Bloom Bake Shop

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcake

Name: Bloom Bake Shop

Location: 1851 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711 (the first one opened in Middleton, located at 1834 Parmenter St, Middleton, WI 53562)

Ambience: Chic

Price: $-$$

Best Dish: Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcake

Gourmet bakeries tend to fall on the pricier side, but I fall in the category that is willing to pay way too much for my food. Admittedly, this place initially seems a little too pricey to be worth it — at $3.50 a cupcake, it is a lot of money for a sweet treat. Bloom has everything from whoopie pies to brownies, but my personal favorites are their cupcakes and donuts. They also have savories and coffee, but I haven’t tried them. That being said, this place is definitely worth it, if only for a once in a while, especially if you are gluten free or vegan.

My friend and I got three cupcakes and a donut. The cupcakes were lemon vanilla, chocolate raspberry rose, and chocolate peanut butter, the donut was sweet potato. I’ll admit that I was pretty hesitant about the sweet potato donut, but I was very pleasantly proved wrong. The donut was crisp on the outside, with a dusting of cinnamon sugar and soft and tender on the inside. The sweet potato flavor was not overwhelming at all — it hung out in the background, adding a mysterious layer of flavor. Honestly, if I had not known, I probably wouldn’t have even guessed that it was sweet potato.

Their cupcakes are also delicious. The chocolate raspberry rose cupcake was a little on the dry side, and I could have used some more raspberry jam filling. The lemon vanilla had a nice tang, but the chocolate peanut butter took the (cup)cake. Generously filled with rich ganache and topped with a creamy peanut butter frosting, the hint of saltiness from the peanut butter perfectly offsets the sweetness from the ganache. The cupcake was moist, and melted in my mouth when I took a bite — and actually had the perfect ratio of frosting to cupcake.

Bloom deserves a visit, even if it’s only for one of their delicious chocolate peanut butter cupcakes or unique sweet potato donuts. Adorably decorated in baby blue and white tile, it’s a great place for a Saturday morning brunch — even if your wallet will shed a tear at the thought of spending $3.50 on a cupcake.

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Hurts Donuts

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The Homer Simpson Donut

Name: Hurts Donuts

Location: 2831 Parmenter St, Middleton, WI 53562

Ambience: Casual

Price: $-$$

Best Dish: Nutella Donut

Madison has seen a lot of new donut places, and one I have been meaning to go to since they opened up late last year is Hurts Donuts. Out in the suburb of Middleton, Hurts is open 24 hours and has plenty of unique flavors, making them a good place to go to for a late-night craving.

Hurts Donuts has a lot of flavors — among them are German Chocolate, the “Cereal” Killer, salted caramel, the Homer Simpson donut, and the nutella donut. We bought half a dozen, which cost around $10. One of my main issues with Hurts was that their donuts were simply too sweet. There was nothing to counteract the overwhelming sweetness in my mouth, and having something tangy to cut through would have really helped. The donuts were also on the denser side, and I personally am more of a fan of the lighter ones. The one donut I really enjoyed was the Nutella donut, which was light and dusted with cinnamon sugar. The fluffiness was perfect on this one, and despite the thick dollop of Nutella in the center, it wasn’t weighed down by it. My other favorite was the salted caramel, which had a good amount of saltiness to balance out the richness of the caramel. I could not say the same for the other flavors, which tended to have too much going on for my taste — there were too many components where I would have preferred simplicity.

That being said, Hurts Donuts is great for a 2 AM craving or for when you really need a sugar rush. Many people will appreciate the richness and complexity, but I just happen to be someone who likes her donuts simple. The originality of a flavor like the “Cereal” Killer is one of their strengths, and while I personally prefer Greenbush Bakery, Hurts will definitely satisfy a sweet tooth.

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[Top, from left]: Homer Simpson, Nutella, Cosmic Brownie. [Bottom, from left]: German Chocolate, Salted Caramel, Apple Pie.

Nitty Gritty

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Chocolate Milkshake

Name: Nitty Gritty

Location: 223 N Frances St, Madison, WI 53703

Ambience: Casual dining, sports bar

Price: $$$

Best Dish: Roasted Garlic Burger

Although best known for birthday traditions, the Nitty stands on its own as a great place to get a hearty burger. With a sports bar atmosphere, they provide classic American dining and (supposedly) decent beer. They are admittedly a little on the expensive side, but their easy substitutions makes them an unusually suitable burger place for vegetarians.

