Tiny tavern boasts big cider menu, unique dishes

Cooper's Tavern
Coopers Tavern

One Madison restaurant that I took way too long to try out is Coopers Tavern. It’s near the top of State Street on the Capitol Square and has a super tiny dining room with a long bar on one side. It was busy the Friday night I went with a friend, and we had to wait basically inches from people already eating. Once we were seated the cramped dining room issues continued…I had to hook my purse on my knees and I was awkwardly bumped by two people who were hovering around the bar waiting for a table. Despite the super tight quarters the atmosphere at Coopers Tavern is rustic and welcoming.

Crispin blackberry, pear cider
Crispin blackberry, pear cider

I’m not a big drinker, but I do love a good gluten-free cider and Coopers Tavern has the largest selection of ciders I’ve seen. The Crispin blackberry and pear cider was light and refreshing. I could really taste the pear flavor, and even though the blackberry flavor was pretty much non-existent I still really liked it.

Cooper's Tavern Sconnie egg
Coopers Tavern Sconnie egg

We started with Coopers Tavern’s version of a scotch egg, the Sconnie egg. The Sconnie egg is a hard boiled egg wrapped in a Knoche’s market brat patty and fried. It is served with pickled vegetables and stout mustard. The Sconnie egg looks a little odd, but it tastes great. The hard boiled egg and the brat taste like breakfast and then they fry it…frying makes everything better! It’s a pretty heavy flavor profile, so the spicy, seedy mustard really adds a much-needed tang. I was really excited about the pickled vegetables, but they ended up not being good. They were pickled with anise and other warm spices, and I really didn’t like those flavors.

Cooper's Tavern steak and frites
Coopers Tavern steak and frites

I got the steak and frites as my entree. The marinated flank steak came served with blue cheese bone marrow butter, a homemade bourbon steak sauce, green beans and Belgian frites. The steak was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, but it was a pretty small portion for the price ($16.95). The bourbon steak sauce tasted pretty much like pre-packaged barbecue sauce, and even though it was good I was expecting it to be better. The fancy bone marrow butter didn’t taste as special as the description made it sound. The simple steamed green beans would have been better with some seasoning. The frites were classic frites — they were salted perfectly and fried to a crisp.

Cooper's Tavern pork belly mac
Coopers Tavern pork belly mac

My friend got the pork belly mac. The dubliner cheddar mac and cheese comes topped with Madison Sourdough bread crumbs and Guinness stout glazed berkshire pork belly. The sauce isn’t like traditional cheese sauce. It tasted like a fancier version of alfredo sauce. The glaze on the pork belly was sweet and tasted like it had brown sugar in it.

FOOD NOTES: Coopers Tavern has an extremely small dinning room that definitely makes waiting for your table that much more annoying. The gluten-free cider menu is a nice alternative to beer, and I loved the Sconnie egg. My steak and frites were good, but a little on the pricey side. The green beans were generic and the sauce on the steak had a pre-packaged quality to it, but the frites were perfectly crispy and salty. The pork belly mac was a little different than traditional mac and cheese, but it was good. The cider options and Sconnie egg will bring me back, but I will probably get a different entree.

Expect quality food, pricier menu at Jacs on Monroe

Jacs
Jacs

There are countless options for a unique dining experience at upscale pub-style restaurants in downtown Madison, but there’s not very many similar options outside the isthmus. Jacs on Monroe Street is a newish addition to the near west side that is similar to what you would expect from upscale pubs on the Capitol Square. Jacs offers its own unique menu options along with dishes very similar to Brasserie V, like mussels or steak with frites.

Jacs
Jacs

The small brick building is sandwiched in between Michael’s Frozen Custard and a strip mall with a coffee stop, cat supply store and Indian restaurant. The best feature of the restaurant is its huge pair of front windows that bring in light to the dark dining room and allow for ample people watching. We showed up a bit before the dinner rush and got one of the coveted window seats. By 5:15 the entire place was packed with groups of people, couples and families.

