The patacon pisao is impossibly crunchy and fresh.
When the Berge brothers opened Cortadito Express inside the former coatroom of the Cardinal Bar, the walk-up Cuban bites/coffee stop didn't fully connect with customers. There was the host bar's hours to work around, an issue with getting inside to eat without paying the club's cover, and the bigger hurdle of accustoming Madisonians to a not-quite-restaurant-not-quite-cart concept that, even though its footprint was small, had a lot of moving parts.
There's a lesson; if diners can't quickly answer 'What is it?' and 'How do I eat there?' it spells trouble.
Slowly, however, bikers, coffee freaks, night owls and downtown workers began to put Cortadito on their regular rounds -- the coffee was flavorful, the food good, the lake view on the patio a draw -- but then it closed. The move may have been premature.
Cashing in on the work the Berges did to habituate diners to the idea of food at the Cardinal, the restaurant La Taguara (with a main branch on East Wash) has moved in, offering authentic versions of Venezuelan classics.
The new tenants bring a healthy street mentality to the spot's awkward sidewalk window. Employees thrust themselves fully outside the opening, gregariously interacting with customers. Inside, buzzing and blinking pagers make waiting for orders a snap. These are especially helpful during busy bar hours.
It's also not going to hurt La Taguara that an emphasis on fried food keeps it in line with what Cortadito offered. And the menu, while shorter than the one at the East Wash location, is wide-ranging. Being more than just bites matters for pull at this location.
Though the appetizers are mostly fried, the list does sport items that are not greasy and arrive hot and crisped to perfection. Notable among these are the delightful bolitas de queso, fluffy yet crunchy masa balls served with a snappy green guasacaca sauce -- a distinctly Venezuelan avocado salsa that is fresh and creamy. Almost as compelling are the tostones, garlicky plantains that are crunchy and a little sweet.
Chicken wings, served only at this location, aren't spicy and nothing out of the ordinary, but as a nod to the bartime, protein-craving crowd, they are a smart option.
The real star among the snacks is the rompe colchon, a rather goopy version of ceviche that satisfies both a yearning for bright, fresh shrimp with cilantro as well as the urge for unctuous dip with crunchy chips. It's possibly the light yet filling nosh of your dreams.
Larger bites include the arepa, a Venezualan signature food that is a kissing cousin to the Mexican gordita. The masa flour used is crunchier than in Mexico, and the toothy shell can be ordered with chicken or pork. With a heaping dollop of the guasacaca sauce, this may be as close to speedy, straight-from-the-curb street food as Madison gets. Maddeningly wolfable.
Billed as "Venezuala's national dish," pabellon leads the largish options as a plate of black beans, shredded beef, rice, fried plantains and an arepa. While plopping a fried egg on top of plates is a bit clichÃ©d these days, this is a dish that's served well by it, and it's worth the extra dollar. This dish is wisely available in vegetarian form as well, and will satisfy big eaters.
Empanadas are well-made here, crispy and fluffy with tasty filling and a not-at-all greasy shell.
But perhaps a more interesting option is the patacon pisao, a sandwich that uses fried green plantain patties as the bun. Topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and cheese and filled with either chicken, beef, or eggplant, it may be one of the city's more interesting sandwiches -- impossibly crunchy, exotic and fresh.
For something a little more familiar, a pork sandwich is satisfying and will be a great downtown takeout choice. Any sandwich, arepa or empanada can be ordered half-size with a decent small salad or a soup -- this is a lunch special, but may be made on request at any time. While the soups aren't remarkable, a black bean and a creamy potato sampled on a recent visit were both hearty portions and good if spiced-up with salsa.
Skippable is the cachapa con queso y cochino frito, a sweet corn pancake filled with cheese that ends up being far too heavy, the tough cheese overpowering any charms the sweet pancake might have.
Desserts, however, are mandatory. Plan on ordering the churros, which can be accessorized with chocolate sauce or dulce de leche, and appear as manageable bites perfect for kids (or guilty adults). Somehow even better yet are the tequeÃos de guayaba y queso, Venezuelan pastries filled with cheese and guava paste, fried to ultimate crispiness and dashed with powdered sugar. They are a bit cheesy and a bit fruity -- as if larger, improved, pastry versions of cheese curds. Seen in that light, Venezuelan cuisine -- chock full of cheese, pork and fried things -- isn't so very different from Wisconsin's. Expect Cardinal Coatroom 2.0 to be a success.