The things you’ve come here to enjoy are still here, even if the crowded camaraderie isn’t.
The massive wooden tables that give Longtable Beer Cafe its name are all still lined up, even if they’re now used to direct the flow of social distancing traffic instead of seating customers. The huge cooler of beer—nearly 250 different and delicious choices both local and international, just waiting for you to pluck your favorite—is still the first thing you see, even if only one person at a time is currently allowed to stand close and peruse them.
And the food? The menu’s been honed some by the pandemic, but it’s still delicious—even though you can only order it for takeout or eat it huddled at one of Longtable’s outdoor tables or fire pit.
Not surprisingly, most of the menu is designed to pair with the beer you’ve hopefully scooped up on your way to the counter. Think spicy, flavorful options using Wisconsin-based meats and cheeses that work well to share with groups of socially distanced friends.
Start with the cheese curds ($9). They’re heavenly, with a crispy coating of witbeer batter encasing chunks of cheddar from the Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. That’s an unusual choice for the Madison market, but it proves to be a solid one: Heated to the right temperature, these curds will produce cheese strings more than a foot long. They pair brilliantly with the four aioli dips on offer here, especially the chipotle-infused sauce. That sauce also fuels the Belgian-style frites ($6.50).
A barbecue platter ($20) is the best way to get a sense of the breadth of Longtable’s smoked meat fare. It features smoked wings (available on their own for $10 or $15), pulled pork ($12.50) and brisket ($13.50). The wings are the best of the bunch by a long shot—oversized, meaty and rubbed with a spicy achiote rub that, thanks to a dousing of sriracha drizzle, packs a serious scorch. (Maybe you should have grabbed two beers at the cooler.)
The brisket is the only bummer in this barbecue party. It’s served open-faced on a slice of bread and covered with giardiniera, a spicy Italian relish that bumps the beef. The beef itself goes to the back burner as it is oddly tough and far less flavorful than the wings.
Longtable marinates the pulled pork in a sweet, IPA-infused barbecue sauce, and I found myself wishing I could swap it in as a dipping sauce for the brisket instead of the giardiniera.
The buttermilk-fried chicken ($15), available in two-, four- or eight-piece orders is the real “aw-yeah” find here. Enormous pieces of chicken—seriously, the breast looks like a miniature submarine on the plate—come encased in lightly spiced shells of thick fried skin.
And “shell” is very much the operative word. Unlike some fried birds, where the skin clings tightly to every inch of the meat and bones, the skin here can slip right off in a single piece with the added bonus of keeping the greasy frying oil away from the tender and delicious meat.
The dish is served with fabulous mashed potatoes in a smooth, white gravy. Hint: Steer well clear of the mixed greens as your side choice. The salad in my order got knocked sideways by a overpoweringly tart house raspberry vinaigrette. That same vinaigrette accompanies the kale salad ($11.50), the only greens-based entrée on the menu. Vinaigrette caveat emptor, apparently.
Burgers are also a solid bet. The Longtable Burger ($12.50) goes its own way, letting the meat do most of the talking. The locally sourced Highland Spring Farms beef is perfectly peppered and—in this curbside case—perfectly prepared, arriving medium-rare pink. In this era of burgers doused in wild condiments and sky-high stacks of WTF add-ons, it’s unexpectedly comforting to have the meat carry the day. For an extra $1.50, you can opt for a Beyond Burger instead.
Now that Dane County has bumped restaurant capacities to 50%, there will likely be more people lining the indoor wooden tables or crouched around the outdoor tables and fire pit, restoring some of the café’s strong community vibe. Whether you choose to add to it or stick with the take-it-home formula, you’ll be glad you did.
Just don’t forget to hit that beer cooler along the way.