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.

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

Latest Soho Gourmet Cuisines news and reviews

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 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

Latest Smoothie King news and reviews

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.


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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