The Best Cheap Eats in Madison, WI
Last Updated on February 28, 2023 by Madison Krigbaum
Welcome back to the blog everyone! This is a very exciting blog post for me because it’s the first time I’ve written about my hometown Madison, WI. Although I’ve moved away quite a few times and I plan to move again as soon as the pandemic (and my bank account) allows, I’ll always cherish the town where I grew up and where I went to college. This pandemic has given everyone the chance to further explore their hometowns and discover places near home that they’ve never seen before. It’s only taken me 24 years, but Coronavirus has finally given me a chance to compile a list of the best cheap eats in Madison, WI…from a local’s point of view!
If you’re anything like me and never eat anywhere without looking at the menu ahead of time, I’ve linked all menus below for your menu-stalking convenience.
The Cheap Eats in Madison, WI
There are a few places on this list that are iconic to Madison, and Teddywedgers is one of these places. First opened in 1976, Teddywedgers has stood kitty corner to the State Capitol Building as a Madison staple for almost 50 years. There’s only one item on the menu: pasties, pasties and more pasties.
What’s refreshing about this little corner shop, is the different ingredients they use to make their pasties. While original pasties are filled with steak, potatoes and onions (and are generally a bit dry in my opinion), Teddywedgers makes a variety of different pasties filled with any ingredient you could imagine! My favorite are their breakfast pasties filled with egg, sausage and cheese.
Click here for the Teddywedgers menu.
When you’ve ordered from a place so many times the delivery guy starts to recognize you…you know you have a problem. Let me just say, thank God the sushi was so affordable because the amount of times I ordered a Philadelphia roll and an eel & avocado roll delivered to my front door should have decimated my bank account.
Don’t be fooled by the somewhat questionable name, Sushi Express serves delicious sushi rolls at an unbeatable price! And their crab rangoon isn’t bad either.
Click here for the Sushi Express menu.
Although Madison has its fair share of bagel shop chains, everyone in town knows Gotham is the place to go for a life changing bagel. I had actually never tried Gotham Bagels until a few weeks ago, which is basically a crime since it’s definitely some of the best cheap eats in Madison. The little shop is doing a great job following social distancing guidelines, you can either place your order online or over the phone and pick it up at the window, or order at the window and wait outside for your name to be called.
I always love a good bagel and lox, so I decided on a salt bagel with lox, tomato and, my absolute favorite, jalapeño cream cheese.
Click here for the Gotham Bagels menu.
In 2021, Madison was gifted with our very own Portillo’s location! This famous, Chicago-born fast food chain is known for its Chicago-style hot dogs. Since I’d never tried one for myself (despite living in Chicago for two months), that was precisely what I ordered.
This dog was piled high with yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish, tomatoes, onions, dill pickles, sport peppers and celery salt on a poppy seed bun. Although it wasn’t the easiest to eat, it was insanely delicious and I finally learned what I had been missing out on during those two months in Chicago!
You also can’t leave Portillo’s without trying their famous chocolate cake! Since I’m a bit of an ice cream nut, I opted for the “Chocolate Cake Shake” which is essentially an entire slice of chocolate cake blended with ice cream.
Asian Sweet Bakery
After my cooking class in Thailand back in summer of 2019, I’ve become a frequent customer at one of Madison’s best asian grocery stores. This led to a newfound OBSESSION with bao buns and a trip downtown to try Asian Sweet Bakery’s famous bao.
Asian Sweet Bakery serves a full menu as well as a variety of “bakery” items you can easily take to-go. I immediately chose a pork & vegetable filled bao bun and LOVED it. There’s nothing like a good bao bun to make a girl full and happy.
Click here for the Asian Sweet Bakery menu.
Since I first moved downtown for college in 2014, Los Gemelos has been my favorite Mexican food in Madison. Although their hours can be a bit sporadic, the Mexican food is authentic and very affordable. The establishment looks a bit different now in pandemic times, but back in the good ol’ days they had a strawberry daiquiri machine constantly in motion pouring out delicious frozen daiquiri after delicious frozen daiquiri into hungry college students’ mouths.
Pro tip: order the quesadillas (pictured below)! They’re guaranteed to be yummier than any quesadilla you’ve had before.
Click here for the Los Gemelos Menu.
Chen’s Dumpling House
Chen’s is a somewhat new and very welcome addition to downtown Madison. We were loooong overdue for a dumpling shop on State Street . Of course it didn’t open until after I graduated and moved away! There’s a lot of options on the menu so you’re not limited to just dumplings, but they are the specialty! I decided on pork & chive dumplings and an appetizer order of scallion pancakes. Both were delicious, but I’m dying to go back and try their BBQ pork buns and udon noodles.
Click here for the Chen’s Dumpling House menu.
McTaggart’s Market (Tag’s)
It’s hard to find a place more iconically Madison than MacTaggart’s Market on Langdon street. If you ever lived on Madison’s version of Frat Row, you’ll have some pretty fond (and chances are, very embarrassing) hungover memories waiting at the deli counter for a breakfast sandwich at 8:00AM on a Friday.
