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Wednesday, July 9, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Fair
The Paper

FOOD AND DRINK

Limon is worth finding for fish tacos and flan
Outta sight


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Limon is a spare little Mexican restaurant, nearly invisible from the street, because the front faces Bassett - mostly out of view of westbound Gorham/University car traffic. The space was once the Copper Gable Café; it will require some word-of-mouth to make a successful operation in this Bermuda Triangle of one-way streets. The shuttered hull of Casa Bianca II next door is the closest thing to a helpful landmark.

But Limon, operated by the same family that owns the west-side restaurant Cilantro, might be able to exert the necessary culinary gravitational pull to make this "secret" location a success. First, it is not just another burrito joint; it doesn't even serve them. Second, it's encouraging when, within a month of opening, there's brisk repeat takeout business for daily specials - particularly the superb tamales on Thursdays. Items are often missing because they are sold out.

While sister restaurant Cilantro is trying to be a Rick Bayless-inspired upscale Mexican restaurant, Limon plays it straight and offers a simple menu done well. There are a few Americanized twists, like a creamy chipotle sauce, which is either something you love or loathe as a post-trend hangover from the heyday of the smoked pepper. I found myself sympathetic to it on the messily enjoyable totopos.

A sign on the wall attempts to explain totopos (which are traditionally a sort of Oaxacan flatbread) by proclaiming "not nachos please!" - but they are nachos. No matter. Limon's version is a generous amount of crispy chips topped with belly-filling black beans, rice, tomatoes, onions and cilantro. Steak is good, and the non-imitation crab is a hugely portioned crab lover's delight.

"Northern"-style quesadillas are probably best left made at home, for the money, but the "Mexico City" style are a highlight. Although greasy, the potato and chorizo has the quality of a piquant, rich, south-of-the-border shepherd's pie. The poblano with cheese also has carrots, onions and the beguiling flavor of Mexican oregano, which is a stronger, floral, less sweet herb than its Mediterranean cousin.

The flautas here are small, crunchy and oozy with crema. The thick handmade tortillas make for good frying and are expertly done, the chicken inside flavorful and rich.

Limon's red salsa is smoky with flecks of black char and almost arty in its complexity and refinement. The green salsa is bright, herbaceous, and tastes of avocado and citrus. The mole (which you can ask for with any item, but appears on the menu only in the oaxaqueÃos tamale) is sharp, a little bitter and aggressively chocolatey, with the texture of ground spices and pepitas discernible in every addicting bite.

What Limon does best are tacos. The carnitas here has big hunks of pork shoulder, rubbed with spice and just the right amount of moisture remaining in the meat. The asada has toothsome morsels of quality skirt steak large enough to still have visible steak-like grain to them.

The pescado is the best fish taco I've had in Madison. Limon's fish tacos are not the dried-out, deep-fried, fishstick-like bar food improvisations that usually pass for fish tacos here, but nicely spiced pieces of tilapia generous enough to actually flake. On top is red cabbage and ripe pineapple salsa. Truly glorious by comparison to the standard, they are the special on Fridays for $5.

Of the sides, the corn off the cob is a delicious bowl of pan-sizzled kernels topped with lime, salt, cheese, chile powder and a lot of sour cream. Corn with these condiments is a signature feature of Mexican cuisine, and rightly so because it hits every possible basic taste: sour, salty, sweet, bitter, even umami.

In a stroke of genius for a restaurant near campus, Limon also does to-go trays of tacos, quesadillas, flautas and salads. A full tray of steak tacos serves eight to 10 "hungry Buckys" and is $48; $5 per person seems worth it for tacos this good.

One of Limon's proprietors, Gonzalo de Santiago, was a pastry chef before opening restaurants in Madison, and his flan is not to be missed. It is thick like cheesecake with a sinful caramel glaze. The elusive chocolate lava cake with mole sadly remains a mystery.

It is apparently so good that it is always - you guessed it - sold out.

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