 

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Roasted Garlic Burger

Although they do offer a selection of three vegetarian burgers, I highly recommend subbing in. Any of the Nitty’s burgers can have a veggie patty or a black bean patty substituted in for them for a $1 more. I would recommend their black bean patty because it’s moist and holds together well — two things that I find very difficult to find in any other restaurant’s black bean burgers. Their Chipotle burger and their Roasted Garlic burger ($10.25 before sub for both) are both delcious. The chipotle aioli adds wonderful flavor to the burger, however, I wish that the chipotle flavor was stronger. The Sheboygan hard roll holds up well with the moisture that the aioli adds. My personal favorite is their Roasted Garlic burger — with a strong garlic flavor from the sweet roasted garlic, it complements the black bean burger well and stands on its own. The best part of the burger is the crispy onion strings, which add a really nice textural element between the creaminess of the black bean burger.

In terms of sides, the Nitty has decent cheese curds ($8.25 as appetizer, $1.75 as a side), but they could have been crispier and chewier. I enjoyed both their fries and their onion rings, which were crisp and didn’t get soggy even after sitting a while while I ate my burger. Their milkshakes ($5.99 for virgin, $7.50 with alcohol) are also fantastic — they’re creamy and rich with a strong flavor, and the ice doesn’t settle to the bottom. At $5.99, they seem pricy — however, there’s enough that can it can be split between two people, and the staff is happy to do that.

The Nitty has some of the best black bean burgers I’ve had. If you can take the multiple rounds of Happy Birthday blasted over the speakers, the Nitty is a Madison classic that has great burgers and milkshakes.

 

Sol’s on the Square

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Bibimbap

Name: Sol’s on the Square

Location: 117 E Mifflin St, Madison, WI 53703

Ambience: Warm, family style

Price: $$$

Best Dish: Bibimbap

Korean food stands alone from other Asian food — it tastes completely different from Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai food. Although they’re famous for their BBQ style meat, their vegetarian options are often very flavorful. Madison has two Korean restaurants that I’m aware of — one in Sauk Square, and Sol’s, which is out by the Capitol. Tucked away next to the Heritage Tavern, Sol’s is a nice sit down restaurant with some great vegetarian options.

They pass around four small dishes to share as a table — pickled cucumbers, pickled potato, bean sprouts, and kimchi. I found the pickled potato to have an odd texture, although it was exceptionally flavored all the way through. My favorite was the cucumber. The tartness of the vinegar was just sharp enough to lend flavor, but it didn’t drown out the vegetable and it was well paired with the coolness of the cucumber.

We started with a kimchi pancake (11.99) to share for the table. While it comes with seafood and bacon, the staff was more than willing to make it vegetarian by combining vegetables and kimchi in place of the seafood. The pancake was crisp on the edges and well caramelized, complementing the chewiness of the dough. The kimchi, which tends to be very strong, was muted — I wish there was more kimchi flavor. Sol’s bibimbap ($14.99) was delicious — literally sizzling in the iron bowl, the rice had crisped up well on the bottom and was beautiful to look at with a rich array of vegetables. It included wilted spinach, razor thin slices of zucchini, and carrots that were still crunchy, along with tofu on the top. I wish they had used a firmer tofu, since this tended to crumble when I tried to pick it up with chopsticks. I really liked their spicy sauce, which combined a unique sweetness with a slight kick. It could have been spicier, but it allowed the flavors to come through a little more.

Sol’s is a great Korean restaurant in Madison — it doesn’t come close to matching the quality of Korean food in Chicago or Seattle, where I’ve had the best Korean food, but it does a good job with what it does. The food leaves you feeling content, a balanced, colorful meal even when eating out.

Estación Inka

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Lomo Saltado Platter

Name: Estación Inka

Location: 606 University Ave, Madison, WI 53715

Ambience: Relaxed, casual

Price: $$-$$$

Best Dish: Lomo Saltado Platter — with mushrooms

At first glance, Estación Inka has no vegetarian options. This isn’t exactly surprising, considering how meat heavy Peruvian food tends to be. However, they’re more than willing to do a vegetarian substitute — if you like mushrooms, that is.

I personally happen to love mushrooms, so I found this restaurant to be a delight. It’s cute, if a little sparse — white walls, white tables, with Peruvian beer cans as a decoration. Their food is unique and very flavorful, particularly the sauce that they gave on the side. The Lomo Saltado platter ($10.99), which is traditionally served with beef, was fantastic. It consists of crispy french fries topped with a rich sautee of mushrooms, carrots, and onions. The onions are crispy despite being cooked down, and the carrots have a nice bite to them. The best part is that the sauce they use actually seeps into the vegetables, lending it the flavor.