Jac's ploughman's platter
Jacs ploughman’s platter

We started with the ploughman’s platter, which is a cheese board with interesting pairings. The platter comes with two types of cheese (I’m assuming they change because they were written on a chalk board). We got an aged cheddar and a truffled goat cheese. The aged cheddar was bold and nutty and perfect for a cheese board. I usually don’t like goat cheese, but this one was actually pretty good (although it did come out with some mold on it…we weren’t sure if that was a cheese thing or not so we just cut off the really moldy parts). The platter also came with some Bavaria sausage, honey, bread, housemade jam, grapes, sliced apple and pear, walnuts and mini tomatoes. It was beautifully presented and most of the ingredients were top-notch (I am still hung up on the mold that was on our goat cheese). Even though it was a great starter to our meal it was a bit on the expensive side for the price. I’m not sure I would want the platter to be any bigger, but I think the price should be less.

Jacs gnocchi
Jacs gnocchi
Jacs beet gnocchi
Jacs beet gnocchi

My mom got the special, which was housemade beet gnocchi with kale, hen of the woods mushrooms and pork belly. The gnocchi was denser and larger than the average gnocchi, but because it wasn’t in a heavy sauce they worked. The mushrooms and kale went really well with the earthiness of the beet flavor, and the pork belly added a much-needed saltiness to the simpler ingredients. There was a light sauce, probably mostly olive oil, that kept the dish from becoming too heavy. If there had been a creamy sauce on top it would have overwhelmed the great flavors of the simple ingredients.

Jacs steak
Jacs steak

I got the steak and frites because again, I always judge the quality of a restaurant by their steak and french fries. My steak was perfectly cooked with a great sear on the outside. It was seasoned very well, and had a little something extra that tasted like more than just salt and pepper. I love a traditional steak browned with just salt and pepper as seasoning, but this had a little additional kick of flavor that I couldn’t ID — but it was great! The sauteed spinach and kale under the steak was way too salty and tasted like it was a forgotten side. Greens can be really great when paid a little bit of attention, but these were overcooked and so salty that they were inedible alone (I took them home and sauteed them up with some egg whites for breakfast the next day…the extra salt worked well when balanced with the bland egg whites).

Jacs frites
Jacs frites

I was expecting a small plate of frites to come with my steak, but the massive cone of frites our table neighbors got as an appetizer also arrived with my entree. The cone of frites is definitely enough for two people. They were salted perfectly and had a great crunch. I’ve said for a while that my favorite fries in Madison were at Brasserie V, but the frites at Jacs were equally as crave-worthy. But the aioli at Jacs was more unique than Brasserie V. It was zesty…almost as if it was a citrus garlic aioli or another similar flavor combination. It took me by surprise at first, but the flavor combo balanced the greasiness of the frites well.

FOOD NOTES: Jacs can definitely give its Monroe Street competition, Brasserie V, a run for its money. Both seem to focus on European flavors and dishes, and both do it very well. The cheese platter we got was very well done (aside from the questionable mold), and had some interesting pairings I hadn’t seen on a cheese platter before. The housemade beet gnocchi was something special on its own, and was elevated by the other simple, ut perfectly done ingredients. My steak and frites were basically as good as steak and frites could get, but I expected more from Jacs on the sauteed greens. The biggest negative that sticks out to me is Jacs’ prices. Even though Jacs’ food is very close to the quality of restaurants around the Capitol Square, the restaurant isn’t around the Square so the prices need to be a little lower.

Pub’s kale salad better than heavy European fare

Flying Hound dining room
Flying Hound dining room

When I walked into the new Flying Hound Pub across from my old stomping grounds (the Fitchburg Super Target) I was expecting a heavy lunch littered with french fries, cheese and sauces. When our lunch came all of those expected pub food components were there, but the salad we ordered was surprisingly light, fresh, flavorful and filling.

