Los Gemelos’ Mexican fare cannot compare to Taqueria Guadalajara

Tienda y Taqueria Los Gemelos
Tienda y Taqueria Los Gemelos

I have posted before about my quest to find good Mexican food that is as close to authentic as you can get in Madison. A couple months ago my quest ended in the dining room at Taqueria Guadalajara, but I had heard some really great things about Taqueria Los Gemelos on Odana, so I couldn’t pass it up. The combination Mexican grocery store and restaurant is hidden away in a junky strip mall on Odana Road. Based on the size of the strip mall and the grocery store I was expecting a super small restaurant, but it was actually massive. If I had to guess how many tables there are I would say more than 20.

We got there right around lunch time and there were plenty of tables open, but we had no idea what to do when we walked in. There is a small counter where everyone ignored us. There were also wait staff walking around who completely ignored us. Finally, after standing in the doorway for a couple minutes I asked one of the wait staff if we should sit or wait to be seated, and she told us we could sit wherever. Once we were at a table they brought us a basket of chips, guacamole and two salsas in squeeze bottles. The green one had a lot of cilantro in it and not much other flavor. WARNING! WARNING! The red bottle has super hot salsa. I tried a little on a chip and didn’t get any heat at all, so I squeezed a bunch more on the next chip and had quite an interesting next couple of minutes, which was made worse by the fact that we hadn’t gotten any water yet. Besides the ridiculous heat, the runny red salsa also didn’t have a lot of flavor. I know that sounds weird…it was super spicy but didn’t have any flavor? I’m a true believer that a sauce or salsa can be spicy and also have good flavor. What’s the point in having a salsa that is pure overpowering heat without some good pepper, vinegar or garlic flavor. Also, the “guacamole” they serve is the farthest thing from guacamole I’ve had in a while. It was flavorless and super runny. It’s like they mix it with something to stretch their avocado. I was really not impressed by it. I would rather have to pay a couple dollars for quality guacamole (like the kind atĀ La Mestiza across the street) than be given this crap.

gemelos chips and salsa
Los Gemelos salsa, guacamole, chips

The menu was the first warning sign that the food wouldn’t be too great. There are pictures all over the menu and every time I see picture menus I think of IHOP, Denny’s and Perkin’s. In my experience, places with pictures of their food on their menu don’t tend to have great food. The second warning sign that this wasn’t going to be quality authentic Mexican food was that they didn’t have tongue or tripe on the menu (not that I would try tripe, but tongue has become one of my favorite Mexican meat options).

Los Gemelos menu
Los Gemelos menu

After scouring the decent-sized menu I opted for two smaller dishes. First I got a tostada, which comes with your choice of meat with Mexican cheese, lettuce, avocado, tomato and mayo. I also got a sope, which comes with your choice of meat, Mexican fresh cheese, lettuce, avocado and tomato. They are very similar dishes, but the sope comes on an oval corn tortilla that is thicker and soft, and the tostada comes on a very thin and crunchy corn tortilla.

Los Gemelos chicken sope, beef tostada
Los Gemelos chicken sope, beef tostada

I got a beef tostada, and it was super hard to eat. My first bite sent most of the toppings flying all over the place and the rest of the tostada shattered. The beef was tender, but was completely flavorless. The Mexican cheese and tomatoes were standard, but the avocado was fresh. I got a chicken sope, which was basically the same as the tostada as far as toppings go, but the soft corn base made it 100 percent easier to eat. The chicken was fine, but not great and the rest of the toppings were the same as the tostada. The best part of what I ordered (and this was also one of the reasons I ordered what I did) was the avocado on top of both dishes. Avocado makes everything better! Everything was good, and exponentially better than Tex-Mex restaurants in the area, but not nearly as good as Taqueria Guadalajara.

