Travel around the world with 11 Madison restaurants
Let's go on a foodie adventure in Dane County
There’s a little Phileas Fogg in each of us – especially when the clock strikes dinnertime. But whereas Jules Verne’s high-stakes character in “Around the World in Eighty Days” had to deploy an array of trains, steamers and hot air balloons to meet his 80-day globe-spanning itinerary, adventurous eaters in Madison have it much easier. Just take whatever transportation is handy — and we vote that you skip the hot air balloon if you’re short on time – and get thee to one of these local purveyors of excellent ethnic cuisine. There’s really no easier way to feel like you’re visiting places like South America, Africa and Europe without leaving Dane County.
The definition of bistro includes the concept of small, and that works to describe the space that houses chef/owner Aki Ishikawa’s latest venture. The vision, however, is significantly more outsized, mixing multiple contemporary food-trend genres like a mad scientist. Bistro Honda is a three-way intersection where sushi rolls meet ramen noodle dishes and poke bowls. Your best bet is to embrace the global chaos with choices like the nori-wrapped poke burrito bowl. Think of it as a supersized maki roll. 1865 Northport Drive, 298-7303 $$
Buraka is one of several beloved Madison institutions on this list that have survived recent displacement by mixed-use development–and it’s stronger for the experience. Ethiopian cuisine sometimes gets lost in the stew of world cuisine options, but Buraka’s chef/owner Markos Regassa continues to serve its best version here, in the form of rich peanut stews that redefine our concept of comfort food, as well as dorowot, the restaurant’s berbere-powered signature dish. Pair it with one of Buraka’s yummy rum drinks (we recommend starting with the Buraka Breeze), and it may be the best idea you’ve had all day. 1210 Williamson St., 286-1448 $$
David’s Jamaican Cuisine
Continuing our running theme of peripatetic world-cuisine restaurants, chef David Blake’s authentic Jamaican restaurant also recently moved, relocating up the street on Monona Drive to a site that used to host a seafood restaurant. Which makes great cosmic sense, given that Blake’s signature dish is a righteous plate of jerked red snapper. If snapper doesn’t snap your taste buds, no worries – traditional jerk faves (chicken, pork, etc.) are also on offer, along with the always reliable salted codfish and ackee, Jamaica’s national dish. 5696 Monona Drive, 222-8109 $$
Freiburg Tap Haus
After almost three years of purveying classic Deutschland fare on Monroe Street, Freiburg Gastropub pulled up stakes and relocated to State Street to take over the tap haus that had previously been operated by Capital Brewery and then Wisconsin Brewing Company. The lion’s share of chef/co-owner John Connelly’s original menu has migrated, too, although a few faves fell victim to the new location’s smaller kitchen. Not surprisingly, Freiburg’s signature Wiener schnitzel, a tender cut of veal with crisp breading that’s served with succulent red cabbage and creamy potatoes, still leads the charge here. But don’t overlook the hearty meatballs in mushroom gravy. Or, for that matter, the beer list. 107 State St., 204-2755 $$-$$$
Why bother with the wave of new ramen joints when you can more effectively score noodle nirvana from this takeout- and delivery-based spinoff of Bandung? It’s like a United Nations of Noodles here, with representation from Indonesia (the delish vegetable-laden bakmi goreng) Korea (the bright sweet potato japchae noodles, stir-fried in soy sauce and sesame oil) and India (mung bean cellophane noodles in a yellow curry sauce). There’s even mac and cheese if your adventurous spirit can’t seem to break beyond the U.S. borders. If you’d rather eat your noodles on-site, that’s an option, too. You can order them from Bandung’s bar area Sunday through Thursday evenings. 600 Williamson St., 255-4664 $
Quick, name the national dish of Venezuela. Relax. It’s OK if you’re blissfully unaware that pabellón, a hearty plate of black beans, white cheese, rice, beef and a sizable fried plantain, is the ham and eggs of the coastal South American nation. You can easily acquaint yourself with several forkfuls at either of La Taguara’s locations. If a sandwich is more your dinnertime jones, you’ve just struck plantain paradise — as long as you remember a stack of napkins. Conquering the patacon pisao, which traps ground beef and seemingly every condiment known to man between two slabs of crunchy green goodness, is almost required. 3502 E. Washington Ave., 721-9100; 827 E. Johnson Ave., 721-1948 $$
