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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  A Few Clouds


The Great Madison Food Tour: Capitol Square

Don't miss the made-to-order empanadas at Cafe Costa Rica on the food tour of Capitol Square.
Don't miss the made-to-order empanadas at Cafe Costa Rica on the food tour of Capitol Square.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein
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When it comes to food, I endorse the approach of Calvin Trillin. I first encountered his book of food adventures, American Fried, when I was in college, and it is still available as one-third of The Tummy Trilogy. Trillin doesn't take himself seriously as a gourmet -- he's suspicious of the very concept. He's more of a populist eater.

In his most recent collection of food essays, Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties from Kansas City to Cuzco, Trillin has gone global. Trillin participates in the yearly New Yorker Festival by leading a food tour called "Come Hungry" to some of his favorite food haunts in Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown. This is a hot ticket. Apparently he walks around with a microphone while underlings from the New Yorker push speakers down the street on rollers.

I started thinking about what kind of easily walkable food tour we could rig up in downtown Madison. Not because I want to lead a food tour -- far from it -- but because this is apparently the kind of thing I start dreaming up when stopped for a long freight train on East Wash. And who knows -- maybe it's an activity conventioneers at Monona Terrace would love to take part in on a free morning.

We could start in Madison's "TriBeCa," as Osteria Papavero calls the area on its website -- although "Triangle Behind the Capitol" could refer to just about anywhere downtown, couldn't it? Does the Capitol have a front? Just down the street from Mo T, sample Torta di Ceci, a chickpea bread with toppings of arugula, mozzarella and prosciutto. This is probably the closest Madison is going to come to socca, the chickpea-based pancake Trillin finds in Nice.

Next, we'd pop over to Cafe Costa Rica for the made-to-order empanadas, with your choice of fillings (from cheese, beans, spinach, potato, beef, chicken or pork), in an unusual crust that's light and almost egg-roll like. The spinach filling has a tangy, vinegary, Caribbean punch, and can be combined with any of the others, too.

On the Square, the Wei's Food to Go cart is parked at the corner of Main and Pinckney Streets in front of the Tenney Building. The fragrant rice entree sort of hides on the cart's otherwise lunch-rush, fried-rice-heavy menu. It belies its name, since it features slices of barbecued pork, cucumber and celery, with fish sauce on white rice.

Head across the Square to Fromagination for some Wisconsin cheese on locally made Potter's Crackers. While a cheese course at this point in our travels might seem a little weird -- to some -- let's keep in mind that this is a tour, not a meal, and it's only a hypothetical tour at that. Plus, the nutty Cocoa Cardona cheese will nudge us toward dessert. It's a young goat's milk Gouda, rubbed with cocoa powder and pepper, from Carr Valley Cheese.

And then it would be time for real dessert. The shortcut through the Capitol back to Pinckney Street to Cafe Soleil is a scenic bonus. The Cafe's two signature cookies -- the chocolate sand cookie and the hickory nut shortbread -- are wonderfully rich, fulfilling takes on the humble cookie, just as the apple galette is a tarting up of the modest turnover.

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