ZuZu Cafe may not be best option during trip to Zoo

zuzu's signIn college I made it to the Henry Vilas Zoo a couple times a year and always wanted to try the cute cafe just across the street from the main entrance. During warm months the large amount of outdoor seating seemed to welcome neighbors, but the colorful building was also quaint and welcoming on cold fall afternoons. ZuZu Cafe and Market seems like a slightly misleading name because to me, a market sells food, goods, drinks…I usually associate a cafe and market with artisan cheeses, micro brews, baked goods and locally made products. This is definitely a cafe, but the market (as far as I could see) only sells beer. The dining room is open and bright, and is very child friendly (it has kid tables and chairs, and a play area). I feel like the entire cafe could use a little facelift (the displays could be updated, most of the signs are handwritten and posted with peeling tape, and everything seemed like it could use a new coat of paint or a good cleaning).

zuzu's panini

Jefferson panini

The menu options basically include sandwiches, soups, salads and a small selection of baked goods. They also have what appeared to be a full-service coffee bar. All of the sandwiches have local names like the Wingra, the Randall, the Henry and the Vilas. I got the Jefferson panini with marinated roast beef, italian relish and mozzarella cheese. I didn’t see a bread option listed anywhere so I was pleasantly surprised to have my panini arrive on sliced pita. The pita made for a sturdy but not heavy sandwich ingredient. My panini was obviously fresh because it was very crispy and steaming hot. The marinated beef in the sandwich was tangy and slightly spicy! It was tender, juicy and had a very good flavor. Ironically, I’ve made this type of marinated beef in my crockpot and it is super simple. The sandwiches come with a side of chips, which is fine but I would prefer a choice of a small salad instead of the chips.

zuzu's peanut butter cookies

peanut butter cookie

Off to the side of the main counter there is a display of baked goods. I’m not sure how fresh they are because they were all covered in plastic wrap, but I decided I wanted a peanut butter cookie. The cookie was good but nothing special. It was soft, chewy and had a good peanut butter flavor.

FOODNOTES: One of the things that threw me off about the entire place is that the prices are equivalent to any other Madison cafe but everything about the place seemed a little cheap. The food was fine, nothing special, but it was all served in plastic carnival-food baskets. You know the ones – they are bright red basket-weaved plastic oval bowl things. Even my cookie was served in one, which didn’t work out too well because the cookie kept tipping the basket over. The walls, displays, seating and signs could all use a good cleaning and/or be updated. I was also disappointed in the “market” aspect they advertise on their sign. I didn’t have coffee so I can’t vouch for or against it. 

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Quest for authentic Mexican food doesn’t end at La Mestiza

I can confidently say I have never had authentic Mexican food. I can also confidently say that based on what I know about authentic Mexican food I will probably love it. While I like the Americanized version of Mexican food that is so prevalent in Madison, I have been on a quest for something close to authentic for quite a while. I read a couple reviews on La Mestiza that said it was authentic and one of the best Mexican restaurants in Madison. Even though it lives in an aging strip mall, people have said it is amazing. I went with a friend for lunch, and the small dining room with a dozen tables and a small corner bar in the back was half full and pretty inviting. Even though one waitress was seating and waiting on everyone, the service was fast and friendly.

la mestiza chips:salsa

chips and salsa

We got chips and two types of salsa before ordering. The chips were very crispy and extremely fresh. The red salsa was smoky but didn’t have a lot of other flavor (I was hoping for some spiciness). The green salsa was tangier, and tasted like tamatillos and cilantro. Neither of the salsas impressed me, but the guacamole we ordered was fantastic. It was definitely the highlight of the lunch. It was perfectly chunky, fresh and had an amazing flavor. I’m not sure what made it so good, but I could eat that guacamole every day.

