R&Js Saloon

R&Js SaloonIn a word: The less said...

The specs: #01024   
8 American Legion St., Mazomanie, 53560
Details at Facebook

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JM ate the shrimp basket.
Nichole ate the deluxe cheeseburger with pepper jack.
The bill was like $13, or $6.50/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave R&Js Saloon a C (see our grading rubric).

R&J's is a small bar in Mazomanie. We were the only customers save one. It was dark. The food was fine, and we noticed they have a Friday fish fry and some other dinner specials. It's a long way to Mazo for us, though, so we probably won't be back.

Baskets

Prairie Lanes

In a word: Suitable for framing.

The specs: #01023   
430 Clarmar Dr., Sun Prairie 53590
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook

Latest Prairie Lanes news and reviews

JM ate the rodeo burger with fries and a Slush Puppie.
Nichole ate the turkey club with slaw.
The bill was $21, or $10.50/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Prairie Lanes a B (see our grading rubric).

Pepsi

Prairie Lanes had as busy a parking lot as we'd seen lately, but most tables in the restaurant and bar area were empty; the lanes, not so much. The food, and even the beer, is not really the draw when you have - bowling!

Fortunately, PL doesn't take itself too serious.  Nichole ordered a club sandwich that turned about be pretty darned good.  Served on buttered Texas toast, the turkey was not Jennie-O slapped on a sammy but actually a quite tasty fine deli-style turkey cut with enough trimmings to keep the sandwich interesting.

Turkey club

JM's rodeo burger, apart from being big enough for two people, was accompanied by some the saddest fries we've had in a while. It's not that they were cold exactly, but hard and to crunchy with almost no potato flavor left. What redeemed it for him somewhat was the possibility of getting a Slush Puppy (that's how it was listed on the menu, JM thinks it may have been a different corn syrup and ice corporation) with his meal. Come on people! Food is better with crushed ice! We cannot imagine what Tory Miller or the Bergs could do with non-alcoholic crushed ice beverages! JM cannot be the only one.

Rodeo burger

The bowling balls and alley sounds never relented while we were there, but dining area is closed off enough that it doesn't disturb. We elected to leave our own shoes on and slip into the night, knowing that if we need to knock over pins with a club sandwich we have options.

Prairie Diner

Prairie DinerIn a word: Top ten on best per square foot.

The specs: #01022  
1034 Windsor St., Sun Prairie 53590
Details at Yelp, Facebook

Latest Prairie Diner news and reviews

JM ate half orders of biscuits and gravy and French toast.
Nichole ate the two eggs scrambled, raisin toast, bacon and coffee.
The bill was $16.82, or $8.41/person, plus tip.
JM gave Prairie Diner an A-; Nichole gave Prairie Diner an A (see our grading rubric).

It's a tiny little place, crammed into an outbuilding over by the Dorn in Sun Prairie. And yes, thank God for the smoking ban.

See, Prairie Diner is ALL diner.  The tables are close and you can smell everything cooking. If you spend $10 on your food you either got enough to kill a body, or a couple of really fancy sides (like a steak).  Each food item is lovingly slapped on its cooking surface and scraped onto your plate at just the right time.  Pretension can go hang, but this stuff is so good it doesn't matter.

French toast

JM's $5 French Toast were its platonic ideal. No cinnamon swirls or fruit compotes here. Maple syrup out of a plastic bottle into the glass bottle on our table. (The half order of biscuits and gravy ended up a tad cold, but that may have been our positioning directly under the AC unit.)

Biscuits and gravy

Nichole got a good cup of coffee and then another and another. Empty cups aren't tolerated unless you say "Whoa!" As for her two eggs scrambled, bacon and raisin toast... well, Prairie Diner found new ways to make these standards taste even better.

Two eggs bacon toast

When the bill came in under $20, we wondered right away when we could come back to experience more diner perfection in the SP.

So, so good.

Bike the Barns 2016 & book excerpt

Bonus post roundup! Read on below for an account of Bike the Barns 2016, and head over to Recollection Wisconsin for an excerpt - with additional historical images from their extensive collection - from our book Madison Food: "Carson Gulley, Madison's first celebrity chef."

Bike the Barns, the annual fundraising ride for FairShare CSA Coalition, happened on September 18. It's always a good time, with tasty food, gorgeous sights, and good music and company. We rode the short route - thankfully - since the westerly direction meant some stupid big hills. (Bicyclists know that "driftless" is code for "so many hills you might as well just die.")