Los Gemelos dining room
Los Gemelos dining room

FOOD NOTES: Basically, I went in comparing Los Gemelos to Taqueria Guadalajara and it failed every comparison test. The food was not as good, the service was awful (did I mention once I did get my tiny water cup it was never filled again?) and the restaurant was kitschy and a little dirty. But, if I were to compare their food to Laredo’s or Tex Tubb’s or Abuelo’s on the merits of authentic Mexican food it would win hands down. There was nothing wrong with the food, it just gets beaten out by a better competitor. I wish the food was better because the prices are great and the location is better for me than Taqueria Guadalajara on Park Street. Simple review: As long as Taqueria Guadalajara is open, I won’t be going to Los Gemelos.

Graze offers same great food, atmosphere for lunch

Graze lunch menu
Graze lunch menu

A couple months ago I finally made it a priority to visit Graze on the Square for dinner, and I loved it. So recently when a friend and I were downtown looking for a good lunch I suggested the landmark Madison restaurant. The atmosphere and view is only slightly less impressive in the daylight, but that is overshadowed by the fact that there were actually open tables!


Graze pickles review from 12/31/13
Graze pickles review from 12/31/13

Michelle is sort of new to the area and hadn’t been to Graze yet so we had to get the fried pickles. Nothing has changed since my first tasting, and once again the thoroughly enjoyed them!

Graze noodle bowl
Graze noodle bowl

For my entree I wanted to try something new, so I got the Noodle Bowl. It was a huge bowl filled with a perfectly salty broth, braised pork shoulder, pork belly, bok choy, radish, noodles and a soft poached egg. I am 100 percent glad I tried it, but will probably never get it again. I enjoyed the flavors and the different components of the bowl, but it just wasn’t something I loved. The serving was way too big for lunch (I took over half of it home), and some of the pork pieces could have been a little crispier for my taste.

Graze beet walnut burger
Graze beet walnut burger

Michelle got the beet and walnut burger with cheese curds instead of fries…I vote good choice on getting the cheese curds!!

FOOD NOTES: I will always love Graze and the amazing view of my city they offer. I definitely recommend partaking in the view at night, but it is pretty awesome during the day too. The fried pickles and cheese curds are just as awesome during lunch. I’m very glad I got the noodle bowl and enjoyed the different ingredients, but it was a bit heavy for lunch. I really wish they offered the beet salad on their dinner menu for lunch…I loved that salad, and it would be perfect for lunch!

Monk’s doesn’t joke about portion sizes

monks menu
Monk’s menu

For a burger place that originated in the tourist-driven Wisconsin Dells I wasn’t expecting much in the way of quality at Monk’s Bar in Grill. The local chain has four locations – two in the Dells, one in Baraboo and the newest one in Middleton. The fact that the parking lot was almost completely empty on a Friday night in the fall made me nervous, but the waitress told me Middleton High School was playing in some high school football playoff game that night so they had been very slow all night. The menu wasn’t a surprise – mostly burgers and fried appetizers with a couple wraps and salads.

monks pickles
Monk’s fried pickles

I’m a big fan of fried pickles and tend to judge a restaurant on the quality of their fried pickles if they have them on the menu. So when I saw Monk’s had them on the menu I had to get them. There must be some food distributor in Wisconsin that sells frozen fried pickles to restaurants because I’ve had them at a couple different places. Unfortunately, that’s what Monk’s pickles are. They are the same thin spears with the dill batter that any restaurant with hot fryer oil can perfect. They were good (they always taste the same) but disappointing at a local chain. The surprising thing is the order came with a lot more than normal. An order of pickles (if they’re spears) usually comes with five or six; at monk’s you get 10!

monks burger
Monk’s jalapeno bacon burger

For main-meal options, I figured I had to get a burger since that’s what they’re known for and there were a lot of options to choose from. I like spicy food so I got the jalapeno bacon burger, which is an original Monk’s burger (a fancy name for a generic burger) topped with jalapeno bacon, cheddar cheese, grilled jalapenos and spicy ranch dressing. When the burger came out the first thing I noticed was how big it was. The spicy ranch was a good compliment to the grilled jalapenos. The bacon was perfectly cooked and the burger itself was cooked nicely. The burger was so big I took half home and ate it the next day for lunch.

