Tag Archives: restaurants

Two good things I ate this week

Yesterday, a bowl of gumbo from New Orleans Take Out on Monroe.  So richly spiced as to be almost black, so thick with roux and file that it was almost not a soup.  This is non-traditional but I crumbled up and added my sweet cornbread to make of it a kind of granular black spicy undefined entity that was the best thing I ate this week.

Today, the Beef n Brew special slice at Ian’s Pizza.  Available only through tomorrow.  Thin-sliced coffee-rubbed steak from Fountain Prairie, roasted wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, and gravy.  Autumnal, superb.

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La wei si ji dou, or: eat at Fugu

At last there’s an acceptable, even pretty good, Chinese restaurant in downtown Madison:  Fugu, in the space formerly occupied by the misleadingly named Yummy Buffet.  (OK, to be fair, it was actually a buffet.)  It’s billed as pan-Asian but the management is from Hong Kong, and I’ve done well by sticking to the Chinese portion of the menu.  I particularly liked a dish called “cured meat with string beans,” which consisted mostly of very tender, very flavorful, very salty dry-cooked green beans, lightly sauced and studded with little ovals of something like a cross between Hebrew National salami and beef jerky.  The waiter told me the meat was pork but wasn’t able to give any further description.

Here’s how the dish was identified on the menu:

腊味四季豆

I decided to figure out what this actually meant — partly because I liked the dish so much, partly because I was interested to see if I could still use a Chinese dictionary, something I learned to do when I attempted to learn Chinese in high school.  I spent every Sunday morning of senior year going to Potomac Chinese School, where I was placed in a group consisting of non-Chinese adults and Chinese-American kids who had gotten kicked out of their regular class.  Suboptimal pedagogical environment.  And Chinese is really hard.  So I didn’t learn more than the rudiments, and I could never manage to say anything without waving my head in sync with the inflections.

I did learn how to look things up in the dictionary, though.  Here’s the trick:  each character has a kind of “fundamental piece,” usually the simplest element of the character.  In the second character above, it’s the little box on the left-hand side.  The fundamental pieces are listed in the dictionary in order of strokes; the little box has just three, so you find it on the list of three-stroke fundamental pieces, then you look at the sublist of “characters which are a little box + a five-stroke secondary piece,” and that’s a short enough list to search by eye, finding that 味 is “wei,” which means flavor.

The second character, 四, is one I remembered — it means “four.”  But I looked it up anyway, and was rewarded with the compound 四 季, “si ji”, which means “four seasons.”

Now here’s the part where it gets easier than it was when I was in high school — you can Google “wei si ji,” and you quickly find a menu offering “chuan wei si ji dou.”  And the character for “dou” is exactly the 豆 you’re looking for.  So you’ve got four out of five.

I tried to use Google magic to figure out the first character, but no use — I had to figure out the fundamental piece and look it up by hand.  This was the hardest part, but I eventually found out it was “la,” which means “sausage.”

So now we’ve got the whole thing:  “la wei si ji dou,” or something like “sausage with four-season flavor and beans.”

But of course this isn’t right — Googling various contiguous chunks of characters, you find that “si ji dou” is just the name of a particular kind of string bean.  According to this page,

The reference in the name “si ji dou”, (lit: four season bean) is likely due to the beans’ heartiness, and farmers’ ability to grow it in almost any season.

And “la wei” is the name of the meat:  according to a Chinese friend of a friend, “smoked or preserved pork sausage, similar to salami.”

In other words, the Chinese name of the dish is “cured meat with string beans.”

I still say the hour I spent doing this was worth it.  You never know when you might need to look something up in the Chinese dictionary, and now my skills are fresh.

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Why aren’t you eating at Osteria Papavero?

Well? Why?

Osteria Papavero is a relatively new downtown Italian. Small friendly room, small reliable menu. A ladder with some vines slung over it gives the place a rustic feel, and at the moment there’s an agreeably modest Christmas tree in the corner. The other night, Mrs. Q and I started with ribolitta (not on the menu, but the place is quite accommodating to vegetarians who want more choices than the menu offers) and a plate of Italian cheeses, highlighted by Ubriaco — a spicy tongue-warming tannic kind of cheese, new to me, that spends most of its life drenched in wine, and tastes like it. Mrs. Q ordered tagliatini in black truffle sauce and I had a kind of elongated orrechiette whose name I forget, in a sausage and mushroom ragout. Both completely conventional and no less satisfying for that. You need places like this in town, places that do everything within tradition and with no mistakes. Ideally in a small friendly room. The French version of this is Sardine (except Sardine is in a big friendly room.) Oh, and Papavero isn’t very expensive; $60 for the two of us with coffee and dessert but no wine.

But I’m pretty sure you’re not eating there! Because it’s been mostly empty whenever we’ve gone.