Also good was their Chicken Brasa sandwich ($8.99) — which my vegetarian friend substituted mushrooms in for as well. The main problem was that it was effectively the same dish as the Lomo Saltado platter — just… in sandwich form. It was still good, it just doesn’t offer much variety.Instead of french fries, they substituted papitas in, or thin slivers of potato that are deep fried until crispy, and it was definitely the best part of the sandwich.

Their mango smoothie was fine, nothing particularly special. The appeal of Estación Inka comes from the uniqueness of the cuisine they serve — the flavors are different, softer and warmer than Mexican food. If we ate meat, perhaps we would get more of the diversity that Peruvian food has to offer — they are noted for their rotisserie chicken, so any meat-eating friends would have lots of great options. At around $10/person, it’s a little on the expensive side for being a fast casual restaurant, but it does make up for it by filling a niche cuisine.

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Chicken Brasa Sandwich

The Green Owl Cafe

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Macho Nachos

Name: The Green Owl Cafe

Location: 1970 Atwood Ave, Madison, WI 53704

Ambience: Warm

Cost: $$

Best Dish: Crabby Cakes

Green Owl is an all vegetarian cafe out on Atwood, and the difficult thing about going to places like this — as my companion pointed out — is that there are just so many options to choose from that I never feel like I’ve done justice to the menu. Usually, there’s only one or two vegetarian items on the menu, but Green Owl caters specifically to vegetarians with a variety of meat substitutes.

The restaurant has a couple of good dishes, but also some not so good ones. Their side of kale chips ($3.50) are crispy and perfectly done, but could use more seasoning. The majority of chips lacked salt or seasoning, but the ones that had them were delicious.Their Crabby Cakes ($6.50) were outstanding — described as two tofu mushroom patties baked to a crispy brown outer coating, topped with vegan chipotle remoulade, they were flavorful and served on a bed of greens that added a burst of freshness. The chipotle remoulade was cool, and the flavor of the chipotle came through very well.

The Dijon Chicken sandwich ($9.50) was fine, but my companion felt like it needed more of the dijon flavor and our other meat-eating friend mentioned that the chicken substitute reminded him of the chicken McNuggets from McDonald’s. Also good was the Groundnut Stew ($12), inspired from some African cuisine with a rich flavor palette consisting of sweet potatoes, cabbage, ginger, peanuts and cilantro. The dish was very good, and the brown rice was well cooked. I personally was not a fan of the steamed kale, but my companion enjoyed it. Their Macho Nachos ($10.50)– classified as an appetizer, but great as an entree, were a generous portion of crispy chips, beans, pico, and cheese topped with fresh avocado and a dollop of sour cream. I enjoyed the freshness offered by the avocado, but I wished the ratio of toppings to chips had been higher.

Green Owl is a great concept, but it could have been better executed. They have a few dishes that are flavorful and well worth it, but other dishes are seriously lacking. The Crabby Cakes are fantastic — my meat eating friend even mentioned that although it doesn’t quite meet the texture, the flavor matches closely. They are a unique option out on Madison’s East side for a casual lunch.

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Crabby Cakes
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Groundnut Stew

Sala Thai

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Gang Ped with Rice

Name: Sala Thai

Location: 36 S Fair Oaks Ave, Madison, WI 53714

Ambience: Mom and Pop Shop

Cost: $$$ (cash only)

Best Dish: Gang Ped

Sala Thai is located far on the East Side, in an unambiguous house. The restaurant’s decor emphasizes the roots of the cuisine, decorated with carved wood and souvenirs from their time in Thailand.

I’ve been to Sala Thai multiple times, but my favorite dish has consistently been the Gang Ped. A red curry with a variety of vegetables and tofu ($11.50), the creaminess of the broth is well complemented by the crunch of the bamboo strips and green beans. The tofu is exceptional. It doesn’t fall to the common pitfall of a tofu dish, remaining firm and very well spiced. The spice level is generous — when they say a 4 is spicy, they actually mean it, and I found myself sniffling a couple of times. The dish never lacks for flavor, and the rice provides a nice, bland compliment to the intensity of the curry.

A companion found the pad thai to be very well made. Their noodles, stir-fry, and fried rices are also good, but their curries are my personal favorites. Their squash curry and panang curry are also stand out vegetarian options. I think it’s my favorite Thai food in Madison, although, I haven’t been out to Ha Long Bay yet, which I’ve been told is a worthy adversary.

A few additional notes — the service is quite slow, and can take up to 40 minutes. I recommend going on a night where you have time to spare, or doing take out. It is also cash only, so remember to withdraw some before going.