Sundown Saloon

In a word: They better take care than many spots we've eaten at here and/or there.

The specs: #01071 
57 S. Stoughton Rd., 53714
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook

Latest Sundown Saloon news and reviews

JM ate the buffalo chicken sandwich with lemonade.
Nichole ate the patty melt with a diet Coke.
The bill was $19, or about $10/person, plus tip.
JM gave Sundown Saloon a B+; Nichole gave Sundown Saloon a B- (see our grading rubric).

Sundown Saloon beckons, somewhat unobtrusively, from Stoughton Road. We've found that Madison's east side still has pockets of bars that feel like they are frequented by blue-collar folks and not effete fixie riders or Epic wonks.

The staff here really do know to take care of you.  Our server was personable and friendly, answering questions and giving us just enough time to debate the pros and cons of patty melt vs. burger. Here they manage the bar and prep the food with courtesy and warmth, despite being quite busy even at 1 PM on a Friday.

Patty melt

Nichole ended up getting the patty melt, partly because a colleague of JM's had declared to him that the patty melt is the winner at Sundown. This one had 2 layers of Swiss cheese and beef, plus onions, served on toasted marble rye, and was dang good. JM was even happier with his (very very spicy) buffalo chicken sandwich.  He had been offered ranch with it, and got mayo instead, which made him 50% happier. (Seriously, what is with ranch love?)

Buffalo chicken sandwich

The fries were nicely prepared and took to ketchup quite well, but could have easily been Ore*Ida.  In fact, most everything here is just fine -- not too exciting, but well done with essential ingredients which can add up to hit or miss food.  The service is the star and, if there's some hidden highlight on the menu, we can see Sundown being in an East side bar rotation easily. 

An added perk, we stopped at the Aunt Millie's Bakery Outlet on Atlas on the way out, not because we were still hungry, but because it was open, and we have ways of disposing of massive bags of mini donuts and vast quantities of raisin bread (as one does).

Sumo

SumoIn a word: Dinner and a show.

The specs: #01070  
1745 Parkside Dr., 53704
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook

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David ate the scallop hibachi.
JM ate the steak and shrimp hibachi.
Nichole ate the ribeye hibachi.
The bill was $12/person, plus tip.
JM and David gave Sumo a B+; Nichole gave a Sumo a B (see our grading rubric).

Sumo (much Like the as-yet-unvisited Fuji on the west side) is a dinner-and-a-show style hibachi restaurant.  It is not a buffet (we somehow got that idea in our heads, probably because Sumo replaced Madison's only OCB/HomeTown Buffet). Sumo is instead a sushi lounge/hot grill place where you can have broccoli fired at your mouth; onion volcanoes built, erupted, and destroyed; peepee jokes made with dolls; and knives thrown and caught for your amusement.  Our party caught all of the broccoli that came our way. Win!

Onion volcano

We had the steak, the shrimp and scallops for lunch.  Lunch seems like a nice deal given that it is mostly the same show but the prices are little less, presumably since the portions are a little smaller. But because it follows a show, watch out that you do not go hangry because things could go from bad to worse.  Further, our rice arrived relatively early and entrees arrived at different times (cooking times of course vary).  But lots of butter - carved from a giant butter mountain, probably five pounds or more - was used and we all agreed that the food was better than we expected.  The yummy and ginger sauces deserve note because they both worked so well together with any meat.

That said, the hibachi menu is pretty narrow; this is fine since it would be hard to pull off of these different meats while still putting on a good show. Two of us even got to-go boxes, which stretches the $12 price across another half meal. Sumo is making a decent go of it since the east side Ginza closed, but we'd probably eat at Takara on State for our Japanese performance art cooking.

Sujeo

In a word: You go to Sujeo.

The specs: #01069  
10 N. Livingston St., 53703
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Sujeo news and reviews

JM ate the dandan noodles with a lemonade.
Marijka ate the squash curry with a cocktail.
Nichole ate the Korean fried chicken with a limeade.
Ryan ate the pastrami pho.
We split some cheese curds and got two ice creams. The bill was $100, or $25/person, plus tip.
Marijka, Nichole and Ryan gave Sujeo an A; JM gave Sujeo an A- (see our grading rubric).

