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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  A Few Clouds
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'I'll have the usual': Food we just can't stop ordering at Madison restaurants
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Credit:Timothy Hughes

We all go out for a special meal every now and then. But where do we go the rest of the time, for the meal that's so good we just keep eating it over and over again? Isthmus staffers are passionate on this subject. Read on for a tour of Madison's most reliable menu items, ranging from cart fare to fine dining. If you've never ordered them yourself, you may want to adopt some of these old favorites as your own new favorites.


Breakfast

Corned Beef Hash
Original Pancake House, 5518 University Ave.; 516 River Place
The Original Pancake House offers seemingly unlimited ways to clog your arteries, thanks to the menu of buttery, cheesy, eggy breakfast delights. My favorite is the corned beef hash, a dense mélange of meat, potato, onions and cream. I like it served with two eggs cooked over easy on top. This being a pancake house, a stack of pancakes, complete with giant dollop of butter, accompanies the hash. By the time I have wolfed all this down with juice and a newspaper on a Sunday morning, I am ready to go back to bed. - Kenneth Burns

Aero Mexico Omelet
Pat O'Malley's Jet Room, Wisconsin Aviation, 3606 Corben Ct.
Naming a three-egg Spanish omelet for a Central American airline lends the sense of boarding a flight fueled by green pepper, onion, tomato, pepper-jack cheese, salsa and sour cream. The galley is behind the counter, the industrious cook staff in plain view. The Jet Room's tables afford a view of small private jets and props as they come and go on the back side of Dane County Regional Airport. The waitstaff is as attentive and patient as flight attendants used to be in the old days. Adding to the Aero Mexico Omelet's appeal is the way it conveys the savory taste of destinations like Puerto Vallarta and leaves me feeling ready for a siesta. - David Medaris

Garlic Bagel with Plain Cream Cheese and Medium Coffee
Gotham New York Bagels & Eats, 112 East Mifflin St.; 702 S. Park St.,
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, but often I don't get up early enough to prepare and savor it. Lucky for me, Gotham New York Bagels is on the way to work. Even in Manhattan, people complain that it's hard to find authentic bagels, but Madison somehow lucked out with the real deal. Gotham boils and handrolls all its bagels before baking them. You can find the usual toppings and flavors here: garlic (my favorite), everything (a close second), poppy, sesame, pumpernickel, etc. There are fancy flavored cream cheeses and even tofu spreads, but I prefer the simplicity of plain cream cheese. Why mess with a classic? - Joe Tarr

The Big Irish Breakfast
Brocach Irish Pub and Restaurant, 7 West Main St.
The Big Irish Breakfast, a must for dedicated carnivores, has what it takes to be the most important meal at any time of day or night. Two eggs, cooked to order, are the heart of an archetypal full breakfast, but here they're really a sideshow. Four forms of pork are the main event. Both a rotund link of Irish sausage and a glistening rasher of back bacon eclipse their standard diner counterparts. Even better are twin paired medallions of black and white pudding, their blood and offal flavors essential. Baked beans and a grilled half tomato seem like an afterthought, but they provide sweet and tart interludes between the bouts of salty carnage. Toast coated with butter, jam or plate drippings completes the setting. Best accompanied by a pint of plain. - Kristian Knutsen

Dairyland Skillet
Dairyland Family Restaurant, 716 Cottage Grove Rd.
Breakfast is not the time for culinary experimentation. When eating a full meal in the morning, I want something that will be hearty and not of questionable edibility for anyone with basic tastes. The Dairyland Skillet (a.k.a. Special, for those who remember the older menu appellation) is about as standard as it gets - fried potatoes, green peppers and onions, with the diner's choice of bacon, sausage or ham mixed in. Since this is the Dairy State it's covered with melted cheese, and can even be augmented by a couple eggs dumped on top. I'm pretty sure this dish has saved my life at least a couple times, following nights out on the town that included a Blatz or PBR overdose. - Bob Koch

