Madison, WI is known for the number of great burger places that proliferate the area. It's tough to NOT find a good burger in Madison (although there is one place that proved you can get a bad burger in the city). One place that has popped up on my burger radar over the past year or so is a place with a whimsical name just across from the Wisconsin State Capitol - the Tipsy Cow. On a trip to Madison late this past summer, I stopped in for a burger at the Tipsy Cow.
The odd shaped building at the corner of King and Main St. (see map) has housed a number of restaurants over the years. None of them have really made it. It was in the spring of 2010 when three partners - Patrick O'Halloran, Michael Banas and Sue Kirton - got together to buy the Local, a tavern that was in the building at King and Main. O'Halloran had extensive restaurant experience - he was an original partner in the popular Old Fashioned bar and grille just up the street from what is now the Tipsy Cow.
O'Halloran and his wife, Marcia, bought Lombardino's Italian restaurant in Madison in 2000. A divorce left Marcia with the Old Fashioned, and Patrick with Lombardino's. Banas - a longtime employee at Lombardino's - bought into the restaurant and became partners with Patrick O'Halloran. Kirton - the former owner of the Opus Lounge, a popular downtown watering hole, and a partner in the Local - got together with Banas and O'Halloran to buy that business from her partners in 2010. (Got that straight? We're gonna have a test on that in the morning.)
Pictured right - Michael Banas, Patrick O'Halloran and Sue Kirton. Photo courtesy Isthmus.com
O'Halloran traveled to Mexico to learn the art of Mexican cuisine in Oaxaca with a focus on mole sauces. They hired Bob Kulow - who had been at Lombardino's - as their head chef and opened their new spot, King and Mane, in 2011.
King and Mane sort of floundered for a year, not really finding a footing in the downtown restaurant scene. But O'Halloran listened to his clientele. They were looking for burgers, appetizers, and craft beers while King and Mane was more of a Mexican "gastro-cantina" with street tacos and torts, but they also had steaks, pork chops and fresh fish. The restaurant felt rudderless in its culinary direction.
Figuring that a corner neighborhood bar with locally sourced food along with regional craft beers would be the answer to a successful business, the trio of owners - along with chef Kulow - turned King and Mane into just that. With beef from Knoche's - a locally famous butcher shop in Madison - sausages and brats from Usinger's in Milwaukee, bacon from the famous Nueske's Smoked Meats in Wittenburg, WI, and local produce when in season, the group decided upon a rural theme for their restaurant. After a number of brainstorming sessions, they came up with the name Tipsy Cow. The restaurant opened in May of 2011.
I found a parking spot along King Street and walked around the corner to Main to the entrance of the Tipsy Cow. It was a nice evening and a number of people were seated on the sidewalk patio to the Main Street side of the restaurant. I went into the restaurant and was greeted by a hostess. She escorted me to a table across from the bar. They have a larger dining area on the other side of the wall from the bar, but I was fine with the table I had in the bar. I was given a menu and I ordered an Alaskan Amber that they had in a bottle.
For supposedly being a burger joint, there was a surprising lack of burgers on the menu at the Tipsy Cow. They had a cheeseburger - or I should say, four different variations of the cheeseburger as in a 1/4 pound single, a 1/2 pound double, a 3/4 pound triple, and a whopping one pound quadruple cheeseburger. Each of the patties are topped with 3-year-old Wisconsin cheddar cheese and your choice of fried or raw onions. They also had a namesake Tipsy burger that was basically the same thing as a 1/2 pound double cheeseburger along with Widmer's brick cheese, and Nueske's bacon. The Tipsy Cow also has a ground lamb burger with the meat sourced from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms, as well as chicken and turkey sandwiches.
The Tipsy Cow also has a large number of appetizers including fried cheese curds (hey, that's what their clientele wants!), chicken wings and chicken tenders, as well as loaded fries with a choice of blue cheese and Buffalo sauce, or with locally sourced sour cream and green onions, or Nueske's bacon crumbs and blue cheese, or the BBQ Ranch fries with a housemade barbecue sauce with ranch dressing. They also have alligator bites - farm-raised alligator (probably not in Wisconsin) that is cut up, battered and deep fried, and served with a spicy Cajun sauce. I really wanted to try those.
But I went with the Tipsy burger. My server, Katy, asked me if I wanted a small order of beer-battered fries for $2 more, but I declined. And I was glad I did. This was a big burger. Not only does it have the brick cheese melted on top, it also had the 3-year-old Wisconsin cheddar cheese on it. The thick slices of the Nueske's bacon were criss-crossed under the burger patties.
I ordered it with raw onions but it came out with fried onions. Not a big deal, but fried onions give me an upset stomach from time to time. Thankfully this time they did not. But there was so much going on in terms of taste with this burger that I hardly noticed the fried onions. The bun - which was soft and spongy - was lightly toasted and held up very well with the juiciness of the burger patties along with the cheese, bacon, and a homemade sauce - Tipsy sauce, that was sort of a spicy Thousand Island dressing - all of which were swimming in between the buns. This was a very good burger, indeed.
I had finished my burger and my hands were greasy - I went through the napkins they provided with the burger as it was pretty messy - and I needed to use the restroom. When I returned to the table, my half-drank beer and my finished burger basket were gone along with my used napkins. Suddenly I heard someone say, "There he is!" And Katy came back with my half-full bottle of beer and my bill. She had thought I had skipped out on the dinner check. Nope, just went to the bathroom. I was sort of incredulous that I was gone less than two minutes and she freaked out as she thought I skipped out on the bill. Maybe that happens at the Tipsy Cow more than they'd like. I was mildly offended, to say the least. I didn't even finish the rest of my beer.
Other than being slightly offended that my server thought that I had skated on the bill, I can't say anything bad about the Tipsy burger - it was top-notch with a lot of great flavors going on. It was definitely a multi-napkin burger with the juicy burger patties, both of the melted cheeses, the Nueske's bacon and the Tipsy sauce oozing all over the place. The atmosphere was fun and funky, the beer selection was interesting and widely varied, and even the service was good - up until she thought I'd skipped on the check when all I did was just go to the restroom for two minutes. Other than that, the Tipsy Cow was a great experience and holds up well against the other great burger places found in the Madison area.