Big Red's Steaks, which began life as one of the midnight carts on State Street, has opened a storefront in the former Caspian Cafe spot, 610 University Ave. (608-232-1183). Three homesick Philadelphians have aimed to import the most authentic Philly cheesesteak to the Midwest. The beauty of this plan is that it'll be pretty easy to fool most of us bratwurst-noshing Cheeseheads.
Big Red's features several varieties of the vaunted cheesesteak ($6-$7): plain, which rests on the quality of the meat, a very thinly sliced, very lean rib-eye; original, which sports a generous slathering of Cheez-Whiz (sorry, Michael Pollan); North Philly (American cheese); South Philly (provolone); pizza steak (pizza sauce and mozzarella); and a steak hoagie (lettuce, tomato and mayo). Other ways to dress up the cheesesteak include fried or raw onions, mushrooms, or banana peppers. Big Red's also stocks a pickle bar with a variety of hot peppers and dills.
While the Cheez-Whiz is the most "authentic" in terms of Philly cheesesteak lore, Dairy Staters may want to opt for something a little less processed - even at the risk of being criticized by purists. The meat is fine, tender, without even a trace of gristle, but I wished I'd opted for provolone.
The owners have created a traditional Philly-style hoagie bun for the steak, which is baked in Wisconsin but lives up to their East Coast standards. Also on the menu is The Schnepfer (rib-eye, fried salami, fried onions and tomato on a Kaiser roll) and a porkroll (grilled ham on a Kaiser roll). Big Red's also offers a worthy plate of cheese fries.
To look forward to: sweets from Tastykake. The Pennsylvania-only bakery makes cupcakes, "Zinger"-like cakes ("Krimpets") and the incomparable Kandy Kake (like the Girl Scout cookie Tagalongs or Peanut Butter Patties, only with cake inside). These will be available after the holidays - after the owners make a road trip back to Philly to stock up.
The Dawg House, 505 State (608-256-5050), has joined Mad Dog's on Henry Street in offering State Streeters Chicago-style hot dogs. It's the site of the former Pel'Meni dumpling stand.
The dawgs come as the Ol Fashion (mustard, pickle), Maxwell Street Chicago (onions, tomato, sport peppers, relish, pickle and celery salt), Badger (cheddar cheese), corn dog (on a stick) and Coney Island (Coney sauce, onions).
The Dawg House strays from the purist's preferred neon-green relish with a more natural-looking pickle blend, and the bun is without the traditional poppy seeds, but the wiener itself is plump and freshly grilled, and the toppings are super generous.
The menu is rounded out with a brat and a Polish sausage, a gyro, hamburger, cheeseburger, chicken sandwich (grilled or deep fried) and an Italian beef, another brainchild of the Windy City. The beef is topped with a vegetable mix, a very salty giardiniera that was neither hot nor sweet. Among the veggies: red and green peppers, celery, cauliflower, and carrots.
Vegetarians, you're going to have to get some homesick Californians moving to Madison, because there's little on the menu at either spot for you.