Coming from a very small town, one of the things I absolutely love about Madison is the beautiful variety of cuisine that can be found here. Madison is known throughout the Midwest as an emerging food destination, specifically for its focus on fresh, local ingredients. However, while I certainly love the focus on hyper-local dining here in Madison (I especially appreciate when restaurants such as the iconic Short Stack Eatery proudly display the names of their local suppliers on their menus), with our current inability to travel, my foodie heart has been yearning for more distant flavors. Here’s some of my personal favorites.
You may remember Buraka from it’s brief stint as a replacement for Harvest Grains in Union South, but if you didn’t take your chance to try their delicious food then, make sure you seize the opportunity now. Just like their name implies in the Oromo language, the food is bound to fill you with joy. The rich blends of spices, perfectly tender meats, and unique side dishes make your taste like it was made with love and intention. I have always found that across cultures, a stew always has the tendency to comfort people, and Buraka’s stews certainly comfort me. From the Coconut Curry Chicken to the Dorowot, everyone can find something to love at Buraka.
My Recommendation: Whatever you get, get it with the injera.
China: Chen’s Dumpling House
Situated in a small space on State Street, with a menu written on a white board in both English and Chinese, Chen’s Dumplings is one of those restaurants you can immediately tell will be excellent. The Xiao Long Bao from Chen’s Dumpling House are my go-to for so many different occasions, from a stressful school day to a cold winter’s night, the dumplings from Chen’s are my ultimate comfort food. However, the dumplings aren’t the only dish that shines. From the red bean buns to the scallion pancake, everything I have tried from their menu has been delicious.
My recommendation: the red bean buns.
Venezuela: Caracas Arepas
A library mall staple, the Caracas Arepas food cart is my absolute favorite place to get a hearty snack during a study break. The juicy beef and sweef plantains and cheese, all stuffed into a beautifully toasted corn pocket gives me all the warmth and energy needed to continue using statistical equations in my endless problem sets. Not only is the food delicious, but every time I visit, the owner is always such a delight to talk to. If you’re like me, and you hold the correct opinion that corn tortillas are superior to flour, I am sure you will enjoy the delicate texture and flavor that comes with an arepa.
My recommendation: the sauces (habenero and guasacaca).
Greece: Parthenon Gyros
I know this listing is a pretty obvious one, since Parthenon has been a State Street staple for over forty years, but I still find it imperative that it be included. Parthenon is one of those special places where the food truly tastes handmade–which makes sense because it is. By grinding their own meat and spices and making their own greek yogurt, they make an iconic sandwich in a way that sets it apart from any other gyro. Plus, their fries are some of the best in Madison; perfect for a late night snack.
My recommendation: add the giardiniera to your gyro.
India: Mirch Masala
The first time I ever ate at Mirch Masala was with a group of entirely vegetarians, and since we ordered family-style, we only ordered vegetarian food. As someone who loves meat, I have to say, I did not miss it. Everything was so flavorful and perfectly spiced, and the naan were warm and crispy. In a time where we are often missing out on those types of shared eating experiences, I encourage you to order takeout from here and eat it family-style, either with roommates or your actual family. Make it an event! Then, you can try a little bit of everything, and bond with the people you care about over this shared experience.
My recommendation: the Malai Kofta.
Russia: Paul’s Pel’meni
If you participated in the famous Madison Restaurant Madness on in the UW Memes for Milk-Chugging Teens page this past spring, you already know that Paul’s Pel’meni is a campus favorite. I may or may not still be salty that they didn’t win. The universal love of Paul’s by college students is for very good reason. While their menu may be simple, and their food may not be entirely authentic, as my Russian friends like to remind me, it is a perfect example of how successful fusion can be. By adding curry powder, cilantro, and chili sauce to the more traditional toppings of butter and sour cream, Paul’s brings together what makes both Asian and European flavors shine–a fusion that represents the cross-continental country well.
My recommendation: if you don’t get your pel’meni with the works you’re doing it wrong.
USA: The Blue Moon
If after trying all of the prior restaurants, you miss Wisconsin flavors, I must take this opportunity to convince you of the greatness of The Blue Moon. It is a quintessential hole-in-the-wall restaurant, it may not look super pretty, but I maintain the opinion that the Blue Moon has the best burgers in Madison. Their patties are thick and juicy, with toasted buns and simple toppings. While their burgers are excellent, the best thing on the menu is by far the reuben. I cannot emphasize enough that their reuben is the best I have ever had, and I have had many, many reubens at other great restaurants. Nothing compares.
My recommendation: obviously the reuben sandwich.