Lunch

Lunch Buffet
Maharani Indian Restaurant, 380 W. Washington Ave.
A lot of people stay away from Indian buffets because they're prone to gorge themselves. But I prefer the buffet because you get a sampling of everything. In Madison, Maharani stands above the rest because of the breadth of options. Each buffet includes appetizers like samosas and pakoras; several entrees, both meat and vegetarian and often fish; salads; dal; a soup; and deserts, including my favorite, Gulab Jamun. It's true that you need a bit of self-restraint if you don't want to end up in a coma for the rest of the day. But Indian food is comfort food. On a winter day, there's no better way to warm your soul. - Joe Tarr

Salads

Greek Chicken Salad
Otto's Restaurant, 6405 Mineral Point Rd.
Greek Chicken Salad is what it says on the menu at this pleasant west-side institution, but the addendum says you can substitute four ounces of Angus steak for the chicken. That's the way I like it. The salad also contains romaine lettuce, feta, pine nuts, kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions with oregano vinaigrette dressing. If you're a meat eater, this is a tasty way to get that fix with a healthy, crunchy Mediterranean flair. It's especially refreshing in the summertime and doesn't leave you in a leaden postprandial stupor. - Vince O'Hern

Maize Salad
Alchemy, 1980 Atwood Ave.
You've never tasted garbanzo beans this good before. Alchemy's maize salad serves garbanzos marinated in chile, lime and cilantro over a bed of crisp mixed greens. Additional veggies (red pepper, red onion and roma tomatoes) make the salad pretty and bright, but the savory topping that pulls it all together is the roasted corn and shallot vinaigrette. It complements and doesn't overpower the other flavors. Generous as a main dish, this salad delivers protein and produce in a very tasty package. - Kathy Bailey

Sandwiches

Grilled Canadian Walleye Sandwich
The Weary Traveler, 1201 Williamson St.
The Weary Traveler's West of the Andes sandwich has achieved legendary status (an out-of-town friend refers to it, simply, as "The Sandwich"), but rare is the visit when I even glance at the menu. I go for the Grilled Canadian Walleye Sandwich every time. Like many of the tavern's offerings, it's served on a homemade roll and topped with a delicious homemade sauce, in this case a tangy poblano tartar sauce that doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the fish. And whereas the West of the Andes is served with just greens, the Weary's delicious fried potatoes also accompany the walleye sandwich. Keep your guard up, as envious companions have been known to try and spear a few for their own plates. - Jason Joyce

Large #3 Sub
Fraboni's Italian Specialties & Delicatessen, 822 Regent St. and 108 Owen Rd.
Two cheeses from a choice of cheddar, mozzarella, provolone and Swiss. This is the foundation for the meatiest vegetarian lunch I've ever devoured. Lettuce, tomatoes and Fraboni's fabled sub sauce come standard on a big hocking baguette-shaped roll. It hooked me more than 30 years ago: As an undergrad, I must have averaged at least one a week, kicking it up with the addition of artichoke hearts for a modest surcharge. I've since switched to onions and peppers, and if the frequency has dropped to maybe once a month, I still can't come within a mile of Fraboni's without a Pavlovian response. This sub is also responsible for my introduction to the English Beat, but that's a whole other story. - David Medaris

Chicken Salad Croissant
The Great Dane, 123 E. Doty St.; 357 Price Place; 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg
I think of chicken salad as a classic ladies-who-lunch favorite, something Joan Holloway might order at the Menken's department store café on Mad Men. The Dane's is great: chunky white meat with crispy diced onions and chopped parsley in a creamy mayo dressing. It's served with leaf lettuce, tomato and thin red onion slices that add another tangy kick. It only gets better with...bacon! Two tasty slices of the applewood-smoked variety all on a buttery fresh croissant, surely the baked good of the gods. Skip the sides so you can eat it all. - Ellen J. Meany

