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

Eldorado Grill

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Chef-Crafted Tacos

Name: Eldorado Grill

Location: 744 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53704

Ambience: Upscale, warm

Cost: $$$

Best Dish: Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas with Salsa Verde (in Platos Mexicanos)

Reminiscent of Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill in Chicago, Eldorado Grill provides an upscale, rich palette of Southwest dining. They don’t pretend to be an authentic Mexican restaurant — and they aren’t. They excel at Southwestern food (and tequila, according to their webpage), and they’re a fantastic place to go for a nice dinner out.

One thing I really didn’t like was that chips and salsa are $1.99 — you have to ask for them as an appetizer, and a small, three mini-ice cream scoops of guac is $3.99. That being said, both the salsa and the guac are excellent and well worth it, hitting just the right combination of ingredients. The guac is topped with pico, and both of them tasted remarkably fresh, something that is quite rare when it comes to standard chips and dip. Their non-alcoholic margaritas were also very good. We got pomegranate and strawberry. The lime juice was clearly fresh and very tangy, and the underlying fruit flavor came through without seeming false.

However, Eldorado Grill truly was at its best in the entrees. With a remarkable selection of vegetarian options, they made it difficult to choose — but both were outstanding. The chef crafted tacos (which change daily, one meat and one vegetarian selection; $12.99) with sautéed zucchini, wilted spinach, portabella mushrooms, and onions were delicious. The vegetables were well cooked, and the zucchini was flavorful and still firm. But the spinach and mushroom enchiladas ($12.99) were the star of the show. The tanginess of the salsa verde provided the perfect complement to the dryness that tends to accompany corn tortillas, and the mushrooms were extremely flavorful and added a nice bite to the dish. The Monterey Jack and chile pasilla added great depth of flavor, particularly the chile. The rice was well seasoned and surprisingly tasty, and was a great addition.

Clearly, from my long review — this restaurant is well worth a visit. They are definitely on the expensive side, but their ambience affords a great place to take family or friends out for a nice dinner with fantastic food.

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Non-alcoholic Strawberry Margarita
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Spinach and Mushroom Enchiladas with Salsa Verde

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

La Brioche

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Vegetarian Eggs Benedict

Name: La Brioche

Location: University Station Shopping Mall, 2862 University Ave, Madison, WI 53705

Ambience: French bistro

Cost: $$$

Best Dish: Tres Leches Cake

La Brioche sits rather unassumingly, in a strip mall right next to Dairy Queen. However, walk inside and you’re immediately greeted with an extensive bakery and a warm, friendly atmosphere. A lot of the patrons are groups of older adults rather than college age kids, or families coming in for brunch. The rich wallpaper seems like it should be rather jarring, but once you’re seated, they just add to the vibe. Also notable is that they have signs asking patrons to turn off their electronic devices, which surprisingly — is very well heeded. As a result, people actually converse with each other.

Their brunch menu carries relatively standard brunch options for a French place in the USA — crepes, a variety of eggs, and sandwiches. Their crepes ($10.75), while tasty, are outshined by those of Bradbury’s. They lack the lightness that Bradbury’s crepes had, weighed down by the rich creme anglaise and the generous portion of berries and caramelized pecans. It felt like there was almost too much going on. Their vegetarian eggs benedict ($10.75) was served on a croissant, which was very good — however, my dining partner felt like there could have been more to the dish. The eggs were well done, and the yolk blended well with the bearnaise sauce. The roasted garlic potatoes ($4) were very well cooked, but had little to no garlic flavor, and could have done with some herbs. The dishes were fine, but neither really stood out. I think I would order the sandwiches the next time, rather than their more brunchy options.

Where La Brioche really excels is their bakery — their tres leches cake, which isn’t always there, is simply phenomenal and is easily their best dish. Their carrot cake leaves for wanting, but their cream puffs and eclairs are also very good. Overall, it’s a lovely place to take family if they’re in town for a weekend or to celebrate a birthday — the atmosphere is fantastic. However, if you’re looking for good brunch, there are better options in Madison.

Crescendo Espresso Bar and Music Cafe

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After-School Special

Name: Crescendo Espresso Bar and Music Cafe

Location: 1859 Monroe St, Madison, WI 53711

Ambience: Coffee shop

Cost: $

Best Dish: After School Special

Crescendo is another one of the small, local coffee shops that dot Madison. They are a great study space, with a darker interior, but the large window keeps it feeling open. The staff is very friendly — when I asked, the lady at the counter had a good suggestion for a drink, and mentioned that the music is chosen by the staff. They also have a small area where they sometimes have live music, adding to the feel of the place.

I didn’t quite enjoy their iced vanilla latte, because it was little too watery. However, their ‘after school special’ (at about $3.50), was very good — especially for someone who doesn’t like a strong coffee taste. It’s a blend of chocolate milk with cold brew, and is sweet with a very mild coffee flavor. It’s not as strongly chocolate flavored as a mocha, but the flavors come together very well. They also have a couple of unique options, like a nitrogen cold press and blueberry matcha tea (served either shaken or blended). A friend really liked the shaken version, mentioning that the blueberry really came through. Their black bean burrito was also quite good for a quick snack — although, I’d describe it more as a warm wrap and the salsa was lacking.

Crescendo is a nice spot on Monroe Street for a day of studying, with lots of options and a good atmosphere. It’s a little more spacious than other local coffee shops in Madison, and since it’s less well known, tends to be less crowded. The softer music also helps make a better studying environment.

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Blueberry Matcha (shaken, on the left) and an Iced Vanilla Latte (right)
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Mocha with Almond Milk

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.

Bassett Street Brunch Club

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Bananas Foster French Toast

Name: Bassett Street Brunch Club

Location: 444 W Johnson St, Madison, WI 53703

Ambience: Youthful, hip

Cost: $$

Best Dish: Bananas Foster French Toast

Bassett Street Brunch Club’s best asset is it’s atmosphere. It’s funky, and makes you want to be there. Their brunch is also exceptional — although they have some items on the menu that are easily forgotten, what they do make well is worth the trip. It’s best to stick to the brunch at Bassett, because that is what they’re known for — it is in their name, after all.

Their bananas foster french toast for $8.95 is easily their best dish. The challah bread holds up well against the egg batter, staying firm but still managing to soak up the flavor of the layered brown sugar rum sauce, infusing the dish with richness and warmth. It’s browned well, and the creaminess of the bananas is well complemented by the crunchy pecans that top it. Also phenomenal is the savory french toast (ordered without the bacon) for $9.95, with a hearty sourdough bread topped with well seasoned parmesan herb batter, softened onions, a perfectly cooked sunny-side up egg and hollandaise. The arugula on the side provides a nice bite and freshness. The mac attack for $9.95 was creamy, and the addition of parmesan on top and the butternut squash made it unique. However, it could have used more kale to cut through the cheesiness.

Bassett Street is known for its donuts, however, I found them to be on the denser side. Nevertheless, they excel at their brunch options, and are a great Saturday morning treat — with hefty portions, making the cost well worth it and leaving you with leftovers for the next day.

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Savory French Toast
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Mac Attack