Big downhill

The morning stop at the Farley Center for Peace, Justice & Sustainability was fascinating. We got a quick tour of some of the growing areas, where multicultural collaboration between farmers is the norm. There's a food pantry garden, a nature preserve, and even green burials! ...which we'd've needed if we'd done the long route.

At Farley Center

Plus, farmers get free seeds for cover crops like buckwheat, which cut down on weeds and enrich the soil between plantings.

Zinnias at Farley Center

Lunch was tacos by Tex Tubbs and an army of awesome volunteers, at Crossroads Community Farm.

Food Fight lunch line

Good fuel for the last leg of the ride.

Lunch

Nice tunes too!

Lunch band

At the afterparty we were treated to more good eats - Nichole liked the chilled cauliflower soup with cumin and gooseberries (!) and JM was a big fan of Dough Baby's sprinkle donuts. Oliver's made a kick-butt fried green tomato, too.

After party snacks

The ride raises dough for Partner Shares, which makes CSA shares available to limited-income households. This year Bike the Barns raised $42,416.51 towards that cause. Good job, good times.

Pots 'n' Tots

In a word: Tater tot hot spot.

The specs: #01021  
Details at Yelp, official web site

Latest Pots 'n' Tots news and reviews

JM and Nichole ate the poutine and the parmesan garlic tots at Taste of Madison.
The bill was $7, or $3.50/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Pots 'n' Tots a B+ (see our grading rubric).

It is always hard to find the carts, so we went to Taste of Madison to lock this one down.  The great thing was that the food was pretty darned good - but man, was it a mob there. We're sold on the idea that tater tots are a way better cart food than, say, french fries, because their shape makes them more dunkable and easier to consume while in motion. 

That said, we got the poutine tots, and those were a bit more precarious. They were more "poutinesque" than orthodox poutine, seeing as how they were topped with shredded cheddar instead of served alongside cheese curds. The gravy, though, had a rich and satisfying onion flavor that reminded us of the best served over these tots mashed brethren. That said, we do wonder where they get these tots? Are they Ore*ida? Only the cart vendors know for sure.

Pots 'n' Tots at Taste of Madison

We also got a walking tot cup filled with Parmesan garlic tots, on recommendation. These were truly a head and shoulders above the rest preparation.  We could easily see scrumming these up as we explored State Street. We'd also like to try the 'pots' end of the menu if we ever find this cart in the wild.

Portage Pi

Portage Pi at the GraduateIn a word: Twee point one four one five...

The specs: #01020   
601 Langdon St., Madison 53703
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook

Latest Portage Pi news and reviews

JM ate the ham and cheese hand pie.
Nichole ate a salad and an apple pastry.
The bill was $15, or $7.50ish/person, plus tip.
JM gave a Portage Pi a B+; Nichole gave Portage Pi a B (see our grading rubric).

Hand pie and rosemary butter

Portage Pi is in the Graduate Hotel lobby which is has a real hipster shabby/boat aesthetic.  Portage, like put a canoe over your head, right? So they put a canoe over your head. Also little play trucks as lampstands, and starving-artist art on the walls.

Apple pastry

The Pi part, though, is all about finding the golden-crusted ratio, and didn't quite achieve the same transcendental nature as its namesake. These "pi"s were on the acceptable side of brunch with a crust to match. There was a little too much of something in these preparations (baking soda or corn starch, maybe?) and that made them a little scratchy going down. The rosemary blackberry butter that came with the pis was a really delicious detail, though, and would be worth finding its perfect mate on the menu. Nichole got a salad from the cooler, which was a little overpriced, and just a cooler salad.

Salad

Hotel lobbies are OK places for after-afterparties. Many people eating at Portage Pi are probably unfamiliar with the cornucopia of bounty on State Street just feet away. As a first taste of Madison, it is neither bad not good, it's just about right.

Pleasant Springs Pub

In a word: Little burgers on the prairie.

The specs: #01019   
2630 County Hwy N, Stoughton 53589
Details at official web site, Twitter

Latest Pleasant Springs Pub news and reviews

JM ate the outlaw burger with a lemonade.
Nichole ate the dream burger.
The bill was $16, or $8/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Pleasant Springs Pub an A- (see our grading rubric).