la mestiza guacamole

guacamole

I was excited about ordering the tamales because usually a plate of tamales is one flavor (generally shredded pork), and at La Mestiza the order comes with a chicken, pork and cheese tamale. My excitement was dashed when my tamales came out covered in a white sauce and were dry, kind of tasteless and had no heat at all. I was expecting the tamales to be covered in a spicy red sauce and come out steamy with flavorful fillings. The best part of my lunch was that the serving of guacamole was so big there was enough left over to eat with my tamales.

la mestiza tamales

tamales

FOODNOTES: I would consider going back to La Mestiza specifically to have the guacamole again. Maybe another one of the dishes on the menu would be better than the tamales (which I can only assume were dry because they are cooked ahead of time and reheated). The prices are very reasonable but most of the dishes don’t come with rice or beans, so you have to order and pay for them separately. The chips were very fresh but could have used a little salt, and the two salsas that came with the chips were mostly flavorless and disappointing. I was hoping for fresh spicy authentic Mexican food at La Mestiza, but I got bland food with fresh guacamole and chips, and probably reheated tamales. I guess my quest for authentic Mexican food continues. Please post suggestions for authentic Mexican restaurants in Madison!!!

Weary Traveler’s food outshines other hipster pubs

weary traveler menuThere are a bunch of restaurants on Willy Street that have been on my “places to visit” list for a long time. It takes time for me to get to these restaurants because I live so far away and there’s a population of “regulars” that clog up those restaurants everyday. I don’t mind fighting for a table, that’s usually a sign of a good restaurant, but sometimes it feels weird being the only one in the restaurant that isn’t on a first name basis with the bartender. A couple weeks ago a friend and I were planning on grabbing an earlier dinner and I thought that would be a good time to try and grab a table at a Willy Street restaurant. After considering all the options, my vegetarian friend and I decided to go to the Weary Traveler. They are known for their Bob’s Bad Breath Burger with garlic in every component, but they are also known for having a decent amount of vegetarian options.

When we got there we had a hard time getting in to the actual building. The first two doors we tried were locked, and we stood outside slightly confused for a couple seconds before a “local” walking past told us the door was around the corner. Once we finally got inside, we had no idea what to do. It wasn’t clear if we were supposed to wait to be seated or grab a table, so I held our spot at the entrance and my friend went to investigate. While she was gone the bartender randomly yelled that I should take a small table in the middle of the room. From what I could tell, there were two dining rooms divided by a wall covered in eclectic stuff (I have to use that word for lack of a better one, there were pictures, books, globes, metal signs, musical instruments, etc. all over the walls). The bar runs the entire width of the building, and the entire restaurant was a bit too dark for me (I felt like it was almost at the point where I would have to use my cellphone light to read the menu). The dining room we were in was extremely cramped. Multiple times servers had to swing dishes over our heads to get them to their destinations, and when our waiter was talking to us he inevitably ended up in the way of another server. They also didn’t mention they had specials. We figured that out by looking around at all the stuff on the wall and realized that one of them was an actual specials board.

weary traveler coppioni

Cioppino

My intent from the beginning was to get the Bob’s Bad Breath Burger for two reasons: 1. it’s what they are known for, and 2. I love garlic in any and every capacity. But for some reason that night I was not in the mood for a burger. So I asked about the Cioppino listed on the specials board. A Google search before the waiter came back told me a Cioppino is a seafood stew that can be cream or tomato based. Now seafood and cream sounds like an extremely disgusting combination to me so I was really hoping theirs was tomato based. The waiter told me it was indeed tomato based, came with mussels and salmon, and had a great flavor (he said he had the Cioppino instead of his normal choice for dinner). So I got the Cioppino with a heavy heart knowing that I had always wanted to try the Bad Breath Burger. But once the stew was set down in front of me I didn’t think about the burger anymore. It was steaming hot and a surprisingly large serving. The broth had a great earthy tomato and seafood flavor; something very hearty and homey. There were large, perfectly cooked chunks of salmon in it alongside corn, onions, and peppers. I was also very excited to find there were three mussels hanging out at the bottom of the bowl. Fish stew is not an appealing description but this was one of the best specials at a hipster pub I have ever had.

