There's no shortage of guys and gals who can slap a couple slices of ciabatta together and stick some turkey inside. The good news is that our city's got a deep lineup of standout sandwich purveyors, some of whom specialize in the craft and others who couch their unforgettable creations in a menu packed with other offerings.
Let's wrap our hands around nine of the best and most memorable sandwiches Madison has to offer.
Barbecued Beef Brisket with Mustard
You can definitely get it for lunch on Thursday. But if you’re hoping to wrap your mouth around the most amazing barbecued beef brisket sandwich in Madison for dinner on Friday, well, you’d better think about moving a little faster, ’cause it’s going to be long gone by then.
Regulars know that Wednesday night is BBQ brisket night at the Underground Butcher, where the meat’s been smoked to perfection for a whopping eighteen hours, and sauce can take the night off. The rampant popularity of the midweek feast led to the purchase of a larger smoker … and a must-have sandwich on the menu for the following couple of days.
“It’s amazing to have a brisket stand out such that you have people planning their week around getting it,” says Michael Signorelli, Underground’s bearded butcher. “It’s like leftovers, in a really, really good way.”
The lean cuts of brisket hardly even need the grain mustard, pickles and toasted rustic sourdough bread that round out the ingredients list. But it’s not like we’re complaining. If you catch Signorelli’s shifting menu just right, you might even be able to try a sandwich where the brisket’s been paired with a to-die-for kimchi.
811 Williamson St., 338-3421
West of the Andes Sandwich
Weary Traveler Freehouse
The West of the Andes sandwich is what you get when the restaurant’s owner—in this case it’s Christopher Berge—bikes from one end of Chile to the other.
“It’s like the hamburger is here,” says Joey Dunscombe, the Weary’s affable chef. “This sandwich is everywhere in South America.”
Check the components and you’ll understand why. Succulent tenderloin married with avocado, pico de gallo chipotle mayonnaise and a secret sauce perfected by the chef at Restaurant Magnus, Berge’s much-missed former Wilson Street operation, contained by bread that’s baked right on site.
Originally part of the tapas menu at Magnus, the West of the Andes has now become the centerpiece of the sandwich menu at the Weary. It’s the kind of sandwich that folks returning to our fair city from afar will drive straight from the airport to the bar to get.The sandwich comes in three varieties, each of which doubles the audience of its nearest version, says Dunscombe. The tenderloin is easily the most popular, followed by the tuna steak and then the vegetarian version. No matter which one you opt for, you’re in for a satisfying international sandwich experience.
1201 Williamson St., 442-6207
Brie, Fig and Olive Tapenade
At first glance, it doesn’t necessarily look like there’s a lot going on with this vegetarian sandwich. At first taste? Well, that’s another story altogether.
“We try to keep this one simple, and let the ingredients speak for themselves,” says owner Ken Monteleone, who admits that this sandwich was Fromagination’s seventh stab at nailing a signature veggie option for their evolving menu. Now it’s a gotta-try staple.
The olive tapenade is house-made, combining both black and green olives with capers and red onions, all the better to nail that sweet and savory combination. The fig and black tea preserves, provide by local purveyors Quince and Apple, is the final piece.
“The creaminess of the brie comes together nicely on the foccacia bread,” says Monteleone. “The ingredients just harmonize.”
Good news for those of the vegan persuasion: Monteleone and his staff are busily working on rolling out a vegan version.
12 S. Carroll St., 255-2430
The Italian translation of the word “saltimbocca” is leap in your mouth, so let’s use that as a starting point. But DJ Post, The Spot’s friendly, low-key chef, is after something a little more imaginative than literal, and he achieves it with the Saltimbocca-wich, The Spot’s savory signature sandwich.
“When people come to a restaurant they’ve never been to before, their go-to is almost always a hamburger or a chicken sandwich,” says Post. “I wanted to be sure we blew them away."
Intention equals accomplishment. Post subs out the traditional veal-wrapped-in-pork game plan for sage chicken wrapped in prosciutto, topped with mozzarella, arugula and a caper aioli that meshes with the meat like they were meant for each other. Post says the prosciutto is the sandwich’s MVP, and we don’t disagree.
If you’ve been to The Spot, you know Post works his culinary magic in an open kitchen, giving patrons the chance to both watch and converse with him, and confirm what we already know: “They come to the window to tell me how awesome this sandwich is,” he says.
827 E. Johnson St., 251-7768
The Stuffed Grilled Cheese Sandwich
We see what you did there, Alchemy, packing this tasty vegetarian grillable with things like carrots, tomato, broccoli and red onions. That and the smooth and delicious taste are almost enough to convince us that we’ve made a healthy menu choice for a change.
And you would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling mountains of melted cheddar and Swiss cheese. So much for healthy—let’s go with perfectly indulgent instead.
