Mediterranean Cafe: David to the Goliaths downtown
Mediterranean Cafe has been a campus UW Madison institution since 1996. Chef/owner Faycal Belakhdar came to the US from Algeria thirty years ago and learned the restaurant business by working his way through it, including a long tenure at Amy’s Café (another Mediterranean-inflected venue popular with students). Part of the reason for the compact hours of “Med Caf” is that Belakhdar makes it a priority to be there first and leave last every day.
Students, tired of Chipotle, Starbucks, and energy bars, flock there at lunchtime and mix with UW staffers and downtown workers. Belakhdar and his friendly staff recognize regulars but welcome new faces as well. Particularly in winter when the mobile food carts are shuttered, the line into Med Caf can pour down the street but tables turn fast, so don’t be discouraged. As you might expect, the space is small inside - be prepared to rub elbows with a neighbor. Enjoy the walls, plastered top-to-bottom with postcards sent by fans and former staff from all corners of the globe.
The food is pan-Mediterranean. The regular menu of shawarma, falafil (sic) and couscous is supplemented by rotating specials including a fantastic chicken-apricot phyllo pie. The shawarma is richly filling; the falafil is as well. Good falafel is rare in Madison, so Med Caf gives their all for these little chickpea balls, and they do them right: moist, nutty-flavored, and paired with excellent hummus.
Akin’s plate (pronounced ah-KEEN’s) is a cheap, filling lunch of beef and lamb schawarma, pita, rice, cucumber yogurt sauce, and salad. It’s a delight; it can be a bit dry, so don’t hesitate to ask for extra sauce when you order.
The lamb really shines. Sliced thin, there’s less lamb than beef, so savor every bite of the finely ground, mildly seasoned, roasted meat. The beef is of a coarser grind with more assertive black pepper and garlic flavors. The hummus is cool and of the perfect consistency for clinging to a pita wedge. The tahini flavor is prominent and the hummus is not too salty.
If you go with the schawarma, it can be ordered as a sandwich (pita, hummus and meat) or as a platter with salad and rice. The salad is modest, just romaine and really good tomatoes, dressed in a bright vinegar and citrus dressing. The rice is fluffy and abundant, lightly coated in oil but not seasoned.
Once you’ve sated your lunchtime hunger, saunter up State Street towards the Capitol and spend the afternoon shopping, visiting one of the many museums on and around the Capitol Square, or taking in the breathtaking Capitol Rotunda itself.
Inside tip: For the birds
Madison has a large number of backyard chicken hobbyists. Until a few years ago, they had to stay underground, but city ordinance now allows residents to keep up to 4 chickens per yard. The City Clerk has since issued over 120 coop permits and a chicken fanciers’ group, the Mad City Chickens, attracts new members constantly. If you can’t finish your pita, don’t feel guilty. When you bus your table to the cart at the back of the dining room, look for a specially marked container - Med Cafe usually collects its bread scraps for use as chicken feed. What lucky ducks!