Flying Hound schnitzel
Flying Hound schnitzel

To try out the traditional pub food at the Flying Hound we got the schnitzel, which is a fried piece of meat (I think the one at the Flying Hound is a pork chop), that comes on top of a Clausen’s bun with muenster cheese and arugula on top. It also comes with a container of housemade onion gravy. The schnitzel was tender and battered perfectly, but it was a little greasy and with the bun and cheese it was a very heavy sandwich. The onion gravy looked a little scary (it was dark brown and lumpy) but it was definitely the best part of the sandwich. Without the onion gravy the schnitzel didn’t have enough flavor and would have been very dry.

Flying Hound schnitzel and sweet potato fries
Flying Hound schnitzel and sweet potato fries

For a little extra we decided to get the sweet potato fries instead of regular fries. They were thin and crispy and not greasy, but they definitely needed more salt. The other added benefit of the odd-looking onion gravy was that it went really well with the sweet potato fries.

Flying Hound kale and salmon salad
Flying Hound kale and salmon salad

As for the salmon kale salad…I would definitely get that over the schnitzel if I go back. The salmon was perfectly cooked and came on top of a massive pile of tender kale. The salad also had walnuts, craisins, croutons, parmesan cheese and an herb vinaigrette. I’m not a huge fan of craisins, so I mostly avoided them but the couple I had with the other ingredients added a good sweet flavor. Other than the craisins, I loved the rest of the toppings. The walnuts were great with the vinaigrette, and the parmesan cheese added a nutty, savory flavor that paired well with the salmon. The one note I have is that the salad is pretty large and filling with a higher-than-normal price tag for a lunch.

Flying Hound patio
Flying Hound patio

FOOD NOTES: The new pub is in a perfect location — there aren’t any other non-franchise options in the area, plus it has a great patio. The schnitzel was made with quality ingredients, but definitely needed the housemade onion gravy to top it off. The sweet potato fries were good, but not spectacular. The surprising thing about the Flying Hound was that I was more impressed with the salmon kale salad than anything else we got. The salad had the perfect combination of yummy and healthy ingredients. If you’re heading to the Flying Hound for lunch definitely give their salad menu a look over the heavier pub fare on the menu.

O.S.S.: Obviously stellar sausages

O.S.S.
O.S.S.

O.S.S. opened this year in a little brick building on Regent Street that has been vacant for a while. O.S.S. by all technical definitions is a sausage shop and the name can mean whatever you want it to mean – Old School Sausages, Open Source Sausages…they even take suggestions from customers. But no matter what O.S.S. means to you, it will also mean awesome sausages, fresh cheese curds and perfectly crispy hand-cut french fries. Plus, the menu uses locally sourced sausages and cheeses, which I absolutely love!

O.S.S. dining room
O.S.S. book table
O.S.S. dining room overlooking Regent Street
O.S.S. dining room overlooking Regent Street

The tiny brick building is conspicuously signed with a side entrance and a hidden back patio. The dining room is flanked on both sides by long, communal tables with a mix of chairs and stools. The entire place has a unique, industrial feel to it with warm touches — the legs on one of the long tables is made out of a stack of books! There’s also a whimsical feeling because they won’t really tell you what O.S.S. stands for, yet you can find the initials and possible definitions scattered throughout.

O.S.S. bahn mi
O.S.S. bahn mi
O.S.S. bahn mi
O.S.S. bahn mi

The bahn mi sausage, which the manager said is one of their best sellers, had some real potential. The sriracha mayo added a great spice to the heavier sausage, and the cabbage slaw gave the entire thing a much-needed crunch. I could have done without the cilantro, and the whole jalapeno slices could have been cut smaller as to avoid an entire mouthful of unbalanced spice. But the slaw mixed with the mayo and sausage was a great combination.

O.S.S. Chicago dog
O.S.S. Chicago dog

The traditional Chicago dog was pretty awesome. It is a traditional hot dog with tomatoes, onions, relish, a pickle, celery salt, sport peppers and mustard. The hearty bun was just the right size to contain all of the top-notch ingredients. The peppers and the pickle added a great spice and saltiness to the dog, and the freshness of the tomatoes and onions was very welcome. I’ve never had a Chicago dog in Chicago, but I can’t imagine they could be any better.

