Cheap Eats

The best Mexican, burgers, sushi and comfort food in Madison for under $25

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The $20 Challenge

We gave our writers and editors $20 each to spend on a meal, drink and tip—let’s see what they ate

Pasqual'sSome Like It Hot: Pasqual’s
Food trends come and go in Madison, but Pasqual’s has long been a funky haven for spicy Southwestern food. When the craving for a filling, flavorful burrito hits, I head to this casual eatery, a fixture on Monroe Street since 1985 (now in new digs down the street). Call me predictable, but my order is always the same: the Dos Frijoles, or two-bean, burrito ($6.95). Inside a flour tortilla, black and pinto beans mix with cheese, rice and green chiles, with a little tub of homemade salsa on the side. This salsa also goes nicely with the restaurant’s spiced tortilla chips ($2.75), and everything at Pasqual’s tastes better with a margarita, made with fresh lime juice and blue agave tequila. To save cash go on a Monday or Tuesday, better known to regulars as half-price margarita night, when the drinks are $4 and the vibe is loud and lively. —KV

Mighty Mickey’s: Mickey’s Tavern
At the end of Willy Street is an old and exhausted building that’s easy to overlook—except for the big “TAVERN” painted on its soot-encrusted bricks. Those who do venture inside find what seems like yet another outdated saloon, miraculously thriving in spite of mercurial trends. On second glance, the room’s full of happy patrons—happiest of all are those eating what the sign in the window honestly promises is “good food.” Tantalizing are homey entrées like mac ’n cheese made with smoked Gouda and sharp cheddar, or the “world’s greatest sandwich”—a BLT with Swiss and fried egg. Most everything comes with kettle chips and homemade cole slaw, but substitute the “sexy fries”—potato wedges slathered with truffle oil and spicy parmesan—and the tab’s still less than ten bucks. At its heart, of course, Mickey’s is a tavern, and rail drinks are only $3 and taps $2.75–$3.75. —DC

Cheese, Please: Barriques (Fitchburg)
Cheap eats are a high-five-worthy find. Unexpected cheap eats are enough to make you wanna do a little dance. A quick power lunch at Barriques in Fitchburg not only yielded a reasonably priced grilled cheese, it was one of the best I’ve had. The “Wisconsin Dip” features a gooey, grilled-to-perfection Hook’s 3-Year Cheddar on Madison Sourdough, served with its quintessential plate- mate—a cup of tomato soup. But that’s not all. The $7.25 (add $2 for applewood-smoked bacon) meal included a light and flavorful balsamic salad, which I washed down with a fizzy Izze soda ($2.15). On a second visit a colleague ordered the “Dip” on my recommendation and opted for a cup of chicken chili (delightful) and the not-too-tangy, not-too-oily, just-right Italian noodle salad. —BN

Pizza Party: Lombardino’s
I had driven past the painted chef on the side of Lombardino’s brick building so many times I wondered why I hadn’t “come in as you are” as the chef beckons passersby to do. So we went in one night and I ordered the Pizza Lombardino (proscuitto, mozzarella, roasted garlic, olive oil and fresh arugula) for $11 and was so taken aback by the intense, fresh flavors (and the price!) I realized this ain’t no Domino’s pizza. The thin, chewy, yet a little bit crackery crust allowed the pleasant individual flavors to shine. Of course most everything’s wonderful here, but $11 for a ten-inch pizza, delicious (free!) bread and butter pre-meal plus a glass of wine for under $20 equals a cheap date-night place to me. —SM

Cactus RanchTaco Loco: Cactus Ranch
For a restaurant that no longer calls itself a “taco palace,” Cactus Ranch still does a pretty mean taco—and for a nice price. The former west-side Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace changed its name and its menu but still has four kinds of fish tacos. I ordered three—fried catfish, blackened tilapia and achiote tilapia—for just $9.99. I added Mexican rice, refried beans and a Mexican Coke (made with real sugar instead of corn syrup) and had quite a feast. Alternately, you could order the tacos and get a Lone Star beer and one post-meal Choco-Taco for under $20, too. Either way, the seafood in the fish tacos is plentiful and is stuffed into fresh white corn tortillas alongside pickled onions, guacamole, red cabbage, black bean puree and chipotle mayo. —DB