If the meat-lover in you must be sated, no worries: Alchemy’s chefs don’t mind tucking in a little bacon or swapping other ingredients in and out of the mix.
1980 Atwood Ave., 204-7644
Hey, nobody ever said a sandwich had to be contained by two pieces of bread. In Maracaibo, a city on the western coast of Venezuela, sandwiches are bracketed by plantains, smashed and fried till they’re crisp. Jeykell Badell, the owner of cozy La Taguara, works from his father’s recipe in creating one of the tastiest—and, yes, sloppiest—sandwiches in Madison.
The Patacon Pisao is like a condiment convention cranked to eleven. Your preferred filling—everything from beef to chicken to shredded eggplant and black beans and beyond—is slathered with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and the one-two South American punch of tartara verde and guasacaca sauce, a creamy, green onion and avocado concoction. The flavor confluence is unexpected and spectacular.
“We wanted to show people what we eat and who we are,” says Badell, who’s been working the Madison restaurant scene for the past fifteen years. “When customers see it coming out of the kitchen, they’re like, ‘What’s that? I want that.’”
Unlike slices of your favorite bread, plantains don’t soak up the condiments, so come prepared with a giant stack of napkins and a flexible eating strategy.
“How do you eat it? However you want to,” says Badell. “This is a sandwich where the deal is, no rules, just fun.”
3502 E. Washington Ave., 721-9100
The Pineapple Pork Express
Roast Public House
When it opened a few years ago, Roast dotted its debut menu with several signature sandwiches.
The Pineapple Pork Express wasn’t one of them.
Yet, out of creativity and necessity, this delicious sandwich has emerged as one of the State Street restaurant’s crowd favorites. There’s just something about the combo of sweet, spicy and smoky flavors that sucks your taste buds right in—maybe it’s the locally sourced, slow-roasted pork, or the pineapple salsa with fresh cilantro. Or maybe it’s the zing in the sweet sriracha glaze that clings to the meat.
And, yes, the customers appreciate the film reference in the sandwich title. “Not all of them catch it at first,” says owner Doug Hamaker. “But once they do, they’re laughing.”
558 State St., 260-0088
Corbin Reynolds and Neil Stalboerger, the co-owners of Stalzy’s Deli, knew they had to do their research when they sat down to create the cornerstones of their delicious deli-sandwich menu—and the process really opened their eyes.
“Everyone has their own take on a Reuben and a Rachel,” says Stalboerger. “But the thing is, people don’t know the origins.” He’s seen plenty of people come in assuming a Rachel is turkey and sauerkraut.
Bzzzt. The difference between the two, actually, comes down to sauerkraut versus creamy coleslaw, and in the case of Stalzy’s The Rachel, that’s a homemade mix that’s not too sweet, not too salty, and entirely too delicious, complementing the meat in just the right way.
“The meat can be interchangeable,” says Reynolds, noting that customers have ordered The Rachel with everything from turkey to smoked pork to double-smoked brisket. Pastrami, naturally, is the most popular choice, with turkey pastrami a close second. “All our meat is great, so it works,” he quips.
Everything except the Swiss cheese is made onsite at Stalzy’s, giving this Rachel a hometown sweetheart feel.
“We took a classic and made it ours,” says Stalboerger. “We made the whole thing better. Our Rachel is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.”
No argument here.
2701 Atwood Ave., 249-7806
BeBop Tilapia Sandwich
Manna Café & Bakery
No, we’re not kidding: The idea for this tasty tower of tilapia did actually come to head chef Carrie Carlson in a deep dream.
That’s where she concocted the verde aioli that gives this crisp, piscine plate its zing. Combining serrano peppers, lime and cilantro offers a small kick that’s powerful without searing the taste buds.
Manna had tried plenty of other cleverly named tilapia sandwiches—things like the tapalapia—before the serrano-pepper renaissance made this one the clear choice. “Tilapia just lends itself to a fun name,” says owner Barb Pratzel, whose menu also includes sandwiches like the Monty Python and the Peter Wrappit.
In a way, the BeBop, with its seasoned southern-style cornmeal breading, is the perfect gluten-free compromise sandwich for Manna, which doesn’t own a deep fryer—and has no interest in adding one.
“It’s like fish fry without the fish fry,” says Pratzel.
House manager Sean Langenecker agrees. “The cilantro actually plays third fiddle here,” he says. ‘It’s weird, but it works.”
611 N. Sherman Ave., 663-5500
Madison's ultimate sandwich
While it’s nice to get all your ingredients in a single place—and there are certainly several places where you can—we decided that cherry-picking some of the best ingredients would make for a nice little sandwich adventure. But where does one get the most Madisonian of ingredients? Consider this your buy-local, eat-great shopping list.
