Compiled Reviews


A Jim and Amy collaboration

It is late April, one of my favorite times of year. The world is green again, there is no more brown snow. Their is a chance (on at least some days) that we can sit on my deck and drink a glass of wine. Their is the sound of a cracking bat on TV again, with the return of major league baseball. But what really makes the season, is the return of the outdoor Dane County Farmer’s Market.

Since Amy and I first visited the Dane County Farmer’s Market (DCFM) in 1999, we have been truly in love with Madison. It is the heart and soul of our great city. But not only is it a great diversion from a hectic work week, it is also the market that, with a little thinking and planning, can be your primary source of sustenance.

So here are some reasons why the DCFM should be your grocery store.

1. Know your producer. There is nothing more comforting that being able to look your producer in the eye, shake his or her hand, and know him or her by name. You just don’t get this when picking up your apple at a grocery store.

2. Sense of community. Every walk of life shows up at DCFM. Street musicians, local artists, kids of all ages, jaded protesters, content farmers. It is all there. Most have a smile on their face. No one is in a hurry to leave. There are red wagons being pulled, pastry being devoured, and music being played. No one is hiding behind a metal cart.

3. Passion behind your food – you are buying from producers who are passionate, and knowledgeable, about their products. They take great pride in what they are selling.

4. Cash and check only (in most cases). No money going to the middleman of a credit or debit transaction.

5. Minimal carbon footprint. These products, on average, come from less than 100 miles away. Enough said.

Now, for the fun details. These are some of my favorite products we buy time and again from the DCFM.  This is not at all an exclusive list, but just a list of favorites.

6.  5 year aged cheddar from Hook’s Cheese – purely sinful, but glorious. Losing some of it’s bite at this level of aging, but gaining that more crumbly, slightly crunchy texture. A first rate cheese, and a jewel from such a dairy heavy market.

7. Asparagus from Matt Smith (Blue Valley Gardens) – a sign of spring. Realize, there are many great asparagus producers on the square, but Matt is the asparagus guru, as far as I’m concerned. Spargle is also offered (white asparagus).

8. Ramps from Richard deWilde (Harmony Valley Farm) – perhaps the greatest prize of spring (arguably better than morels). This is a wild leek, and it’s flavor is unlike any onion like vegetable out there. Part garlic, part onion, part leek, part cabbage, part shallot, all that rolled up into the best addition to scrambled eggs you could think of.

9. Heirloom peppers from Jean & Michael Martin (Jones Valley Farm) – in late summer and early fall, the oddly shaped and glorious color of these peppers draw you in to Jones Valley Farm’s beautiful display. Cook them any way you like, they give your mind and mouth a taste experience different from any pepper you’ve ever had.

10. Apple Cider from Bob Willard (Ela Orchard) – one of the only products rarely tried by late market goers (after 11 a.m.), tt sells out early, but for good reason. This is far and away the best apple cider I’ve ever tried. It is different each week, but Bob still makes a consistently delightful cider that is good for drinking cold, hot, or slowly reduced and added to a sauce or salad dressing.

11. Fresh chevre from Anne Topham, Fantome Farm – creamy, only slightly tangy, light, delicious. My favorite use is to add it to a fall salad of apples and walnuts, with a dressing made from Ela Orhcard’s cider mentioned above.

12. Raspberries from Paul and Louise Maki (Blue Skies Berry Farm) – who doesn’t love a good raspberry. Paul and Louise are some of the nicest people on the square. Their berries are grown with passion: orange, yellow and multiple varieties of red berries are available. Amy and I routinely visit their farm each year to pick our own.

13. Dried beef from John and Dorothy Priske (Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms) – I first tasted this dried beef on a sandwich at L’Etoile, and I have never gone back. Slightly salty, intense beef flavor in just one slice. Buy it for a very special sandwich.

14. Chorizo sausage form Eric and Carrie Johson (Jordandal Farm) – sausage in general from Jordandal is fantastic, but I especially like their chorizo. It is a perfect blend of spices, but not too greasy. I love to crumble it into a tortilla casserole with chipotle salsa.

15. Bacon from Tony and Susan Renger (Willow Creek Farm) – bacon that closely rivals Nueske’s bacon from northern Wisconsin, Willow Creek pork in general is a step above. Smoky, thick, and gorgeous when cooked. Enjoy it best in late summer on a BLT with market heirloom tomatoes.

16. Beef from James and Rebecca Goodman (Northwood Farm) – this is the source of my burger of the gods. This is pure organic meat from another friendly producer. I use their ground beef, adding only salt and pepper, for my ultimate home made burger.

17. Heirloom tomatoes from Quentin and Mary Carpenter (Carpenter Farm) – the most consistent, and reasonably priced tomato producers on the square. They do a beautiful job with a beautiful product. Heirloom tomatoes, as far as I’m concerned, are the crown jewel of summer produce. Nothing beats them, ever.

18. Wintered spinach from Bill Warner and Judy Hageman (Snug Haven Farm) – the star of the first market of the season, this spinach is delectably sweet. Put it in anything, but left best for a simple spinach salad.

19. All blue potatoes from John Aue (Butter Mountain Potatoes) – John is the ultimate potato head, and seems to know every potato in and out. He waxes poetic (pardon the pun) about his products. My favorite are any of his fingerlings, or his all blue potatoes, which are, in my opinion, the best way to truly taste the earth without putting dirt directly in your mouth.

