Big portions, big history housed in tiny Wonder Bar

Wonder Bar
Wonder Bar

There are a lot of options for steak in Madison and the surrounding area, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a place that has as much history as Wonder Bar. I’m not going to get into too much detail, but if you like gangster history and don’t mind eating on the other side of a dead body (what? yeah…that’s what their website says), then Wonder Bar is a great place to check out.

Wander Bar BBQ bacon wrapped shrimp
Wander Bar BBQ bacon wrapped shrimp

My mom and I went on a Friday night and got seated upstairs. There’s nothing super impressive about the decor or the dining areas, but if you read up on the history of the place, it is pretty cool. We decided to start with the BBQ bacon wrapped shrimp. The BBQ was tangy and had a little spice, the bacon was thick and the shrimp were huge. Combine all those ingredients and we had a great appetizer.

Wonder Bar wedge salad
Wonder Bar wedge salad

Steaks come with a salad, and of course both of us got steak. Even though our waiter warned me the wedge salad could probably be a meal on its own…I decided to go with that. And boy was he right. It was legitimately 1/4 of a head of iceberg lettuce, an entire tomato (cut in half), probably a full cup of blue cheese and a ton of dressing. I don’t usually love blue cheese, but I usually like it on a wedge salad…this time it was good, but I didn’t eat even half the blue cheese that was on the plate.

Wonder Bar filet and hash browns
Wonder Bar filet and hash browns

My mom and I both got the house filet with hash browns…because what else do you get when you go to a steak house?! Both filets were perfectly cooked and had a great flavor. They were also super tender and had that great grill char. The hash browns were crispy and had onions mixed in…winning!

Needless to say…we skipped dessert and took home doggy bags.

FOOD NOTES: If you’re looking for a place to get a stiff drink and some classic steakhouse food…Wonder Bar is definitely your place. My mom and I had a great meal…but keep in mind that classic steakhouse food usually comes with a higher price tag. Another thing to note…if you’re trying to find Wonder Bar…it’s the super tiny brick building right behind the Coliseum Bar. If you’re not looking closely…you might drive right by.

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Great location doesn’t = great food at Waypoint Public House

The saying ‘Location, Location Location’ is popular for a reason, but every location has to be backed up by quality product — in my opinion. Waypoint Public House in Monona definitely has the location, but the food needs a little work. The dining room and decor are the perfect mix of industrial and cozy with some local charm thrown in. I loved the mismatched chairs, different types of wood and funky decorations. The restaurant is at the end of a new apartment building on West Broadway, which is where the location factor comes in. Some people might not like it, but I think that spot is cool because you get the hustle and bustle of the Beltline and the calm and relaxing feel of the Yahara River. It was raining the day I went with a friend so we didn’t get to try out their patio, but it looks like it has the best seats in the house.

Waypoint Public House cheese curds
Waypoint Public House cheese curds

Now on to the food. We got the cheese curds and jalapeno poppers. Both of them could have been better. The cheese curds were fresh and should have been good, but they were super super greasy. I always expect cheese curds to be at least somewhat greasy because they’re fried, but these were so greasy I didn’t want to finish them. The homemade ranch was pretty stellar though.

Waypoint Public House jalapeno poppers
Waypoint Public House jalapeno poppers

The jalapeno poppers were not traditional poppers, and while I get what they were going for, I didn’t like them. When I order jalapeno poppers I want the crispy, fried jalapeno bites. But at Waypoint their jalapeno poppers are grilled instead of being breaded and fried. They might be healthier, but I wanted the unhealthy ones (to be fair — our waitress told us what to expect when ordering them). Besides not being breaded, the cream cheese filling didn’t have any flavor…every bite basically tasted like jalapeno.

IMG_1942Their main menu had a lot to offer, but I couldn’t decide what to get so we asked the waitress and she suggested the pulled pork quesadilla. The quesadilla has house smoked pork, queso fresco, jalapeno, tomato, onion, sour cream and guac. The quesadilla had all the right ingredients (including a ton of tender pork) to be good, but a couple factors derailed it. 1) The smokiness of the pork overpowered all of the other ingredients so I couldn’t taste any of them. 2) It was super greasy…greasier than the cheese curds. It was so greasy the first thing I noticed when picking it up was grease dripping out of it. And 3) The guac was really bad…like out of can bad. I only ate one of the wedges, but the other three were OK the next day for cold leftovers.