O.S.S. fried cheese curds
O.S.S. fried cheese curds
O.S.S. curds with special sweet mustard
O.S.S. curds with special sweet mustard

The hand-battered cheese curds were pretty phenomenal. They were stringy and melty with a perfectly light and crunchy batter. They were probably the freshest fried cheese curds I’ve ever had. The manager told us you can also order them spun in sauces, like chicken wings…which sounded very interesting, but we opted for the traditional curds. The curds came with a special sweet mustard from the National Mustard Museum. The mustard was sweet and a little tangy, but the curds were good enough on their own.

O.S.S. fries
O.S.S. fries

The hand-cut fries were just as prefect as french fries can get. The fries still had the skins on them, and all of them were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The entire batch had just the right amount of salt, and they even came with a stray cheese curd!

FOOD NOTES: This sausage shop is an awesome addition to the Regent Street area. Regent Street has never been a food destination for me, and O.S.S. really changes that. Their take on traditional cheese curds and hand-cut french fries shows that making fried sides fresh and with quality ingredients really pays off. I enjoyed both sausages I’ve tried, but I really want to try some of their special dogs they’ve posted on Facebook (Swissco Bacon Mac Dog, the Assadura and the Tikka Masala…yum!).

DLux: Aptly describes burgers, fries, drinks at downtown eatery

DLux (Photo: Jessica Omdahl)
DLux (Photo: Jessica Omdahl)

If you’re lucky enough to get one of the coveted half-dozen tables outside looking up at the Capitol at DLux, you’re experience will be just a great as mine. I’ve been to DLux three times now, and all three times I have sat outside. Their outdoor seating is just one block down from the Capitol, and if you’re facing the right way you will get a glimpse of Monona Terrace. It’s a great way, even on a hot afternoon, to enjoy their great food.

Dlux Hawaii 5-O
Dlux Hawaii 5-O

DLux has a pretty simple menu. They have a couple appetizers, a couple salads, about a dozen burgers and sandwiches and then a la carte sides. In addition to their drink menu, they also have shakes that can be ordered with or without alcohol. When I went with friends we decided to make dinner an event and get some drinks. I got the Hawaii 5-O with vodka, pineapple juice and house-made strawberry and ginger soda. Despite the drinks odd name, it is exceedingly refreshing and dangerously tasty. I definitely recommend any of their cocktails made with their house-made soda.

DLux fried pickles
DLux fried pickles

We also got the fried pickles to enjoy with our drinks. They weren’t the greatest fried pickles I’ve ever had, but they were definitely tasty. The breading was a little heavy, but they were surprisingly not greasy. The serving was just enough to keep my friend and I happy while waiting for the rest of our food.

DLux couch potato burger, parmesan and truffle cream fries
DLux couch potato burger, parmesan and truffle cream fries

Their burger choices range from a normal burger with lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickles to more interesting options. I got the couch potato burger, which comes with house-made french onion dip, pepper jack cheese and potato chips. The combination sounded great and it definitely didn’t disappoint. The pepper jack cheese added just enough spice to the burger. The french onion dip and potato chips are a great combo on their own, and are also pretty great on top of a burger. I know I’m not the only person who has put potato chips on the inside of a sandwich…well, DLux does it for you on a pretty great burger!

I’m a huge fan of French fries and they have been known to make or break a restaurant for me. At DLux, their french fries definitely do not disappoint. The french fries themselves are pretty standard — super fluffy, not greasy, and they look hand cut. The sauce options are what put their French fries over the top. This time I got the parmesan and truffle fries. The white truffle sauce was perfectly rich and creamy, and the parmesan added a good sharp, nutty flavor. But the other two times I’ve been there I got the sharp cheddar and green onion fries. The sharp cheddar sauce is pretty spectacular. It looks like bad nacho cheese sauce, but it’s amazingly cheesy and creamy, and not at all greasy. It is shocking how much flavor is in this sharp cheddar sauce. The sliced green onions cut through the heaviness of the sharp cheddar sauce perfectly. There really isn’t much that compares to a good French fry covered in cheese sauce goodness.

