Asian-Food Lover’s Guide

We’ve eaten, sipped and shopped our way through restaurants, tea houses, bars and markets to find the city’s not-to-be-missed Asian fare

43 North. Photo by Katrina Taloza.

43 North. Photo by Katrina Taloza.

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Noodles

Don’t miss the duck confit noodle with poached egg and mizuna created by Madison’s famed chef Shinji Muramoto at 43 North. The deeply flavored, sweet yet savory duck confit coats ramen noodles in a delicious sauce that melds with the soft egg yolk. Scallions and greens add sparks of flavor and texture to this sublime dish.

Saigon Noodles, on Madison’s west side, is a favorite Asian restaurant of Madison’s great chefs, and is famous for their pho. Another great dish is the grilled lemongrass beef and vermicelli bowl or “bun.” Thin rice noodles are heaped upon a layer of vegetables—cucumber, lettuce, pickled carrots, basil, bean sprouts and peanuts, topped with the house sauce. Get it with the eggroll.

Suwanasak Thai is tucked away in an inconspicuous strip mall on Gammon Road but is poised to outgrow its space, rapidly gaining the attention of Thai food lovers citywide. The broad, flat, slightly charred rice noodles in the Phad See Ew have an amazing mouthfeel and are stir fried in a sweet-savory oyster sauce with crisp Chinese broccoli. Fresh cilantro and scallion garnish brightens the dish’s flavor. Hot sauce on the side packs a punch.

Head east to Ha Long Bay, which features an extensive menu created by owners and head chefs Chris and Jean Tran. From Thai to Vietnamese and Lao dishes, Ha Long Bay excels. Try the “drunken noodles,” pad-kee mao—food for the soul. The wide, flavor-laden rice noodles are mixed with tender mushrooms and broccoli in a sweet, savory and spicy sauce. There is no alcohol in this dish, but perhaps the name is derived from the feeling of complete satisfaction one reaches upon eating it.

Viet House, a recently opened eastside eatery in yet another nondescript strip mall on East Washington, makes authentic Vietnamese food. Try the pho, an aromatic broth poured over rice noodles, with your choice of various meats and veggies. The slow-cooked broth is divine, made with beef bone, onion and whole spices such as star anise, coriander, cinnamon and a touch of sugar. The soft rice noodles have their place, but aside from the broth, the “salad” is key. Drop thin slices of beef
tenderloin in the hot pho and top with fresh scallion and peppers, lime juice, hoisin and chili sauce, and herbs.

Dumplings

The Dumpling Haus. Photo by Sarah Smiley.No question that dumplings are delicious, but who knew that those small packages of soft, warm dough filled with meats, veggies and spices could be so versatile? The Dumpling Haus, an unassuming eatery in Hilldale, offers an assortment of homemade dumplings including Haus Jiao Zi, traditional pork dumplings that celebrate the owner’s Beijing heritage. Ground pork with bits of scallion and ginger are encased in a tender housemade dough. Or try the open-topped shaomai dumplings filled with a delicious blend of pork, water chestnuts and spices. The shrimp dumplings are a delicate treat: tender shrimp steamed in rice paper wrappers, with a light, salty dipping sauce. Though buns take a slight detour from the dumpling category, the Nutella Bao, a homemade steamed bun filled with creamy Nutella, is certainly a comfort food!

Speaking of buns, Graze’s pork variety, soft steamed buns folded over crispy grilled local pork belly, topped with housemade kimchee and pickles, are truly comfort food. Who but chef Tory Miller could elevate Asian street food to a gourmet dining experience featuring Wisconsin-grown ingredients?

Himal Chuli, a popular Himalayan eatery on State Street, offers both meat and vegetarian dumplings. The vegetarian momocha, filled with vegetables and a peanut paste, and the chicken momo are blended with spices that incorporate flavors from India to China. The lively tomato-coriander dipping sauce is a perfect complement to the dumplings.

Natt Spil, a fun, late-night hangout, is perhaps an unexpected stop for shu mai, typically served as part of dim sum brunch fare in China. Natt Spil’s dumplings win on texture as well as flavor. The thin dough wrappers are filled with pieces of spicy pork sausage, shrimp and water chestnuts, steamed and served over a soy, sesame oil and rice wine sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Korean Flair

K Peppers. Photo by Angela Wong.

Korean food has grown in popularity over the past few years, and bibimbap—meaning “mixed rice”—serves as a tasty introduction to the cuisine. A popular street food, bibimbap features rice topped with meat or protein and various vegetables, such as lightly steamed bean sprouts, greens, carrots and radish. Then comes a sunny-side-up egg and chili sauce. It’s all mixed together into one delicious meal, and served with side dishes, which actually take center stage in Korean cuisine.

Try the rock cooker bibimbap at New Seoul, Madison’s original Korean restaurant. The heat from the large clay bowl continues to cook the rice, creating a fragrant crust. The pickled radish, housemade cabbage and radish kimchee, and fried potato side dishes, give each bite a unique, provocative piquancy.

K Pepper’s beef bulgogi bibimbap combines two great dishes in one—Korean beef barbeque and the mixed-up rice topped with various steamed veggies and an egg. The side dishes at K Peppers vary daily, except for kimchee, and showcase traditional and fusion flavors. Egg and potato salad, tempura broccoli and a corn pancake are just a few of the many variations you might find on your table.

Click here for a map for all the businesses mentioned in our Asian-Food Lover's Guide.

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