FOOD NOTES: In the case of Waypoint Public House, it isn’t all about the location. They do really have the location part down, but their food leaves something to be desired. Everything was way too greasy and didn’t have great flavor. I’m not sure exactly when they opened, but I know they hadn’t been open very long when I went in August. I will probably give them a second chance, but not anytime soon.

Portage Pi is hidden gem between State and Langdon

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Canoes hang from the ceiling of the Graduate Hotel’s lobby
Portage Pi dining room
Portage Pi dining room
Portage Pi communal table
Portage Pi communal table

The amount of food and beverage options downtown keeps growing, but there are always some standouts. Over the summer about a dozen new places opened downtown, but one place’s atmosphere, location and food should be noticed. Portage Pi is in the lobby of the new Graduate Hotel on the corner of Francis and Langdon streets. It’s the perfect location for students needing sustenance either walking to or from classes, but students shouldn’t be the only people enjoying this new gem. When I visited with my friend Michelle Li, they said they’d be opening a cafe and walk-up counter for quick ordering. But if you walk up, you don’t get to experience the great decor and atmosphere inside.

Lamp base
Lamp base

IMG_1804IMG_1808 IMG_1807 IMG_1806I’m not really sure how to explain the decor, other than saying there’s probably something for everyone. It’s cute, eclectic, cozy and has some local flair. The menu has hand pies, salads, sandwiches, coffee, smoothies and juice.

IMG_1817 IMG_1815 We got to try two of their hand pies — the banana s’mores pie and the short rib pie. Both hand pies were super good, but I liked the savory one better. They would be great to take to class and secretly eat in the back row of a lecture hall! The crust was flaky and didn’t overwhelm the filling. The inside was flavorful and filled with quality ingredients.

Banana s'mores hand pie
Banana s’mores hand pie

IMG_1813The banana s’mores pie was also good, but unless you’re a huge dessert fan, I wouldn’t pass up the savory pies for the dessert pies. They are a bit too sweet for my taste.

housemade juices
housemade juices

I also got to try one of their housemade juices — the Thornton Melon with honeydew, mint, lemon, ginger and cucumber.  It was super refreshing and even though it was technically juice, didn’t feel sugary…it tasted like infused water.

FOOD NOTES: I lived three blocks from this place when I was in college and it would have been a regular stop on my way back from class. A place where I can get good coffee, a quick lunch and a juice or snack for later would have been at the top of my list of regular stops…right up there with Med Cafe, Amy’s and Chipotle. I wouldn’t recommend getting the juices every day, but it would have been a good treat on some of those hot days at the beginning of the school year.

Everything’s better dipped in Banzo’s hummus

Banzo food cart
Banzo food cart

When it’s sunny, feels like it’s 130 degrees and you’re walking around on blacktop the last thing you want to do is eat something heavy and greasy…well it’s the last thing I wanted to do during Atwood Fest at the end of July. Everyone else seemed perfectly fine eating hot, fried food, but my friend and I went for a mediterranean option from the Banzo food cart.

Banzo falafel and chicken combo
Banzo falafel and chicken combo

The food cart offers a couple different ways to get their falafel, chicken or kebabs. You can get them in a pita, on a hummus plate, over rice with hummus on a platter or as a salad. I got the falafel and chicken combo platter, which comes with mediterranean chicken, falafel, rice, hummus, salad and pita. The salad was fresh and crunchy…a fantastic, fresh option on a hot day. The rice wasn’t anything special, and the chicken was good…but the stars of the platter were the falafel and the hummus. Everything was better dipped in the garlicky, creamy, earthy hummus and the falafel was crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside and had a great flavor.

FOOD NOTES: Anything Banzo serves would be a great option to other festival food, especially when it’s hot and steamy out. Next time I’ll get the full falafel platter instead of doing the chicken combo. I’d also like to try the salad with falafel.

Classic steak, seafood best enjoyed on patio at Mariner’s Inn

There are a handful of places in Madison that make you feel like you’re not in the middle of a city of a quarter of a million people — picnic point, the UW Arboretum, Wingra Park and the docks on the north side of Lake Mendota. Luckily for us, the Von Rutenberg family put a very nice Wisconsin supper club right on the north shore so we could enjoy some good food with that great view.