FOOD NOTES: In my three visits to DLux I have never been disappointed. The couch potato burger is a great combination of good ingredients and interesting flavors. The fried pickles are a good starter and go well with the great drinks made with house-made sodas. And their French fries with spectacular sauces are awesome. Their menu is so simple. How much simpler can you get than French fries, burgers, house-made sodas and milk shakes? But their interesting combinations, quality ingredients, great flavors and awesome outdoor patio put the dining experience over the top. I highly recommend DLux for classic food made in interesting ways with quality ingredients.

1 thing will always bring me back to Mickey’s Tavern

Two words: sexy fries.

mickey'sWalking into Mickey’s Tavern on Madison’s near east side I lost all hope for the quality of the food. The bar was dark, the seating was sparse, the tables were dirty, the kitchen(which was open) looked dirty, there were people smoking like chimneys outside on the patio and the service was awful. We sat down at the only spot left, a tiny table shoved in the corner behind two bigger tables. After we sat there for 15 minutes or so someone finally figured out we were there and brought us drinks.

Mickey's cheese curds
Mickey’s cheese curds

We started with an order of cheese curds because they are always the best appetizer option on a menu. Well not this time. The curds at Mickey’s probably come out of a box because the batter is extremely heavy and flavorless, and the actual curd comes out in a lukewarm chunk, not stringy goodness like fresh cheese curds. They were extremely disappointing.

Mickey's burger
Mickey’s burger

For dinner I got the Mickey’s Burger, which has supposedly been named the best bar burger by Madison Magazine. I’m not sure who voted for that award, but I 100 percent disagree with them. The burger is mixed with spicy giardiniera and herbs, and is topped with chili aioli, tomato and buttermilk battered fried onions. It all sounds like a really good combo, but the burger I got was definitely missing some components and the ingredients that were there were subpar. The burger was extremely crumbly, which made the entire thing super hard to eat. I did not see or taste any giardiniera or herbs in the patty, and it could have been cooked a little longer. It was this odd light brown color. It would have been exponentially better if it had a good grill char on it. The fried onions flavorless and soggy, and added unnecessary heaviness to the burger. The tomato was mushy and probably a couple days old, and the aioli was thick and didn’t have any flavor, let alone any promised chili spice. The odd little container of coleslaw was unwanted and forgettable.

Mickey's sexy fries
Mickey’s sexy fries

Now on to the one and only reason I will ever go back to Mickey’s Tavern, and that’s their sexy fries. They are hand sliced thin chunks of potatoes tossed in truffle oil and covered in parmesan cheese, chives and crushed red pepper. The sexy fries are the single best french fries I have ever had. They are crispy, crunchy, salty, savory, cheesy and a little spicy. Most fries are made better with a good dipping sauce, but any type of sauce added to the sexy fries experience would take away from their perfection. Whoever came up with the amazing idea to combine parmesan cheese, truffle oil and red pepper flakes on top of perfectly cooked potatoes chips is a genius!

FOOD NOTES: The only thing that I will ever go back to Mickey’s for is the sexy fries. The service, dining room and the rest of the food were all subpar. The Mickey’s burger was awful and the cheese curds were even worse. Next time I go I will get the largest order of sexy fries they have and maybe I’ll give one of their sandwiches a try.

Alchemy’s popular sweet potato fries were disappointing

A couple of months ago I went to Alchemy specifically to try their sweet potato fries because I had heard they were great, but when I went they weren’t serving them because it was a Friday night. So recently I went back with a friend on a Saturday night specifically for the fries. The menu says they are house-sliced, twice-fried sweet potato fries served with tarragon mayo and blackberry/jalapeno jam.

