Spartan Bowl

Spartan BowlIn a word: Spartan.

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

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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.

Reuben

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

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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

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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.

Banchan

#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.

Chopchae

#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.

Soho Gourmet Cuisines

In a word: It ain't something riding on a motorbike.

The specs: #01058
2990 Cahill Main, Suite 106, Fitchburg 53711
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

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Holly ate the Hong Kong Style Tomato Sauce.
James ate the Portuguese Style Curry.
JM ate the black pepper steak.
Nichole ate the BBQ pork.
The bill was about $11/person, plus tip.
Holly, James and JM gave Soho Gourmet Cuisines a B; Nichole gave Soho Gourmet Cuisines a B+ (see our grading rubric).

Soho may be better known as a delicious food cart, but they also have a physical plant in the old Arbat space in Fitchburg. The mood is very big city, with dark-colored walls illustrated with photographs of skylights.  For us, the mood worked pretty well especially combined with familiar yet outre EDM and black, black tables. (The only thing that didn't work was the Soho symbol on each table attached as a sticker. Many of these were coming off and looked like water spills from a distance.)

We met our companions at the place and everyone ordered from the counter. The bulk of the menu is apps and straightforward, meat-forward dinner options.  There were a handful of baked dishes, two of which graced our partners' plates, while we stuck to the more traditional.

Dumplings

Dumplings were ordered of both the beef and mac & cheese varieties. The former were tasty and rich, but not a blow-you-away kind of thing.  Mac & cheese, on the other hand, was brilliant and we thought that getting those from the food cart would be one of the best apps out there.

Black pepper steak

Everything we got as an entree was good, if not great. The BBQ pork was delicious - savory, not oversalted, in a light sauce. Sweet pickles and ginger scallion chutney complemented the meat and rice perfectly. There were lots of peppers and onions in JM's Black Pepper Steak, but the steak itself was only soso. 

Baked fried rice

The two baked fried rice dishes were a creative combination, both tasty and well-prepared, and covered with delicious mozzarella cheese. Definitely filling and hearty, both yielded leftovers. The Hong Kong Style Tomato Sauce was comprised of tomatoes, onions, and pineapples, also peas, while the fascinating Portuguese Style Curry was coconut-based and loaded with veggies. We agreed that next time we make fried rice at home, cheese is going on top.

Baked fried rice

The prices here were steeper than we expected - we got out much cheaper per person at SSS on State Street for a little better quality food.  But if the cart were next to the other carts, well that would be different, since dumplings are a great cart food and that seems to be where their heart is. As for the Fitchburg location, it is better than 'standard' take-out , even if it is a little pricier.

Pork BBQ

Soga Shabu Shabu

Soga Shabu ShabuIn a word: If it can find a home here, it will be well worth it.

The specs: #01057
508 State St., 53703
Details at Yelp, official web site

Latest Soga Shabu Shabu news and reviews

JM ate the General Tso's chicken.
Nichole ate a stewed beef noodle soup.
The bill was $25, or $12.50/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Soga Shabu Shabu a B+ (see our grading rubric).

It {BEEP} took us a month to get to Soga Shabu Shabu because of their move from the former Nadia's to the former MiaZa's, and that may have played into our expectations settling. {BEEP} The menu is densely packed with words, {BEEP} but mostly in Chinese (so the {BEEP} pictures helped greatly.)   

Crab rangoon

We did get our customary crab {BEEP} rangoon and we were glad we did. These were {BEEP} delicately fried and contained the most lovely smooth whipped crab {BEEP} centers that were not skimpy on crab neither. There were {BEEP} 8 on the plate!

General Tso's chicken

JM stuck to a standard General {BEEP} Tso's, which here, despite many warnings against spiciness from plainly inferior restaurants, was {BEEP} finally a little spicy.  This was nice pepper heat that {BEEP} never overwhelmed the flavor and really got down to business {BEEP}. Nichole got a nice bowl of {BEEP} soup. (She was fighting a cold during our visit; we'd love to give {BEEP} them a better chance when we're both at full health and in {BEEP} full command of our tasting abilities.) It was salty and savory filled to the {BEEP} brim with the richness of tender beef, smooshy carrots {BEEP} and thick noodles with a nice accent of bok choi. {BEEP}

Stewed beef soup

The meal came with a free dessert buffet with jello, {BEEP} cookies, fruit, and some puddings. This seemed well worth any {BEEP} upcharge. Indeed, this place was selling takeout favorites at takeout prices, {BEEP} but prepared a heck of a lot better. We think {BEEP} it could revolutionize downtown Asian food as Asian Kitchen {BEEP} and A8 China would never be able to keep up {BEEP} with quality on offer right around the corner.  Madison has {BEEP} needed a place like this for a while (Fugu being {BEEP} the closest analog we can think of.)

