Red Zone

In a word: Should they go for it on fourth down?

The specs: #01030  
1212 Regent St., 53715
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

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JM ate the nachos.
Nichole ate the wedge salad and the French dip.
The bill was $33, or $16ish/person, plus tip.
JM gave Red Zone a B; Nichole gave Red Zone a B+ (see our grading rubric).

The Red Zone is on Regent Street's Sports Bar row betwixt the Kohl and Randall sports ball palaces, they push heavy on game day accoutrements, and we had the privilege of watching (and hearing at full volume) the Washington football team beat the tar out of the Packers. (Fortunately, we know how the season ended from our vantage today.) The Red Zone itself is a loud and chatty sports bar (and the restroom was kinda crummy - it is still a campus sports bar after all) with some flashes of brilliance, too.

Wedge saladFrench dip

For example, the wedge salad was good, especially the bacon and bleu cheese. The French dip sandwich was just ok. It had a soy sauce level of saltiness in its jus and a soft bread. On the plus side, it was appropriately modest in size.

The same could not be said for JM's nachos.  I mean look at this...

Nachos

JM just likes to order nachos as a meal (OK?) and this was three or four meals. Which was fine, because these nachos tended toward the dry to start with.  The black beans and chorizo were not particularly slathered or moist and the salsa, guac and sour cream came on the side, so it reheated pretty well. If you bring friends and stay for the whole game, you can maybe CPC on this tray of nachos.

The Red Zone is probably within 20 yards of the ideal sports bar, but would likely only put up 3 points on this drive.  (OK. OK. We're sure you get it.)

Red Rock Saloon

In a word: Too much and not enough.

The specs: #01029   
322 W Johnson St., 53703
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JM and Nichole ate the three meat meal, and JM got a lemonade.
The bill was $25, or $12.50/person, plus tip.
JM gave Red Rock Saloon a C+; Nichole gave Red Rock Saloon a C (see our grading rubric).

Red Rock Saloon is trying to be all things to no people.  

Red Rock is not really a country bar. Despite the mechanical bull sitting idle and license plates framing the booths, Red Rock didn't seem to be so much a place to get your country on as it is a place to eat or drink with a very, very large group of friends.  If that includes line dancing, we don't know where you'd find it. While we were there, the juke box seemed more soft in intensity of tune, if not volume.

Red Rock is not really a sports bar. The game played silently above the bar and one of the two patrons was watching it, but it would be hard to see if lots wanted to watch it anyway.

Red Rock is not really a barbecue place. We split three meats: brisket, pork and chicken. Of these, the brisket was above average, the chicken and pork below it.  The pork was very dry, so it was the perfect vehicle to try their 3 sauces: outlaw, signature and rum. None of these was as good as the sauces at Brickhouse (located literally two blocks away), though the signature was much better than the other two, which suffered from trying to hard and not trying hard enough. The bleu cheese slaw was OK, but was not really bleu chees-y and the onion straws were all batter and no cattle.  The Texas toast and cornbread muffin were adequate.

Red Rock three meat

Red Rock is not really popular.  This was JM's second trip and never has he seen more than 10 people in Red Rock, even on $1 burger Wednesdays. The footprint here is large (a barn for the mechanical bull, if you will). Maybe at 1AM on Saturday, you cannot get a sheet of paper through the door for all the drunk college kids, but otherwise, we have seen no proof that Red Rock is a destination for anyone.

Red Rock is not really worth your time.  You can get better food and better atmos within two blocks of here.  That said, if you want to ride a mechanical bull, the line seems pretty short.  Our server was very nice and took good care of us, probably the most real part of Red Rock.

Red Elephant

In a word: Snazzy.

The specs: #01028   
119 State St., Madison 53703
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

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JM ate the caramel apple shake.
Nichole ate the chocolate cake.
The bill was $14, or $7/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Red Elephant a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Red Elephant is the Madison outpost of a Milwaukee chocolatier. It belongs in a Venn diagram where the Milwaukee's Third Ward and State Street intersect, with its funky images, fair trade perspective, and top dollar/high quality treats.

We did not opt for truffles because another downtown A to Z beckoned for dinner that night, so we just got dessert first.  Nichole's chocolate cake was very, very chocolatey.  Dark and rich, it suffered only from being a bit dry, but the better to sell drinks, we guessed. JM's autumn-themed caramel apple shake made with Sass Cow ice cream was a good as you'd expect, with real apple bits that clogged the straw.  It was very creamy and filled with cinnamon, which made some slurps have a real snap.

Chocolate cake

Red Elephant looks like Gail Ambrosius for the wine-with-chocolate set, with slightly more attention paid to aesthetic details and less paid to non-traditional to chocolate flavors. In general, you are not going to go wrong here, but you could go elsewhere and not lose much.

Shake

Rare

In a word: Literally.

The specs: #01027   
14 W. Mifflin St., Madison 53703
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JM ate the sirloin with mushrooms.
John ate the NY strip and a chopped salad.
Nichole ate the farmer's market plate.
Rose ate the wet-aged filet and wedge salad.
JM sirloin with mushrooms
The bill was $175, or $44/person, plus tip.
Rose and John gave Rare an A; JM gave Rare an A-; Nichole gave Rare a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Hey, folks!  This is a fancy steak place.  Like really fancy.  The customers mostly seemed to be celebrating, with a handful of the VIP set (both in the capital sense and in the cluhb sense).

