Tastes of Mexico

From the basic bean enchiladas to tongue and tripe tacos, here are some of Madison’s favorite Mexican eats

Eldorado Grill serves up delicious Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes on Willy Street.

Eldorado Grill serves up delicious Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes on Willy Street.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FOOD FIGHT

Mexican fare seems to have an almost universal appeal. It is hearty, warm and soul satisfying. Madison has its share of south-of-the-border joints, offering everything from the basic bean or meat enchiladas with mild chile sauce to tongue and tripe tacos with a hit of salsa that bites you back, from authentic Mexican fare to Tex-Mex with a twist. You’ll discover these treasures served up in a delicious mix of places, from small Formica tables tucked in the back of a cramped grocery store to elegant booths dressed in warm sun tones with table service. Here are some of Madison’s favorite Mexican eats.   

America Latina
745 N. High Point Rd., 833-2660
Offering a taste of Mexico on Madison’s far west side, America Latina is a fantastic stop for a casual meal. Start your day with the chilaquiles, scrambled eggs combined with housemade chips, topped with a piquant salsa verde and melted cheese. A side of rice and homemade beans might carry you through to dinner. Any time is taco time; the al pastor, pork marinated in pineapple juice and spices, then grilled to crispy perfection, is especially divine. Pescaterians, fear not—the fish tacos, adorned with slaw and salsa, are outstanding. On weekends, indulge in a delicacy from the owner’s native state of Veracruz—tamales Veracruzanos, corn masa stuffed with tender shredded pork, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Comfort food all wrapped up and ready to go. $
Editor's note: According to America Latina's Facebook page, the restaurant is temporarily closed. This closure occurred after press time.  

Burrito Drive
310 S. Brearly St., 260-8586
When Madison’s east side meets Mexico, what do you get? Burritos that cure the munchies any time of day or night. Try the White Trash burrito filled with Spam, tater tots and Velveeta, or the Sheh-meh-neh burrito with grilled chicken, rice, queso fresco, sweet potato puree, bacon, pickled red onion and salsa. The house salad safely combines nutritional needs, with a bit of Latin flavor—arugula, pickled carrots, avocado, pepitas and marinated beets. All that goodness deserves dessert. How about the chocolate bread pudding or cookie dough empanada? $

Casa de Lara
341 State St. (upstairs), 251-7200
All that stands between you and Casa de Lara’s burrito suizo is a flight of stairs. The flour tortilla is filled with your choice of meat, drenched in creamy white sauce and Mexican cheese. The plate of chicken or pork tamales covered in ranchero sauce, or the nopalitos con queso, which stars sauteed shrimp and grilled chicken cooked with cactus pads and onions, simmered in an ancho and pasilla chili sauce, may be more to your liking. The casual atmosphere caters equally to students and families. $$

La Concha
3056 Fish Hatchery Rd., 276-9263
A bakery first, La Concha takes the cake when it comes to Mexican baked goods. Racks of fresh pastries, cookies and sweet breads line the café. Try the impossibly flaky cream-filled turnover, or the aptly named concha bread, slightly sweet with a sugar coating. A special celebration certainly calls for one of the beautiful tres leches cakes. Hungry for lunch? The menu is in Spanish, but just say the word “cubano” and you will not be disappointed, if you like a torta (sandwich) piled with meat—ham, sausage, eggs and pork “cheese” in the company of lettuce, tomato, avocado, onions and cheese. The adjacent grocery is worth a stop for fresh-made salsa to go. $

Cuco’s Mexican Restaurant
4426 E. Buckeye Rd., 204-2705
The casual dining atmosphere is welcoming for families. And the price is right. Come on the weekend to enjoy a small margarita and your choice of kids’ meals for only a dollar. The pollo fundido is the perfect winter comfort food anytime, a rich melted spicy cheese sauce poured over crispy chicken chimichangas. The molcajete, seasoned meats served with a spicy broth in a warm stone bowl, is a great meal to share, and, the waitress assured us, just like her grandmother makes back home. $$

Eldorado Grill
744 Williamson St., 280-9378
Eldorado excels at Mexican and Tex-Mex fusion cuisine. Brunch is a great way to sample their creative and delicious flavors. Try the pineapple-mango French toast, topped with a chili butter and warm mango puree. The heat is just right. The Eldorado Benedict combines smoked salmon, poached egg and a mild tomatillo cream. Or celebrate your inner Texan with migas, a plate of scrambled eggs with chile poblano, sweet onions, tortilla strips, corn relish and jack cheese. Add bacon if you dare! A full bar ensures you will not leave thirsty. Try the tequila sunset to tide you over till dinner. $$$  

Francisco's offers a robust menu of Mexican favorites.