Cheese curds

A cold winter's evening was made all the brighter by a trip to the near East side's Sujeo - another in the Tory Miller empire.  We both liked Graze and L'Etoile; we would be surprised to walk away from this meal unhappy.  Sujeo's concept is Asian noodle dishes prepared with a hearty Midwestern feel.  Indeed, hearty would be a good word to describe all that we got there.

Pastrami ramen

Ryan and Marijka had already been to Sujeo a few times (they had pointed out that cooktop booths seem to have been unnecessary for the way that Sujeo developed after initial design). They had a couple of favorites that they enjoyed including the appetizer of delicious cheese curds. Marijka contends that these are the best cheese curds in Madison and, with OSS having closed, were having a hard time arguing that point. The squash curry really is one of the better vegetarian meals to be had at this level of quality and the curry is offered in just the perfect quantity and well-balanced across the dish. Ryan's pastrami pho is just the kind of fusion cuisine that Miller is famous for. The portion was ample and both dishes were sent home for an additional lunch portion later. Remember this when you think of the bill.

Squash curry

Nichole's three pieces of Korean fried chicken, though, were things of beauty. Gigantic pieces, fried with a juicy, crispy skin. In truth, there is little way to do this chicken justice with words - it recalls nothing so much as Chicken Unlimited, but with Korean spices. It was a wonderful portion and reheated pretty well. JM was the only the CPC member of the day, having polished off his dandan noodles during the meal (his only gripe is that is was a little on the small side) -- it was nicely spicy and did a great job providing internal heat to contrast the cold wind outside.

Dan dan pork

That said, even a cold night cannot stop the soft serve action at Sujeo.  Nichole and Marijka each got one of the two flavors on offer (Mexican chocolate and Farmers Market Raspberry), it was hard to say which one was better at its goal, since fruit and chocolate ice creams have different purposes.  Both, however, were available with sprinkles... so there's that.

Ice cream coneIce cream cone

For four people, the bill came in at $100, which is fine given that it was more like seven meals of high quality (three sets of leftovers) PLUS cheese curds and ice cream. Sujeo heralds the rise of the East Washington corridor (of Festival Foods and shiny new Epicserf condos), which will be nice and add tons of value to the city.  A true jewel.

Sugar and Spice Eatery

In a word: Everything's nice.

The specs: #01068 
317 Nora St., Stoughton 53589
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook

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JM ate the BBQ burger.
Nichole ate the steak and eggs.
Rose ate the Eggs Benedict.
The bill was cheap.
JM and Rose gave Sugar and Spice Eatery an A-; Nichole gave Sugar and Spice Eatery an A (see our grading rubric).

Sugar and Spice Eatery began a better-than-expected run of good restaurants that recharged our A to Z batteries somewhat. But unlike Sujeo, the next place, this one had absolutely no build up to us - we hadn't heard of the place at all! So we arrived on a cold winter's lunchtide to peruse their menu and found that almost every table was filled and it stayed that way for the duration. There's also a full-service deli which enjoyed lots of foot traffic, and offers a good-looking menu for weekday lunches.

Burger

Back in the dining room, we tried a little of both the breakfast and the lunch menu.  Nichole got the steak and eggs with hash browns, raisin toast (yay) and coffee.  The steak was thick and tasty and came with prepared mushrooms.

Massive breakfast

Rose opted for a more traditional breakfast of Eggs Benedict, and she was able to get the eggs over hard, just the way she likes them on that dish.  The Hollandaise was more cheesy than lemony, but the whole thing was satisfying and delicious.  JM has a Western burger which had, like many plates around the cafe, a slice of thin-cut ham on it.  The BBQ sauce was mighty delicious, but the curly fries were a little sparse: a shame because he was really enjoying them.

Eggs Benedict

There's not much more we can say about a place that, apart from a few quibbles, seems to be knocking it our of the park in Stoughton. They do breakfast, lunch and deli foodstuffs right and they are tres adorbz to boot.  We can think of few better places to tuck in to comfort food like this and we cannot understand why our original list eschewed this place as it has been serving Stoughton for nearly two decades. Recommended!

Steak Escape

In a word: At the food court, you get what you pay for.

The specs: #01067
213 East Towne Mall, 53704
Details at Yelp, official web site, mall web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Steak Escape news and reviews

JM ate the Wild West BBQ with a soda.
Nichole ate the Great Escape.
We split some loaded fries.
The bill was $19, or $9ish/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole gave Steak Escape a C (see our grading rubric).