Lake Mendota
Lake Mendota

The Mariner’s Inn really is a classic steak and seafood restaurant, but what makes it special is the outdoor patio and the view. I went on a beautiful Sunday night with a friend for Restaurant Week in July. The patio was the perfect spot to enjoy our three-course meal.

Mariner's Inn clam chowder
Mariner’s Inn clam chowder

Their clam chowder was the perfect starter. It was creamy and peppery, and had big chunks of potatoes and clams. I’ve had clam chowder that tastes fishy, but this one had the right amount of saltiness without being fishy.

Mariner's Inn tenderloin of romance
Mariner’s Inn tenderloin of romance
Mariner's Inn hashbrowns
Mariner’s Inn hashbrowns

For entrees they had surf and turf, shrimp, salmon and a tenderloin dish. The tenderloin of romance, as they called it, was a tenderloin, three scallops and crab meat served with a béarnaise sauce and asparagus. The tenderloin was perfectly cooked and it paired really well with the sauce. I thought the crab meat might be too much with the bearnaise sauce, but it was pretty good. The asparagus was also really good with the crab meat and sauce. I’m not a huge fan of scallops, but these were perfectly cooked, which means they were buttery and delicious. We also got an order of hasbrowns, which were hot and crispy, but a little salty.

Mariner's Inn key lime pie
Mariner’s Inn key lime pie
Mariner’s cheesecake with Door County cherry sauce
Mariner’s cheesecake with Door County cherry sauce

For dessert we got the cheesecake and the key lime pie. The key lime pie was fantastic. It was sweet and tart, but not too tart and the crust was buttery and crumbly. The cheesecake was also very good. I don’t like cherry desserts, but the sauce was the perfect combo of sweet and tart.

FOOD NOTES: The food at the Mariner’s Inn is classic supper club food. It’s good, but the view from the patio is what makes the experience at the Mariner’s Inn special. The clam chowder was the best I’ve ever had, and the rest of the meal followed suit, but I would highly suggest all Mariner’s Inn dining experiences be out on the patio.

Cheese on sushi? We must be in Wisconsin!

I’ve been on and off the sushi train a couple times — In college I ate sushi weekly with a group of friends, but I hadn’t had sushi in a couple years because of some unfortunate food poisoning. Luckily, my lunch at Takara 88 in Middleton with Michelle was the perfect transition back onto the sushi train.

Takara house salad
Takara house salad

We started with the traditional sushi restaurant house salad with ginger dressing. I forgot how much I loved ginger dressing. Each sushi restaurant has it’s own version of the orange dressing, and Takara 88’s was just as good as all of the other versions I’ve had.

Shrimp and veggie tempura
Shrimp and veggie tempura

After the salad we tried their tempura with shrimp and bigs chunks of vegetables. The shrimp and the vegetables were perfectly cooked and the tempura was light and crispy. Sometimes tempura can be heavy and greasy, but Takara 88’s wasn’t.

Now on to the sushi. We got to try two of their special rolls and both of them were good, but I preferred the BMW roll.

BMW roll
BMW roll

BMW roll

BMW roll

The BMW roll comes with tempura shrimp and avocado and is topped with seared salmon, cheese, caviar and a special sauce. This was the perfect roll to ease back onto the sushi train. The cooked shrimp and avocado went great with the seared salmon. The BMW roll was my first introduction to sushi caviar. I could barely tell it was on the roll, but it did add a good salty flavor. The cheese is what made this roll a lot more interesting. I’ve never seen cheese on a sushi roll before, and I don’t think Michelle had either. The ingredients in the BMW roll sounded like everything and the kitchen sink, but they ended up working really well together.

"V" roll
“V” roll
"V" roll
“V” roll presentation
"V" roll
“V” roll
"V" roll presentation
“V” roll martini glass

The second roll we tried was the “V” roll, which is spicy tuna and crab, lettuce, avocado and asparagus wrapped in rice paper and topped with a spicy sauce. The presentation of the “V” roll was crazy pretty and used a martini glass. The “V” roll was good and the lettuce added a much-needed crunch.

