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Limon

Update 1/31/12: Limon is closed.

In a word: Small space with a good taste.

The specs: #0758  
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Yelp, Isthmus, Wisconsin State Journal; Twitter, Limon on Urbanspoon

Latest Limon news and reviews

JM ate the pork tacos with a mango Jarritos.
Jay ate the tacos, mole enchilada, and a tamale with a pineapple Jarritos.
Nichole ate the torta asada with an horchata.
We split some totopos (not nachos).
The bill was about $10/person, plus tip.
We all gave Limon an A- (see our grading rubric).

We met up with nascent anthropologist and food person Jay of Gourmet, Gourmand, Glutton for our dinner at Limon. It was a lively match; the 16-chair dining room was packed, and we left with our brains full of ideas, our bellies full of good food and our clothes full of the aroma of fry oil. If you'd like to read about that meal, we'd recommend that you skip to the pictures and the subsequent writing.  The next paragraphs instead talk about fame, journalism and the local restaurant scene more generally.

After reading all the "first looks" and early reviews of the place, we ranted to Jay in a pre-meal email about the perceived high status of Cilantro (Limon's parent kitchen) versus the medium status of La Mestiza (their - estranged aunt?):

The Rick Bayless thing is it. But La Mestiza's people also worked under Rick Bayless, and were here first. Why do they not capitalize on the connection? Was their tenure or relationship that much different? And why do eaters (and restaurant critics!) not pay attention nor care?

So yeah, we're glad Jay still showed up after that frothy diatribe. Back-of-house personalities are not something we tend to get into, except that this time the local professional writers were paying almost as much attention to the personalities as the food. We did a little more research and confirmed that the common Rick Bayless connection is current Cilantro and Limon operator, and former La Mestiza partner, Armando Cristobal.

We weren't able to find out in what capacity Cristobal worked with Bayless, but it seems that the celebrity angle gained traction when the Santiagos joined him in Madison to open Cilantro. Gonzalo de Santiago was Rick Bayless' pastry chef, and is mentioned in the cookbooks. Silvia de Santiago cited a Chicago restaurant called Platillo in Samara Kalk Derby's chef profile (which, incidentally, seems to be the first local story to spell her first name correctly). The excellent blog post Garden Gifts of Gourmet Food at Edible Antics was a good source of info, as well. (For the truly obsessed, here's a spreadsheet we compiled of Madison stories about the three restaurants. We welcome corrections and new facts.)

The point of this all is that in the early days of Cilantro, we were perplexed that they had a meteoric rise, though their menu and quality was nigh indistinguishable from La Mestiza's. We were also perplexed that some articles on Cilantro name-dropped Rick Bayless with no background at all. Things might have shifted now that La Mestiza has tried and failed to open a downtown location, and Limon seems to be doing quite well without as much Bayless ballyhoo.

We don't mean to downplay the accomplishments of anyone at these restaurants, or the significance of having a high-caliber culinary connection in Madison. As Cristobal said - while at La Mestiza - "A woman told me we are saving her money because she and her husband don't have to drive to Chicago anymore for Mexican food" - which is fantastic. Just like it was fantastic when Chef Nick Johnson was named a James Beard semifinalist, but there again small but significant errors in reporting snowballed across several publications.

Maybe we shouldn't care that there could be more accuracy and less bluster in local food journalism, but we do.

(To be fair, this also happens with national publishers. We've seen a dish-by-dish review of Velobahn, the restaurant that never happened, and a description of Plaza Sauce as "BBQ-based," in respected travel & food books. When we find things like that, we always send a message to the "corrections welcomed" contact listed on the title-page verso. We never receive a response.)

Does any of this matter? Not really.

Sometimes nachos are just nachos, and sometimes they're totopos.

Totopos

These totopos were deep-fried triangles of corn tortillas with three layers of moist toppings. The first was lightly smooshed black beans, the second was real crab in white cheese with diced red peppers, and the third of more cheese and onions. They were delicious in aroma, flavor, and texture - so rich, and just salty enough.

Torta

The torta came on a halved, toasted hexagonal ciabatta roll and not a big-ass torta loaf. The asada filling of diced beefsteak in chile sauce, plus black beans, iceberg lettuce, tomato and mayo left plenty of room on the palate for either the hot red salsa or the mild green tomatillo-and-avocado sauce, provided with the tacos.

TacosJarritos & horchata

The tacos themselves were meh. A single yellow corn tortilla under each was too flimsy for its precious cargo of meat. The dessicated lime slices were way too brown on the edges, but the fresh diced white onion and cilantro were good. As was the service, attentive if flustered on this full-house night.

There are also excellent tamales of many varieties, which Jay sampled. They bear an admirable resemblance to the sunny and styled shots posted around the room. We'd like to know who took those good-looking pictures, but didn't get a chance to ask.

Tamale and enchiladaStock photo

Anyway. Readers, don't let our overfished brains and amateur obsessions distract you from trying and enjoying the fare at Limon. It's very, very good.

Comments

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Limon is very, very good. I've eaten here a few times now, and agree that the tamales are probably the best in Madison. Fish tacos are good and fairly priced. The 'nachos' are excellent and jam packed with meat. Love their steak marinade too, btw. Very high recommendation, especially among restaurants in their price range. It's very different than my other nearby favorite, Los Gemelos, but of similar caliber.

I thought I knew about most restaurants in Madison, but I haven't even heard of most of the recent reviews. Way to go! I think you have a lifetime job:)

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