There are beautiful restaurants where dining is an event. These places make the covers of dining publications like this one, as well they should.
There's also great pleasure in discovering great food in more unlikely environs: modest taverns, counters in ethnic grocery stores, storefronts in strip malls, converted gas stations, bowling alleys. Visiting these eateries, there's a feeling that you're blazing new trails. Go to these places after painting the living room, without changing your clothes. Pop in on your way home from work for fabulous carryout. Take your friends to them, or visitors from out of town, and watch them be amazed at the curries, fish fries, burgers and burritos that come from such everyday kitchens.
One of my favorite places to pick up takeout in Madison is the Corner Store. Until recently, the Corner Store has been half Williamson Street convenience store, half takeaway food. As of press time, the owners have carted out the convenience store half and are preparing to turn it into a larger seating area for diners. The store sells sub sandwiches and Mexican food, but I have to admit that I head straight for the Thai curries, of which there are several specials every day.
The rich stews are in warming pots, next to fresh rice in a rice cooker. Check the whiteboard for the daily specials, which frequently include chicken massaman or beef curry, or red squash and tofu curry, and the cook herself will ladle rice and sauce into a plain white takeout container. While short on veggies, the meat and potato curries show the delectable effects of long simmering - large cubes of fall-apart tender beef or chicken, potatoes soft from having absorbed the juices and the coconut milk. It's like the perfect marriage of a homey heartland stew with the sweeter flavors of Southeast Asia.
La Zacatecana is so unpromising, the "in" door appears to be covered over with plywood on the inside (the actual entrance is just to the right of the door that's marked "in"). Upon entering, you won't see the small dining area in this far-east-side Mexican grocery store. But head straight to the back, where a cash register sits next to a photo-menu on the wall; order and then head to the opposite side of the space, where you'll finally see a few dark wood tables. During a recent visit, the other tables were filled with a middle-aged couple speaking Spanish and a quartet of east-side hipsters talking about the current crisis in our state government. The walls, a bright Madonna blue, cheer the place up a little, but undeniably, eating in at La Zacatecana is a spartan affair.
Sure, you can get a burrito or tacos or a torta here. The burrito is huge, and grilled on the outside, and is perfectly fine. I like to come to La Zacatecana for the pupusas. As far as I know, this is the only place in Madison that serves pupusas, the handmade masa pancake stuffed with cheese, beans and/or ground pork (called chicharron, but different from the Mexican version) that is a hallmark of Salvadoran cuisine.
Have I had better pupusas at the El Salvador restaurant on South Archer in Chicago? Yes, but this is obviously a lot closer, and the pupusa not all that different. It's essentially a kind of heavy cornmeal variation on a grilled cheese sandwich, set off with a spicy, vinegary slaw called curtido. Ask for salsa, too.
While the Wildcat Lanes in Verona serves a full menu of bowling-friendly food, I can only vouch for the Friday fish fry, which is wildly popular and held upstairs in a large banquet room with wood paneling and red vinyl tablecloths. It's like a secular version of a church-hall fish fry.
The fish is haddock, moist and meaty, in a lightly seasoned batter. The coleslaw is very creamy, and the choice of potatoes is baked, french fries or hash browns (for an extra 50 cents). Onions and cheese add-ons are also available for those hash browns, and although they're enjoyable, I'd go with the baked. At $8.50 for two pieces of fish and $10 for three, the price, as my dad would say, is right.
Brothers Three has been around for years, just off Hwy. 30 at Fair Oaks Avenue. This once-upon-a-time gas station lacks the decorative flair of another east-side filling station rehab, Monty's Blue Plate, but behind the plain exterior, the food is really good. The interior is pretty standard Wisconsin tavern, with a curving bar in the center of the room and booths and tables along the walls. This is a popular spot for Friday fish fry, where the menu features fried cod but also grilled salmon, mahi-mahi or walleye, catfish and lake perch. There'll frequently be a little flourish, like a homemade mango salsa or a strip of avocado puree, that's not that common at the typical tavern fish fry.
It's also a good place to pick up a cheeseburger, a homemade soup-of-the-day and a piece of homemade cheesecake. Brothers Three serves breakfast with eggs, omelets, pancakes and french toast. For me, it's a little dark inside for breakfast, but that might work out for you if you're trying to recover from festivities of the night before.
Like Brothers Three, the Cottage Cafe has been around for as long as I can remember. It's the kind of clean American diner that network television crews would love to visit to drink in the real opinions of voters, if it were in Iowa and it was caucus time. Tucked away behind the fire station just off Cottage Grove Road, it shares space in a small shopping building with a Laundromat. On any given morning, the place will be filled with retirees having breakfast; on weekends and on weekdays when school is off, families come for pancakes and raisin French toast. The eggs Benedict (that comes with, admittedly, a surplus of Hollandaise sauce) has usually been my Cottage favorite.
I recently returned in search of biscuits and sausage gravy, a Southern breakfast standard that I'd become too fond of during my Thanksgiving visit to Atlanta last year. The potatoes O'Brien (which cannot be ordered without their onion, by the way) are a go-to side (not necessarily if one is eating the biscuits and gravy).
Oh, and the most expensive item on the menu is the walleye and eggs at $8; most items are less than $6. While the Cottage Cafe does serve lunch items like burgers and a soup and sandwich combo, I always order breakfast, which is served all day - that is, until 2 p.m., when the cafe closes.