Alchemy sweet potato fries
Alchemy sweet potato fries

Our order of the much-lauded fries came out pretty quickly. The large half circles were hot, but nowhere near crunchy. When the menu said twice fried I was expecting them to be nice and crispy, but the fries we got were limp, soggy chunks of sweet potato that really didn’t resemble what I consider to be “fries.”

The tarragon mayo was good, but I would have preferred a garlic mayo or maybe some seasoning on the actual fries that would have added some flavor. The jam was also a pretty big letdown. It didn’t really taste like jalapeno or blackberry, so it was basically a sweet dipping option.

FOOD NOTES: The food I got during my first visit to the Alchemy was super great and I had high hopes for the popular sweet potato fries, but they were a disappointment. The fries were soggy, didn’t have any seasoning and were cut into over-sized chunks. The dipping sauces were bland and didn’t add anything to the flavor. When I get sweet potato fries I expect small, crispy, well seasoned fries served with a creamy garlic mayo or jalapeno jam that actually has a little spice; at Alchemy I didn’t get any of those things.

There really isn’t anything better than an old-school steakhouse

Main Street entrance
Main Street entrance
Bar entrance on Main Street
Bar entrance on Main Street

Madison has a lot of food events to promote restaurants, like Taste of Madison and Restaurant Week, but one restaurant sticks out in my mind as never participating in any of it: Tornado Steakhouse. Tornado is this elusive restaurant on the south side of the outer-capitol square (which is kind of the opposite side of where all of the other foodie restaurants are). Not a lot of people talk about Tornado, but a lot of people do go there so I could never figure out why it was never part of the foodie buzz in Madison. Well, I think I figured it out. Madison foodies are very into new, experimental, modern things, and the Tornado is none of those things. It is 100 percent a traditional steakhouse done exceptionally well.

Hamilton Street entrance
Hamilton Street entrance
Hamilton Street sign
Hamilton Street sign

It is technically located on South Hamilton Street, but there’s also an entrance on West Main Street. The Main Street entrance brings you through a cramped bar featuring a couple round leather booths straight out of the 50s. The Hamilton Entrance takes you up a couple steps, past the secret entrance to their late-night bar the Corral Room (I hear it is straight out of Mad Men) and into the main dining room area. I’m not sure exactly how many dining rooms there are throughout the steakhouse, but I saw at least three on the way to the one we were seated in. All of them were bordered in dark wood paneling, and were sparsely lit by old-school sconces.

bread plate
bread plate
tornado relish
relish “tray”

As if the portions we were soon to order wouldn’t be enough, we were given a bread basket and a relish tray. The bread basket had a biscuit, a crunchy long breadstick and a small loaf of bread. The biscuit was buttery, fluffy, moist and very good. The breadstick had a good flavor, but was kind of hard. We saved the loaf for last because we had high hopes for a small warm loaf of yummy bread, but it was super hard, not very good and kind of disappointing. The relish tray was not actually served on a tray. It came in an iced beer mug and had a pickle, some celery and carrots and a skewer with a radish, cucumber slice, cherry tomato and olives. It was a traditional relish tray, but I love the simplicity of a relish tray!

Caesar salad
Caesar salad
spinach salad
spinach salad

Every entree comes with a salad to start with. It sounds like you’re going to get a side salad, but it is a massive serving. Both the Caesar and spinach salads we ordered were double the size we were expecting. My Caesar salad had fresh romaine and a nice portion of parmesan cheese on top. The dressing wasn’t too overwhelming, but I did not eat the whole anchovy filet that was on top of my greens. The spinach salad my mom ordered came with a vinaigrette that was very tangy and yummy.