Steak Escape is easily the most expensive meal either of us has ever had at a food court. Nineteen dollars for two people getting standard sized sandwiches, loaded fries and a beverage may be a $20 proposition more often than we had realized, but it was still pretty shocking.

Steak Escape

Then we tried the food, which, get this, is actually pretty good for food court fare.  JM's Wild West BBQ sandwich was actually a decent cheesesteak variant, while Nichole's standard 'Great Escape' was not really a great cheesesteak, but certainly was filling; she also was able to get veggies which is a nice add-on. And the loaded fries are worth it (cheese and bacon). The Steak Escape has given East Towne a decent, quick, but not noteworthy, place to eat.

Squirrel's Nest

In a word: A stash of secret acorns.

The specs: #01066 
2655 US Route 51, McFarland 53558
Details at Yelp, Facebook

Latest Squirrel's Nest news and reviews

JM ate the grilled ham and cheese with a lemonade.
Nichole ate the cheeseburger.
The bill was $17, or $8ish/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Squirrel's Nest a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Squirrel's Nest is a bar in the country between McFarland and Stoughton.  We think we'd tried to eat here once in the heat of a long-ago summer, when the place was running under a different name, and were told the grill was off due to the heat.  We had no such problems this winter day.

First of all: reputation.  Squirrel's Nest is known for hearty and tasty breakfasts. Sadly this didn't work for our schedule, but from what we saw and heard, it could be easily believed.  Secondly, they use Knoche's meat which is great. Couple that with the assortment of Koops mustards our kind server brought tableward (including an added bottle of Arizona Heat per her recommendation) and this place was well on its way.

Burger and potato salad

Nichole's burger was served on a buttered soft bun with a super pepper jack cheese and a side of, get this, potato salad.  JM's umpteenth grilled ham and cheese was nicely prepared if a little small.  The toasted bread was so good, though, and the mustard add-ons helped.

Grilled ham and cheese

Our server was indeed nice and thoroughly patient, but the service here is not fast.  We'll probably return someday for breakfast, if it can keep up with these lunches.  We're sure many in McFarland and Stoughton don't known about this decent burger option halfway out of town, but it's worth a trip.

Spring Garden (Waunakee)

Spring Garden restaurantIn a word: A mixed bag.

The specs: #01065  
225 S. Century Ave., Waunakee 53597
Details at Yelp

Latest Spring Garden (Waunakee) news and reviews

JM ate the ravioli and a lemonade.
Nichole ate the monte cristo with a side of spaghetti and a cup of decaf.
The bill was $21, or $10ish/person, plus tip.
JM gave Spring Garden a C+; Nichole gave Spring Garden a B (see our grading rubric).

Spring Garden in Waunakee holds down one of the storefront in the Waunakee's downtown strip mall. This one felt right away like a classic family restaurant: giant booths, odd pairings, spaghetti with everything, tapioca pudding or carrot cake for dessert.  If that speaks to you, Spring Garden may be the spot to hit, as it is reasonably priced. If not, there's little to draw you in unless you are looking for standard fare in Waunakee.

Soups

Nichole got what should have been the best quinella ever: Monte Christo, Spaghetti, Carrot Cake, Decaf. Sadly, when dessert time arrived she found she did not want for anything and passed the carrot cake by, but man, how exciting to have carrot cake as a part of a meal's base price. Of what she had, the food was not so much good as nostalgic. The Monte Cristo hit all the right notes, the vegetable soup starter was traditional and the spaghetti... well, the spaghetti was not so great. But at these prices, who can complain?

Ravioli

Well, JM can. His ravioli were not much better than those he had in containers with a certain chef stamped on them (hint: rhymes with Roy Hardy).  The French Onion soup starter was actually pretty good, though very oniony. The lemonade was a little thin (not Spartan Bowl thin, but still not great.) His garlic bread was mostly just bread which was fine for dipping in the canned tomato sauce, but there was nothing that really moved him.

Monte cristo

With a sprawling menu and heaping helping of old school family restaurant thrown in, there is probably something here that acts as soul food for Waunakee denizens.  Nichole enjoyed the ambience while JM shifted uncomfortably and heard the name of Waunakee sportsball archrival Lodi mentioned by not fewer than four patrons or staff.  This place might be as close to the capitol as you can get while not being in Madison at all.

Spring Garden (Mount Horeb)

In a word: Think Spring.