World's Greatest Sandwich
Mickey's Tavern, 1524 Williamson St.
Bacon, lettuce, tomato, Swiss, fried egg and mayo on sourdough bread. It sounds ordinary enough, but the World's Greatest Sandwich from Mickey's Tavern is anything but. It looks unassuming on a vintage plate, with a side of coleslaw to keep it company. But slice into this heavenly bad boy and the fried egg breaks open, slathering itself with delicious runny yoke. I tried this sandwich when Mickey's first began serving food in the fall of 2007, and I have not ordered another entrée on their menu since. I mean, it is the world's greatest, right? - Megan Larson

Irish Road Reuben
The Great Dane, 123 E. Doty St.; 357 Price Place; 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg
The best Reuben I ever had was in a small-town diner in the middle of nowhere (the cost, with coleslaw and fries, was $5.50), and some of the worst have been at upscale restaurants. The Great Dane's Reuben is always dependably good. The corned beef is lean and shaved thin, the sauerkraut is never too abundant, the sandwich is served on seedless marble rye, and the Thousand Island comes on the side. As with all good Reubens, it's slightly tart and tiptoes to the edge of being messy without going too far. A side of coleslaw even makes it feel like a healthy meal. - Bill Lueders

Burgers

Walnut Burger
The Harmony Bar & Grill, 2201 Atwood Ave.
Nothing beats a hamburger at the Harmony - with the possible exception of this thick slab of not-meat seasoned and grilled to perfection. The recipe is some sort of top secret, on a par with nuclear access codes, but the taste is simply delicious, moist and pleasantly textured, far better than the Boca burger options available at the supermarket. Add in a side of the bar's trademark fried potato chips and you can come away fully satisfied - physically and morally. - Bill Lueders

Wisconsin Pride Burger
Daisy Cafe & Cupcakery, 2827 Atwood Ave.
The burgers at the Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery are all pretty heavy-duty affairs - the baseline includes a half-pound patty - but the Wisconsin Pride Burger is definitely the heaviest. Along with the standard tomato slice and generous heaping of spring mix lettuce, the Daisy has added bacon and a pile of cheese curds. Though the concept could get messy, it holds together well, partially anchored as the cheese begins to cool down a bit. The more health-conscious diner can still feel a bit better about ordering this monster compared to a typical burger plate, as it doesn't come with french fries but with a side of edamame salad or fiesta veggie slaw. The only downside: There's rarely room left for a cupcake! - Bob Koch

Entrees

Brats and Mash
The Great Dane, 123 E. Doty St.; 357 Price Place; 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg
Although I am not a native of this area, I have come to love the bratwurst, the sausage that is adored by Wisconsinites and simply has it all over its lowly cousin the frankfurter. I prefer a brat on a bun, with mustard, but this is a delightful alternative. It's a variation on English bangers and mash, with hearty brats replacing the bangers. (I've never sampled bangers, but I suspect the substitution is for the best.) Tangy sauerkraut accompanies the mashed potatoes, along with the stewed apples that give this dish an autumnal vibe. - Kenneth Burns

Southwest Tortellini
The Great Dane, 123 E. Doty St.; 357 Price Place; 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg
Maybe it's the allure of my dream life in Firenze, but I have always loved spinach, raw and cooked. Here's a dish that serves it twice. Spinach and cheese tortellini is tossed in a creamy bechamel sauce that hints less of its cilantro pesto than of spicy nutmeg. I'm okay with that. The chef mixes in a generous spoonful of black bean and tomato salsa and covers it with freshly steamed baby spinach. Shaved Parmesan melts on top like frosting on a gooey green cake. Two garlicky French bread spears, buttered and toasted brown face-down on the grill, are the only accompaniment I need. There are always leftovers; it's too good to eat all at once. - Ellen J. Meany

Wheat Glutens with Double Winter Delight
Imperial Garden, 2039 Allen Blvd.
"Wheat glutens" sounds like some industrial byproduct. But forget the name and concentrate on the taste. These little dumplings are tender and juicy, with a meaty quality you don't often find in vegetarian dishes. Imperial Garden surrounds them with a festival of textures, from crunchy peapods to spongy black mushrooms. Add in the rich brown gravy and you achieve the other part of this dish's name: "delight." - Dean Robbins