New York strip steak with hashbrowns
New York strip steak with hashbrowns

Now on to the entrees. They offer seafood, chicken and other random protein options (venison, rabbit, lamb), but both of us were obviously going to order steak in a steakhouse like this. I got the 16 oz. New York Strip Steak, and for a person watching portion sizes a 16 0z. steak is just a little more than four servings of steak. I ordered it medium rare. This steak was the most perfectly cooked, perfectly charred and perfectly flavored steak I have ever had. They really know what they’re doing at Tornado! The 16 oz. sirloin my mom ordered was exactly the same.

sirloin steak with steak fries
sirloin steak with steak fries

All of the steaks come with a single onion ring on top. The batter was very heavy, and lacked some necessary salt to balance it out. I got hash browns with my steak. They were crispy, hot and well seasoned, but compared to the steak they were nothing special. I thought for the caliber of steakhouse Tornado is, they would serve them with sauteed mushrooms and onions or something like that. My mom got the steak fries with her steak. They were not greasy and tasted baked rather than fried, but again they were overshadowed by her steak.

FOOD NOTES: Despite the disappointing loaf of mini bread and the not-so-special potatoes served alongside our steaks, Tornado served up the best steak I have ever had. A lot of restaurants my parents and grandparents took me to as a kid had relish trays, and I really like when restaurants offer them…it is just so simple! The service was good throughout our meal, but there were multiple people doing multiple things throughout the dining room, not sure one dedicated server. The menu definitely gave us sticker shock when we first decided to go, but based on the fact that we each brought home another two servings of steak and one extra serving of potatoes as leftovers…the price doesn’t seem as astronomical. The prices are high, but not nearly as outrageous once you see the portions (especially if you exercise portion control and save some for another meal). Basically, my meal was $35, which sounds really high but I had another full meal of steak and hash browns, plus another meal of steak…so in my mind that breaks down to $2o for the initial Tornado meal (with the relish tray, bread and salad), $10 for the second at-home leftover meal and $5 for the third portion of steak. Doesn’t sound as bad does it!

Middleton townie bar’s food surprises, surpasses expectations

club tavern signYou’ll notice I use the term “townie” on my headline. Some people may take that negatively, but I mean that affectionately. There are a ton of amazing townie bars in Wisconsin, and I love visiting them!. What it basically means to me is that all of the locals go there, and they go there for a reason. Townie bars are usually a little off the beaten path, and typically don’t have amazing food. After looking at the menu at Club Tavern in Middleton my expectations were pretty low for their food because it seemed like a quintessential townie bar menu with generic appetizers, burgers, sandwiches and the token salad listings.

Club Tavern dining room
Club Tavern dining room

When we walked in to Club Tavern the expectations for the food went down even more. The door to the grungy storage room was open and 100 percent visible right when we walked in, we had to wait at the front door for a decent amount of time (as employees walked right by) to be told we could sit anywhere, the booth we chose to sit at was sticky and my seat was crooked, it was super dark inside and the decor was definitely odd. The highlights of the dining room were the tin ceilings, the exposed brick (except the brick right by my seat that had a bunch of garbage shoved in it) and the cool round booths in the front.

Ragin' Cajun burger
Ragin’ Cajun burger

I decided to go with the Ragin’ Cajun burger that had “haystack onions,” bacon, pepper jack cheese and Bourbon Street mayo on top. Again, I wasn’t expecting much with this burger, but when the massive portion arrived my expectations got a little higher. The burger was massive with a great blackened, spicy, crispy outside. The downfall to the burger were the “haystack onions,” which was a pile of generic fried onions on top. The onions were not exceptionally good, and were completely unnecessary. Once they were removed, the burger was pretty fantastic. The bun was soft, the rest of the toppings were fresh and in good proportion with each other. The fries absolutely sucked. They were barely seasoned, not crispy and definitely came out of a box. The shining glory on the plate was a completely unexpected tomato and red onion relish with a housemade balsamic dressing on top. The chef who delivered our lunch seemed extra excited to explain it to me when I asked him what it was. The relish was a great compliment to the heavy burger.

club tavern booth
2-person booth at Club Tavern

The service was kind of 50/50. Our waitress didn’t seem to care at all that she had a table, and it really wasn’t busy. My water was only filled after it had been empty for quite a few minutes, and she was very absent between taking our order and bringing our bill. The other 50 percent of that equation were the two visits from what I can only assume was the chef and the owner. The guy who brought our food out was super nice and answered my questions about the relish with excitement. Another guy came to ask us how our food was and was also super nice. Our waitress could learn a thing or two from those two.

