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

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Scene Setters

Three longstanding restaurants share the secrets to their success

Imperial Garden West was one of only three Chinese restaurants in the Madison area when it opened in 1981. Head chef Ken Yan has continued to cook dishes equated with great Chinese food—cashew chicken and their specialty, Peking duck. But he enjoys taking diners on a culinary adventure and will cook a “chef’s choice” meal upon request with ingredients he sources on his weekly shopping trips to Chicago’s Chinatown. 

Ginza of Tokyo on Odana Road has been a landmark Japanese restaurant for more than thirty-five years. Diners come for both the lively hibachi grill and private, screened tearooms. The tempura vegetables and teriyaki chicken remain popular, while specials such as Ginza chicken, and the Godzilla roll, keep things fresh. 

Wasabi, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar near campus, opened almost twenty years ago and caters to both students and professionals. Head chef Urgen Dorjee has been making rolls for fifteen years, and enjoys creating special rolls for different occasions. Packers fans, try the Lambeau roll, a combo of salmon and cucumber on the inside and mango and avocado on the outside. 

Date-Night Bites

Sushi is the quintessential date-night food. Maybe it’s the attention to aesthetics, or perhaps the accompanying warm sake shots, but a good roll can go a long way. We asked three local sushi chefs to make their most impressive bite.  

Brian Ni
Head sushi chef, Takara:
The Puppy Love roll sends a clear message. Soft pink soy paper embraces rice, shrimp tempura, cucumber, crab, caviar and mango in a heart-shaped roll nested on three sauces—mango, spicy mayo and eel.

 

Ali (Zamil) Gezali
Head sushi chef, Takumi:
The Candy roll is the bling of romantic rolls, combining avocado, cream cheese, whitefish and jalapeño. The roll is lightly fried, topped with red caviar and served on an artfully decorated plate, with a side of fruit garnishes in a lit-up glass.

 

    Photos by Nicole Peaslee.Jack Yip
Owner and executive chef, Red Sushi:
The Red roll, a perfectly proportioned mix of spicy tuna, mixed greens, cucumbers and avocado topped with tuna and red tobico, demonstrates an innovative approach to rolls. It’s love at first bite. 

 

 

On a Roll

Chef Shinji Muramoto made a name for himself by revolutionizing Madison’s Asian food scene. He came to Madison for business school, but a part-time job at Wasabi sent him on a different path. Noticing the growing demand for Japanese cuisine, and with a personal interest in fusion food, he quit Wasabi, went home to Japan to study food trends and returned, opening Restaurant Muramoto in 2004.

Restaurant Muramoto offers a stunning array of Asian fusion dishes and updates its menu seasonally, though many house favorites, such as miso-marinated black cod and crab croquettes, remain. By demand, Muramoto opened a sushi joint at Hilldale in 2007 and, after introducing and closing Kushi Muramoto and the Haze, he hit the mark again at 43 North. The sleek bistro near the Capitol serves food Muramoto says he would enjoy eating on a night out, food that bridges New American and Asian-inspired cuisine.

Shinji Muramoto. Photo by Katrina Taloza.Muramoto is the first to admit that he doesn’t really like to cook. He does, however, enjoy creating a vision and putting it into place. No doubt he does that well, winning the Dueling Chef title at the Madison Food and Wine show three years in a row, plus a few James Beard Award nominations.

Muramoto is also a dad who wants his two young kids to appreciate good food. Do they? He laughs as he recounts making his kids daily bento box lunches—which they never ate. We’ll take ’em! 

Tastes of Home

Bounyang Inthachith learned to cook at home and in Buddhist temples while growing up in Laos. When she immigrated to Wisconsin, she decided to put her cooking skills to work. She opened Lao Laan-Xang on Willy Street in 1989, and it’s one of Madison’s first and most beloved Lao and Thai restaurants.

Lao Laan-Xang’s squash curry is the number-one seller. Inthachith wasn’t surprised at the popularity of this and other Thai dishes, but she didn’t think that locals would embrace her own traditional Lao food, which is distinguished by the use of “sticky,” or glutinous, rice (klao niaw), typically served with every Lao meal, and the use of herbs and spices such as galanga and lemon grass.

In fact, people loved it; one of the most frequently asked questions is how to make sticky rice. Moak pa, steamed catfish mixed with ground pork and hot peppers wrapped in banana leaves, and thom som, a complex and flavorful green papaya salad, are two of the more popular Lao dishes.

Inthachith is passing her recipes down orally to her children, including son Sone Inthachith, who opened an equally successful restaurant, Lao Laan-Xang on Atwood. Sone says his young son is an enthusiastic kitchen helper, too. Sounds like Madisonians will be enjoying the Inthachith family’s cooking for many years to come! 

Tastes of Home

Bounyang Inthachith learned to cook at home and in Buddhist temples while growing up in Laos. When she immigrated to Wisconsin, she decided to put her cooking skills to work. She opened Lao Laan-Xang on Willy Street in 1989, and it’s one of Madison’s first and most beloved Lao and Thai restaurants.

Lao Laan-Xang’s squash curry is the number-one seller. Inthachith wasn’t surprised at the popularity of this and other Thai dishes, but she didn’t think that locals would embrace her own traditional Lao food, which is distinguished by the use of “sticky,” or glutinous, rice (klao niaw), typically served with every Lao meal, and the use of herbs and spices such as galanga and lemon grass.

In fact, people loved it; one of the most frequently asked questions is how to make sticky rice. Moak pa, steamed catfish mixed with ground pork and hot peppers wrapped in banana leaves, and thom som, a complex and flavorful green papaya salad, are two of the more popular Lao dishes.

Inthachith is passing her recipes down orally to her children, including son Sone Inthachith, who opened an equally successful restaurant, Lao Laan-Xang on Atwood. Sone says his young son is an enthusiastic kitchen helper, too. Sounds like Madisonians will be enjoying the Inthachith family’s cooking for many years to come! 

For the recipe for Sone Inthachith’s spring roll, check out the May 2013 Dining In column here

The Producers

Madison’s food scene wouldn’t be what it is without Hmong farmers. Many families immigrated here after being persecuted by the communist government that they had fought against during the Vietnam War. Lacking English language skills and formal education, they turned to farming to make a living, using techniques to grow food naturally that they learned on their farms in the mountains of Southeast Asia.

Yang’s Fresh Produce. Photo courtesy of the Yang family.The Yang family was one of the first Hmong families to set up a stand at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Yeng Yang gives his mother, Mee Xiong, all the credit for the success of their farm, Yang’s Fresh Produce. Xiong was among the thousands of Hmong refugees who were granted asylum in Wisconsin; over the past twenty years, her Brooklyn farm has grown to seventeen acres.

Xiong and her family have always placed great value on increasing soil quality and improving the growing environment without the use of chemicals and fertilizers. They grow crops that reflect their cultural background, such as Thai eggplant and bitter melon, alongside dozens of other popular crops including peas, beans, berries and herbs. Their high-quality produce is featured at restaurants such as L’Etoile and the Old Fashioned and various grocery stores.

Yang hopes to host events at the farm to teach people more about farming and Hmong culture. For now, you can find him at farmers’ markets around Madison.

 

Otehlia Cassidy is an award-winning food columnist for Madison Magazine. Check out her monthly Dining In column and her Local Flavor blog. 

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

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