Francisco’s Mexican Cantina
121 E. Main St., 294-1100
Just off the Capitol Square, this small family-run restaurant serves up delicious mole, superb carne asada and late-night dining—and on weekends they stay open till 3 a.m.! Enjoy the heavenly homemade mole with tender chunks of chicken breast or the burrito suizo, a tortilla filled with your choice of meat, beans, rice and tomatoes blanketed in a creamy cheese sauce. The flan caps off a perfect meal. And there’s a full bar. $

Los Gemelos   
244 W. Gilman St., 467-6999
With a convenient location just off State Street and portions large enough to feed a hungry college student, Los Gemelos guarantees a satisfying meal for everyone. Their unique spin on quesadillas, cheese stuffed into a cornmeal “pocket,” is refreshing and tasty. Or go for the chorizo and potato, and al pastor (pork) tacos and gorditas, garnished with finely diced onion, cilantro and queso, and fresh, spicy salsa. Grab a Boing!, a refreshing fruit-flavored soft drink, to wash it all down. $

Habanero’s Mexican Grill
2229 S. Stoughton Rd., 223-9222; 3001 N. Sherman Ave., 244-1992
Yet another great find, this pair of restaurants offers build-your-own burritos (or tacos or burrito bowls). But flavorful barbacoa (slow-cooked beef) and carnitas (pulled pork) are the stars of the show. Spicy salsas and pickled onions add heat and flavor to your liking, and homemade guacamole and well-seasoned beans fill a vegetarian option nicely. $$

La Hacienda
515 S. Park St., 255-8227
Madison’s original late-night Mexican dining spot, La Hacienda serves up the perfect complement to a night of salsa dancing. Try the carne asada a la parrilla,
a broiled-top sirloin steak served with rice, beans and onions, or the chili verde, chunks of pork simmered in tomatillo sauce and cilantro. Breakfast for dinner is always a good bet, and the huevos rancheros served with rice, beans and tortillas is a winner. The liquado, a shake-like treat made with banana, coconut and strawberries, can stand in for dessert, or even a light meal. $$

Happy Grill
2810 E. Washington Ave., 249-5828
A Mexican buffet? What a great idea. Sample various dishes before you settle for a favorite. This east-side eatery also serves breakfast all day. Choose from huevos Mexicanos—eggs scrambled with onions, tomatoes and jalapeños or sweet raisin tamales. For lunch, the enchiladas Sonoras offer corn tortillas dipped in a poblano sauce with chicken and spinach covered with melted cheese. Or try the fresh whole red snapper in garlic sauce from the ample seafood selection. Creamy, sweet horchata is an anytime drink. $

Las Islas del Mar   
5696 Monona Dr., Monona, 298-7687
Seafood lovers, rejoice! Las Islas del Mar is a restaurant entirely dedicated to Mexican seafood dishes. The choices are numerous; your best bet is to share one of the platters such as the molcajeta Nayarita, celebrating the cuisine of Nayarit, a city near Guadalajara, Mexico. Shrimp, octopus, crab and scallops are cooked in a special sauce and served warm in a large stone bowl. Shrimp fans will enjoy the variety of dishes featuring this crustacean: garlic shrimp, breaded shrimp, spicy shrimp and shrimp rolled in bacon and grilled prawns, to name just a few. A tamarind agua fresca cleanses the palate between bites. $$

Jalapeño Mexican Grill
1821 S. Park St., 561-8211
Tucked next to a laundromat, this place is easy to miss. It’s worth finding, however, to indulge in the huaraches, a shoe-shaped corn tortilla with meats and garnishes piled high. Or try the tongue tacos, pieces of tender shredded meat, surprisingly mellow in flavor, brightened with a shot of lime. Not into tongue? The Mexican hamburger is a good bet, featuring seasoned meat, ham and cheese and toppings, with a side of fries. $

Laredo’s
694 S. Whitney Way, 278-0585; 4001 Lien Rd.,240-9701;
2935 Fish Hatchery Rd., Fitchburg, 274-7370

The lively décor, festive margarita flavors and attentive waitstaff make this a great spot to meet friends after work. Try the guacamaya margarite, with Casa Noble, Grand Marnier, watermelon liqueur and lime house mix for a refreshing start to your meal. Vegetarian fajitas offer more than the usual peppers and onions, including broccoli, carrots and asparagus, topped with a rich red chile sauce, while meat lovers crave the Sonoran steak, simmered with red bell peppers, red onions and asparagus in a tequila lime sauce, guacamole included. Four locations in the Madison area mean you’re never far from
a Mexican meal. $$ BOM

PHOTO BY ANGELA WONG

The fresh tacos from Mercado Marimar are not to be missed.