Liver and Onions
Nick's Restaurant, 226 State St.
The L&O society meets irregularly, but it's always at Nick's and always on Wednesdays. The primary reason for this is that Nick's is the rare restaurant that serves the dish, and it only serves it on Wednesdays. Some people would say that that's one day too many. But I've been eating liver and onions my whole life. My mother made a particularly savory version, ostensibly because of my younger brother's anemia. It's supposed to be a good source of iron. I like it for the flavor, highlighted by the sweet taste of the fried onions. Order it with boiled potatoes for the buttery contrast, or home fries, the salty complement. - Vince O'Hern

Jerk Pork Dinner
David's Jamaican, 5734 Monona Dr.
Confession: I've never been to Jamaica, but I'm transported there in spirit every time I go to David's Jamaican. With its sunny paint job, laid-back atmosphere and cold Red Stripe, it's island time on Monona Drive. And in spite of the other tempting offerings on the menu (ackee, anyone?), I always return to my first love, their jerk pork dinner. The huge serving of tender shredded pork comes with rice and a salad of shredded lettuce, carrots and cabbage. But best of all, it comes with their house jerk sauce, which is vinegary and spicy and out of this world. Add in an order of fried plantains and you'll swear you have beach sand in your flip-flops. - Michana Buchman

Tofu Secuwa
Chautara, 334 State St.
If there's a gateway into tofu for those who dislike the pressed soybean product, it has to be the grilled skewers known as tofu secuwa at Chautara. The tofu is marinated and grilled; the charred exterior gives way to a softer, flavorful inside. Speared alongside chunks of onion and green pepper, it's sauced with an oniony, sassy soy sauce and sesame oil dressing. Tofu secuwa isn't like a substitute for meat; it's a kebab that stands, and satisfies, on its own. - Linda Falkenstein

Sushi
Wasabi, 449 State St.
You can blow a lot of money on sushi, but if you go on a more-than-empty stomach, you can enjoy a bit of fine dining on the cheap. Wasabi's décor is a far cry from fine dining - it's got the feel of a generic strip mall restaurant. But it's also got some of the best sushi in town, the rice prepared expertly, the fish and all the other ingredients fresh, the presentation inventive. - Joe Tarr

Combination Platter
Himal Chuli, 318 State St.

Himal Chuli has earned a reputation as a Madison institution, particularly as a choice of first resort for a rewarding vegetarian meal. Vegetarian food is at its best when it transcends the level of meat analogues, a principle superbly illustrated here. The meal opens with a cup of dal, a soul-warming mixed bean soup. Even more winning are two momocha, steamed dumplings redolent of peanuts and paired with a likewise fragrant tomato-coriander sauce and a single ripe potato-and-pea-stuffed samosa anointed with yogurt. Two accompanying pillowy roundels of hearty wheat or caraway-studded white roti, a fresh-baked flatbread, should be dipped in the soup, yogurt and sauce to both fulfill the combination potential and clean the plate. - Kristian Knutsen

Eggplant Napoletana
Lombardino's, 2500 University Ave.
Forget the eggplant Parmesan served in most Madison restaurants, drowning in red sauce with a gummy cheese coating. Lombardino's makes magic by combining caramelized onions, basil, mozzarella and just the right amount of tomato marinara. Eggplant's texture is tough to get right, but the Napoletana version is a perfect combination of crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, with a bed of spaghetti as a chewy counterpoint. The secret ingredient: golden raisins, which give each bite a subtle sweetness. - Dean Robbins

