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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Wisconsin chapter.

Eat your heart out with my top 10 recommendations

As a food lover and a broke college student, my biggest concern when I came to Madison was the restaurants and cafes available to me. After experiencing the dining halls for a year as a freshman (yuck), I was determined to seek out the best (and most affordable) food around me. Here’s my take on the yummiest eats that you need to try out near campus that also won’t break the bank.

1. Paul’s Pelmenis

First on this list (and in my heart) is Paul’s, which is located just off State Street at 414 W Gilman. They only serve one thing, which are their Russian dumplings filled with either beef or potato and topped with the works: A combination of butter, yellow curry powder, sweet chili sauce, and cilantro. You know when a restaurant has committed themselves to one dish, that means they’ve perfected it and Paul’s serves exactly that – perfection. The best part? A full order of their dumplings costs less than $10 and keeps your tummy full and happy. Yes, their location is a little dingy, but it’s a great, quick lunch stop in between classes or even an after-hours snack on the weekends when you’re done with the bars.

2. Caracas Empanadas

The best part about springtime isn’t the sunny skies or the flowers blooming, it’s the fact that the food trucks on State Street are back. I’m a fan of all of them, but my go-to has always been, and will always be, the Venezuelan empanada truck. They serve a variety of both savory and sweet versions of this flaky pastry, with vegetarian options available as well. My usual is two shredded beef and cheese empanadas, but I sometimes throw in one of their delicious churros if I need a little sweet pick-me-up. Their regular empanadas are $4 each while their specialty ones are priced at $4.50, which means that you won’t need to break your wallet to fill yourself up, as two empanadas usually tide me over throughout the day. I’d recommend going during the afternoon, as they usually sell out by 3:00 to 4:00 p.m.

3. Fugu

Located right across from Paul’s on W Gilman is Fugu, which serves one of the most authentic Chinese Sichuan dishes you can get in Madison. If you’re a fan of spicy food, this is the place to be. Pick out your favorite ingredients and they’ll stir fry it with Sichuan peppercorn and other traditional Chinese spices into a mouthwateringly tasty dry hot pot dish. Try out their other dishes too, my favorites are the deep fried chicken with chili peppers as well as the seafood and Japanese tofu in hotpot. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, they also have dishes which contain pork intestine, ox tongue, pig ear and even pork blood. I’ve never had a bad dish at Fugu, so I’m sure anything you try there will be scrumptious.

4. Taste of Sichuan

While I would argue that Fugu has better Chinese food than Taste of Sichuan, their place on this list is solely because of their hotpot. For those of you who have never had hotpot – it’s not just a dish, it’s an experience. Hotpot works by picking ingredients and a broth, and then cooking the ingredients you chose in it, which usually includes thin-sliced meats, fish balls, noodles and vegetables. You also get to pick out dipping sauces to dip your food in as well. Best of all, it’s a communal dish, so you and your friends get to cook the hotpot together and share. On a cold winter day (which are most days in Madison), all I want is soup, and what’s better than sharing a soup with some of your best friends?

5. Le C’s Patisserie

I’m a sucker for a good brown sugar boba milk tea and I will fight anyone who says that there’s a better place for boba in Madison. Le C’s boba menu is expansive and delicious, and I would argue that there’s definitely something for everyone, from those with a sweet tooth to fruit tea lovers. My go-to drink is the ancient brown sugar boba milk tea, which is a little sweeter than the regular brown sugar boba milk tea, as they use a different brown sugar from Taiwan. Don’t skip out on their assortment of bread, they serve both sweet and savory buns that are great snacks. The cafe is also a cute little spot with great natural lighting where you can sit and study as you sip on your drink.

6. Taiwan Little Eats

This little restaurant on State Street serves the best Taiwanese street food that is definitely both authentic and delicious. They have both smaller, appetizer-style dishes which are good for a snack, and bigger dishes which often include either rice or noodles. My favorite snack is the crispy and salty popcorn chicken, but I’m also a fan of the Tainan braised pork over rice if you’re looking for something a little more substantial. They also serve boba drinks, which rival Le C’s for best boba in Madison in my opinion. The restaurant has a whimsical vibe, with colorful art and posters as well as mismatched chairs and sofas that make it a great place to hang out with friends.

7. Estacion Inka

Estacion Inka is a spot on University Ave that serves Peruvian fusion food and is guaranteed to be one of your favorites. Their rotisserie chicken is marinated and seasoned to perfection with a blend of their Peruvian spices and served with a side, most people opting between their white or cilantro rice. The dish on its own is tasty, but don’t skimp out on their Inka sauces which instantly elevate the taste of the chicken. I’m also a huge fan of their tres leches cake, a light cake soaked in a sweet milk mixture and topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. Overall, a great place for a quick lunch or dinner that will cost you less than $10.

8. Mediterranean Cafe

Mediterranean Cafe, affectionately known as Med Cafe by patrons, is a local favorite that packs a punch with all their flavors. It’s a cozy spot on State Street that serves Mediterranean cuisine with an Algerian influence for a relatively affordable price. On select days, they have their roti chicken served with rice and a salad, which is personally my favorite dish, but their lamb and beef shawarma plate is equally delicious and filling. Their dishes are often accompanied by homemade hummus and warmly toasted pita, which perfectly complements the other flavors of the main course. Service is quick, so I love going here between classes and admiring all the postcards displayed on the walls while munching on my food.

9. Indie Coffee

While I wouldn’t consider Indie Coffee a hidden gem, it’s one that a lot of people miss out on when looking for new coffee spots. I’m a coffee lover, so when I say that Indie Coffee serves some of the best coffee in Madison, I really mean it. Their specialty drinks are always fun to try out, and I would recommend also getting either their waffles or a focaccia sandwich to go along with your coffee. Not a coffee lover? Don’t fret, because they have a large variety of teas and fruit smoothies that are also super yummy. While this isn’t the best study spot because the place is a little cramped, they do have a pretty cute outdoor patio that is great for when the weather isn’t freezing. 

10. Conrad’s

Conrad’s deserves its place on this list because it’s such an iconic Madison favorite. Crispy and savory with the perfect amount of greasiness, Conrad’s wraps are the best hangover cure after a night of drinks at the bars. My favorite wrap is the dweeb, which is filled to the brim with a combination of chicken tenders, bacon, tater tots, cheddar, mozzarella cheese and ranch. Portion sizes are also huge, so you get your money’s worth when you can save the leftovers for dinner too. 

There’s definitely a lot more places in Madison that I haven’t explored that deserve to be on this list, but I hope that it gives you inspiration for your next meal out. Have fun exploring and filling up your tummy with good food!

Nadya Hayasi

Wisconsin '23

Nadya is a senior in UW-Madison studying History and Political Science, with certificates in Southeast Asian Studies and Public Policy. Outside of Her Campus, she spends her time going out with friends, napping, and justifying why taking the bus up Bascom Hill is much better than climbing it every day at 9am.