The specs: #01064  
520 Springdale St.,Mount Horeb 53572
Details at Yelp, Facebook

Latest Spring Garden news and reviews

JM ate the chicken quesadilla with a lemonade.
Nichole ate the cod fish fry with a decaf.
The bill was $25, or about $12/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Spring Garden a B (see our grading rubric).

There are two different Dane County restos with the name Spring Garden.  They appear to have been a happy accident of contemporaneous naming coincidence.  This one is located all the way out in Mount Horeb, where it's been operating in a former Hardees since 2003.  We were one of two tables when we arrived and that place was just under half full when we left, which is a testament to the quality and diversity of foods available here.

Fish fry

Nichole went with the fish fry since it was Friday and was quite happy with her choice of cod, as it came with a nice creamy cole slaw and some crinkle fries.  The fish was served very warm, though it was nothing super special - it seemed like a happy midpoint on the fish spectrum.  JM's BBQ chicken quesadilla fell into much the same boat. The chicken pieces were nice and the BBQ sauce tasty, but the whole thing was a lot of food without providing a lot of variety from bite to bite.  Good, but a little samey.

Chicken quesadilla

The same could be said for the garlic Parmesan "IntensiFries." Sysco's come up with a saleable concept: turn fries into chicken wings with dry rubs, sauces and superior flavor.  They mostly just came overflavored and overgreasy.  JM would like to see some of the other classic wing flavors done for fries, but this was not something he would get again.  Swing and a miss.

The beverage came freely and quickly.  JM's lemonade was nice though familiar.  Nichole was able to score a cup of decaf with lunch which is a nice perk on a coldish day.

Spring Garden looks like a Hardee's from the outside.  We didn't try to locate the drive-thru, but there probably is one bricked over somewheres in the back. Mount Horeb should be happy to have a nice expansive menu, low cost local eatery to frequent. 

Book excerpt: Ella's Deli

Ella's is closing in January 2018. It'll be hard to say goodbye. Here's an excerpt from our book "Madison food: a history of capital cuisine" about the Madison institution. Enjoy - and try to go out for a grilled pound cake sundae while you can.

Origins on State Street

The stories intertwined with Ella’s demonstrate the intersection of diverse paths and a quirky spirit that is quintessentially Madison. Open since 1976, the current East Washington location was Ella’s Deli’s second. The first was at 425 State Street.

Ella's

Before its four decades as a deli and restaurant, the storefront at 425 State had been for 30 years a grocery. Prior to that, a succession of student-centric diners had held sway going back to at least 1908. At that time, Miss Helena Preiss ran The "U.W." Restaurant, where a dinner cost twenty cents, or eleven for two dollars. “U.W.” was followed by the College Inn, then the Badger Restaurant; in November 1909, confectioner Al J. Schwoegler, "the original Bitter Sweet king," branched out from Keeley's Palace of Sweets and opened his own store and advertised its "cozy little booths that are a new innovation in this city." Nicknamed “The Cozy,” his candy shop enchanted students for almost a decade.

In 1918, “Chilly Al” Felly ran his Wisconsin Lunch there. Felly, once a line rider on King Ranch in Texas, brought back to Madison his “secret Aztec recipe,” and it was a hit. So much so that wanted gangster John Whitfield brought his girlfriend to Al’s for lunch one day. Al called the police, but Whitfield slipped away, only to be apprehended in Cleveland; Al testified against Whitfield and used the $600 reward to open the beloved Felly’s at 2827 Atwood Avenue in about 1929, which his wife Lydia operated from Al’s death in 1937 until 1943.

Back at 425 State, in 1920 Chester A. Pledger had opened the State Street Cafe which quickly turned into Tom Yaka’s W Cafe. In 1930 it was converted into the Mack-Olson Food Shop, which it remained until Marty Rosen opened his delicatessen in 1960. Around that time, Ella Hirschfeld was running the kosher food service at UW-Hillel, to great acclaim. The rabbi encouraged her to go into business for herself, and so on July 4, 1963, she opened Ella’s Deli, selling groceries and serving classic dishes like borscht, blintzes and corned beef. A short four years later, she retired to Florida with her husband Harry and sold Ella’s to Nathan Balkin.