weary traveler vegan chili

Vegetarian chili

My friend couldn’t decide between two of the vegetarian options so she got a cup of the vegetarian chili and the grilled cheese. She enjoyed both, but my favorite of the two was the vegetarian chili. Vegetarian chili tends to be pretty flavorless (based on most of my experiences with veggie chili), but this one was pretty great. I’m not sure what was in it but the couple spoonfuls I had were great. The grilled cheese had cheddar and mozzarella on it, which were perfectly melty and stringy. The sandwich was a bit too heavy for my liking though because the bread tasted like two thick pieces of garlic bread made into a sandwich. Some people might really like that heaviness, but it was too greasy and heavy for me.

weary traveler grilled cheese

Grilled cheese

FOODNOTES: Don’t worry if you can’t figure out how to get in or how to get a table…they will even still serve you if they don’t know your name. To avoid the super hipster crowd try being there before 7pm. Make sure you look around for the specials board and consider what they have…mine turned out super well. The prices are on par with what you would expect for a hipster pub on Willy St. in Madison, but the food is a ton better than a generic pub. None of their desserts sounded worth it (they had ice cream and two random cakes listed), but I will definitely be back to try the Bad Breath Burger sometime!

Holy Manna that was good!

manna bakery

Manna’s bakery case with GF options on top

Manna Cafe on Madison’s north side is one of the best-kept secrets in Madison. It is hidden in the corner of a disheveled strip mall amidst an aging shoe-repair shop, travel agent and butcher shop. If I wasn’t expecting to pull into an old strip mall to find Manna I would have driven past it. But any sense of that strip mall disappears when you walk into Manna and are greeted by a beautiful pastry case, cheery yellow walls and a great menu. When we were there on a week-day morning both of the decent-sized dining rooms were full, and we were lucky to get a table!

manna GF pumpkin date bar

Gluten free pumpkin bar

Even though I wanted to try most of the items in the bakery case I opted for one of the gluten free options since I’m trying to go mostly gluten free now. I got a pumpkin date bar with cream cheese frosting to take home. It was the perfect breakfast the next day. Gluten free desserts tend pretty dry because they have to use weird ingredients to avoid gluten, but this bar was great. It was moist and had a great pumpkin flavor. And the frosting was great! I loved that it wasn’t too sweet (which tends to be problem for regular pumpkin bars).

For breakfast I got the A Walk-in-the Woods scramble with asparagus, mushrooms, cheddar cheese and frizzled onions on top. It was a good size with the perfect ratio of eggs to fillings. The frizzled onions on top added a great flavor and crunch. The scrambles come with some of the best breakfast potatoes I’ve had yet. They were seasoned really well and were amazingly crunchy on the outside, yet perfectly fluffy on the inside. Loved them! The scrambles also come with bread and I was pretty excited that they have homemade gluten free bread as an option! I was very happy with my breakfast. I was a little concerned about the coffee because it is served out of gas-station like serve-yourself carafes but it was hot, steamy, fresh and flavorful! The unlimited cup is definitely your best choice. My friend got the Sticky Bun French Toast and loved it, although it was a little rich with the chocolate maple syrup.

FOODNOTES: I was extremely impressed with the quality and quantity of food I got at Manna Cafe. The scramble was above the standard of most scrambles I’ve had, and the potatoes were memorable enough to bring me back for breakfast again. I loved my take-home gluten-free pumpkin bar, and can’t wait to try other seasonal gluten-free bakery options they will have. I really want to go back to try their oatmeal pancakes, the Okeefe benedict on the weekends looks super good, and a couple of the lunch options look really promising! Their lunch menu is very extensive making it a very good option for groups of people. The prices were comparable to other cafes in Madison. And don’t let the unassuming location fool you, Manna Cafe is great!