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.


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?


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.


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)


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.

Spartan Pizza

In a word: McFarland's pizza stop.

The specs: #01062  
5813 Main St., McFarland 53558
Details at Yelp, official web site.

Latest Spartan Pizza news and reviews

JM and Nichole ate the Spartan Deluxe pizza (12") with two sodas.
The bill was $23, or $11ish/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Spartan Pizza a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Spartan Pizza was bustling aplenty on the night we visited.  The bar was mostly full and the tables were all full.  Turns out there was some sort of high school fundraiser, which accounted for about half of the tables being occupied, and then it was ALSO euchre* night.  Mean card players gave way to friendly staff, though, and we eventually found a small table in the bar we could perch at.

The pizza here is really quite good.  The crust is a little tough, which led to topping slippage, but otherwise the pizza is classic small-town pizzeria.  We got a Spartan Deluxe which came with all the classics: mushrooms, sausage, pepperoni, green and black olives, green peppers and onions.  While that may just sound like a vanilla Supreme pizza, each item was well-balanced. For pizza division nerds, this one came in squares.

Spartan Pizza

Spartan Pizza has been in business for over four decades, and received rave reviews from the McFarlanders we know. If it turns out this kind of pizza consistently, we would certainly be regulars if we lived in town.  Maybe we can visit by crossing the new bike bridge.

*A brief note about Euchre from game guy JM: I actually think euchre is a fine game for playing on apps or as a way to introduce trick taking games (moving on to the far superior 500 and then Bridge if you're really into it).  But for people to play hundreds of hours of Euchre is kinda pointless.  Once everyone gets to the plateau (which is maybe after 25-50 games) then you're just shuffling cards to see who got luckier. Not hating, just agog at the staying power of a game that I'd imagine people would tire of.

Spartan Bowl

Spartan BowlIn a word: Spartan.

The specs: #01061  
4711 Farwell St., McFarland 53558
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Spartan Bowl news and reviews

JM ate the Bavarian ham and cheese with nacho sauce, waffle fries and a lemonade.
Nichole ate the Reuben.
The bill was $17, or $8ish/person, plus tip.
JM gave Spartan Bowl a D+; Nichole gave Spartan Bowl a C- (see our grading rubric).

We did not Bowl at Spartan Bowl, so they could be good quality lanes kept in good condition. We did order food and food did arrive, but it wasn't very good and we really don't think food from there is worth trying.

First came the drinks, and you can imagine JM is a bit of stickler for lemonade. Imagine his shock when what arrived was a glass of water that had been told to pretend it was lemonade. Friends, it was slightly mottled and tasted less of lemon than some glasses of water with a lemon wedge in them do.

Nichole got a Reuben and this was okay, though it came with a packet of dressing for her to affix to the sandwich herself. Nichole got the standard fries which were thin like McDonald's fries and nicely done even if they were only from a bag.


JM's meal was an entirely different kind of disaster. Sometimes he pushes back on a place that gives somewhat nonsensical options to see if they work (Nichole did a similar thing on our trip to Mr. Brews). Here, JM got a ham and cheese sandwich but one of the cheeses on offer was the cheese sauce that normally accompanies the nachos. It was that and then served on a pretzel roll as well. It was soggy and gross, even for JM. Why is this on the menu this way? Did someone ask for a ham & cheese like this? Who knows? 

Bavarian ham and cheese sandwich

JM could have forgiven even this since it was the he chose to order it if the sandwich hadn't been accompanied by exactly seven waffle fries. It seems that Spartan Bowl is not interested in their food except to cut a couple corners.  Fine, but we're likely not coming back.

Sonny's Bar and Grill

Sonny’s Bar and GrillIn a word: Stoughton after dark.

The specs: #01060  
151 E. Main St., Stoughton 53589
Details at Yelp, Facebook

Latest Sonny's Bar and Grill news and reviews

JM ate the ribeye steak sandwich with a soda.
Nichole ate the cheddar cheeseburger.
The bill was $29, or $14ish/person, plus tip.
JM gave a B; Nichole gave a B- (see our grading rubric).

Sonny's offers the traditional Wisconsin bar experience with a few notable exceptions. The first is that it is very, very dark.  Main Street barrooms (this time, in Stoughton) are rarely this dark, but this one manages to be so unlit as to make most internal photography nothing but black fog. We sat in the front window to let in some ambient street lighting. While Pepsi is on the gun here, you can get Coke in cans as well. This, too, is common in main street taps.

On to to the food, Nichole's cheddar cheeseburger was a little above average with really good toppings, including thick, juicy tomato slices. Each plate came with coated fries that should have been better, but sadly weren't. JM's ribeye steak sandwich with all the trimmings was the best steak sandwich he'd had in a bar. The best! We both got sides of slaw that were not too sour for JM nor too sweet for Nichole, making this a rare "just right" recipe.

Burger bottom

We don't get to bars too often off list; we get to bars in Stoughton even less often. But Sonny's gets some serious points for providing fall-appropriate Iron & Wine as the ambient, atmospheric music. We're not saying special trip or anything, but Sonny's is decent.

Ribeye sandwich

Sol's on the Square

Sol's on the SquareIn a word: City center Seoul food.

The specs: #01059  
117 E. Mifflin St., 53703
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook

Latest Sol's on the Square news and reviews

JM ate the jeyuk bokum.
Nichole ate the chopchae.
The bill was $35, or $18ish/person, plus tip.
JM gave Sol's on the Square a C+; Nichole gave Sol's on the Square a  B- (see our grading rubric).

Sol's on the Square has some qualities that seemed odd to us.

#1: Why does it say that it is on the square, when clearly it is almost a whole block off the square?  The old Mercury space has been thoroughly remodeled though some of the walls and half-walls are a little cramping. But gone is the shabbiness of Mercury, and more's the better.


#2: Why, when we hear the name "Sol's," is a Jewish deli the first thing to come to our minds? The hearty Korean food here is good, though individual dishes can vary.  Our meal came with four bowls of quite good banchan. The kimchi was outstanding, the potatoes and the fish cake were cold and in the mid range.  JM couldn't bring himself to chow down on seaweed because, well, he just doesn't like it. But this is not a place to get a pastrami on rye and, with a name like Sol's on the Square, it feels more like one could.


#3: What was the bitter flavor in JM's dish? It tasted a little of burnt sesame, but there was not burnt sesame visible in any of his food. The flavor was just there and a little disappointing.  Otherwise his pork was fine and well sauced.  Nichole's dish was tasty, with classic clear sweet potato noodles and loads of vegetables.  It was a balancing act with sweet and salty meeting filling and rich. 

Jeyuk bokum

#4: Why didn't we order bibimbap or something that we've ordered before? Well, we don't want to eat the same  thing at every Korean restaurant in Madison either.  Though this seems like it would have been a good place to try some of our faves.

#5: Why does Sol's have a customer loyalty program? It's not like Subway or coffee shop punches, but like a card you buy, and then your meals at Sol's are cheaper.  It kind of weirded JM out because he had not seen an eatery with that kind of loyalty program before and, of course, we are unlikely to use such a thing. If you often find yourself wanting Korean downtown, though, maybe you should consider it. Anyway, Sol's is a good place to eat.


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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