FOOD NOTES: Don’t discount this townie bar in the middle of Middleton. I can’t vouch for their entire menu, but based on the specks of glory in my meal, there are probably some pretty impressive things hiding amongst the traditional bar food. The fries were the most disappointing part of the meal. I am a french fry lover to the end, and it takes a truly special burger to overshadow poor fries. The Ragin’ Cajun barely makes up for the dumpy french fries I was served, but I would go back to try other options on the menu. Club Tavern needs to amp up it’s sides and appetizers to the level of their amazing burger and that unexpectedly amazing side of relish.

Quality fried chicken hidden in sketchy strip mall

Harold's Chicken Shack
Harold’s Chicken Shack

I have a soft spot for fried chicken. I’m not sure why, because my family didn’t eat it a lot and it’s not something either of my grandmothers ever made for me, but there’s something special about a good crispy fried piece of chicken. And when you pair it with good french fries and coleslaw…comfort food just doesn’t get any better than that. I’ve had some decent fried chicken in Madison, but probably nothing compared to good down-home southern fried chicken. I’m not sure if Harold’s Chicken Shack is the best fried chicken, but it sure is good.

Harold's Chicken Shack
Harold’s Chicken Shack

First I have to start with the location and the rumors. Harold’s Chicken Shack is in the middle of a rundown strip mall by Woodman’s on the west side. I’ve driven past it probably thousands of times, but couldn’t get up the courage to go in because of what I’d heard about it. Many reviewers say the food is good, but there’s a rude guy who sits right by the door and tries to sell you DVDs, and they say people who work there aren’t very nice. When I finally decided to try it out, I was not surprised by the small, slightly dingy restaurant when I walked in. However, I was surprised by how nice the two people behind the counter were. Almost every review online said no one was nice and they felt more like they were bothering them than appreciated customers. I had the exact opposite experience. Both people were super nice and explained the 1/4 and 1/2 chicken dinners to me.

Harold's Chicken Shack to-go
Harold’s Chicken Shack to-go

I do recommend ordering ahead of time, because even after I ordered over the phone and came in 15 minutes later I still had to wait 5 minutes. But that wait is good, because it means my food was being cooked to order and was extremely fresh. Their menu is pretty basic. They have fried chicken, fries, fried catfish and chicken wings.

Harold's Chicken Shack 1/4 chicken meal
Harold’s Chicken Shack 1/4 chicken meal

I opted for the quarter breast meal, which comes with a fried breast and wing, french fries and coleslaw for $5.99. It also comes with two pieces of bread at the bottom of the cardboard container the food comes in, but I did not eat them. The coleslaw was good but the portion size was extremely tiny. The french fries weren’t the best I’ve ever had, but they were hot and fluffy on the inside, and were seasoned with a good amount of salt and pepper. Th chicken was the highlight of the meal, which is what I’d expect from a chicken shack. It was hot and juicy on the inside, and crispy on the outside. The best part of the fried chicken was that the batter was filled with black pepper. Harold’s Chicken Shack definitely uses black pepper a lot and knows how to do it well. I love black pepper so I really liked the fried chicken batter.

Harold's Chicken Shack
Harold’s Chicken Shack

FOOD NOTES: I needed to look past the sketchy strip mall and reviews of rude employees, and so do you. The chicken was stellar and the sides were definitely quality. Everything could definitely be improved, like a bigger serving of the coleslaw, but the prices 100 percent make up for that. There’s nothing quite like cheap food done well. Make sure you order ahead of time and give them about 20 minutes to complete your order. I’ll definitely be back for their perfectly peppery fried chicken and french fries!