Pleasant Springs Pub

Pleasant Springs Pub is located (in Pleasant Springs) where County N cross I-90 twixt Cottage Grove and Stoughton.  It has convenient access to Lake Kegonsa State Park, but it's probably worth a trip on its own.  That said, it is a crossroads bar in the middle of a cornfield, and some city folk (ahem) may be a little ill at ease, but we're sure you'll be fine. Connie and Bob have had this place since 2003 and it looks like they run a relaxed yet fun place.

JM nearly fulfilled his Just Can't Get Enough New Wave Hits of the 80s destiny by mentally dialing up his internal Wide Boy Awake by ordering a Chicken Outlaw but Monday night was buy one, get one burger night and we decided that was the right call.

Cheese curds

But first, hot cheese! These curds were of the stretchy, white variety with a nice jalapeño ranch on the side.  Crispy and warm, they arrived so fast after ordering that we were almost unsure that they would be fully cooked.  But, oh, were they ever.

Outlaw burger

JM opted for the outlaw burger, which comes with the zippy outlaw sauce (also available on the chicken) which was nice and tangy. The burger comes loaded with bacon, cheddar and onions (do I have to spell it out?) and was just a hair past medium rare.  But very good. Nichole's Dream Burger was nice with a good hearty patty, crunchy peanut butter, bacon and  jalapeño slices.  The burgers were greasy but not overly buttery.

Dream burger

Nichole got chips which were fine and quite thin; JM's skin-on fries on the side indicated that high quality and attention to detail predominate here.  All of the burgers and many of the sides come with specialty housemade sauces and that was what really put Pleasant Springs into the A range.  Each sauce we tasted was nicely balanced without being cloying or boring.  These are worth a trip on their own.

Our dinner was overseen by Dances with Wolves which was a sort of strange thing to be on the large screen TVs.  Monday night before MNF certainly is not a prime a sports night, but we're sure that Pleasant Springs Pub puts on the game and keeps the food and drinks coming, just don't bring a crowd of 8 and expect to get a table.

Players Sports Bar

In a word: Respect the game.

The specs: #01018  
2013 Winnebago St., 53704
Details at Yelp, Facebook

Latest Players Sports Bar news and reviews

JM ate the BBQ burger with fries and a lemonade.
Nichole ate the steak sandwich with chips and a ginger ale.
The bill was $24, or $12/person, plus tip.
JM gave Players Sports Bar a B+; Nichole gave Players Sports Bar a B (see our grading rubric).

Players Sports was a decidedly mixed bag.  First off, the place was a sports bar, and though we went on a non-sporting time, the music was so loud that we couldn't enjoy much conversation.  It was also packed in such a way that we sat near one of the pool tables and had to deal with a couple of shots near the popo. Tiny and loud is starting off two steps behind -- the third was that our meal took far too long to reach our table -- we hoped it wasn't because the word rare failed to escape our lips when ordering after the word "medium."

That said, the dining area was clean and well lit and you can see most TVs from any seat in the house. Each table also comes equipped with Dashelito's hot sauce, which is as good and as local as you can get. Not all of the flavors complemented the things we ordered, but what we used we liked (though some were too spicy for us).

Steak sandwich

Nichole's steak sandwich was thickly topped with mushrooms and Swiss.  Served on a very buttery Colonial bun, this "burger" had real staying power and proved quite tasty.  JM's BBQ burger was tasty as well, especially the slathering sauce that came with it.  That said, the cheese was applied far too late in the cooking, which led to it not being melty *enough*. It came with a real tomato, which made us think that a BLT would have been a good choice too.

BBQ burger

There's a lot to recommend at Players: a burger of the day, vegan patty options, full breakfast menu (which provided inspiration for another Madison project, 52 Sandwiches) and TVs for the big game.  So, given the hole it started in, it ends up about average.  Go figure.

Mess Night at the Museum: MRE Challenge

Nichole here. "You get what you get." With that line in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writeup promoting the Wisconsin Veterans Museum's quarterly "Mess Night," I was hooked.

I think I'd heard about the previous dinners, but German-Americans in WWI and Great Lakes history didn't enlist my attention quite as fast as the opportunity to eat rations. Or at least, see what the heck a couple good Madison chefs would bring to the table when given the raw ingredients of MREs - "Meal, Ready to Eat." AKA Meals Rejected by Everyone, or worse.