Sides

Coleslaw
The Great Dane, 123 E. Doty St.; 357 Price Place; 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg
No two coleslaws are ever the same, it seems, but too often the kind favored by Wisconsin restaurants features cabbage shredded to an unpleasant texture and soaked in vinegar. The Great Dane does a lot of things right with its side dishes, and one of them is opting for a creamy coleslaw with nice big hunks of cabbage and carrots. It's crunchy and perfectly seasoned to zesty while remaining refreshing. Even better, the restaurant serves it in a ramekin, which means its dressing won't coat the plate, turning your sandwich soggy. How considerate. - Jason Joyce

Deep-Fried Chicken Livers
Madtowne Fried Chicken, 1901 S. Park St.
In the 1970s, during a family vacation out west, at a now-defunct gas station/eatery chain called Nickerson Farms, I discovered deep-fried chicken livers. This is the kind of rich indulgence one shouldn't make a habit of, so I don't do this often. But if I do pop in to Madtowne Fried Chicken, it will be for a side of its spicy, crunchy, earthy livers. - Linda Falkenstein

Drinks

Ryan's Baby
Opus Lounge, 116 King St.
The menu at Opus boasts a slew of signature cocktails, and the barkeeps guard the recipes as trade secrets. Sweet is a keyword for this one. It's listed as a martini that tastes like lemon meringue pie, "really," and it delivers. Vodka is the base, and it packs a lemon tang, but pineapple juice adds the creamy viscosity reminiscent of pie filling. The drink is poured into an ice-cold martini glass with a thin slice of lemon afloat, and the rim is crusted with finely crushed cinnamon-sugar graham crackers, topping off that freshly baked feel. Ryan's Baby should be an only child: One is all it takes. - Ellen J. Meany

Ancora Black Thunder
Ancora Coffee Roasters, 112 King St., 2871 University Ave.
Ordering a Black Thunder, one of Ancora's signature French Roasted brews, on a Friday morning after a long week and, quite possibly, a late night shows you're not going to let your exhaustion deter you from the job that needs doing. Simply announcing the name is satisfying, and declaring that you won't be needing room for cream is a badge of honor. Knowing nothing about coffee, I have no notes about overtones or accents or finishes, but Black Thunder is, indeed, strong and smooth. Just try sitting still after downing 12 ounces. - Jason Joyce

Nilgiri Iced Tea
Marigold Kitchen, 110 S. Pinckney St.
Marigold now offers green iced tea as well, but I've been drinking its black iced tea since the Kitchen's opening day. Part of it is the convenient proximity, across Pinckney from Isthmus. But most of its appeal is in the dark fragrance and crisp taste going down, and the clean, refreshing clarity that lingers in the throat and olfactory senses. It's an engine for my quality of life in the below-zero dead of winter as well as the withering heat and humidity of summer. - David Medaris

Carts

Bean Burrito
Burrito Loco, Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Pretend you've lost everything. For whatever reason, you've got no job, no friends; not even your mom will talk to you. You open up your wallet and find your last lonely six bucks. Perhaps you'd be tempted to spend it on a beer, but instead you should swing by Burrito Loco, the reigning king of Capitol Square food carts. Stuffed with as much beans, cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, lettuce, guacamole and meat as can possibly fit into a tortilla, this lunchtime delight will keep you satisfied for hours. - Joe Tarr

Chicken Cheddar Bacon Pasty
LMNOPies, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Bit of a guilty pleasure, this, but at $5 it's about as rich as I've tasted for such a low price. The flaky crust is an utter delight, more akin to pastry than a traditional doughy pasty shell, yet it holds up quite well as a pocket for its contents: creamy cheese sauce, chicken and bacon. At 12 ounces, it's substantial enough to turn lunch at your desk into more than a quick bite, yet not so overwhelming that you risk an involuntary nap. - David Medaris

Rhubarb Turnover
Stella's Bakery, Wednesday Farmers' Market, Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The rhubarb turnover is not always available during Farmers' Market season, but when it is, this is my gold-standard second breakfast for Wednesday. More tart than sweet, the abundant rhubarb comes in a pocket of heavy dough substantial enough to satisfy my most relentless mid-morning carb craving. - David Medaris

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