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Jump Start Your Day

Lazy Jane’s Café and Bakery
Lazy Jane’s serves breakfast all day on the weekends and every day until 11 a.m. during the week. But you can get the Berry Cherry Oatmeal anytime, and you really should. Dried cherries are much better in oatmeal than raisins, and they mix well with the fresh blueberries and cranberries and the creamy oatmeal. The seitan hash is a hearty, tasty dish even if you aren’t a vegetarian. And Lazy Jane’s makes their own scones and espresso drinks. –DB

Sofia’s Bakery and Café
You often end up sharing one of the small handful of tables at Sofia’s with someone you don’t know. Some people like that, but even those who don’t will put up with it because the breakfast is that good. They make some of the fluffiest omelets you’ll find. The pancakes are hearty, too, and they come with things like apples and fresh whipped cream. The scones are the best in town. Sofia’s is open only on Saturday and Sunday, which somehow adds to its appeal. –DB

Good for You: Not only is the Berry Cherry Oatmeal cheap and delish, it’s heart-healthy, tooMickie’s Dairy Bar
When ABC college football TV personality Todd Blackledge was in Madison a few years back, he did a whole segment on Mickie’s scrambler: eggs, hash browns, cheese, and bacon, sausage or ham mixed together on one enormous plate with brown gravy poured over it. You laugh, but it’s good. You can also order a large plate with thick, doughy pancakes falling over its edges. One pancake is enough for most people, but go ahead and ask for a full stack of two and see if you can finish it. –DB

 

Sushi

Takara
At both of Takara’s locations you can get three sushi rolls with soup or salad for lunch for $12.95. If three rolls are too many—and they probably are—opt for two rolls for $9.50. But you will have a hard time choosing. Unlike many places that offer sushi roll lunch specials, Takara gives you a lot of options: thirty-eight at last count, including spinach, whitefish with cucuTakaramber and tuna with salmon. –DB

Wasabi
Wasabi was one of Madison’s first sushi bars and is consistently good and inexpensive. If you enjoy sushi rolls you’ll love large pieces of fresh, raw fish, rolled tightly together with the stickiest rice and mild-tasting seaweed. That’s not to say Wasabi’s inventions are never creative. Not every sushi place has mackerel and surf clam. And for those who like the sushi idea except for the raw fish part, Wasabi’s pickled radish and gourd rolls are also quite good. –DB

 

Comfort Food

Ella’s Deli
The food menu at Ella’s Deli is fairly extensive, but the dessert menu seems even bigger. That might be all I need to say, but I should also mention the cheese fries, French fried pickles, fried cheese sticks, open-faced beef and turkey sandwich platters with mashed potatoes, and the meatloaf sandwich. As for that dessert menu, there might be someone out there who doesn’t love Ella’s grilled hot fudge pound cake sundae, but I haven’t met that person. –DB

Hubbard Avenue DinerHubbard Avenue Diner
Hubbard Avenue Diner makes delicious pies. Creamy pies, fruity pies, pies à la mode and pies with more meringue than pie. Is anything more comforting than pie? Mashed potatoes, perhaps? Hubbard Avenue has those, too. You can get mashed potatoes in large quantities with meatloaf or turkey. Fried chicken with mashed potatoes is on the menu twice a week and the Sunday special is mashed potatoes with pot roast. There is also grown-up mac ’n cheese and chicken potpie with applesauce. –DB

Nifty 50’s Sandwich & Malt Shop
I have three words for you: loose meat sandwich. The Hasty Tasty is crumbled hamburger on a bun with burger-like toppings (pickles and onions), but eating it somehow makes you feel like a kid again. They’ve even got real vanilla cokes, chocolate cokes, milkshakes and ice cream sodas mixed right in front of you by the cozy restaurant’s friendly owners. The jukebox is free and lets you pick as many Elvis and Connie Francis songs as you can bear. –DB

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