Prices are reasonable, with many varieties at less than$15 a pound. We usually buy our cheeses at the farmer’s market, or at Whole Foods in the off seasons, and Fromagination had all of our favorites from both locales, including Roth Kase’s Gran Queso, Mimolette and Hook’s White Cheddar. They also offer gourmet sandwiches (for $7.50) and a series of cheese-tasting and pairing classes. We’ll definitely be back!


Fromagination by Susie Wyshak

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