One of the few Madtown restaurants to front authentic halal cuisine, Madistan’s articles of confederation begin with Pakistani-inflected takes on familiar delicacies like chicken biryani. Students make up a sizable chunk of owner Mohammad Saleem Qureshi’s customer base, which explains the occasional Midwest-friendly spins on classic dishes, like tikka chicken tacos and tikka chicken grilled cheese. Madistan’s menu is prone to daily and weekly shifts, so you’ll want to check the blackboard pics on the restaurant’s Facebook page to avoid disappointment. 317 N. Bassett St., 422-5422 $
Mirch Masala presents a tasty and traditional tour of Nepal and India that’s beloved by its devoted fans. Given how many things Gokul Silwal’s cozy restaurant does well, it’s not at all surprising. From traditional curries (with multiple meat choices and adjustable levels of spice, naturally) to a killer plate of rogan josh, there’s always another spice to discover. Whatever you opt to sample, you’d be sadly remiss not to top it off with a serving of mango ice cream. 449 State St., 665-3667 $$
There’s definitely some Middle Eastern magic going on at chef Mohammed Hinawai’s Egyptian-themed Mediterranean restaurant, a longtime staple on Madison’s west side. It starts with the couscous dishes, simmered in succulent tomato sauce and topped with tender lamb or chicken. If you’re indecisive, don’t let it scare you off. Huge swaths of Nile’s menu are angled toward combo and family-style options that can easily be shared. Or hoarded, if you’d prefer. 6119 Odana Road, 274-1788 $$-$$$
Oliva Italian & Mediterranean Cuisine
Checking in at Mehmet Dayi’s cozy and inviting restaurant, tucked into the confines of a Middleton strip mall, checks two key cuisines off your world bucket list at once — Italian and Middle Eastern. The parallel menus here are extremely expansive on both sides of the aisle, featuring everything from pizza and fresh-baked calzones to plates of gyros. If you’re craving a little Italy, the chicken marsala surprises with the way the smooth strength of its wine-based sauce meshes with the breaded chicken. If you’d rather sail north toward the Baltic, the lamb shish kebab is the most popular place to dock, with some of the most tender spiced meat you’ve ever tasted. And you can relax: Beef and chicken options are also available. 751 N. High Point Road, 831-7776 $$
While it’s true that the bakery half of this essential Lebanese establishment makes some of the tastiest doughnuts this city has to offer, the main menu is remarkable, too. Start (and maybe even end) with the tan tan chicken, a spiced and marinated bird (half or whole, your choice) garnished with red onions and tempered with a garlic aioli that keeps the flavor party in check. Also a star at this tucked-out-of-sight East Washington Avenue eatery is the gyro (plated or served in a pita; again, your choice), which pairs surprisingly well with crullers, a type of doughnut. Who knew? 2810 E. Washington Ave., 245-0404 $
We’ve seen it in the fast-food industry, where the big players have cast aside the “stay in your lane” notion to include offerings outside their expected comfort zones. So it shouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone to see world-cuisine spots diversifying their wares a little, too. Whether it’s Bistro Honda‘s meshing of sushi and poke-bowl concepts or places like OM Indian Fusion (3579 E. Washington Ave., 467-2110 $$), where traditional Indian vindaloo dishes nestle with Indo-Chinese noodle dishes, these restaurants offer more flavor options than you’d expect. Others, like Fugu Asian Fusion (411 W. Gilman St., 665-3633 $$), blend cuisines with some natural crossover, like Chinese and Thai. And we’d be awfully fusion-remiss if we didn’t give a shoutout to Sujeo (10 N. Livingston St., 630-9400 $-$$), where much of the menu is inspired by Korean cuisine, but also features a pretty mean bowl of Vietnamese pho.
Aaron R. Conklin writes about food and local theater for Madison Magazine.
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