A meal at HungryBadger Cafe feels like home

The Nepali restaurant is known for its momos
three different plates of momo dumplings with someone digging into one of the plates
HungryBadger Cafe makes momos of varying colors. (Photo by Nikki Hansen)

Overlooking the 500 block of State Street, HungryBadger Cafe sits atop IT’SUGAR Madison, its presence indicated only by a glass-enclosed menu mounted by the entryway and a small folding sign bearing the restaurant’s logo. Passersby may miss the now 1-year-old Himalayan restaurant, as its second-story location makes it difficult to find. By following the folding sign’s upward-directing arrow, Madisonians will find a new favorite dumpling joint in an inviting, homey space.

The restaurant offers an unassuming brand of solace above the often-times bustling State Street. Potted houseplants on every windowsill and in every corner, a rainbow pride flag nestled between two Wisconsin team banners and a framed wall print assuring customers, “Cooking with love, food for the soul,” lend a domestic feeling to the space. All in all, a meal at HungryBadger Cafe feels like home.

And “like home” is exactly how owner Deepak Shrestha wants it to feel. Shrestha and his wife, Archana Shrestha, are Nepal natives and longtime Madison residents. They run the restaurant with Deepak Shrestha’s sister, Neelam Shrestha. Although all three work full-time jobs in Madison, they opened the restaurant as a way to spend more time together as a family, looking to occupy the hours freed up now that their children have moved away from home.

The three owners have worked in restaurants previously. Neelam Shrestha and Archana Shrestha both gained experience at Peppino’s restaurant prior to its closing, and Neelam Shrestha and Deepak Shrestha’s sister Bishnu Pradhan own Himal Chuli, just up State Street from HungryBadger.

The HungryBadger Cafe’s blend of homestyle Nepali cooking and Midwestern hospitality offers a unique spin on “comfort food.” A hearty eight-bean soup (affectionately named “Eight-Sister Soup” for Archana Shrestha and her seven siblings) and a house-made rosemary roll make a warming meal, and the rice bowls present colorful proteins and grains.

The restaurant’s specialty is momos, a popular Himalayan dumpling served in carefully arranged groups of eight with a tangy red-orange tomato sauce and house-made Badger Heat hot sauce. The dumplings come stuffed with guests’ choice of chicken, beef, bratwurst (for a Wisconsin twist), vegetable or alu (potato), along with various spices.

Each type of momo is color-coded to serve the practical purpose of helping kitchen staff differentiate between the various flavors. And all the dyes are natural. Beef momos are dyed purple with beet juice, bratwurst momos are made brown with paprika, veggie momos are dyed green with spinach juice and alu momos are turned mustard yellow with turmeric. You can see them all in their colorful splendor when you order the “indecisive platter,” which includes two of each kind.

The natural dyes speak to HungryBadger Cafe’s commitment to serving healthy homestyle food. The menu mimics the types of foods the Shresthas might eat in their own home.

“Our idea was to kind of serve homestyle cooking, natural food and whatever we would serve our own kids,” Deepak Shrestha says, adding that their menu, offering many vegan options, contains no additives.

HungryBadger Cafe began as a way for the Shresthas to deal with their empty-nest syndrome, but the three also wanted to bring home cooking to college students on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus.

“That’s why we named it the HungryBadger,” Archana Shrestha says. “To attract the kids from the university.”

The space could easily make a nice study spot for, well, hungry Badgers, and the Shresthas have considered setting up a lounge in the back area of the restaurant past the bar.

While HungryBadger Cafe’s second-story location doesn’t deliver the foot traffic of curious pedestrians, roughly one-third of its customers are regulars, Deepak Shrestha says. So those who do stop in tend to come back.

“Whoever comes in here, they love it,” Neelam Shrestha says. “Every plate is clean.”

On top of the demands of full-time jobs and running a restaurant, the family remains incredibly active. You can keep an eye out for Deepak Shrestha in the 2020 Madison Ironman, and he and Neelam Shrestha run in the Madison Marathon together.

So the Shresthas keep busy, but nonetheless see the cafe as a way to spend quality time together while serving food to customers.

“It’s hard work, but when we’re here it’s fun,” Archana Shrestha says.

Bri Hall is a former editorial intern at Madison Magazine.