PBR and Lenny Special tacos paired with a refreshing paloma.
Despite living in the Atwood neighborhood for the past two years, I never felt compelled to patronize the Ohio Tavern. I love a good dive as much as the next person, but I was already loyal to the Ideal Bar, mainly because it’s 0.2 miles closer to my house and has a good jukebox. I just didn’t have room for the Ohio (or its fabled ghost) in my life.
But all that changed when I found out that the tavern had started serving food. And not just any bar food — delicious, creative tacos; perfect, velvety-smooth tamales; tasty little bowls of freshly roasted Mexican street corn. It’s my dream bar menu, and everything costs $4. Oh, and there are palomas (a hip and refreshing alternative to margaritas) on tap. Maybe there’s hope for this world, after all.
One of the oldest bars in Madison, the Ohio Tavern was purchased last year by Genna’s owners Kristi Genna and Jack Williams and their longtime employee, Josh Swentzel. The trio has done a fantastic job remodeling the place while staying true to its working-class roots. You can still get a Blatz for $2.50, but now you’re drinking it in a place with very nice lighting.
But it’s the food that takes the new Ohio from good to great. The kitchen is run by Tim Williams (no relation to Jack) and his girlfriend, Melissa Mejia. Williams also works as head prep cook at Lucille, and Mejia works as a pastry chef at Merchant.
Mejia, who is Colombian, is in charge of the tamales. Her recipe is a hybrid of traditional Mexican and Colombian styles, which means carrots and peas in the filling and corn husks for wrappings. There are two varieties, chicken and lentil. Both come topped with mild, roasted salsa verde. They’re both outstanding and much bigger than I expected. The chicken tamale also comes with queso fresco, but the lentil tamale is vegan (thanks to vegetable shortening in place of lard) — although you could add cheese if you want.
While plenty good on their own, Mejia’s tamales are a perfect tabula rasa for trying the Ohio’s arsenal of house-made hot sauces, all created by Williams. There are five in all — plantain poblano, pineapple habanero, three pepper, honey Thai chili and mango reaper. Swentzel says the sauces will soon be available for purchase at the bar and in local stores.
Williams also created the Ohio’s taco menu, which features 10 house originals. At $4 a pop, they’re a little on the pricy side, but they’re worth it, and you save a dollar if you order three at once. The ingredients are high-quality and locally sourced — pork, bacon and chicken is from Marr’s Valley View Farm in Mineral Point, and the lamb comes from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm in Delavan.
My favorite at the moment is the Old Boy. It comes stuffed with carnitas, rice, kimchi, bacon and charred scallion dressing. The meat, pork shoulder braised in coconut milk and Jarritos Tamarindo soda, is tender and wonderfully flavorful, and I loved what the spicy kimchi added in terms of flavor and texture. In fact, I would have liked a bit more kimchi on my taco.
Another standout is the Lost Shepherd, one of two tacos that feature the Ohio’s fantastic lamb barbacoa. The meat has just the right amount of gamey flavor while being perfectly tender. The addition of cabbage, bacon, sweet chili crema and poblano relish keeps the dish interesting. Also fabulous is the Hanso, which employs more of that amazing carnitas pork, plus red cabbage, pickled mushrooms, soy-cooked daikon radish and sweet chili crema.
The Ohio also does Mexican street corn, or elote. There are three varieties: a basic version with crema, queso fresco and paprika; the Diablo with chipotle crema and bacon; and the Kona, with crema, pineapple salsa and bacon. Diners can add meat for $1 or extra toppings for a quarter each.
Beyond making great food, the Ohio has become a neighborhood hub for activism and entertainment. The bar has played host to a ton of community events and fundraisers, plus there’s live music Tuesdays and Thursdays and the ever-popular karaoke night on Saturdays. Swentzel, a huge Nintendo nerd, has also organized a spring Mario Kart league, set to launch March 6. Here’s hoping people can play with a taco in one hand.
224 Ohio Ave., 608-285-9060, theohiotavern.com, Food served 4 pm-midnight daily; takeout available until 11:30 pm, $4-$11