Taste of Madison 2012 had the best of local restaurants

Caryn Kindkeppel, Staff Writer

If you had wanted an excuse to check out 84 of Madison’s restaurants, the Taste of Madison event was the place to be, held on Saturday, September 1 from 2:00 to 8:30 PM and Sunday, September 2 from 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM.  Circling the Capital Square, the vendors set up their booths and displayed their menu items, which sold for between $1 and $4 per item.  Each item was a small sample of cuisine representative of the restaurant, and menus often included several savory items and a sweet dessert item or two.

There were three large stages that had live bands playing hard rock, country and R&B music.  People sat on the grass or in lawn chairs on the Capital lawn to listen to the bands, enjoy the food and beverage offerings and take in the scene.  Beverages at the event consisted of beer ($4-7) from Capital Brewery and Budweiser, as well as soda, water, milk, wine and flavored malt beverages.  In addition, a handful of stands offered non-alcoholic smoothies and fruit drinks for sale.

The best strategy for tackling this event was to arrive early, and begin by walking the loop to scope out the vendors and their displays.  The event information booths also handed out free event guides that listed the vendors and their menus, prices and booth number.  For those who wanted to scope out the “best of the best”, the guide also listed the top three pre-event winners in each of 14 categories, such as “American Dish-Gourmet”, “Ethnic” and “Vegetarian”.  Then, a map inside the guide allowed one to determine the best path to take to visit the preferred vendors and avoid backtracking.

A notable menu item was Vintage Brewing Company’s Sweet Chili Glazed Pork Belly ($4), which earned first place for “American Dish-Gourmet” and tied for “Best Presentation”.  Two meltingly tender, rich pork pieces were seasoned just right, then skewered and served with fresh cheese crumbles, pickled onions and a sprinkle of cilantro.

Another tasty item that won second place for “Gourmet Dessert” was the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta ($3) from Lombardino’s.  It sorely lacked in looks, since it was served in a Styrofoam bowl and was berry-stained, despite tying for the “Best Presentation” award.  However, the custard had the perfect balance of sweetness and creaminess, and was topped with berries that complemented it.

Several desserts were a little lackluster at the event.  A soggy rendition of brûléed Butter Rum Banana Cheesecake ($3) was presented by Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse and somehow won first place in the “Gourmet Dessert” category.  Daisy Café and Cupcakery served a Champagne and Strawberry Cupcake ($3) that had a great texture and fluffy frosting, but was tiny and lacked flavor oomph.   The somewhat disappointing Vanilla Fudge Brownie Cheesecake slice ($4) from Grace Cheesecakes was more brownie chunk than cheesecake, and neither component really reached their ideal in flavor.

Sandwiches were the highlight at several booths and worth a visit.  Gotham Bagel’s Smoked Whitefish Gyro ($4) was a healthy, refreshing take on the classic sandwich.  It consisted of smoky fish in a creamy sauce wrapped in a soft pita with farmer’s market fresh vegetables.  Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop served three different sandwiches (hot and cold) that were two for $4, mix and match.  The Slaw Be Jo and Meatball sandwiches had memorable, tasty flavor combinations, though they left one wanting a bit larger portions for the money.

The two tender, smoky and tangy St. Louis-Style Ribs ($4) from Famous Dave’s were tasty and satisfying, and caused pause to remember that they are a part of Madison’s restaurant scene, despite also being part of a chain.

Buraka, Bandung, and Caracas Empanada offered several great ethnic specialties.  Buraka presented the East African tasty Coconut Curry Chicken ($4) and Bandung sold their Indonesian sweet Ayam Semur and Festive Yellow Rice ($4), which together had tied for third place in the “Ethnic” category.  Caracas Empanada sold two types of Venezuelan crispy empanadas for $2 each.  The Shredded Beef and Cheese was savory, and the Sweet Plantain and Roasted Garlic Empanadas was a satisfying mix of sweet, creamy and garlic-y flavors and earned its title as the top “Vegetarian” item at the event.

This is a Madison tradition you don’t want to miss.  The best advice is to come with a friend and share the food offerings, in order to split the cost and have room to try many food items.  It’s fun to sample the different foods all in one place, and a great opportunity to try a particular restaurant one’s been meaning to visit with relative ease and low cost.  The great food, free live music and opportunity to have a beer on the Capital Square (if over 21) is a unique experience worth having.

The Taste of Madison has been taking place annually for 30 years, as a Madison end-of-summer tradition.  It’s free and open to the public, with no admission cost other than the food and beverages (and parking, of course).   Vendors accept cash only and there are no carry-ins or pets allowed at the event.  Each vendor purchased a booth ($750 per 10’ x 10’) and then kept the money they made over the two-day event.  The money made from beverage sales (and especially tips) benefited the United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Dane County.