Cheba Hut's cheeky image belies quality food

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, March 26, 2014

MADISON—It should come as no great surprise that the “counterculture”—a term coined in a 1969 book that defined the alternative-lifestyle social phenomenon—is alive and well in Madison.

One example of its continuing presence here is the recent opening of Cheba Hut downtown on Gilman Street. The sandwich restaurant caters to UW-Madison students as well as a laid-back segment of the population that still identifies with hippie culture, which seems to have gained momentum with the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State.

In fact, voters in Dane County will find a nonbinding referendum question on legalizing marijuana on the April 1 ballot.

Cheba Hut is the Madison franchise of a national marijuana-themed sub sandwich shop that goes all out to play the part. The business started in Tempe, Ariz., in 1998 and has expanded to 16 restaurants. The Madison location is the only shop east of the Mississippi River.

The restaurant's design scheme includes a psychedelic lime green and tangerine orange interior. The dining room is decorated with wall posters of the Beatles and their contemporaries, colorful murals depicting tropical beach scenes and VW vans, along with a wall clock that's set permanently at 4:20.

If those elements aren't strong enough hints of the franchise's orientation, one look at its menu will remove all doubt. Its “toasted” subs come in three sizes: the nug (4 inches), the pinner (8 inches) and the blunt (12 inches). Vegetarian sandwiches are designated on the menu with a small cannabis leaf, and sandwiches are named for various strains of pot.

But you don't have to be a stoner to recognize that the quality of these sandwiches is a cut above the typical Subway or Quiznos franchise.

Cheba Hut offers four vegetarian subs, 20 sandwiches with deli meat, four salads and a half-dozen desserts under the “munchies” category. There's also a side bar with microbrews on tap.

If you're lucky enough to find yourself at the Hut during its happy hour—4:20 to 6:20 p.m.—you can get craft beer for $2 a pint.

As classic rock tunes play over the sound system, customers place orders at a front counter and wait for the food to be delivered to their tables.

When we visited, the place was doing a brisk business, with a mix of customers ranging from college age to those who might have been around to experience the late 1960s.

The folks who run Cheba Hut are so mellow and friendly. When a person in our party of four mentioned how appetizing some M&M cookies looked, the franchise owner quickly handed her one on the house.

One key to the success of the shop's sandwiches is the soft, airy bread made in white, whole wheat or garlic herb. My nug-sized sandwich—the Chronic—featured thinly sliced barbecued roast beef with bell peppers, mushrooms and cheddar cheese ($4.49).

The sandwich was outstanding, but a Greek salad ($7.49) was a big letdown. It was loaded with savory kalamata olives but contained little to no grilled chicken and mostly forgettable greens, slices of cucumber and red onions. It had scant feta cheese, and worst of all, big chunks of bland tomato.

Other salads include chicken bacon with ranch dressing ($7.49), an antipasto ($6) and a tuna salad ($6.49).

The Griefo sandwich provided a whiff of cream cheese and veggies in a delightful sandwich ($6.59 for a pinner). The tender bread was piled high with pepper jack cheese, cream cheese, guacamole, alfalfa sprouts, spring mix greens, onions, black olives, mushrooms, cucumbers, pickles and tomatoes with a house dressing.

The Silver Haze ($3.99, $5.99 or $7.99) is a sandwich with a choice of house-made hummus—regular or roasted bell pepper—and Swiss cheese, pepperoncinis, spring mix greens, sprouts, onions, mushrooms, black olives and cucumbers. A friend opted for both types of hummus—one on each half of his pinner—and found each surprisingly spicy hot, yet delicious.

Another in our group was big on the Kali Mist, a California club with turkey breast, chipotle mayo, fresh jalapenos, bacon, pepper jack cheese and avocado ($4.29, $6.59 and $8.99.)

Cheba Hut's ganja theme is meant to be playful and fun. The place is clean and well-lit, with good variety and affordable prices.

We shared the M&M cookie for dessert but could have opted for a Rice Krispie bar ($2.29), a goo ball (Rice Krispies, peanut butter, honey and cocoa, $2.49) or a house-made brownie (the legal kind, $1.99).

Cheba Hut certainly isn't for everyone. Still, if you're in downtown Madison, hungry and on a budget—or just looking for a left-of-center place to hang for a beer and a good sandwich—this might be the place for you.

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