Rare treated us well.  Our waiter could have taught an intro course for the Meat Sciences department at the UW (a real thing). We had never learned as much about the differences in preparations and fat content than we did that night. These people talked about steak like people at the Great Taste talk about beer.  It was all a little much, and yet at no point were we left helpless.

Popover Wedge salad Chopped salad

But first came the free bread, which was: popovers?  Yes, indeed.  It was nice to eat a lighter, buttier bread so that you don't over do it.  And they came with flavored butters. The salads arrived next and these were substantial without being altogether filling: the wedge was nice prepped with candied pecans and the chopped salad was filled with wonderful morsels.  Both were very nicely dressed as well.

On to the meat, Rose's wet aged and filet and JM's sirloin were both quite delicious and of a good portion that you weren't tired of it by the time you were done.  JM's mushrooms provided additional earthiness (and butter) that made his steak quite tasty.  Rose's steak was medium and she preferred it that way; John and JM got theirs medium rare and were delighted.  John's NY strip steak was basically the best steak that he or JM (who had a couple of nibbles) had ever had (sorry, Delmonico's, but it was). Every steak edge was perfectly crusted as well with delightful flavors rubbed onto the outside of the meat.

Steak Steak Steak

RisottoNichole opted for the farmer's market plate (which might as well have been called "The Farmer Refuted"). It was a sundried tomato risotto. The vegetarian option at a steak place is almost always what a Tofutti option at the Chocolate Shoppe would be, if they offered one.

There were no prices listed on the tempting dessert menu, but we were too stuffed and already taking home doggie bags, and so did not partake. Were they free? We'll never know.  

Rare is meeting the needs of its patrons, though: real steak in the dairy state presented by knowledgeable and expert staff for a small truckload of money.  If going to a special occasion spot means a steakhouse, it's worth it here for the marginal cost relative to the West side chains.  But it isn't funky or Madison-nice like Tornado, so choose wisely.

Ramen Station

In a word: Almost all aboard.

The specs: #01026  
1124 S Park St., 53715
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook

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JM ate the curry chicken with a Mello Yello.
Nichole ate the shoyu ramen with a ginger cooler.
We split some bacon enoki mushroom skewers.
The bill was $31, or $15.50/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Ramen Station a  B+ (see our grading rubric).

Ramen Station is very unassuming.  Its location was once a Cousins Subs, and while everything has been replaced and the dining room is well-appointed, nothing here is too ostentatious or gaudy. The emphasis is on the simple rather than the blatant, but with character.

Ramen Station seems to have a deeper menu (than Madison's other Japanese restaurants) of 'things Westerners have not likely tried.' This did cause JM a small amount of dithering, but Nichole appreciated the choices available. One wonders if this was perhaps more like comfort food - none of that touristy stuff.

Bacon enoki mushroom skewers

Nichole's ginger cooler was nice and, well, cool. It arrived shortly before our wonderful bacon and mushroom skewers.  These were hot upon arrival but were consumed in short order. Each bite was a wonderful chewy balance between the stringy, earthy mushrooms, and the bacon, which was exactly like a nice chewy piece of bacon.  Plus they smelled really good.

Chicken curry

JM eschewed ramen this time in favor of the curry chicken kotsu. (He didn't want any surprises lurking just beneath the top of the broth.) The curry flavor was unparalleled and the chicken was quite well prepared, but there were a lot of veggies, like potatoes, that felt like filler given the relative amount.  Nichole overheard another table being informed that sauce was from a packet.  Who knows?

Nichole got the same meal she tried at Ramen Kid, which allowed her to compare and contrast.  On the plus side here were the noodles, which were more substantial and less likely to flop around.  Sadly, though, the pork and, more importantly, the broth was better at the Kid.

Shoyu ramen

Will there be more additions to Madison's ramen scene?  It seems possible, given that neither of the two locations we visited needed a large footprint and both seemed to have enough customers. You can certainly get full on a bowl of soup here.

Ramen Kid

In a word: Here's lookin' at ramen...

The specs: #01025  
461 W Gilman St., 53703
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JM ate the tonkotsu.
Nichole ate the shoyu.
The bill was $21, or $10.50/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Ramen Kid an A- (see our grading rubric).

The past three years have seen a ramen explosion (which, side note, is also what you cal lit when when the noodles slip from your mouth back into the bowl) in the Madison area. We even had to hit back-to-back ramen places and it felt like a little mini-run, just like Pizza and China were.

Ramen Kid was the first stop on our mini-ramen-run. It's in the old Lava Lounge space on Gilman which means there's a long narrow dining room. JM's not sure just how Anglo he looked, but he was seated at a table with forks instead of chopsticks. (This was the right call, as it turned out.) We dithered very briefly over the menu, ordered, and got our food in less time than we'd been dithering. If splashy ramen works as a lunch for you, you'll get it fast enough provided you can eat it fast enough.

Nichole's shoyu was exceptionally tasty, with a clear broth and peppery pork.

Shoyu ramen

Nichole also got to eat the egg out of JM's tonkotsu, which featured an opaque, rich broth - slightly greasy, slightly garlicky, and super messy. JM liked the mushrooms in particular. The curly noodles were also very good.

Pork tonkotsu

Ramen Kid fits as a downtown venue - it's pretty reasonable and mostly peopled by students. Certainly you get a good bowl of ramen here, even if you have to use a fork to fish out the noodles.

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

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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

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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.

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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