FOOD NOTES: Sushi will probably never be my first choice, but Takara 88 in Middleton has some great special sushi rolls. The tempura is a great substitute for sushi, but if you’re OK with raw fish, the BMW roll is the way to go.

Local sub shop shines on near east side

Everyone loves a good sub sandwich, but sometimes chain restaurants like Subway, Milio’s or Jimmy Johns just don’t cut it. Recently I checked out a small deli/sub shop on the near east side called Crostini.

Crostini Sandwiches
Crostini Sandwiches

Crostini is located in this randomly placed commercial strip mall on the corner of Johnson and North streets in the middle of a very quaint neighborhood. The day I decided to try out Crostini it was the perfect sunny summer day so their front door was propped open and the crew behind the counter was jamming out to music. The small dining room probably had seats for a about a dozen people, but they also had some outdoor seating. The menu features sub sandwiches, paninis, wraps and pasta.

IMG_1720I got the Crostini club with ham, turkey, bacon, veggies, mayo and their signature dressing. The $7 sandwich came with a decent amount of ingredients…it even had some fresh green peppers in it, which wasn’t on the menu. The menu said it was a cold sandwich, but I was pleasantly surprised that the meat was either toasted or warmed up. The tangy dressing worked well with the mayo, but there might have been a bit too much of it because my sub roll was pretty soggy. The other logistical issue was that when they wrapped it up to go, it got very squished, which made it a little tricky to eat.

IMG_1721We also got some of their freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for dessert. They were definitely freshly baked because they were will warm when they handed them to me!

FOOD NOTES: If I lived closer to Crostini it would definitely make it into my regular lunch rotation. So if you live on the near east side or are heading that direction, you should really check it out. Their prices are reasonable…especially because of the quality ingredients that were in my sub. I’ve read some pretty terrible reviews on Yelp about their customer service…most of them pertaining to delivery, so I would avoid delivery and just go get the food.

Shocker: Cafe inside gym serves up tasty, healthy food

Going out to eat for me is usually a time to go all out — something I wouldn’t normally eat, something a little more extravagant or something less healthy than my regular routine. But every once in a while I like trying out healthy options that I just don’t know how to make on my own. And that’s exactly what I got to do when I went to Fit Fresh Cuisine with a friend last month.

IMG_1689Fit Fresh is basically inside Hybrid Athletics in Fitchburg. They offer cleanses, meal plans and a regular menu. Their menu has juices, smoothies, acai bowls, breakfast sandwiches and scrambles, sandwich and salads.

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palisade acai bowl

I’ve heard about acai bowls but never knew what they really were, so I jumped in with both feet and got the first one on the list. The palisade bowl comes with acai, strawberry, Sugar River vanilla yogurt, whey protein and wheat germ topped with tahini (I know…what?!), chia seeds, pepita and homemade granola. I was expecting to get a bowl of yogurt with acai berries and a bunch of other stuff on top, but I can only describe what I got as breakfast soup. It was good, but it wasn’t what I was expecting!

IMG_1690The yogurt-like mixture is slightly thinner than regular yogurt, but just as tasty. I was worried about the tahini on top, but it added just the right amount of savory flavor to cut the bitterness of the acai. The chia seeds, pepita and granola were the perfect crunchy additions. My bowl also had slices of banana in the yogurt. Even though it was not what I was expecting, I really enjoyed it. My friend got a sandwich and enjoyed it too.

FOOD NOTES: Fit Fresh Cuisine is not very conveniently located, but if you’re in the Fitchburg area looking for a healthy lunch option you should check this place out. My acai bowl was not what I was expecting, but it was pretty tasty. I loved that it was tasty, fresh and filling. Most of the time you get one or two of those…not all three! I’ve had friends try their meal plans and cleanses, and they’ve given it some pretty positive reviews.

Basement bar is hidden gem of old Greenbush Neighborhood

Greenbush Bar
Greenbush Bar

There aren’t a lot of original businesses left in the Greenbush Neighborhood just south of the UW-Madison campus, but one of the last remnants of the ethnic neighborhood is a hidden gem. Greenbush Bar is in the basement of what looks like an abandoned building…but it’s actually the old Italian Workman’s Club building on Regent Street.

