The wonderful HungryBadger Cafe makes the loss of Kabul Restaurant on State Street a little less painful.
HungryBadger opened Dec. 1 in the second-floor location occupied by Kabul for almost five years. Kabul moved to that location after it was forced from its original home to make room for the Hub Madison, a massive mixed-use student housing development.
The largely hidden location was a challenge for the Afghan/Mediterranean restaurant, and it’s tricky for HungryBadger, too. That’s a shame because it deserves to be known and appreciated.
Owners Archana and Deepak Shrestha are natives of Nepal, which informs the flavors found in the food: cumin, turmeric, cilantro, coriander, ginger, garlic and more. But Archana, who does most of the cooking with her sister-in-law, Neelam Shrestha, is careful not to overpower any of their dishes.
The flavors and menu have something in common with The Globe, which opened not long before HungryBadger and not far from it. The Globe’s owners are also from Nepal. It’s worth noting that another sister of Deepak Shrestha owns Madison’s original Nepali restaurant, Himal Chuli.
HungryBadger’s tagline is “Comfort Food from Everywhere for Everyone,” but The Globe’s menu has a much more far-reaching scope.
Momos, or dumplings, get top billing at both restaurants and are becoming a theme on State Street. HungryBadger offers five types, but there are other tempting items on the menu.
On my first visit, my server told me his favorite dish was the veggie fritters ($6) and they quickly became a favorite of mine. Clumps of onions and spinach, with corn, cabbage and sweet pepper were battered and deep fried. They were oily, but subtly and perfectly seasoned. The tomato sauce on the side was fresh, homemade and great for dipping.
The samosa ($7), two to an order, and also deep-fried, were the opposite: devoid of grease. They had a mild potato and pea mixture inside, and came with a thick, tamarind sauce, the same excellent tomato sauce, and a small, elegant salad.
The rice bowl ($9.50), made with chicken or tofu, is another favorite. The tofu came in two big squares and was well marinated. Wild rice pilaf underneath was notable in that it was studded with plump dried cranberries, which added a pleasant note of sweetness. My only wish was that there had been more of the colorful vegetables on top.
Our waiter told us about the restaurant’s exceptional cilantro sauce, which can be blended into the rice or used to dip the samosa. It’s worth asking for.
In a nod to Wisconsin, the “campus chili” ($7.50) had ground beef, three types of beans including edamame, as well as carrots, corn and scallions. It was healthier than most chili, if you don’t count the little dollop of sour cream. Best, it came with one of the restaurant’s unbeatable rosemary rolls, in the shape of a cinnamon roll, with a pronounced rosemary flavor. Red pepper flakes gave it a kick.
A same delightful roll also comes with the “Eight Sister” soup ($7.50), so named because Archana has seven sisters. The vegetarian eight-bean soup had a thin broth with wilted spinach floating on top. The soup tasted bland at first, but slowly grew on me. My 13-year-old, soup-loving daughter declined it after a couple of tastes, calling it “too herbal.” The promised dollop of sour cream was missing, but that was OK, because it was hard to imagine with this soup.
As for the dumplings, I tried the classic momo with ground chicken ($8.50). They can be stuffed with beef instead for an extra dollar, which starts seeming pricey until you consider that each order is made fresh by hand.
The eight tender steamed dumplings were attractively arranged, with their tips in contact with a delicious deep orange, tomato-based sauce in the center.
While waiting for your food, or having a beer or glass of wine, check out Bucky’s bar nuts ($6), peanuts and soy nuts mixed with garlic, ginger, cilantro, chili flakes, small pieces of red and orange pepper, and a heavy dose of onion. Tossed with lemon juice and avocado oil and placed on a glass plate, they’re among the most interesting nuts I’ve had.
HungryBadger has a fresh-made juice, and on my visits it was red and green apple with carrot and ginger. Archana said it sometimes also has beets. Because of the freezing weather, I went with the chai ($2), which had the right amount of milk, sugar and ginger, and came in a small mug with free refills.
The dining room is not much different from Kabul, with its good-sized bar and the same attractive wooden tables and chairs.
HungryBadger’s website has a section explaining that the Shresthas decided to open the restaurant after becoming empty nesters and both have demanding jobs outside the restaurant. Deepak is an engineer and Archana is a financial specialist. Neelam is a nurse. It also details some impressive athletic accomplishments, including two Ironman races for Deepak and nine Madison marathons for Neelam.
It’s easy to walk right by HungryBadger, which is above IT’SUGAR candy store and next to Taco Bell Cantina. But that would be a mistake.
Sunroom has existed for years in a second-floor location nearby and does a strong business. So it can be done. And HungryBadger is just the restaurant to do it.