Tag’s is essentially a gas station mini mart hidden in a nondescript building down a Langdon Street ally. Hidden in this mini mart is a sandwich counter that serves breakfast sandwiches that can cure a hangover like nothing else in Madison. Tag’s also serves salads and sandwiches for lunch, but the brekkie sammies are definitely their most popular menu item.
I usually prefer my poke in sushi burrito form. However, if you are in the mood for something more traditional, head down to Monroe Street and place a to-go order at Miko Poke. Their ingredients are so fresh and each and every poke bowl is guaranteed to be life changing. I went recently for the first time in years, and that crispy garlic changed 👏🏻 my 👏🏻 life.
Miko Poke has a full signature menu but I always prefer to build my own!
Click here for the Miko Poke menu.
Although I just recently found out that Ian’s Pizza has expanded to both Denver and Seattle, the flagship opened in Madison, WI back in 2001 and was an instant success. Ian’s has become a Madison staple because of their creative pizza toppings. It also helps that the shops are open until 2AM (making it the perfect last stop after a drunken night out). Chances are, if you went to school at UW – Madison, you have some cherished drunken memories waiting in the Ian’s pizza line at 1:30AM just before closing.
Although all the flavors are delicious, my personal favorites are Buffalo Chicken and Smokey the Bandit. However, their most famous flavor, and one definitely worth a try, is their Mac n’ Cheese pizza (pictured below).
Click here for the Ian’s Pizza menu.
Gino’s Italian Deli
Another Madison staple, Gino’s Italian Deli is well-known for their hearty, Italian lasagnas and full-service deli counter. Since I was heading over for lunch and didn’t feel the need to eat a $30 lasagna by myself, I decided to grab a socially-distanced sub to-go from Gino’s deli counter. I live by the doctrine, “the spicier the better” and decided to order the #8 Spicy Capicola Sub piled high with capicola, tomatoes, lettuce, provolone, spicy peppers and hot mustard!
Although not located in downtown Madison like many of these other spots, Gino’s is not to be missed on Madison’s foodie scene and has definitely earned its place on my list of the best cheap eats in Madison, WI.
Click here for the Gino’s Italian Deli menu.
Paul’s Pel’meni was one of my favorite spots in college and remains that way to this day! Madison, WI is not flush with Russian cuisine, but with Paul’s around, who needs any more options? Their menu is incredible simple, offering two options in two sizes. You can go with the potato pel’meni, the beef pel’meni or half and half (my personal favorite). Pro tip: ALWAYS order sour cream.
Click here for the Paul’s Pel’meni menu.
Since almost everything on this list is carb-loaded, dairy-filled and fairly unhealthy…I thought I’d list one of my favorite spots in Madison for tasty salads and açaí bowls! Forage Kitchen has a few locations in Madison and their menu is filled with yummy and healthy choices. I usually decide on the build-your-own salad and load it up with chicken, goat cheese, tomatoes, avocado and more. This time around I decided on the Batatas Racheros salad with a few add-ons.
Forage also offers a delicious selection of açaí bowls, grain bowls and Wisconsin-brewed kombucha! Be warned though, healthy rarely comes cheap and you’ll definitely pay a premium for the wholesome ingredients.
Click here for the Forage Kitchen menu.
Poke it Up
Saving the best for last! If you haven’t realized, I’m a huge fan of all things poke, and my favorite variation is the poke burrito. Poke it Up is the only place in town that makes this Mexican/Hawaiian mash up. Needless to say, I am a very frequent customer. Although they do offer signature variations, I prefer to build my own. You can choose between dozens of fillings! My personal favorites includes fresh salmon, spicy tuna, salad, jalapeño, avocado, roe, crispy garlic, edamame, cucumber and topped off with spicy mayo and eel sauce.
Fair warning, it’s much messier to eat than a traditional burrito…but worth every bite!
Click here for the Poke it Up menu.
Although we’re not known for it, Madison is killing the foodie scene! Since I’m going on 24 years as a Madison local…you can trust me when I say these are definitely some of the best cheap eats in Madison, WI. Most of these tasty spots are located in downtown Madison. So be sure to grab a spot outside and enjoy your food with a view of the beautiful Capitol Building.
If you enjoyed my list of the best cheap eats in Madison, WI, make sure to check out my related travel guides, like…
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to follow along with my adventures on Instagram @madisonsfootsteps.
FYI- pelmeni are not Polish. There.are zero Polish restaurants in Madison. Pelmeni are Russian. Please correct this mistake.
Hi Andrea, thank you for commenting and I hope you enjoyed my post! Since Paul’s website was down at the time I wrote this post, I relied on Trip Advisor for information on the cuisine’s origins. Looks like their website is back up and you’re correct, pelmeni are Russian. Thank you so much for letting me know about the error 🙂 I really appreciate the feedback.