Something like hysteria set in when Tex Tubb's Taco Palace opened on Atwood Avenue last year. The lines were long, and rightly so: The fare is reliably good at the Food Fight restaurant, and cheap.
Proprietor Kevin Tubb will soon learn whether the west side cottons to his restaurant concept, because he plans to open a second Tex Tubb's Taco Palace in early September, at 2701 University Ave. That's currently the site of Food Fight's pan-Asian restaurant Firefly, which has struggled. Firefly will close Aug. 3.
Given the September deadline, "We're basically going to be jammin' to get it done," says Tubb in his Texas drawl. "We want to get it as funky as we can," he says, speaking of the decor, "but it's in a strip mall."
When he speaks of funkiness, he means the original Taco Palace's riotous interior, which features Christmas lights, at least one Willie Nelson shrine, sparkly tabletops and a vintage 8-track player that continuously plays the music of George Strait, George Jones and their ilk. "We're looking for another 8-track," he says.
The second restaurant will feature the same menu as the first one, with some additions. "We'll probably do fajitas, and just a few more different kinds of enchiladas," he says. There will be a bigger kids' menu.
Tubb - who also helms Eldorado Grill (744 Williamson St.) - says that unlike the east-side location, the west-side Taco Palace will be open for lunch, and it will have table service. Customers at the Atwood site wait in line to order, he notes, when they could be waiting in the bar for a table - and buying drinks. "We're missing out," he says.
Now open and serving crab is Mad City Crab House ( 122 State St.), a seafood kitchen in a town not known for its seafood kitchens. "It's all about fresh fish and seafood in a fun atmosphere," says owner Joe Vale. "What we're aiming to do is have it be affordable for the college kids."
At the crab house, which opened July 1, the menu boasts a mix of sandwiches and entrees. The emphasis is, of course, crab. "Crab legs, crab cakes," says Vale. "And crab quesadillas."
You might say he was weaned on crab. His family owns Club 26, the well-regarded Fort Atkinson supper club that specializes in seafood. He long worked at Club 26, but he lives in Madison. "That's a brutal commute, as you can imagine," he says.
And so he opened a place of his own in the Mad City. But our town is mighty far from the coasts. Did someone in his family once live near the sea, and that's why they got into seafood? "That would be such a great story, wouldn't it?" he muses. "But no."
As every coffee aficionado knows, crema is the layer of reddish-brown foam at the top of a serving of well-made espresso. It also is the name of the coffee joint that opened July 10 at 4124 Monona Dr. Previously that east-side location was the coffee joint Cuppa Jo.
Crema Cafewill be a "foodie-niche hangout," if all goes according to plan, says Steven Buchholz, co-owner with wife Allison. He has designed a grab-and-go menu of fruit smoothies, salads and sandwiches - among them an artichoke melt and a mozzarella-and-tomato combo. He also has subscribed to cooking magazines from all over the world for customers to peruse. And he even invites local foodie book groups to meet at his shop for leisurely conversation.
And for, yes, caffeine. "We're not coffee-snobbish, but we're trying to take coffee seriously here," Buchholz says, noting that his java vendor is Milwaukee's Alterra. He has spent some time in the Brew City himself, including a stint at the fine-dining Sanford Restaurant. Locally, he worked for a year and a half at Marigold Kitchen.
With Crema Cafe, he says, "We're trying to bring some more local flavor to this side of town. Otherwise, it seems like it gravitates to the isthmus."
The Food For Thought Festival is coming up - it's Sept. 15 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard - so now is the time to enter your recipe into the food confab's contest. The emphasis this year is casual and easy; categories include breakfast fare, snacks and sandwiches. For more information visit www.reapfoodgroup.org, or call 294-1114.
Pollo en mole rojo
"Two chicken thighs with a red mole sauce - tender and succulent, the mole piquant, not sweet like some."
Jerry Minnich, Taquería Guadalajara
"A one-dish party. A medley of tuna, sweet shrimp, squid, sprouts and salmon roe, all wrapped up in bright yellow egg paper."
Raphael Kadushin, Sushi Muramoto
"A double-ground combination of beef and pork, loosely mixed and shaped into a square patty. Peppery and filled with sustenance."
Sarah Minasian, Luckenbooth Restaurant, Arena