One of the city’s oldest bars was recently renovated and is now one of the best places in town for tacos, tamales and craft beers.
And while you’re there, be sure to order the Mexican street corn for a delectable dish that I haven’t seen offered elsewhere in Madison.
The Ohio Tavern was purchased last year by Kristi Genna and Jack Williams, the folks who own and operate Genna’s Cocktail Bar, at 105 W. Main St., Madison. The couple have transformed the iconic Ohio into a popular taco lounge.
The tavern now offers eight varieties of tacos, two tamales and three versions of Mexican street corn—all priced at $4 each.
You also can get a bottle of Blatz for $2.50, or for a bit more you can opt for one of several craft beers the owners brought to the new operation.
The first thing you’ll likely notice about the Ohio, if you’ve visited in the past, is its makeover from what some would characterize as a “dive bar” to a more contemporary venue. The owners were careful to not completely gentrify the space, and it has retained a working-class feel with eight tables and a bar that seats about 10.
But now the bar has more of a trendy vibe, with a smaller, more attractive bar and back bar, chalk boards and weathered barnboard walls. It’s even got a garage-door-style front window that opens to the sidewalk on Ohio Avenue.
Customers place orders at the bar (cash only), and within a few minutes the food is brought to your table. Servers and bartenders are efficient, but the operation is sometimes hampered when it’s busy and people are crowded around the bar to place orders or to find a seat.
That said, the atmosphere is casual, friendly and decidedly east-side Madison (that is, definitely left of center).
But the real draw here is the food. The Ohio features some of the best tamales and tacos I’ve tasted beyond the Southwest. Credit for the tasty tamales goes to Melissa Mejia, a pastry chef at Merchant, who brings her Colombian heritage to the tavern’s kitchen. Her tamales offer a more substantial filling than most, with carrots, peas and meat (or lentils) wrapped in a corn husk.
The chicken tamale is topped with queso fresco (a creamy, soft, unaged white cheese common in Latin America and Spain) and roasted salsa verde. The lentil tamale is vegan-friendly and also is covered in green salsa. The tamales are even better when you apply one of the Ohio’s homemade hot sauces—plantain poblano, pineapple habanero, three pepper, mango reaper and honey Thai chili.
The menu lists eight types of tacos (priced at $4 each or three for $11), and on the night of our recent visit, an excellent taco special: coconut curry chicken, which comes with basmati rice and raita mint (a sort of mint yogurt sauce).
A friend and I checked out several tacos and agreed each was a good deal at $4. They come wrapped in two corn tortillas and are notable for their taste and texture. Some of that flavor is no doubt due to local sourcing, as the chicken and pork come from Marr’s Valley View Farm in Mineral Point, and the lamb from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm in Delavan.
The classic combines carnitas (braised pork shoulder) with white onion, jalapeno, radish and cilantro, while the el baja features chicken, cabbage, pico de gallo, a spicy sauce and queso fresco. Another winner is the hanso, which consists of carnitas with red cabbage, pickled mushroom, soy-cooked daikon radish and sweet chili crema.
My companion noted the savory “old boy” taco as her favorite: carnitas, rice, kimchi, bacon and charred scallion dressing.
The Lenny special is a vegan taco with lentil, pickled red onion, corn, red cabbage and salsa verde. Watch out for the “scorcher,” which true to its name, is a fiery combination of chicken, picante slaw, corn, jalapeno and habanero crema.
While the tacos and tamales are worth the effort of visiting the Ohio, the Mexican street corn is an added incentive.
Three versions—house, diablo and kona—are served in a small bowl and feature outstanding flavor. Along with roasted corn, the house includes crema, queso fresco, crispy bacon bits, paprika and cilantro. The diablo uses the same ingredients and includes chipotle crema and lava sauce, while the kona adds roasted pineapple salsa to the mix.
The new incarnation of the Ohio Tavern has been a big hit since opening several months ago. If you make the trip to Madison’s east side, the tavern sits one door down from Atwood Avenue on Ohio Avenue. Look for the neon Blatz beer sign out front, as the venue’s actual name has never been displayed on the building front, and its new owners decided to retain the old-school look.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.