9 virtual brands operating out of Madison kitchens

The current takeout-centric dining culture is inspiring many restaurants to launch new ventures under different names.
two tacos
Photo by John Kuehl
Taco Royale

Businesses have many reasons for rebranding or expanding, but the current takeout-centric dining culture is inspiring many restaurants to do both by launching new ventures under different names. A “virtual brand” or “ghost kitchen” can be defined as a largely online- and takeout-only operation that cooks up specialties from a commercial kitchen or existing restaurant. These dining ventures not only allow for culinary creativity beyond the limits of the regular menu, they also help boost business during the pandemic while catering to those seeking delivery or curbside options. But if eating locally is a priority, be aware that national chains use this tactic on food delivery apps. We’ve identified some locally owned virtual brands to consider when scrolling for your next meal.

Burger, She Wrote
Madison’s — a downtown restaurant that bears our city’s name and is typically known for craft cocktails and late-night dancing — launched a burger concept late last year. Owned by Andy Haker, Madison’s has one burger on the regular menu, but Burger, She Wrote has six, plus three vegan options. As you scroll through the menu, you’ll notice most of the items are based on crime TV shows and characters ­— i.e., the Slaw & Order, Matlock and Columbo burgers. Even the name of the restaurant is a nod to Angela Lansbury’s 1980s and ’90s detective show, “Murder, She Wrote.” Burger, She Wrote uses Fox Heritage beef and garnishes such as butternut squash and gin-soaked olives. There’s even a burger topped with bacon, bacon aioli and cheese curds — talk about decadent. 119 King St.,229-0900, available on EatStreet

Cluck

chicken sandwiches with sides

Courtesy of Cluck

Nitty Gritty must have decided it already conquered the burger game, because now Executive Chef Ryan Kirby is dipping his tongs into the world of fried chicken. Southern-inspired and entirely virtual, Cluck serves a variety of Nitty’s bestsellers like cheese curds and milkshakes. But innovative sandwiches are the highlight of this reinvented menu. Try the Maui Wowee with hand-breaded chicken, blackened ham and a pineapple teriyaki aioli atop a Hot & Spicy Cheese Bread roll from Stella’s. Or try the Bao, topped with pickled carrots, cucumber, coconut sugar, candied bacon peanuts and a Szechuan lemon pepper aioli between two lotus leaf buns. Cluck launched at the downtown Nitty Gritty location but plans to expand to Sun Prairie and Middleton this year. 223 N. Frances St., 251-2521, cluckfriedchicken.com, available on EatStreet, Grubhub, Uber Eats and DoorDash

Dave’s Dive Burger
In an ode to smash burgers, Brothers Three Bar & Grill is piloting Dave’s Dive Burger as a no-frills concept for Madison’s burger lovers. Available on EatStreet, Dave’s four main sandwiches — a smash burger, a Cubano, fried chicken or a veggie option — are served with sides of classic fries, gooey cheese curds or crisp onion rings. Ask owner Matt Stebbins where he sources the bacon and the answer is simple: “heaven.” Pick a house-made sauce to top it off and don’t be afraid to get messy. Brothers Three is traditionally a game-day destination, but you can still enjoy the greasy goodness of dive bar food right at home. 614 N. Fair Oaks Ave., 244-6818, available on EatStreet, DoorDash and Grubhub

Duck Lips Hot Chicken, Mad Taco and Slice Queen
Pick up a drummie, snag some tacos or grab a slice from three offshoots of Merchant and Lucille. Rule No. One Hospitality Group has kept things busier than ever this past year by establishing a trio of diverse dining options within already established downtown kitchens. Duck Lips serves fried chicken in every-which-way, while Slice Queen dishes Detroit-style pies made for dipping. Mad Taco makes a whole bunch of tortilla-wrapped items like burritos and quesadillas, but its mainstay is, you guessed it, tacos. Options range from a Japanese katsu chicken sandwich to a caramel cajeta-filled churro to a Sriracha ranch-doused slice of supreme pizza, so take your pick — and may the best virtual brand win. In addition to delivery, pickup is available. Duck Lips: ducklipsfriedchix.com, available on ChowNow, Grubhub, EatStreet, DoorDash and Uber Eats; Slice Queen and Mad Taco: slice-queen.com, mad-taco.com, available on DoorDash, Uber Eats, Grubhub and EatStreet

Midcoast Wings and Taco Royale

plate of wings

Courtesy of Midcoast Wings

The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. is venturing outside of brews and bar food with two new, EatStreet-only operations. You won’t see the Great Dane logo anywhere, though, as Midcoast Wings and Taco Royale stand alone. Get wings delivered and coated in a range of heat levels. For a mild trip to wingland, opt for the ginger soy teriyaki rub, which appears at the bottom of the heat scale. If you have a hankering for something hot, order the Habanero Hellfire sauce. Taco Royale strives to give taste buds the royal treatment with slow-cooked meats, homemade salsas and fresh queso. 123 E. Doty St., 876 Jupiter Drive, 357 Price Place, 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg, midcoastwings.com, taco-royale.com, available on EatStreet

WisCow

pizza

Courtesy of WisCow

The people behind Monk’s Bar & Grill first became familiar with the idea of ghost kitchens about five years ago, but they didn’t implement the concept until the pandemic hit. “We went from pure survival mode after reopening to knowing we needed to do something to drive business other than our tried-and-true options,” says Allison Elder, Monk’s marketing and communications manager. So WisCow was born, operating out of Monk’s kitchen. An additional phone line, website, social media accounts and an online ordering landing page make it a stand-alone option for guests. WisCow offers some of the classic takeout dishes — loaded pizza, smoked chicken wings and gooey mac and cheese — so pick the comfort food of your choice. When feeling in need of a tasty pick-me-up, try the hangover macaroni and cheese topped with Tater Tots, ham, bacon, veggies of all sorts and a fried egg. 1050 N. Edge Trail, Verona, 497-1203; 2832 Prairie Lakes Drive, Sun Prairie, 318-2919; 8313 Murphy Drive, Middleton, 203-5434; wiscowpizza.com

All-in-One
Global Market & Food Hall has multiple vendors that can be found on digital platforms.

Nadja sitting with noodles at Global Market

Courtesy of Nadja Larini/@wisconsingourmande

Among the additions to Madison’s food scene in 2020 is Zeier Road’s newest dining destination, Global Market & Food Hall. The market section claims to be the largest Asian grocery store in Wisconsin, and a really exciting element is the extensive food court offering dishes from more than 10 vendors. Many of these eateries offer takeout and delivery through EatStreet and a couple other platforms, so you can sample each cook’s spin on Asian cuisine at home. Captain Frank Seafood Boiler has combination meals of lobster, shrimp, crab, mussels, crawfish and clams. Dumpling House serves a diverse menu of roasted duck noodle soup, pork and bok choy dumplings and creamy custard buns. Try a bowl of spicy ramen in tonkotsu broth with beef chasu, egg, tofu or pork belly from Kawasaki. Saigon specializes in pho with proteins such as beef tendon and meatball. Saucy Rice’s braised beef bowls are laden with a signature sauce. Stir-fried hsinchu mei fun can be found at Hsinchu Rice Noodle, candied deep-fried taro at Nice Flavor Stir Fry, and flavored milk teas complete with boba, pearls and jelly add-ons at Sweet Hut. If you can’t make up your mind to order from a single place, opt for takeout and try a dish or two from each stand. You can also shop the market to bring home ingredients to make your own meal. 2161 Zeier Road, 286-1383, globalmarketfoodhall.com

Sam Jones is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.