Balkin and his son Ken brought Ella’s into a new era. 1976 was the inaugural of the East Washington location, operated by Nat Balkin’s son Ken in a former mobile home showroom. Two years later, Nat added an old-fashioned soda fountain to the State Street location while retaining the traditional deli features. It was then that he created the famous #1 grilled pound cake hot fudge sundae, served in several variations to this day. Balkin gradually expanded Ella’s into the adjoining addresses, absorbing Bluteau's Meat Market where Gordon Hocking (husband of original Ella’s server Bonnie) worked.

Grilled pound cake hot fudge sundae (c)

Carousel

Meanwhile, out on the east side, Ken Balkin was living a dream. Ella’s had become a showcase for colorful motorized contraptions, from airplanes to bandstands and barely disguised characters from comics and cartoons. They were all handcrafted in Madison by Ken Vogel (sculptor and puppetmaster), Jerry Siegmann (mechanisms and maintenance expert), and Al Bayer (the mad mind behind "Stainless Stella" the robot greeter), plus an anonymous helper. In summer of 1982, Ken Balkin unveiled a vintage 1927 C.W. Parker carousel. It was one of fewer than 75 operating in the entire country at that time. He picked up the carousel itself in North Tonawanda, New York, and the horses came from Cincinnati. After painstaking restoration with help from many of Ella’s 125 employees, the fabulous ride became quickly beloved of Madisonians young and old.

Ella's Deli

State Street

Back on State Street, Nat sold Ella’s to Bonnie and Gordy Hocking, who ran it for the next decade or so. In 1999 it closed after the Hockings sold the business to restaurateur Vasilis Kallias, one-time owner of Mykonos Philly Steaks and Subs. Kallias and Stefan Dandelles kept the staff and most of the menu for their new Cafeli (a portmanteau of cafe and deli). It was rather short-lived; in 2002, Hawk Schenkel, a  former manager at Amy's Cafe and server at Cafe Continental, bought the business and did a total overhaul of the space to open Hawk's, the current tenant of 425 State.

Kallias, despite citing a desire to spend more time with family, could only stay away from the business for a few months. In 2003 he bought Mercury Deli at 117 East Mifflin from Kira Wehn. Wehn (then Bailes) had started Mercury as a lunch delivery service based in the kitchen of Restaurant Magnus. She and Kurt Wynboom, Magnus’ pastry chef, landed Mercury its own home in September 2001 in the former Horn of Africa space. Kallias also ran Opa, a Greek taverna-style restaurant, at 558 State Street from 2009 to 2011. When the Underground Kitchen fire claimed Mercury in summer 2011, Kallias was undaunted; in summer of 2012, he opened Vasilis’ Take Five Vittles and Vices in the former home of Corner Store at 901 Williamson Street.

Carousel horse at Ella's

Spinners Pizza

In a word: It's their turn.

The specs: #01063  
2125 McComb Rd., Ste 110, Stoughton 53589
Details at Yelp, official web site

Latest Spinners Pizza news and reviews

JM and Nichole ate the "counterclockwise" pizza and the "campfire" dessert pizza.
The bill was $31, or about $15/person, plus tip.
JM gave Spinners Pizza an A- ; Nichole gave Spinners Pizza a B (see our grading rubric).

It is often a good sign when a pizza joint is doing a brisk trade.  Spinners was hopping with delivery and to-go orders.  So much so, that they were having some issues taking our dine-in order.  Once that difficulty was passed, we waited for our 'za surrounded by tres patriotic signage and a welcoming TV that had a Robbie the Reindeer special.

Counterclockwise Pizza

We ordered the counterclockwise pizza, which was one of two ways that they do Canadian bacon and pineapple.  This one is prepared with BBQ sauce and is a serviceable, if only slightly above average in its quality.  We have had better pizza in Stoughton, but we have also had worse.  So this feels like solid B-range for the standard item.

Campfire pizza

Now, Spinners also has an array of dessert pizzas which we sprang for, and this was where they shone.  The 'campfire' pizza with Peanut Butter and S'mores (crushed graham cracker, toasted marshmallow, chocolate chips) was indeed an iconic creation.  The others on their list also look top drawer.  This seems like a good place to swing in and pick up something special on your way to events in Southern Dane county, and sometimes a good standard delivery pizza that blows the chains away.

NEWS

Madison Food cover August 21 at the WHS Museum, we're giving a lunchtime talk on Mid-Century Madison Munchies. Come on down!

Info about our book Madison Food: A History of Capital Cuisine is here, or read it for free thanks to the library - print & ebook.


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