20. Eggs from John Carr (Pecatonica Valley Farm) – another super nice guy on the square, John also offers many delicious meat products, including a killer smoked chicken. However, we buy our eggs almost each week from John, they are guaranteed fresh and flavorful.

21. Sweet Corn from Richard deWilde (Harmony Valley Farm)  – I didn’t want to mention one vendor twice, but I just can’t go without mentioning that the sweet corn from Harmony Valley is to die for. Sweet corn in general on the square is far better than the grocery stores, but Richard grows a particular varietal, or grows it in a particular way, that produces the best sweet corn I have ever tasted.

22. Carrots from Cate & Mat Eddy (Ridgeland Harvest)- organic carrots that taste sweet, crunchy, and abundant. This producer in general offers top quality produce, I also love their swiss chard, and winter squash.

23. Concord grapes from Dale and Cindy Secher (Carandale Farm) – another highlight of fall, the fruit that produces my favorite pie.

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Author – Jim (after a long debate on content, of course)

We all freqent them, and know them well. The mainstay of a college town, the custom burrito store. Also knows as “Qdoba,” and “Chipotle.” But have you also visited the lesser know, but similarly decorated “Pancheros” and “Burrachos.” In the end, they are ubiquitous, and essentially the same restaurant. But Amy and I have eaten about a hundred burritos and tacos and offer you a different kind of review. Instead of reviewing the all separately, we off the following best of list.

DISCLAIMER– in no way shape or form do Amy and I think these places a true and authentic representation of Mexican food. I (Jim) think Mexican food is truly food of the Gods, and deserves better than to be summed up by a review of the custom burrito world. Read later blogs for reviews of “real” Mexican food.  Also, we are intentionally reviewing the known chain burrito stores in the Madison area. We are, for now, excluding local restaurants here (this will be VERY rare, we promise).

First, the commonalities. Their interiors are all designed by the same decorator, lots of rich color, usually green or red on the walls, and lots of metal all around. And don’t forget the pseudo indigenous art on the walls. They all have essentially the same offerings. Choose your vehicle (burrito, taco, quesadilla, a salad and “burrito bowl” thrown in for good measure). Choose a meat, a salsa, and smother on lots of cheese and sour cream (we are, after all, in Wisconsin).  If you are a true foodie, at some point you try the “extra stuff”, and no, queso sauce doesn’t count. Sorry.

So, on to the review. Here are the best of the best, from outside to inside.

The tortilla – Pancheros: the only redeeming quality to a poor excuse for a burrito store. They designed their entire menu around one thing, the flour tortilla, and forgot how to flavor everything else. I personally don’t even care that a flour tortilla is good (when it comes to corn tortillas, this is a totally different matter).  Sure, it shouldn’t be crap, but in the end, I don’t eat a burrito in order to have a damn good tortilla. If you want a tortilla, don’t eat a burrito, eat a tortilla.

The meat – I think we are better served by digging deeper, into the different types of meat.

  •  Chicken – everybody’s stand-by – best at Qdoba, aside from the occasional gristle I bite down on. The flavor seems to be throughout the meat, rather than just a “rub” like at Burrachos (which, for the record, was like eating chiken frozen for 6 1/2 years before it was cooked).
  • Shredded beef (a.k.a. Barbacoa)- Q Doba, easily. You can taste the spices, cumin, garlic, cloves. You can flavor beef this way, it is a strong flavor anyway. Don’t be afraid to pile on the spice. Chipotle is just one flavor, salt. The others aren’t worth mentioning.
  • Pork – first of all, if you were to have me and Amy (yes, I guarantee we agree on this) choose only one foodstuff on the planet to eat, it would be pork. Pork friggin rules. It will forever make the best burrito. The winner, well its a tie between Chipotle (my choice) and Burrachos (Amy’ choice). Chipotle uses some primo pork, from Niman ranch. This is sustainably produced pork, and it shows. It tastes like, well, pork. Amy says its definitely better quality meat, but it is too salty.  It needs other flavors layered in.  Would a marinade kill them, but I say it tastes like pork.  At Burrachos, there are some other flavors mixed in, including what seemed like chipotle. Nice overall flavor, but not pure enough for me.
  • Ground beef – you not actually going to put ground beef in your burrito, are you? Why would anyone choose “random parts” over “tender, shredded goodness.”

The beans – this is the one part of the burrito which generally varies the least. The only part that really sets one apart from another is how correctly they are cooked. Beans should be slightlyal dente, not mush. Pinto beans tend to be a bit thinner skinned, so that become mush more easily than black. In any case, since beans are so often a background flavor, I haven’t noticed an appreciable difference between burrito stores, other than the occasional mushy mess here and there.

The salsa (and other flavorings) – Qdoba – they do the best job of making these distinctly different. None of them taste like Pace, which is also a very good thing. This is the “icing” on the burrito cake. Poblano pesto, ancho barbeque sauce (one of my personal favs), the gone but not forgotten mole sauce (one of Amy’s favorites), a ranchero sauce. There is clear, culinarily minded thought that goes into these salsas/sauces, unlike the cookie cutter salsas you get at the other places.

The cheese and sour cream – pretty much the same, everywhere. I can’ t wait until the burrito stores rock the world by offering something like queso fresco.

So there you have it, the ideal burrito. Someday, we’ll spend two hours going from store to store piecing together the ultimate burrito store burrito.