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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  Overcast
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The new Tip Top Tavern has a confident menu, solid beer list and classic cocktails
Working-class hero
The Little Oscar upgrades fried bologna.
Credit:Laura Zastro

Almost everything you need to know about the re-minted Tip Top Tavern can be learned from the fried bologna sandwich called the Little Oscar.

It does not, of course, tell the full history of this little corner bar, reminiscent of the 20th century: that the former owner was sure the smoking ban would kill the business (it didn't), or that remodeling the ramshackle space took far longer than expected. (In May of 2013, the hope was for a June opening. In November, plans had shifted to December. The doors finally opened at the end of January 2014, and the full menu was even longer in rolling out.)

But the Little Oscar will give you a hint that fond memories of the original Tip Top are as much ironic as they are genuine. The sandwich is, after all, fried bologna with yellow mustard and mayo on white. But that white isn't Wonder, it's crusty and tangy, griddle-crisped with butter to a mouth-scraping crunch. And the bologna isn't grocery store-grade; it's far better than that, salty and browned around the edges. The Little Oscar is also kind of huge.

This haute/mess pattern continues with chicken burlesque, one of the large-portion starters. Yes, they're chicken fingers, but tuned up nicely. The white meat is tender and juicy, and the barbecue version I had was sweet and just fried enough to evoke a candied surface. Mac and cheese is on the menu, too, but it's of the green chile variety. It's not exceptionally cheesy, with the mildly spicy green chile flavor taking center stage, balanced with a restrained amount of dairy.

Patrons might intuit via the Little Oscar that the Tip Top has a sense of humor. (See also the chicken burlesque, a.k.a. chicken strips -- get it?) A BLT variant called the BLT of Doom was on the specials board one night, created on a whim that very day, but the giggles lasted for exactly one bite. Take a BLT and grill the tomato, then add onion, jalapeño and avocado, and you're looking at a potently delicious sandwich.

The Catfish Rich-Boy is composed of Guinness-battered fish with a slightly fancified smoked remoulade. Not a po'boy, indeed. It was more sad than funny, though, with excessive sauce and a small, overfried piece of catfish lost in a sogged-out bun.

With the Oscar Mayer plant just a stone's throw away, the Little Oscar emphasizes this is still, for all its coolness, a blue-collar neighborhood bar. Burgers are big and sturdy. The one called the D. Williams is topped with sweet onions and a "bourbon relish" that evoked neither bourbon nor relish. It tasted like a house-made A-1 clone, but I like A-1, and it held the sweetness in check.

It's a bar, so of course there's a Reuben, one stuffed with exceptional pastrami. I asked if it was house-made, but never heard back. (This is emblematic of Tip Top's scattered service, perhaps overmatched by the immediate popularity of the joint.) Fried foods fill most of the starter menu, from above-average frites to very salty (but tasty) cheese curds, from flaccid and messy onion rings better suited for topping burgers to tempura-esque fried pickle slices that are worth the upcharge. Even with upgraded sides, most dishes at Tip Top are priced right for the neighborhood.

Thanks to the Little Oscar's ability to meet and exceed expectations, you should learn that Tip Top is run by people who know food. The green chile carnitas, befuddlingly placed in the starter section, is more evidence of same. It's a big bowl of vibrant, rich flavors: pork, over-medium egg, verdant green chile, and more than enough for a meal. The meatless Vedge burger could use a touch more body and texture, but excellent flavors make it a sight more interesting than the average black bean patty.

Even the various dips and sauces, all house-made from what I could tell, are worth a dunk. Seek out the ranch and blue cheese dips, and a remarkable strawberry jalapeño jam. Considering the lineage behind this new Tip Top -- owner Benjamin Altschul is the son and business partner of Jane Capito, proprietor of Lazy Jane's and Mickey's Tavern, and brother to Gilbert Altschul of Grampa's Pizzeria -- a certain confidence with menu creation is expected.

The beer list is solid, currently enhanced by a couple nitro lines in addition to the regulars. House cocktails feel a little counterintuitive, but as with much of the menu, they are mainly riffs on existing classics. I assumed the old fashioned variation called Rakish was in reference to the debonair devils seen sipping these on Mad Men, but the server read it back as "ra-KEESH." I never learned what the deal was there, but it was good, an old fashioned made new.

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