monk's monkey fries
Monk’s monkey fries

The best part of the Monk’s menu is that you can upgrade your side to a premium side of cheese curds, onion rings or monkey fries. The monkey fries appetizer description says they are premium beer battered fries loaded with gooey melted Wisconsin cheddar cheese and crispy chopped bacon, served with a side of ranch – “enough to share.” So when I upgraded my side I was expecting a smaller version of that and hoping the cheese was “gooey” as the description promised. Well…I was wrong about one thing – the size. The plate that came out full of fries was enough to feed three, and the cheese was perfectly melty and gooey like I had hoped. The fries were crispy and the topping was actual melted cheese (not something synthetic and tasteless) with bacon. Other than being overwhelmed by the portion size I was super happy with the upgrade!

FOODNOTES: Don’t go to Monk’s if you want something healthy. If you’re looking for a decent burger and a lot of food – head to Monk’s. This would be a great place for a family to come and split a couple appetizers and upgraded sides for cheap…that’s how big these portions are. I was too full for dessert so I’m not sure if they’re worth it, but based on the frozen, pre-prepared fried pickles, the desserts probably come in the same way. The service at the Middleton location was good but we were one of three tables at the time. I probably won’t be back because nothing was super impressive, but it would be a good spot to watch a game and munch of some monkey fries!

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

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!

Potato dumplings perfect at Paul’s Pel’meni

When looking for Paul’s Pel’meni on Gorham you have to be careful not to walk by. It’s tucked in a side entrance between State and Henry streets. The trickiest part is that the main door has an art supply store sign over it. Again, make sure you pay attention because you don’t want to miss this place,


The tiny dining room with a half dozen tables and a counter by the front window has an industrial feel with modern colors. The simplistic feeling is accentuated by the simple menu and the simple preparation area. The menu has basically one option with a couple different variations that are prepared ahead of time, frozen and dropped into one of four pots of boiling water. They offer full or half orders of dumplings that can come stuffed with meat, potatoes or both. Then they offer “the works” as a topping. The works includes butter sauce, curry powder, chili sauce (which I was told is Sriracha and rice vinegar), cilantro and sour cream.

Paul's Pel'meni with the works on top
Paul’s Pel’meni with the works on top

I went to Paul’s for lunch with a friend and the full size was enough for the both of us plus leftovers. We got a combo with the works and I thought they were great considering they are so simple. Both the meat and potato fillings were good but the potato one really shined. The meat one tasted like a standard pot sticker, but the potato filling was buttery and creamy, and a really good vehicle for the spicy topping. The thing that makes Paul’s Pel’meni stand out from other dumplings is the topping combo they offer. I’m not a fan of cilantro so I plan to get the works without cilantro next time, but the rest of the toppings worked really well together. The butter sauce gave it a hearty flavor while the curry powder and chili sauce gave the dumplings an intense but flavorful heat. The sour cream was a nice compliment to the spicy toppings.

The price was a tad high for the amount and simplicity of the food but it won’t keep me from coming back. ALERT: They only take cash so make sure to hit an ATM on the way.

FOODNOTES: This hidden gem on Gorham has a great feel and dishes up amazing food. The simplistic menu means they were able to perfect the options they do have. Both meat and potato fillings are good but the potato one shines. Next time I go I will probably just get the potato filling. As for toppings, if you like spicy food I would suggest getting the works. I know it sounds like an odd set of flavor combinations but they all work really well together (of course I won’t be getting the cilantro). I would say Paul’s Pel’meni is a great lunch place and will definitely be back, but I think the limited menu would not make for a good dinner stop. And remember: they only take cash!

