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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  A Few Clouds
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State Street, 2 a.m.: Where you gonna eat?
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Pigtail Dogs
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

Gaggles of scantily clad girls are caterwauling at friends across Gorham Street. Shirtless guys are attempting to carry each other, re-creating the bro-mantic images of Abercrombie & Fitch. The reek of weed mixes with the already heady haze of cheap perfume, fried food, stale beer and manure from the mounted police horses. It is State Street at 2 a.m. on a weekend night. You've been drinking and are ravenously hungry.

Where to go? Here are a few the street's hangover-curbing bar-time hits of the moment.

Parthenon and Pizza di Roma are by now venerable institutions, and the scenes at both are almost staid by comparison to the rest of State Street.

At Pizza di Roma you can get as good an urban slice as anywhere. The pizza is almost two-dimensionally flat, huge and satisfyingly greasy. If you have a friend who has not shut up since the second drink, head here and enjoy the silence while mowing crust and cheese under the fluorescent lights.

Heaped with what seems like a quarter pound of raw onions, Parthenon's giant gyro-fry combos function as contraceptives. The fries burn your mouth and the tzatziki has vampire-killing amounts of garlic. Yet there is something addictive about the slightly sour gyro lamb.

Sometimes General Tso's chicken is what the reptilian part of the brain demands, and Asian Kitchen serves it hot and fast. Ignore the horrendous amounts of calories while consuming the divinely crunchy, caramelly nuggets. General Tso is equal parts guilt and lust over rice.

I had assumed Pita Pit was too, well, healthy, and at first I skipped it. A mistake. The huge, quality pitas are impressive. The falafel sandwich -- loaded with grainy, greasy falafel as well as fistfuls of fresh veggies -- is intensely crave-worthy.

Further down the street, Fat Sandwich Company channels the American Pie sensibility with raunchy names for equally raunchy sandwiches. There's the Fat Milf, the Fat Frat and so on. The horrifying Fat Sorostitute is a huge bun packed with buffalo chicken bites, mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers, ranch dressing and fries. It is difficult to decide whether this sandwich is the sign of a civilization in decline or a convenient vehicle for things you would have ordered separately anyway.

While almost every brick-and-mortar establishment on the street is trying to attract the bar-time zombies, the real heart of the drunken food scene takes place at the food carts.

Two hot dog stands anchor the ends of Frances Street: Silky's Hot Dogs in front of Wando's and Pigtail Dogs next to the University Inn. They both serve good dogs and attract convivial crowds.

Antojitos el Toril, the restaurant on Cottage Grove Road, brings down a bright green cart to Broom Street right off State. A line forms for its massive burritos, which diners cradle in their arms like newborn babies as they stumble away. This is relatively healthy food in a mobile, uncomplicated package.

But if there is one late-night dining destination that defines the State Street experience, it is JD's, on the corner of State and Broom. The full name is JD's Chicago Maxwell Polish Sausage & Steak Burger. The most popular item is the chicken sandwich, which isn't even on the menu.

Because everything is cooked to order, and the griddle and fryer space is limited, only six or so sandwiches come out at a time. The wait feels like eternity. If things are progressing slower than normal, customers begin to beg. "I'm a regular," a guy next to me whines, waving cash. Another starts bidding on people's sandwiches ahead of him in line.

The legendary chicken sandwich is three chunks of expertly battered and fried chicken on a hamburger bun with shredded lettuce, mayo and Frank's Red Hot Sauce. First you get the amazing crunch. Then the vinegary sauce shoots up your nostrils. As you reach the cool mayo and the toothy give from the soft bun, you realize what all the fuss is about. This is as good as it gets, the essence of Chicken Sandwich itself.

As perfect as this is, the real surprise is JD's "Steak." Imagine two square slices of Wonder Bread, mayo, ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato and melted American cheese. Add to this a large burger that has been cooked, from frozen, on a slow griddle. By the time the meat is done, a crispy, caramelized layer nearly an eighth of an inch thick has formed on one side. It's the best burger experience I've had since Minetta Tavern's $26 Black Label Burger in New York. Well worth the wait.

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