Oh, and that beeping. Something in the kitchen area was beeping {BEEP} loudly for the whole meal. Kind of drove us {BEEP} bats, in truth. 

Smoothie King

In a word: Render unto Smoothie King that which is Smoothie King's.

The specs: #01056  
2019 Deming Way, Middleton 53562
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

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JM ate the strawberry kiwi smoothie.
Nichole ate the carrot and kale smoothie.
We got free samples of a chocolate banana smoothie.
The bill was $12.01, or $6.005/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Smoothie King a B (see our grading rubric).

From the moment we walked into Smoothie King's realm we felt like we had to be working harder, much harder, to be perfect. Protein powder kegs line the walls; meal-replacement smoothies beef up the menu. Smoothie King might serve sweet cold blended drinks ostensibly like its chipper chill cousin Jamba Juice and fun fruit-forward friend Fresh Cool Drinks, or almost any coffee house in town. But here smoothies are no sideline, they are The Way: it's smoothie-Pelagianism, pure and simple.

Smoothie King

The menu is indeed packed with vegetable and fruit options, superfruit add-ins and protein boosts that could provide endless science-y tweaks to each cup. That said, the staff were normal, friendly people, and not so obsessed with fitness that they didn't offer us a tasty sample of a chocolate-banana concoction while we waited (very briefly) for our beginner's smoothies, even though we moseyed in just obnoxious moments before closing time.

Nichole's carrot kale deal was cool and refreshing; JM's sweet, creamy strawberry kiwi was standard if a little less fruity probably because of the other mix-ins.  It was certainly something he would get again, however.

So, even if it is a little law-heavy, Smoothie King is also where you get your Super Weight Gain 2000 ("for the hard gainers") and admonishments to drink your vegetables from hippies ("since 1973"). Fair enough.

Smokin' Cantina

In a word: Somebody stop me!

The specs: #01055  
Details at Facebook

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JM ate the pulled pork sandwich.
Nichole ate the tacos (one Korean BBQ, one pork).
The bill was $, or $/person, plus tip.
JM gave Smokin' Cantina a B+; Nichole gave Smokin' Cantina a B (see our grading rubric).

Smokin' Cantina

JM had to find this cart at one of the trio of Willy Street street festivals.  Parking was not convenient and rushing the food across town was even a little less so.  That said, dinner survived the flight just fine and was tasty, if a little messy for street food.  Nichole's tacos were standard but good for the degree in which she found them.  JM's pulled pork was also standard, but the add-on mustard BBQ sauce was excellent.  We'd like to find them somewheres a little more convenient to our mouths.  If you can, you should.

Smitty's Study Pub

View from 8th floor of FlunoIn a word: Madison's lost restaurant.

The specs: #01054  
601 University Ave., 53715
Details at Yelp, official web site

Latest Smitty's Study Pub news and reviews

JM ate the grilled chicken sandwich with a soup and a soda.
Nichole ate the orzo with a salad and a soda.
We split the charcuterie & cheese plate (half off for Happy Hour).
The bill was $36.50, or $18ish/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole both gave Smitty's Study Pub an A- (see our grading rubric).

We'd like to say Smitty's Study Pub is one of Madison's gems, or even one of Madison's hidden gems, instead of what it is now: A mythic gem that no one has heard of.

Smitty's is in the Fluno Center, one of UW's most nondescript buildings. When you walk in, it becomes evident that this is some sort of hotel deal (for visiting guests of the UW, you see) but there are signs (out front, in the lobby, on the restaurant week website) that Smitty's exists on the top floor. You should follow these signs.

Smitty's has one of the best views in Madison. You can, from its windows, see both lakes, without even switching seats.  While the urban jungle of Madison is the view's most common feature, there's even some fun people watching avails. And as for the food - in short, don't expect a 'conference center' food experience.

Charcuterie and cheese

For example, we started with a charcuterie plate that was ample as it was delicious. Prosciutto, cheese curds, goat cheese, craisins, pita, nuts, liver pate and crackers rounded what could have been a full meal on its own.  It was nicely thought through, a decidedly Sconnie board with an out-of-towner sensibility. It really worked.