There’s more than chocolate to this quaint cafe

choco menuA friend of mine got married Friday and the week before her nuptials we decided to have lunch. She is a bit chocolate and sweets fan so when I heard about this new cafe on the near east side I knew it would be perfect for us. I mean, it has chocolate in the name! Chocolaterian Cafe opened almost a year ago at its Atwood location. I’ve been frequenting Atwood for a couple of years and I’m really glad the building at 2004 Atwood Avenue finally has tenants. It’s a really neat old building and the cafe definitely took advantage of the building’s features. There are two entrances (because the building is on a pointed corner), there are a bunch of neat built-ins, and the color choices were unique and appropriately fun. The decor was modest but fun with the main wall behind the bakery counter filled with antique chocolate molds.

choco macaroonsThe cafe features bakery items but also offers lunch items. There are regular items that frequent the bakery case and daily specials. Recently I’ve been obsessed with french macaroons so when I saw them in the display I knew I had to get them. They had a decent amount of flavor options and for $5 you got three. That’s a pretty regular price but the size of the macaroons was smaller than normal. I got the lemon vanilla, raspberry and pistachio. All three were very tasty! My friend got a chocolate tart that I’m pretty sure she loved because it was 100% dense chocolate. She did recommend they edge the top of the tart with fresh whipped cream instead of chocolate cream to make it a little less rich. The bakery case was filled with two other flavors of tarts, a half dozen different types of cookies, and a couple other decadent desserts. The also had fondue on the menu!

choco tarteThey offer two types of quiche and paninis daily as well as a cheese plate, soups and salads. They also offered regular coffee and tea options. I got the grilled chicken Caesar salad. It was very fresh and there was the perfect amount of dressing on top. It came with a full chicken breast but I was a little disappointed in the size of the total salad for the price (it was $8.50 for a small plate a lettuce, a couple tomatoes, and the chicken). My friend got the cheese plate, which came with three Wisconsin cheeses, crackers and jam. The odd thing about the cheese plate is that it didn’t say on the menu or the plate what type of cheeses they were. She enjoyed the cheese plate and that’s probably what I’ll get next time I go. That is if I’m not interested in the panini or quiche combinations again.

FOODNOTES: The location is great and the decor/ambiance is even better! The macaroons were good but could have been larger. Ditto for my salad. The cheese plate needs labels but was very impressive. I definitely plan to go back for coffee and baked goods (and will hopefully bring some home)!

Night Owl serves up impressive pub food

Evansville had a city-wide garage sale last week so a couple friends and I decided to go down there and shop. After driving around to the houses for a couple hours we decided to scour the downtown shops. They have three or four blocks of downtown shops. There are a couple vintage shops, some re-purposing shops, a consignment shop, and a kitchen store. It’s a really cute downtown. All of the buildings are historical and the road in those couple of blocks is brick! One of my friends started asking the locals where a good place to get lunch would be. They suggested a sub shop called Rock ‘N Rollz, a cafe, and the Night Owl sports bar. We were considering all three locations but settled on the Night Owl, probably because I bought these incredibly heaving UW cast iron bookends and the Night Owl was the closest place when we got hungry!

night owl burger
Ardy’s Special burger

It’s a cute building on the outside but I got kind of worried when we walked in and it looked like a junky Wisconsin bar. I was pretty hungry so we decided to take the chance. After looking at the menu I was less concerned. They had standard bar food but they also had some really good restaurant specialties. The house burger, Ardy’s Special, sounded amazing with three different types of cheese, and grilled mushrooms and onions. Two of us got the Ardy’s Special and my other friend got a chicken BBQ sandwich. The fries come on the side so we split an order of beer battered and an order of cajun fries.

When the food came we were pleasantly surprised at the portions. The fries were extra but the menu didn’t mention that the sandwiches come with potato chips regularly. I’m not sure if the chips were homemade but they were very good! The beer battered fries were better than some with a great crispiness and very little grease. The cajun fries were also good with the perfect amount of salty spice and again very little grease.

