Mar 9, 2020

A commoner dines at Buraka, Madison, Wis.

No matter where my travels take me as a commoner, I always like to discover cuisines from different cultures I’ve never tried before, even if that cuisine doesn’t necessarily seem to be a natural fit for where I’m visiting.  For instance, who thinks of Ethiopian food when they visit Madison, Wis.?  Well, once I read about Buraka, I did, and I’m glad I tried it. 

Buraka is conveniently located in Madison’s “you’ll find a little bit of everything here” Williamson Street neighborhood – where you may remember I also discovered Mickey’s Tavern – which is part of the isthmus that divides the city’s two lakes just northeast of downtown.

As I approached for the first time, the place didn’t seem to look like much, but it was definitely colorful and looked the part.  Additionally, the music I heard from the inside was inviting, so I walked in eager to taste something new. 

Judging from the exterior I was not expecting a rather lengthy interior with several roomy booths on the left and the long bar on the right.  The woodwork seemed new and shiny and lightened up the place.  I later learned that Buraka also has a roomy outdoor area with plenty of plants and overhanging trees to provide a fun, al fresco dining experience.     

Obviously, I had arrived on a weeknight, right after they opened.  But that turned out to work to my advantage, as I was able to ask a few questions about the menu and, just as importantly, the drink specials, from a very friendly and accommodating bartender.  I grabbed a bar stool near the serving station and began absorbing the atmosphere. 

Between the high backs and the artwork on the walls, each booth seemed to have its own little sense of hominess.   

Even the “gate” dividing the serving station from the bar was designed to get your attention.

I was feeling more and more at home.  So, when the bartender suggested I start dinner off with one of their specialty cocktails, who was I to say no?  As you might expect, the bar’s stock leaned heavily toward rum and mixers designed for any Caribbean-influenced drink you can imagine.  I stayed on menu, and decided to try their Dark and Stormy.  Their combination of dark rum and zingy ginger beer was excellent and a good choice to slowly sip while I waited for my entrée. 

And this is where things got really good.  At the recommendation of my server, I had ordered a combination platter – my choice, with a couple of exceptions, of any two dinners listed on Buraka’s menu.  As a first-timer to East African fare, the two dishes which spoke to me most were the dorowot toward the back of the plate, and the minchet abish at the front of the plate. 

Dorowot is probably Buraka’s closest thing to tasting like beef stew except it uses chicken as the protein.  But everything in the dish is fall-apart good and smothered in a thick reddish-brown sauce.  The dish relies heavily on a berbere spice blend for its earthy and savory flavor.  I was never familiar with berbere before this meal, but I became an instant believer.  If you like chili peppers and garlic with a very slight citrusy zest, this spice blend is for you.

The minchet abish grinds beef, lentils, onions and tomatoes together and flavors it all with a darker and slightly spicier berbere-seasoned sauce.  Maybe it was because I detected a bit of a smokier flavor to this dish, but I think it stole the show from the dorowot.

Although the rice itself was nothing to brag about, I was glad I chose it with my entrées to help soak up all the gravy.  All meals at Buraka come with either rice or injera, a type of flatbread.  I got an extra order of injera to dip into everything, much like a tortilla, and it worked exceptionally well.  Lastly, the dollop of sour cream worked perfectly to add a creamy kick texture to either dish.       

Long after I had dinner at Buraka, I learned the name of the restaurant comes from an East African language and means “joy and contentment.”  I think that effectively sums up my meal and my experience there.  If you’re not familiar with East African cuisine and are looking to get out of your comfort zone, you’ll find Buraka to be a real treat.


No comments:

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...