Mexican conchas and other Latin American pastries brighten the bakery case.
At first glance, Monona Bakery & Eatery seems to be exactly what its name implies: a place to get a pastry or sandwich.
The chalkboard menu lists standard breakfast and lunch fare. Crepes come topped with fruit and filled with a cream cheese and ricotta blend. Eggs benedict is a spin on the classic, with poached eggs on a housemade croissant with crispy bacon and asparagus and topped with a drizzle of what the menu calls “lemon bearnaise,” which seemed like a straight-up hollandaise to me. The egg yolks were cooked firmly; I missed the creaminess that comes from soft yolks.
Owners Claudia Santos and Vicente Sacramento hail from Honduras and Mexico, respectively, and a few Mexican-inspired dishes appear on the breakfast menu. Breakfast tacos are simple: Corn tortillas hold scrambled eggs with a small amount of chorizo, peppers and tomatoes. A touch of cotija cheese adds a salty kick. They’re delicious, but visually disappointing. A slice of avocado and a dash of Mexican cream would do a lot in terms of prettying up the plate. It’s the tomatillo-based housemade green salsa, bursting with lime, that makes the chilaquiles a must-order. A huge portion of fried tortillas are coated in this amazing salsa and served with two eggs, fried so hot the underside crisped up like pork rinds.
Much of the lunch menu is devoted to sandwiches. “The Monona” is essentially a Philly cheese steak, and a good one, on a wonderful baguette. The TBA sandwich has turkey, thick slices of avocado, bacon and a chipotle aioli. The lightly toasted bread is studded with sunflower and flax seeds.
Sacramento has an impressive baking resume, including a stint at La Brioche, so it’s not surprising that everything I tried, from a bran muffin to carrot cake, was excellent.
But it’s too easy to miss a few special dishes, mostly traditional food from Honduras, that aren’t listed on the menu and truly set this place apart. On some visits, staff mentioned the Honduran items; other times, I had to ask about them. The bakery’s Facebook page sometimes highlights the Honduran fare, but it would be very easy to walk in and have no idea that the eatery serves any Honduran food.
It’s the baleadas that will keep me coming back. Flour tortillas are filled with refried red beans, a salty cheese and mantequilla (Honduran sour cream). Other toppings, like eggs and avocado (both of which are available), are often added. The tortillas are thick, a bit chewy and made fresh at time of order. Ask for the Honduran hot sauce, a commercial version made from tabasco peppers.
Baleadas aren’t always available (the kitchen may be willing to cook some up for you if you ask), which is too bad. They should be a signature dish as they’re both easy to love and hard to find. I don’t know of anywhere else in the Madison area that serves them.
Honduran tamales sport a banana leaf wrapper. Inside is velvety corn masa, pork or chicken, a few chickpeas and green peas, and a large green olive, my favorite part.
Pupusas (thick corn tortillas filled with meat, vegetables or cheese) are Salvadoran in origin; they’re also common in Honduran cooking. Be sure to try one stuffed with loroco, if it’s available. The buds of this Latin American vine are delicious, like a cross between asparagus and chard. Chicharrón makes a more decadent filling. The pork rind is crumbled like bacon and mixed with cheese.
Even my favorite baked goods here have a Latin American influence. For the milhojas, layers of pastry are stacked on either side of a thick smear of Bavarian cream and dusted with powdered sugar. It’s a mess to eat, but worth the sugar smudges on your clothes. Coconut tres leches is not too sweet and tastes more of pineapple than coconut, thanks to pineapple chunks in the middle layer of whipped cream.
Side dishes include Honduran tostones, green plantains that are sliced, smashed and deep fried. The portion seemed small for the nearly $5 price tag, but they were delicious, hot and crunchy. Yucca fries were less expensive, but not as good. The ones in the batch I tried were starchy and a bit dry.
The dishes I fell in love with at Monona Bakery & Eatery were those with Latin American roots. As the restaurant continues to grow, I hope the staff will consider putting its Honduran food in a more prominent spot on the menu.
Monona Bakery & Eatery
4544 Monona Drive, 608-720-1133, facebook.com/MononaBakeryandEatery, 6:30 am-9 pm Mon.-Fri.,7 am-8 pm Sat.-Sun., $2-$10