The Ardy’s Special was a great choice! The burger was a good size and perfectly cooked but what made the burger so exceptional were the toppings. The three cheeses were thick and wonderfully melted. The onions and mushrooms were flavorful and plentiful. The burger and fries were an amazing deal for the portion and flavor!

FOODNOTES: The decor is simple but don’t let that fool you. The prices are amazing and burgers are just as good. The service was also impressive. Evansville is about a 30 minute drive from Madison so I won’t be a regular but I would definitely go backĀ  if I’m in the area.

Cafe amidst new subdivision has creative classics on the menu

Prairie Cafe and Bakery in Middleton.

On my days off I usually plan out my errands and other things I need to get done but this last Tuesday I had a couple things to do and places to stop but nothing was planned. So when I drove past a cafe on the way to the bank that I had never seen I decided to stop. The Prairie Cafe and Bakery sits in the corner of an office building in a new subdivision on the north side of Middleton. According to their website they’ve been open since 2000 and is called “the meeting place” for people in Middleton Hills (the subdivision).

The building is very industrial which doesn’t usually lend itself well to good hometown cafes but once I walked in and saw the local art on the walls and a group of women cross stitching I had more faith in the meal I was about to get. There was a little pause in my ordering process because they only take cash or check (not posted anywhere that I saw but thankfully my bank was a block away and it was nice out!). So after my ATM walk I ordered their tuna sandwich with black bean and corn salad, and a raspberry iced tea. For being noon on a Tuesday the place was packed with groups of people, people grabbing to-go orders, and people who had created little mobile offices with laptops, headphones, and stacks of stuff. I was definitely expecting something quieter but atmosphere would be great for reading or chatting with friends.

Prairie Cafe and Bakery lunch

My raspberry iced tea was the perfect combination of freshly brewed iced tea and raspberry flavor! The tuna sandwich was an interesting variation on a normal tuna sandwich with it’s lemon vinaigrette, bell peppers, olives, and chunks of potatoes and eggs. I could have done without the chunks of potatoes and eggs but the lemon vinaigrette was so fresh and light that it made up for the heavy additions to the tuna mixture. The baguette was a little too crusty to eat tuna salad with (I usually prefer a softer bread for tuna because the crustier the bread the more mess you make while you eat it) but the sandwich as a whole was delightful! The black bean, corn salad was good but I couldn’t help and wonder if it came from a container. The dressing was flavorful but oily, too liberally applied and almost too mixed together which made me think the dressing came from a can. Either way, it was a good compliment to my lemony tuna sandwich.

Bottom line: The tuna was an interesting and delightful variation and I look forward to going back for breakfast (I really hope their corned beef hash is homemade!) and to trying their ultimate grilled cheese! The atmosphere was great with the local charm complimenting the industrial feel of the building very well! Don’t forget your cash or to try their freshly brewed teas!

Non-traditional Thanksgiving

>This is the first year I have not been able to make it to the annual family gathering in my hometown. Instead, my parents came down to my tiny tiny apartment with my dog. There were only three of us and none of us are particularly big fans of turkey so we decided to make a non-traditional meal. My parents brought down steak and a veggie tray, and I made crescent rolls (sort of traditional but an absolute must!) and chocolate, pecan pie with whiskey in it (YUMMY!). My mom also brought along a really good creamy horseradish sauce for the steak!

I didn’t miss the dry turkey or the mushing stuffing. I have also never been a fan of the cranberry sauce or any of the weird desserts of the “fluff” or jello and fruit variety. The only things I did miss were the squash (my grandma’s squash is amazing!) and the pumpkin pie (there were only three of us so 2 pies seemed like a but much and my dad doesn’t like pumpkin pie).

It was also good because they were gone by early afternoon and then I had the rest of the day to do laundry and homework. It was the most productive Thanksgiving I’ve ever had! What does your family do for Thanksgiving that isn’t traditional?