SaladBeer cheese soup

Nichole followed that with a salad and orzo.  Both were light and fresh and perfect for a summer evening. The orzo was fully loaded with a light, creamy sauce, peppers, peas and tomatoes. And the tomatoes on the salad were pretty amazing too! JM had a soup starter of beer cheese soup that was tasty in a stick-to-the-ribs way. It would perfect to sup over a snow-covered Madison illuminated by streetlights.  His chicken sandwich was a nice chicken breast not processed other than being grilled and wallpapered with cheese.  The dressing was a bit odd as it didn't really fit the sandwich, but would have been perfect for fries.

OrzoChicken sandwich

It's very quiet up there, and we're sure people would love you to find this hidden chapel of food on the top of the Fluno. Don't leave this one to the MBAs and out-of-town profs, just put on a nice shirt and go eat some good food.

Slide

In a word: I won't say anything at all.

The specs: #01053  
Details at Yelp, official web site, Facebook, Twitter

Latest Slide news and reviews

JM ate a power ball slider and a pork slider.
Marijka ate the sweet potato sliders.
Nichole ate a chicken bacon slider.
Ryan ate a chicken bacon slider and a pork slider.
The bill was about $9/person, plus tip.
JM and Nichole gave Slide a B+; Ryan gave Slide a B; Marijka gave Slide a C (see our grading rubric).

We caught up with Slide at the Capital Brewery biergarten during high school reunion night (we counted three).  Slide was well positioned as the only food venue that was not catered, and many folks dotting tables grabbed some sliders, so we joined them.

Tonight's rendition of the Slide chips were sadly quite gritty.  We know this delicacy has gone mainstream, which is why the authentic article giving up the same mouthfeel as sand in some bites was disconcerting.  The good news is that the dips are terrif: chiptole was smooth and spicy; the garlic ranch was deliciously zingy and the French onion was yummy umami in all the right ways.

Slide trio

We got all four sliders on offer betwixt the four of us.  Nichole and Ryan reported that chicken bacon slider was about the best in show.  JM's power ball (does he have to investigate trademark infringement on his off hours?) was a little unwieldy for a slider, but decent.  Ryan and JM both enjoyed the pork slider, which was nicely prepared.  Marijka, the vegetarian in the group, felt that the sweet potato sliders were just meh, and given it was her only option, she had double down on them.  Sadly, Slide seems to be one of those places where the veg option is an afterthought to what they really want to do.

Slide sweet potato sandwiches

There's a lot of great carts in Madison, so we wouldn't likely be forced into this one.  If the chips were having a less gritty day, we'd recommend them and the sauces as side and suggest you get your entree elsewhere.  It's not bad, but even for cart food, it is a little messy and doesn't wow.

Sliced Deli

Update: Sliced closed.

In a word: Arby's Not Arby's.

The specs: #01052  
601 South Gammon Rd., 53719
Details at Yelp, official web site, Twitter

Latest Sliced Deli news and reviews

JM ate the French dip and a soda.
Nichole ate the Cuban with a soda.
We split some curly fries.
The bill was $15, or $7ish/person.
JM gave Sliced Deli a B+; Nichole gave Sliced Deli an A- (see our grading rubric).

Walking into Sliced is about six kinds of surreal.  First of all, it is in the old Arby's off of Gammon and it is still basically the same restaurant.  The big brass bell for good service is still there by the door, and on the hutch where once Arby's and Horsey Sauces were now lie sachets of various similar condiments.  The menu, too, is mostly the same kind of thing (sammiches), only with a lot more panache.

Sliced lunch tray

But the counter staff, instead of the usual dead eyes or oversharing, was truly friendly and helpful, excited even, for the opportunity to share the food with you.  And so we were.

Nichole got the Cuban sandwich, which was nicely salty with very moist ham.  She felt the sandwich was nicely balanced and a good value.  The same could be said for JM's French dip (at one point in his life, this was JM's go-to because he jus couldn't get enough) which was the special that night.  While it didn't excel, it was right in line with his expectations and, being the $5 special, it felt like he was stealing from someone.

You can even get curly fries, which we did.  These were standard, but the whole feel of the place is standard Arby's, just with some life and verve and none of the corporate crap.  If you need a quick sandwich or just the Arby's experience remixed with a local bent, give Sliced a try.  They do good things.

NEWS

Madison Food coverInfo 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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