- Meat from Underground Butcher
So many flavorful sandwich-meat options to choose from here—multiple types of salami, fragrant prosciutto and braunschweiger and more. For our sandwich buck, however, we’re going with a packet of the fried Mortadella, a meat that chef Michael Signorelli describes as “bologna’s sophisticated brother.” With pistachio and fennel packed into the casing, it’s a labor-intensive meat to produce, but the smoothness of the taste once it’s fried makes it all worthwhile. “It’s funny,” says Signorelli. “People don’t understand how refined it is.”
- Bread from Madison Sourdough
There are plenty of solid places to snag the foundation of your perfect ’wich, but let’s start on Willy Street with Madison Sourdough, where the Country Sourdough and the Dodgeville Harvest loaves can make even the most mundane ingredients pop. You can get MSD fare at plenty of locations around town, but there’s no substitution for the source.
- Cheese from Fromagination
Any place that offers Hook’s five-year aged cheddar and Marieke’s smoked Gouda in the same display case gets our sandwich-cheese vote. All of our sandwich cheese votes, actually. About seventy percent of Ken Monteleone’s cheese offerings come from local cheesemakers, which means you’ll be able to not only savor the taste of the goat
cheese or the Martone, but feel good aboutit, too.
- Condiment from Mustard Museum
Careful that the rest of your sandwich doesn’t go stale while you’re trying to decide exactly which of the several hundred mustards and chutneys you’d like to score from Barry Levenson’s downtown Middleton shrine to his favorite condiment. We’re partial to the horseradish-happy Hit and Run mustard that scorches your taste buds and then evaporates as if it had never been there.
Check out this two-mile sandwich stretch
If you plant your feet at the western end of Williamson Street and start walking east—we recommend you pick a warmish day, by the way—you’re in for a sandwich stroll of epic proportions. Some of the city’s best options stretch out over the next two miles.
Your first stop comes within the first blocks: It’s the Underground Butcher, where the barbecued brisket is rivaled only by the surprising sophistication of the fried Mortadella. Just make sure you start your stroll early in the week and early in the day, or you risk missing the best cuts of meat.
Less than a block later, turn your head across the street and encounter Madison Sourdough, the site of some of Madison’s best fresh-baked bread options. You could pick up a loaf of country sourdough for a late-night sandwich snack or score one of MSD’s grilled cheese ’wiches and savor the Fontina.
Feeling weary, er, Weary yet? Three more blocks gets you to Madison’s favorite freehouse, home of the unforgettable West of the Andes sandwich. Go with the tenderloin version—you’re going to need your strength for the walk ahead.
If you’re regretting not stopping at Madison Sourdough for a loaf, your second chance arrives in another block at Batch Bakehouse, where, if it happens to be a Friday, the cheese ficelle makes a flavorful base for your favorite sandwich ingredients.
The point at which Willy becomes Winnebago and then runs into Atwood Avenue provides another hotspot of tasty sandwich creativity. Feel free to pick the Mermaid Café, where you’d be well advised to sink your chompers into their yummy bánh mì, or cross the street—remember to watch for traffic, now—and camp at the Alchemy with a stuffed grilled cheese.
A long lope down Atwood brings us to this sandwich stretch’s final destination: Stalzy’s Deli, where the Reuben and the Rachel offer equal meaty appeal. At this point, you may be too stuffed to have noticed that this is but one street in our sandwich-rich city.
Sandwich Trend: The Chain Gang
They’ve appeared in our fair city like kudzu on a sun-drenched trellis or dandelions in a pesticide-free front yard: regional sandwich chains.
Stroll around downtown Madison, for instance, and you’ll begin to wonder if the number of new chains is actually threatening to surpass the number of new condo projects. ’Cause we’re not talking about Jared or Quiznos here. We’re talking about the massive influx of regional sandwich purveyors like Which Wich, Erbert and Gerbert’s, Cheba Hut and Firehouse Subs, to name just four.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon—local restaurants in other food-staple categories like pizza and burgers have seen and survived their own chain attacks—but it does beg the question of whether there’s a limit to the number of five-buck sub specials the city can accommodate before the sandwich bubble bursts. Or maybe there’s no limit to the UW student community’s appetite for quick, easy and cheap.
It also makes us wonder if the chain gang has any impact on local sandwich purveyors’ pursuit of a more artisan path and their recent willingness to pair up with other like businesses to offer each others’ products in their stores.
Certain sandwich shops, like the ones that line some of the main thoroughfares on Madison’s east side, have the fortune to be located in neighborhoods that aren’t immediately conducive to an explosion of chain competitors. Not that the chefs and owners even seem to care if one occurred.
As The Spot’s DJ Post puts it: “Every chain’s got a five-dollar sandwich, but that makes all our stuff just that much more attractive to customers.”