Ever since I interviewed hamburger maven George Motz about his guidebook Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 100 Great Burger Joints earlier this month (see link at right), I've had burgers on the brain. I've been thinking about what he told me about Hodad's - a place in Ocean Beach, Calif., that has "quite the griddle, an old cast-iron model. It's seasoned. It gives the patty a kind of terroir." What a thing to aspire to.
Cranberry Creek Cafe and Grill
1501 Lake Point Dr., Monona
Cranberry Creek is a pleasant, fast-casual restaurant with a counter ordering system and table service, plus an award-winning interior design.
From the burger menu, the chipotle blue ($7) comes topped with a spicy chipotle blue cheese mayo, which was (unlike many of these sorts of mayos) actually pretty spicy. There was plenty of blue, too. The burger also comes with lettuce, tomato and red onion - which makes the whole package a little sloppy - and bacon. It's a tasty combo, although the patty is the thin-and-grilled-thoroughly kind rather than thick-and-juicy kind. The thick-cut seasoned fries were also nicely on the spicy side.
The Parmesan-crusted tilapia ($9.30) comes with wild rice pilaf, a small side salad and a choice of a second side. The salad was perfunctory; although there was some effort put toward including baby greens in it, it seemed overall a limp mix. The other side dish, coleslaw, was a bigger hit. The fish, topped with a cheesy crumb mixture, was moist and flavorful. The "cranberry" theme is carried through in the cranberry butter that comes with the dinner roll. Yes, you can really taste the cranberry.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries
517 State St., Madison
This national East Coast-based chain doesn't serve much beyond its namesake burgers and fries. The walls are festooned with burger awards it has won - in other cities. The regular hamburger (or cheeseburger, $4/$4.60) consists of two patties; the "little hamburger" (or cheeseburger, $2.80/$3.40) is a single patty. The single patty looks dwarfed by a standard hamburger bun. Onions, lettuce, pickles, tomato, grilled mushrooms, green peppers and jalapeño peppers can be added as a topping to any burger.
Five Guys sells itself on its meat being fresh and never frozen, but you can't tell much about the meat, since the burger is cooked to maximum gray. If you pick the meat out of the sweet white bread of the bun and ignore the aggressive American cheese coating, the meat does taste okay - it lacks any faux "grilled" flavoring.
The fries, from Idaho potatoes and cooked in peanut oil, skins on, are good. You can actually taste the potato. The small size ($2) is generous and could be shared. The ambience, which one of my co-workers described overgenerously as being "like a mall food court," is cavernous, bright and sterile.
House of Wisconsin Cheese
107 State St., Madison
At this unassuming little lunch counter, order a respectable homemade soup ($2/cup) and sandwich ($3.50) lunch. The menu is limited, but, heck, it's lunch. Choose your sandwich bread (from Clasen's bakery in Middleton - white, wheat or multigrain) and your interior elements (ham, turkey, roast beef, corned beef or summer sausage), and then pile on your choice of the standard add-ons - cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo; a variety of Wisconsin's own Uncle Phil's mustards are featured, too. Or skip the meat for a classic grilled cheese sandwich.
A couple of homemade soups are featured daily. The house soup is "Cheeseburger Chowder." I was expecting a heavy cheese soup with hamburger bits in it, but it's thinner, like traditional chowder, along with a hint of cheese and ground beef - more like a stroganoff than a cheeseburger.
Food cart - Main Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
This Indian cart has a small menu consisting of one meat dish (kadai chicken, $7) and three vegetarian dishes (vegetarian kadai, yellow daal and vegetable curry, all $6). Or you can opt for three of the above in the combo plate ($10).
Spice Yatra lives up to its name. Yatra is Sanskrit for "journey" or "pilgrimage," and its dishes are complexly spiced. The yellow daal was the most subtle, and the split yellow lentil taste really came through. The vegetable curry was a slightly sweet but bold curry with a hint of ginger, with cauliflower, peas, potato and carrots. The kadai chicken had a sharp, hot, tomato-chili spiciness, not at all sweet. It was hot enough to induce some eye-tearing (and that's a good thing). However, there's no naan or roti on the menu for cutting the heat, although extra rice can be ordered for $2.