With most restaurants, there are certain items on the menu that tell you all you need to know about how the establishment approaches its craft.
At Alchemy Café on Madison’s east side, that item is the buffalo wings.
In fact, “buffalo wings” doesn’t really describe or do this plate a finger-lick of justice. These aren’t bar-fare, out-of-the-bag wings that are fried and doused in some hopped-up Frank’s Hot Sauce. Crisped with a dry, bourbon-cocoa buffalo sauce and accompanied by a drizzle of Carr Valley’s incomparable Gorgonzola cheese, these are like the Everlasting Gobstopper of chicken wings—an appetizer where every bite reveals a new and unexpected flavor.
That kind of “Whoa!” creativity infuses most of the menu at Alchemy, where the offerings include everything from burgers to punched-up tacos and coconut curry. If it wasn’t already evident, this isn’t your standard neighborhood bar menu.
Folks who have been around since the café opened 11 years ago know Alchemy is already legendary for fare such as its stuffed grilled cheese sandwich ($11.50), an unusual take on the American classic that tucks in an entire garden’s worth of vegetables—including broccoli, carrots and red onion into its sourdough-bread delivery system.
Speaking of classic curveballs, how about the Kimchi Reuben ($14)—a sandwich that liberates sauerkraut haters from their chains by substituting spicy kimchi for sour-ish sauerkraut. The heft of the corned beef here is more than worth the price of admission.
Hamburger-lovers also need to take note: The Apple Rum burger is another menu highlight. Ponying up an extra buck for the deluxe version adds a Habanero-basil aoli into the mix, but it’s hard to argue the basic version isn’t prefect just as it is. Mileage might vary for heat-seekers.
If you’re smart, you’ll upgrade one of your sides to the crispy sweet potato chips. This will earn you a serving that is the same size as the chips on the appetizer menu and includes a pair of delicious dipping sauces—a blackberry jam punched up with jalapeno and a thick, tarragon-dusted mayo that likely will erase the word “ranch” from your condiment vocab.
Those same chips, albeit in a crushed form, also punctuate the current version of Alchemy’s seasonal salad ($11 for the full version), a mixed-green mélange with a sharp and sweet pear vinaigrette. The dressing is awesome; the luminous roasted beets, not so much.
Not every entrée achieves the same level of pop as the burgers and buffalo wings. The hickory- bourbon baby back ribs ($16) sound better than they turn out to be. The meat is tender and tasty, but the sauce and spicing don’t do much to make them stand out from the crowd.
To be honest, they’re upstaged by Alchemy’s truly delicious house-made fries (available with certain entrees or $6 as a standalone). These smooth slices of potato are both soft and flavorful.
Indoor seating isn’t currently an option at Alchemy and, as is the case at so many places, snow and chilly outdoor conditions have put the café’s modest side patio on literal ice until spring.
Luckily, curbside pickup is available most days, and local delivery becomes an option beginning at 4 p.m. Alchemy has even made the ultimate pandemic concession, scrapping its longstanding cash-only policy and adding a credit-card payment option.
Feel free to use your credit limit to kick things off with a plate of those buffalo wings. And, now that we think if it, go ahead and finish with them, too.
Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.