When you walk in it looks a little rundown and the odd stairwell down to the basement is a little suspect, but the dark, quaint, simple dining room makes up for it. The eatery and bar is lit mostly with lights strung from the ceiling and the tight basement quarters makes it feel hidden and exclusive.

garlic cheese bread
garlic cheese bread
bread basket
bread basket

We started with garlic cheese bread and pizza sauce. They cover their homemade bread in garlic butter and top it with cheese. The pieces are just thick enough to manage the heavy cheese, but not too thick so the bread isn’t overwhelming. It was a good appetizer, but a little unnecessary because we also got a basket of their homemade bread. Their antipatso platters have some great traditional ingredients listed…I’d like to give those a try some time.

carbonara pasta
pasta carbonara

I knew pasta was the only option for an entree because I don’t love pizza, but I do love pasta. I decided to go traditional and got the pasta carbonara with pancetta, parmesan and romano cheeses, and cream and egg over spaghetti. I don’t think the pasta was homemade, but it was perfectly cooked — aldente, not mushy. The sauce was rich and cooked into the pasta the way it’s supposed to be. I wanted a little more of the saltiness from the pancetta to cut through the heavy sauce, but it was still very good.

cannoli
cannoli

For dessert I had to try one of their homemade cannolis. The cannoli was an interesting twist on what I expect a cannoli to taste like. It looked exactly like a traditional cannoli, but the filling had a strong flavor of cinnamon that was unexpected, and not in a good way. The cinnamon was so overpowering that I could barely taste the sweetness of the marscapone.

FOOD NOTES: There are still hidden gems from the old Greenbush Neighborhood thriving amongst the students and new businesses on Regent Street. Greenbush Bar may look like it’s in an abandoned building, but the atmosphere in the basement is lively and welcoming. The menu features classic Italian appetizers, pastas and pizzas. The antipasto platters look promising, but avoid the cannoli if you don’t love the flavor of cinnamon.

Mac’s is so good it deserves a second post

MACSI reviewed Mac’s in Sun Prairie in March and I loved it. But I’ve been back several times since then and I feel like I need to reiterate how great their mac and cheese is.

MACS mac daddyThe first time I went I got the loaded baked potato mac and cheese…it is rich, creamy and super indulgent. The potatoes, sour cream and bacon added a great layer to the mac and cheese.

MACs trio

Loaded baked potato mac and cheese
Loaded baked potato mac and cheese
Chicken bacon ranch mac and cheese
Chicken bacon ranch mac and cheese

The second time I went I got to try the buffalo chicken mac and cheese and the chicken bacon ranch mac and cheese. I also got a second crack at the loaded baked potato mac and cheese. The loaded baked potato mac and cheese was just as great as the first time, but it was upstaged by the chicken bacon ranch mac. There’s just something this Wisconsin girl loves about ranch dressing drizzled on top of mac and cheese. It was a genius move to put chicken and bacon on fantastic mac and cheese and then drizzle it with ranch dressing.

Buffalo chicken mac and cheese
Buffalo chicken mac and cheese

I also got to try the buffalo chicken mac and cheese, which I didn’t think I’d like but it was surprisingly good. The buffalo chicken wasn’t too spicy, and the tanginess of the sauce cut the heaviness of the mac and cheese perfectly. And the blue cheese (which I normally don’t like) didn’t over power anything. It also comes garnished with celery, which makes it seem healthier…haha!

The third time I went, I got the chicken bacon ranch mac again but made my mom get the Memphis mac (sorry…I forgot to take pics!), which comes topped with pulled pork, BBQ sauce and fried slices of onion. I’ve heard shredded BBQ pork is great with mac and cheese and boy were those people not kidding. The pork was perfectly tender and the sauce was tangy with just the right amount of kick. I loved my chicken bacon ranch mac…but I did go back for seconds, thirds and maybe fourths of my mom’s Memphis mac.

FOOD NOTES: I’ve decided that you could top mac and cheese with pretty much anything and I would eat it. And Mac’s knows what they’re doing. I’ve officially tried four of their versions and would suggest any of them. My favorite has to be the chicken bacon ranch, followed by a two-way tie for second — Memphis mac and loaded baked potato mac. Mac’s is, in my opinion, the best spot to indulge in some great mac and cheese with fantastic toppings. I want to try other flavors, but don’t think I could pass up my favorites…anyone want to go with me so I can try the type you get?!?!