Vegan students feel welcome in Madison. That's according to Hannah West, a music education student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. West, 22, is involved in several groups working to bring more vegan choices to the UW campus and area restaurants, but says Madison is already ahead of the curve when it comes to vegan dining.
"When you go to a restaurant in Madison, even one that's not explicitly vegetarian or vegan, there's usually a vegan option, which provides vegans with a positive experience and a sense of being supported in their choices," says West.
I took some guidance from West before beginning my search for inexpensive, tasty vegan food within walking or biking distance of campus. Here are my top five picks.
Ian's Pizza on State
100 State St.; 319 N. Frances St. (pizza only); 608-257-9248
I like my pizza crust thin, with a chewy, bready edge. Ian's gets it right, and earns bonus points for offering vegan cheese at no extra charge. I built two custom pies: a more traditional version with marinara sauce, button mushrooms and green peppers; and another with kalamata olive puree, roasted red peppers and sautéed spinach. Both pizzas were topped with vegan mozzarella.
Ian's marinara is a bright, slightly sweet tomato sauce that's not overly seasoned, so the ripe tomato flavor really shines through. The vegetables were fresh and the vegan mozzarella pleasantly gooey and stretchy. I liked the second pie even better. The combination of salty kalamatas with the sweet roasted peppers and the delicate spinach was heavenly.
On Mondays Ian's has at least one vegan pizza special, so you can order by the slice instead of buying a whole pie. Ian's on State's menu also includes vegan pasta and build-your-own salad choices.
The Dandelion food cart
Library Mall; facebook.com/DandelionFoodCart
The Dandelion is a vegetarian and vegan food cart owned and operated by chef Braulio Maximiliano. His vegan menu includes fajitas, a mushroom and seitan Reuben, a baked tofu sandwich called El Matador, and even brownies. After several visits, my favorite is the chickpea salad sandwich. It's savory, hearty and unlike any vegan sandwich I've had elsewhere.
Braulio's chickpea salad is made with partially mashed garbanzo beans, red onion, diced carrots, red bell pepper, cilantro and vegan mayonnaise. It's served on a hoagie bun with sliced cucumber, tomato and fresh spinach. There's a lot going on with this sandwich, but all of the textures and flavors come together beautifully.
All Dandelion sandwiches come with corn tortilla chips and tangy cabbage slaw.
I admit I wasn't expecting much from a food cart with such an uninspired name. When I saw a long line out front, however, I grew more hopeful.
Good Food's menu is simple yet creative. Any entrée can be ordered as a salad or a wrap sandwich. The Sweet Thai Chili wrap or salad with tofu is the only vegan option, though others can easily be made vegan. You can also build your own salad or wrap.
My Sweet Thai Chili wrap with baked basil tofu was one of the best meals I've had from a food cart. The tofu was firm and flavorful, and cut into perfect bite-size strips. The veggies tasted as if they had been picked that morning. It's everything I love about Thai food: lots of fresh herbs, crisp veggies, spicy chilies and a classic peanut sauce.
Gotham New York Bagels
112 E. Mifflin St.; 608-467-7642
I've gotta love a place where a vegan can get a bagel and a schmear. Gotham offers three varieties of tofu cream cheese: plain, scallion and vegetable. All bagels are vegan except egg, super egg everything, and whole-wheat honey.
Gotham also has a vegan sandwich on its breakfast menu called the V. It has scallion tofu cream cheese, roasted poblano peppers, tomato, arugula and avocado on your choice of bagel. I like mine on a toasted onion bagel. The arugula may be too sharp for some taste buds, but I enjoy its bitterness. The roasted peppers add the slightest bit of heat but don't overpower.
The V is an excellent sandwich, though other than the bagel it's served on, nothing about it says "breakfast" to me. It's really no matter, since Gotham serves breakfast all day.
Library Mall food cart; 543 State St.; 608-255-3646
While Buraka's food cart has fewer vegan options than its State Street restaurant location, it's a faster, more affordable way to sample some delicious Ethiopian food. Both the misirwot and peanut stew are vegan, and served with either rice or injera, an Ethiopian flatbread. I adore lentils, so I usually opt for the misirwot, a comforting stew of lentils, split peas and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce.
Buraka's service is fast and friendly, and my server was very knowledgeable about how everything is prepared.