Other remarks:

  • A kind of trademark is fried bread in the breadbasket; salty and oily, it’s both delicious and the kind of thing you wouldn’t be shocked to be served at the state fair, which makes it a funny thing to be eating at a restaurant like this.
  • The dessert was maybe the only challenging thing we ate: a very good chocolate tart which was interesting by virtue of not being very sweet.
  • Our neighbor, a postdoc visiting from Italy, says Papavero is the only Italian restaurant in town that’s Italian.
  • We brought a friend with celiac here once, and the chef was a perfect angel about preparing food that wouldn’t sicken her.
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One more Mexican restaurant — Taqueria Guadalajara

On the advice of some of my commenters I took CJ to Taqueria Guadalajara tonight. Moral: believe everything you read in the comments! This homey place served me the first really satisfying torta I’ve eaten in Madison — with properly soft bread and a good balance of fillings. The meat has to assert itself without dominating, as in a successful patty burger. Guadalajara brings it off. The gordita and horchata looked and smelled very good, too, but CJ didn’t let me have any.

The dining room is pretty small, service at rush time is slow, and the atmosphere not particularly charming, unless you’ve been looking for a chance to catch up on El Gordo y La Flaca. They’re clearly doing a brisk takeout business; that might be the way to go.

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The worst Mexican restaurant in Madison, and a few others

Last week we had dinner at Pedro’s, the worst Mexican restaurant I’ve ever eaten in, surely the worst in Madison, and quite possibly the worst in the state. I ordered the chile relleno combination platter, whose only virtue was that, unlike most dishes served under that name, it was actually served on a platter. Everything on the plate was the color of a burnt sienna crayon. It also tasted like a burnt sienna crayon, if you rubbed the burnt sienna crayon with grease and then coated it in as much chili powder as would stick.

CJ’s kid’s meal was an enchilada filled with a gummy yellow cheese of which he said, “This is not my favorite kind of cheese.”

I suppose one must admire la chutzpah of billing the contents of the seafood enchiladas as “imitation Alaskan crab meat.”

But let us speak of nicer things. Let’s say you’re in Madison, hankering for Mexican, and your plans don’t include ingesting 1500 calories of greasy crayon. I do have some suggestions. Our favorite place in town is El Pastor, on South Park Street, just inside the Beltline. Simple favorites done well in a pleasant setting, plus some items not on every menu in town — I like the tampiqueña. A somewhat fancier option is La Mestiza, which emphasizes seafood and moles over burritos and tacos. We joined Eating in Madison A to Z there in February. Back to burritos and tacos: when it’s just me and CJ, we often hit Mi Cocina on the west side, where there’s a toddler at almost every table and they bring you crayons along with the chips. The food is standard and competent. I’ve never been to far-south Taqueria Miramar, but there’s a sorority on campus that sometimes buys their tamales and sells them in Ingraham Hall, and it’s always a good day when that sorority shows up. Pasqual’s serves a California/New Mexico-style menu, lighter and more vegetarian-friendly than most places in town; always pleasant, seldom spectacular.

The rest of the field: I stopped at Casa de Lara on State Street once and had an indifferent torta, old-tasting bread and too heavy on the beans. Tex Tubb’s on University somehow suggests that it’s going to be an above average, slightly inventive Mexican a la Pasqual’s, but ends up being just ordinary and a little expensive. Taqueria del Lago, inside Memorial Union, is exactly like Chipotle, and if you like Chipotle, you’ll like it. I do not.

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In which we hit the big (blog) time on Eating in Madison A to Z

A few weeks ago Mrs. Q, CJ, and I had the great pleasure of eating dinner with Nichole and JM, the alphabetically omnivorous proprietors of Eating in Madison A to Z. Their report on our meal at Oaxacan newcomer La Mestiza is up now. I stand by it, except for one thing — they call the pickled vegetables “delightfully hot” while I would go with something more like “too spicy for anyone who orders their Thai food medium or below.”

Another nice feature of their review: it taught me the word molcajete. I think of myself as a man who knows his guacamole, but this was new vocab for me.

I’ll be reading the rest of the “La”s carefully — I still haven’t found a real standout Mexican restaurant in Madison, though Tacqueria El Pastor is certainly satisfactory.

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The restaurant hall of fame as far as I’m concerned

Since I just mentioned Tastee Diner, it’s a good time to link to The Restaurant Hall of Fame as far as I’m concerned, a record of some of my favorite places as of 2002. I’ll probably never get around to updating the page, but if I did, I’d replace Cha Am with Ruen Pair, just outside Berkeley in Albany, CA, the best Thai restaurant I’ve ever been to. And while we’re talking Albany, the best Chinese restaurant I’ve ever been to is there too: China Village, a Sichuan glory. Probably even better now that Sichuan peppercorns are legal again. For haute cuisine in Paris, L’Astor. Arthur Bryant’s easily takes the barbecue crown from Redbone’s. I hate to say it, but as much as I like eating in Madison, so far no place here cracks my all-time list.

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