Surprise! This is what they came up with. Matt Pace used a chicken fajita meal (maybe like this one), plus enough fresh food to almost hide that fact, to make a chicken enchilada. He might have used the tortilla from an MRE, because this one had a gummy texture. He said he stewed the chicken in a pepper sauce, which did give it a nice flavor and a beef-like appearance. The whole deal was topped with more chili sauce, crema, cheese, and herb salad of cliantro, radish and onion.

Chicken fajita MRE = chicken enchiladas

Second course was Michael Pruett's cheese tortellini. Or rather, 2 noodles from an MRE, washed clean of their own sauce, and surrounded by carrot puree, roasted carrots, herbs, and duck. Duck! Way to stretch rations with some foraging.

Cheese tortellini MRE = duck, carrot puree, & 2 noodles

Along with the food, there was delightful conversation and an edifying presentation from museum staff and a National Guardsman who gave us eaters some helpful tips for the MREs we got to take home. Plus some recipes (cherry drink powder + cheese + cookies = cheesecake) and valuable life advice ("No one likes a rat-f*cker").

MRE

So I opened my Beef Patty, Jalapeno Pepper Jack (Menu 19) MRE at the museum, then packed it all back in for an opportune mealtime.

MRE contents

It came soon enough. Here's the entree and heater leaning on "a rock or something" (those are the precise directions) while it warms up.

Put it on a rock or something

They were right, you get bored and eat dessert first. This was a cherry blueberry cobbler. I read on the packet that there were shortbread cookies inside and didn't believe it. Didn't really see them in there, either. But the flavor wasn't bad. (There was also a chocolate oatmeal cookie, but I still haven't opened it. I have a few years yet.)

Also drank the lemonade mix while waiting, which was a lot like Crystal Light. Wished for coffee, then sucked it up and gave thanks I was indoors, with plumbing nearby, and probably wouldn't need the moist towelette and TP provided. Not that these aren't also called, for good reason (spoiler alert), Meals Refusing to Exit.

Cobbler

I prepped my snack bread (better than lembas) with bacon cheese spread, Heinz yellow mustard, and ketchup, using the main pouch as a placemat/meal tray. After observing 15 minutes of hissing and popping from the heating element, it was time to squeeze the jalapeno pepper jack beef flavored patty out of its pouch.

Snack breadCheez
SpreadablesSandwich time

It was food.

I'd go to another Mess Night at the Museum. (The next one is in October, with authors Doug Bradley and Craig Werner talking about their book We Gotta Get Out of This Place.) The presentation was great, the idea was interesting, and it felt good to this Army brat to be around a table sharing a meal like this. Next time I might dress up a little more.

Plata's

In a word: Fore! out of Five!

The specs: #01017  
2702 Shopko Dr., 53704
Details at Yelp

Latest Plata's news and reviews

Allen ate the California wrap.
JM ate the nachos.
Liz ate the chicken bacon guacamole sandwich.
Nichole ate the beef and bleu cheese salad.
The bill was $60ish, or $15/person, plus tip.
Allen, JM, Liz and Nichole all gave Plata's a B (see our grading rubric).

We had liked Plata's when it was called Bridges, but the menu has moved decidedly downscale.  It is closer now to nicer bar food and much less likely to be a place that you'd cut your finger open with a bread knife (like JM did once at Bridges).

Nachos

Our Saturday lunch seemed to hit the sweet spot between morning and afternoon tee times, which meant a lot of waiting and not a lot of table service, sadly.  The food here was uniformly decent -- not a lot of pizzazz, but everything was fresh and good, even if much of it had fallen off the back of the Sysco truck.

Chicken bacon guacamole sandwich

JM's nachos were a good balance of toppings to chips, which is actually pretty hard to get right.  It was also an appropriate lunch size portion: same.  Liz's chix bacon sammy was good but the bun, not toasted, became quite soggy by the end.  The California wrap was fine, though the guac in both the wrap and the nachos lacked character. Nichole's salad was good, with a nicely prepared hard boiled egg.

Beef and bleu cheese salad

The atmos here has fallen from country club to sports bar with commensurate price declines.  It was nice to go on a bright sunny day, but we're not golfers, and Dexter's is too close to need a sports bar like this. These days, it's not a hard pass, but it is a pass.

California wrap

NEWS

Madison Food coverOur book Madison Food: A History of Capital Cuisine is out. More about it here. Read an excerpt on Carson Gulley and some bonus bits on Porchlight, Argus, Sunshine Supper, and Babcock.


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