Mercado Marimar
2102 S. Park St., 260-8924
The small cafe in the back of this grocery store offers dynamite Mexican taqueria fare. Indulge in the steak verde, a beef dish with salsa verde and nopales (cactus pads), or chicharones tacos, made from fried pork rind. Beware, the daily specials change, but no matter, the results are delicious. Be sure to stop by on a weekend, when you can pick up specials like barbacoa, slow-cooked beef marinated in beer and spices, and menudo and corn tortillas hot off the (very old) press. Tortillas are made Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. $

La Mestiza   
6644 Odana Rd., 826-0178
The warm interior makes this a great choice for casual lunch or a date night. Weekends call for barbacoa. Weekday offerings are wonderfully diverse. The cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan pork dish simmered in achiote and citrus, is a sumptuous find. Flaky fish tacos and ceviche are ideal for a light meal, while their popular shredded chicken enchiladas with pumpkin seed mole will fill the emptiest stomach. Pumpkin tamales, made with rice flour and topped with homemade cajeta, are an appropriate fall and winter dessert. Creamy horchata, an almond and rice milk made from scratch, is imbued with overtones of vanilla and cinnamon. $$

Pasqual’s
1851 Monroe St., 238-4419; 670 N. Midvale Blvd. (Hilldale Mall), 663-8226; 100 Cross Country Rd., Verona, 497-3333
A lively atmosphere and regional Tex-Mex decoration add to the array of southwest flavors that Pasqual’s offers. Start with the nachos, tortilla chips laden with a choice of meat, cheese, tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeños, olives and sour cream. If you still have room, try the Anasazi burrito, vegetarian or meat-filled, smothered in red or green chile or mole sauce. The Commuter, your choice of two smaller burritos, is perfect for indecisive folks. And the original margarita has a solid fan base. $$  BOM

El Pastor
2010 S. Park St., 280-8898
This long-established and beloved Mexican restaurant on Madison’s south side offers a wide range of dishes. The tampiquena, skirt steak smothered in a spicy mole, and the caldo de borrego, a stew made with lamb, carrots and potatoes in a red chili broth, satisfy an adventurous palate. Their chicken enchiladas verdes, covered in a delicious green sauce, and chili rellenos, made with a light batter and a touch of heat, are crowd pleasers. $

Taqueria Guadalajara
1033 S. Park St., 250-1824
Since reopening after a devastating fire last year, Taqueria Guadalajara has come back stronger than ever. Many regulars go for the platillo mi rancho, a hefty plate of steak, chorizo, grilled potatoes, boiled beans, pico de gallo and grilled cactus served with warm tortillas. Early-ish risers should try the breakfast options—huevos rancheros or desayuno el compadre, a Mexican steak and eggs dish. Both pair well with a Jarritos Mexican soda, or a Corona. $

Taqueria El Jalapeño
1318 S. Midvale Blvd., 709-1345
Family owned and operated, and filled with colorful, hand-carved chairs, this cheerful joint brightens up the busy intersection at Midvale and the Beltline. Owners Chely and Enrique offer Jalisco-style cuisine such as crispy chorizo or carne asada tacos (just two of fourteen taco varieties!) and an array of homemade sauces. Weekends feature posole, carnitas and birria, a beef stew. Or perhaps you prefer a whole fried fish, or fish tacos for a Mexican-inspired Friday fish fry? You’ll find it all here. $

Taqueria Sabor Queretano 
4512 E. Washington Ave., 249-0877
Don’t let the location, a strip mall behind McDonald’s, dissuade you from grabbing a meal here. They have fried plantains. Their caramelly goodness melds perfectly with whole fried fish, mojarra catracha. If you prefer beef, the carne asada Hondureña plate combines piquant, seared meat with rice, beans and the golden plantain. The gorditas, which arrive steaming hot and crispy from the fryer, are overstuffed corn masa pockets filled with meat and cheese and a delicious salsa verde on the side. You’ll only need one. Come in on the weekend for tamales and a chance to hone your Spanish skills via the prominently displayed TV. $ BOM

Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace  
2009 Atwood Ave., 242-1800
Craft beer. Cocktail madness. Vegan tacos piled with countless vegetables. Bacon-wrapped, cream cheese-stuffed jalapeños. A salsa bar. Yes, you are in heaven. Tex Tubb’s infuses comfort food with a hefty dose of the Southwest. Dive in with a serving of Frito pie—a bag of the chips smothered with chile meat sauce, cheese sauce, corn salsa, jack cheese and sour cream. The vegan avocado frito taco heaps fried avocado, mushrooms, black beans, tomatoes and red onions on corn tortillas. For lighter fare, order the fish tacos, which come in three delicious variations, piled with cabbage slaw and pickled onions. Your little ones will enjoy a simple quesadilla, and Monday nights they eat for free! It wouldn’t be right to leave before enjoying a drink. How about the Mexican Old Fashioned, mixing Korbel along with Tres Generaciones, Reposado tequila and ginger beer? $$

Tienda Los Gemelos
6713 Odana Rd., 441-0061
Stumbling upon this restaurant is like finding a diamond in a cardboard box. The storefront is a grocery in an unassuming strip mall, but once you make your way through the small, crowded store, you’ll find the spacious restaurant. The campechano taco is a delicious combo of seared steak and spicy sausage, and the crispy chicharones (spicy pork belly) sope (a fat tortilla that is cooked and piled with the toppings) marries well with the fresh cilantro and onion garnish, and a generous sprinkle of cheese. You’ll also find lamb, cabeza (beef head) and lamb barbacoa. Belly up to the bar to wash it down with a margarita. Mexican television adds background drama. $

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