I was puzzled by a recent "Cheap Eats" cover story in Madison Magazine. The point of this sort of article is usually to single out various local entrees as unusually inexpensive and yet still quite tasty. As Milwaukee Magazine put it a few years back in their annual cheap eats feature: "Great finds, unbelievable prices."
I'm not sure Madison Mag is clear on the concept. What makes me think this? Well, for instance... while Marigold Kitchen's hamburger is undoubtedly of high quality, at $8 it is not a bargain. My eyebrows disappeared into my hairline with the choice of pancakes that cost $7.45. They're pancakes, for crying out loud. And as much as I love the momochas at Himal Chuli, $7 for just four makes them a special treat, not a steal. Okay, maybe I'm a Scrooge. But you know, in my book, finding a bargain is also good entertainment.
Here are some alternatives for the cash-challenged. Or just for those who want to nourish their inner Scrooge.
How can you get through a "Cheap Eats" article about Madison without mentioning Mediterranean Café? This studenty enclave's claim to fame is homey Middle Eastern food with daily specials topping out at $6.25. In fact nothing on the menu costs more than $6.25. When the sweet-and-savory chicken apricot pie is on the special board, it's hard to resist, but then so is anything that comes with the café's smooth, creamy hummus. (A side of hummus with pita is $2.75.) Soup of the day (and they have a killer avgolemono) -- is just $1.50.) One downside -- this semester, the restaurant isn't open for dinner, with last call being 4:30 pm.
At downtown takeout-and catering outfit Kitchen Hearth, the grilled chicken salad is one of the best deals. Mixed lettuces, tender grilled chicken chunks in a mayo dressing, cukes, two cherry tomatoes and croutons with a cup of tangy, slightly mustardy vinaigrette on the side -- this has to be one of the better salads downtown, period. I find the small size ($3.45) serves for lunch very well, although it's also available in large ($5.25).
All the subs at Potbelly Sandwich Works are a flat $4. They come toasted. They come on a crusty sourdough loaf. And they are delicious. Potbelly is on lower State Street, but if you're a parking-lot-preferrer, there is another one at West Towne Mall. Additionally, a third location will be opening soon in the greater East Towne area, near the Texas Roadhouse.
The food at The Great Dane is pretty reasonably priced across the board, but one dinner-sized entree that seems like a particular gift is the chicken pot pie ($7.50), a bowl of creamy chicken-and-veggie stew topped with mashed potatoes and then topped off again with a pastry crust. It comes with a thick slice of the Dane's yummy dark beer bread, just in case you need some extra carbs, and a side of hot spiced apples that should cover any craving for dessert.
What I look for at the aforementioned Marigold Kitchen is the breakfast quiche ($4), a generous wedge of deep-dish that could be considered substantial at half the size, not that I want to give them any ideas. Each piece comes weighted with lots of ingredients, different every day -- drawing from a list that includes caramelized onions, greens, sausages, sun-dried tomatoes, and a variety of specialty cheeses. Grab a slice to-go on your way into the office and heat it up for lunch.
A deal's a deal. Madtowne Fried Chicken deep-deep fries its hefty four-piece fish dinners ($8) in a crunchy, spicy, assertive batter. Choose from catfish (whole or fillet), perch, or whitefish; all arrive with a generous heaping of crisp French fries, coleslaw, Tabasco sauce and tartar sauce, a slice of white bread and a can of Faygo pop. It's not all-you-can-eat, but it's all I'd want to eat for sure. If you crave even more fried food, an unstinting side of okra is $2.19. Warning: this meal is the kind of major diet-breaker that's probably illegal in some parts of California. Two locations, East Wash and South Park; both are takeout only.