Meatless Madison: Duck Lips’ vegetarian gem on a chicken menu

Duck Lips Hot Chicken delivers great tofu.
Buttermilk fried tofu sandwich
Photo by Eleanor Knauss
Duck Lips' Tofu Nashville Hot “Sando” is a vegetarian riff on the Nashville-style fried chicken sandwich.

You might not expect it from a place called Duck Lips Hot Chicken, but there is a new vegetarian Nashville-style fried tofu sandwich in town.

Duck Lips, a “virtual brand” operating out of the kitchen at Merchant, launched Oct. 14 with a menu that is available for carryout and delivery only.

Chef Andrew Vogel, the culinary director for Rule No. One Hospitality Group — which oversees Merchant and sister restaurant Lucille — says the concept for Duck Lips was born out of a desire to adapt to the challenges that restaurants continue to face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With in-house dining limitations, losing outdoor seating, and with the weather changing, we started looking into ‘ghost kitchens’ or ‘virtual brands,’ which are brands that are available online through third-party delivery services,” Vogel says. Duck Lips focuses on chicken, but Rule No. One has three other virtual brands serving up tacos, nachos and pizza. “Fried chicken — and fried tofu — travels well. We took our Nashville fried chicken sandwich that we had on our menu at Merchant and spun the concept for [Duck Lips] off of that,” Vogel says.

A riff on Duck Lips’ Nashville chicken sandwich, the Tofu Nashville Hot “Sando” gets essentially the same treatment as its chicken counterpart. “Once we got going with the concept it was really important to us to have a vegetarian option,” Vogel says.

Just like the chicken, the tofu gets soaked in a house-made brine of fresh dill and mustard seed. “We weren’t sure how that would work — we had to play around with it,” Vogel says. “The first couple of times we soaked it too long and it got too salty, we had to adjust how thick we were slicing it … it took us a little while to nail it but I think we’re there.”

The extra firm tofu patty then gets dredged in buttermilk and flour before it is deep-fried. Available in varying spice levels, ranging from no spice to “stupid hot,” the sandwich comes served on a brioche bun from Madison Sourdough Co. with aioli, dill pickles and a root vegetable slaw made with beauty heart radishes, carrots, broccoli stems, kohlrabi, cabbage and creamy poppy seed dressing. A double sandwich is also an option, which is the same sandwich but double the amount of tofu. “At that point I don’t know if [people] eat it with a fork,” Vogel laughs. “That is a really tall sandwich.”

Acknowledging that Madison already has a lot of vegetarian options, Vogel says he wasn’t sure how Duck Lips’ tofu sandwich would be received but that they have been seeing a lot of sales and getting good feedback. “It’s been cool to watch it take off,” Vogel says. “[It’s] a hidden gem on a chicken menu.”