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News Worth Reading

A local food critics’ review

WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL | Madison.com

An expanded dinner menu shines, too

Chef emerges from pandemic grateful for customers’ support

Samara Kalk Derby

Restaurant Review: Country Cafe
Sunday March 20, 2022

Country Cafe in Sun Prairie is a popular breakfast and lunch spot, and chef/owner Joaquin Lopez, three months after he took over in 2019, stopped offering breakfast and lunch in the evening, and expanded the restaurant’s dinner menu to include a huge selection of pasta dishes, steaks, chicken and seafood.

Lopez knows a thing or two about Italian food since he used to be the head chef and co-owner of the dependable Nonna’s Ristorante Italiano at Whitney Way and Odana Road.

Country Cafe’s dinners fly under the radar so it’s a good choice on a Friday night when other restaurants are crowded and you don’t feel like waiting for a table. When I visited with two friends there were only a few other tables of dinners in the roomy restaurant.

I took the advice of Denise Lopez, Joaquin’s daughter, and our server when she said the beef tenderloin tips ($20) were her favorite thing on the menu. This dish, Joaquin’s take on beef stroganoff, was loaded with tender, flavorful bite-sized, pieces of pan-fried steak.

The dish had onions, garlic, and mushrooms in a reduction sauce made with cabernet that was somewhat oily, but otherwise delicious, particularly because Joaquin added heavy cream. It was served over fettuccini and tossed with Parmesan cheese.

Joaquin said he uses the nicest loins for the seven-ounce tenderloin he has on the menu for the same price under fileto di manzo. Whatever is left after those are trimmed, goes into the dish I ordered, so it was no surprise that a few of them were fatty and gristly. But often, Joaquin said, he chops up prime tenderloin for the dish.

My friend’s honey mustard salmon ($17) was another strong entree, featuring a thick, juicy piece of grilled Atlantic salmon that had been nicely seared. It was topped with honey mustard sauce and served over mashed potatoes and with small, bright florets of broccoli.

Another friend enjoyed the simple penne alla verdure ($11) sauteed with olive oil, garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, and spinach in a white wine sauce and tossed with Parmesan. Joaquin said it’s what he makes for himself when he wants to eat healthfully.

A basket of narrow pieces of homemade focaccia came with a small plate of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It was a welcome treat.

The meal started well with rings of fried calamari ($11) and also some tentacles, that were somewhere between chewy and tender, and served with a small bowl of marinara.

It ended with a thin slice of cheesecake ($5), not made in-house and served with a strawberry, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It was nothing special, particularly the course crust, but split three ways it was an enjoyable way to end a successful meal.

Denise Lopez, 21, provided exceptional service, and afterward when the other customers had cleared out, I stayed around to talk to her and her mother Fabiola Lopez, who works as a hostess, busser and server. Joaquin, 43, poked his head out of the kitchen and smiled, I talked to him later by phone.

“This place is awesome,” Denise said, referring to Sun Prairie. “Everyone welcomed us in with open arms and made us feel like part of their community. We live in Madison actually, but we feel like we’re from here, and everyone tells us all about themselves. It feels like family here.

Joaquin and Fabiola moved to Santa Ana, California from Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1998 and to Madison a year later for Joaquin to take a job cooking for Tutto Pasta on State Street.

He worked a number of other prominent kitchen jobs in the Madison area before buying Cancun Mexican Restaurant in 2009 and turning it into Nonno’s where he created the menu, in 2013.

Joaquin and Fabiola bought the Sun Prairie restaurant, already operating as Country Cafe, in June 2019. Joaquin ran both Country Cafe and Nonno’s for two months. Then, in August of 2019, he sold Nonno’s to his business partner.

It was too hard balancing,” Denise said. “He wanted to put most of his energy here.”

And man does he have energy. Joaquin works seven days a week, not just cooking and making the soups, but opening and closing the restaurant, sometimes waiting tables, and busing. He even w ashes dishes four days a week. “I have to do everything, pretty much,” he said.

Joaquin says he’s “very grateful” for his customers who were loyal during the pandemic. When the restaurant reopened after a 2 1/2 month COVID hiatus, some came once or twice a week, others ordered takeout every day or every other day, he said.

It is amazing the way people took to us as a new business here in Sun Prairie,” he said. “I would like to thank them for all of the support. I am here to make sure they have a nice dinner experiencing with affordable prices, too.”

DINERS’ SCORECARD

Restaurant: Country Cafe

Location: 1030 Emerald Street, Sun Prairie

Phone: 608 837-5191

Website: www.countrycafesp.com

Hours:
Monday 6 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Tuesday – Saturday 6 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Sunday 6 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Dinner Prices:
Appetizers $7-$11
Sandwiches and burgers $10-$14
Soup and chili $3.50-$8
Salads $4-$10
Entrees $11-20

Noise Level: Low

Credit Cards: Accepted

Accessibility: Yes

Outdoor dining: No

Delivery:  Through Eat-Street

Drinks: Beer and wine

Gluten Free: GF pasta, can accommodate

Vegetarian offerings: Many

Kids menu: Yes

Reservations: Only for dinner

Parking: Big lot

Service: Excellent

Bottom line: The restaurant impresses with a huge selection of well-executed pasta dishes, steaks, chicken and seafood.

Monday 6 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Tuesday - Saturday 6 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Sun 6 a.m. – 2 p.m.

© 2022 Country Cafe

Monday 6 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Tuesday – Saturday 6 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Sun 6 a.m. – 2 p.m.

© 2022 Country Cafe