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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 55.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Head to the Baldwin Street Grille for the meat raffle
A town tap for the near east side
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Credit:Marcelle Richards

I think I may have earned my townie badge this week at Baldwin Street Grille.

The building at 1304 E. Washington Ave. had formerly been J.T.'s Friendly Tavern and Pug Mahones, but also had been empty for a while. The TVs and music can be loud, and if you go on the later side of the day you might find that you've ended up in a karaoke time warp of the '80s hair-band variety.

My initial thought was that, inside, it didn't feel like I was in Madison anymore. But let's amend that - it didn't feel like the Madison I knew, even though it's in the middle of my near-east-side neighborhood. There were many faces I hadn't seen; and thank goodness, more racial diversity, too.

It's mostly a working-class crowd with a few trust-fund-baby stragglers. Despite not wearing blue collar on my sleeve, I wear it in the scars on my arms and the aches in my back. This enclave of Madison, I realized, was mine at heart, too. It's divey, it's affordable, and come on, there's a weekly Sunday meat raffle. Ten rounds, a dollar a pop, for the chance to win rib-eyes, pork chops and such.

They called #17.

"Whoo!" our table screamed, hands flung to the ceiling.

We won enough pork chops to fill a shoebox. What a way to lose my meat-raffle virginity.

The two-sided menu is also a game of chance, but the thin-cut sweet potato fries are one item worth a visit. The lightly battered crisp exterior crackles; in the same bite the sweet, soft inside reminds you of the mother tuber. Come up with a dipping sauce for these fries and they could be a signature appetizer on the menu.

I rarely say this, but I'd order the veggie burger here over any of their beef burgers (which are still decent for the price). The veggie patty reminds me of sausage in texture (think of it as pleasant toothiness), and the sandwich is adorned with avocado, lettuce, tomato, sprouts and garlic aioli. This is how you do it.

The hot "wings" here are actually a mix of wings and drumsticks, but never mind - the house sauce is burny-good and the chicken is tender. The reuben with corned beef, too, is solid at $7. While the Weary Traveler and Nick's Restaurant are still my top picks for reubens, this is a well-proportioned option for a few dollars less.

Overall, though, I think the menu is trying to do too many things, and not all of them especially well.

The Juicy Lucy - a Minnesota-derived burger pocket filled with cheese - has much potential because these are hard to come by in Madison. But the Juicy Lucy, alas, was not so juicy the first go-around, as the seams weren't sealed around the cheese. It tasted and looked like a double cheeseburger. I reordered it on another visit. A "Moist Molly" would fly as an appropriate name - definitely juicer, but still leaky at the edges. I'd like to see the edges sealed completely; I dream of it. I'm talking burn risk from gushing molten cheese centers. Please bring it, Baldwin Street Grille, because I will come.

As for dogs on the menu, the "marinated" but bland Big Bird chicken sandwich should go the way of the dodo. A number of salads are offered, but the wedge with bleu cheese and bacon needs more toppings to bring life to the iceberg. And take your chances with the specials. Thursday's jambalaya was way overcooked and under-seasoned; Wednesday's fish fry was unavailable the week we tried to order it.

Service too requires some decision-making. Do we wait to be seated at a table or go to the bar? The bartenders double as servers, so you may need to be proactive.

The tap beer selection, however, is one of the best microbrew lineups I've seen in town, including a few that I often have trouble finding on tap, such as O'so's Night Train and Rogue's Dead Guy Ale, perfect for accompanying those sweet potato fries.

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