Kyle Ate Here - 2014 at halftime

The second half of every year starts with a big summery Independence Day holiday kickoff -- Memorial Day may be the "official" start of the season, but it's always rainy that day and that's a total bummer for summer mood-setting. On top of the usual Fourth festivities this year, we had the World Cup to fill our afternoons. So in recognition of one half being in the books, I've got a few highlights of 2014 in dining so far.

The doner kebab dog at OSS.

A half-year in review might as well start with reviews. Two barbecue reviews out of three to start the year sounds like a dream lineup, but That BBQ Joint let me down pretty hard. I'll revisit at some point, but Blowin' Smoke was definitely the winner of this head-to-head. Burnt ends six days a week? Sign me the hell up.

Nonno's Italian Ristorante surprised me with its very competent old-school Italian menu. OSS (or O.S.S. if you please) launched not only a uniquely crowdsourced, well-executed sausage joint, but a slickly-designed restaurant space to boot -- repurposed fixtures and steampunk notes abound. And a pair of taverns -- Tip Top on the northeast side, Brews Brothers near Middleton -- both succeed at what they are, but couldn't be more different.

Star Bar's Belgian waffle brunch. The bacon was a @legaleagle bonus.

I was fortunate to be tapped by the good folks at Eater.com to update my Madison Heatmap from November of last year, and a number of those new spots were among those restaurants new to me in 2014. Hawk Sullivan's Star Bar turns out a charming as hell waffle brunch on the weekends, and humble. does some excellent pies, both hand- and full-sized -- and yes, that's how the name is written out.

La Taguara was a great place to watch some World Cup action over a plate of arepas and crispy pork, while Headquarters -- a very well-appointed new sports bar in Oregon -- paired soccer with buffalo cheese curds and an above-average brisket sandwich. The Pine Cone, a truck-stop diner/family restaurant that is by no means new, nevertheless opened my eyes to 24-hour dining on the Madison area interstate.

The interstate highways took me farther from home than DeForest, too, like to St. Louis for the first of two 2014 Beersball outings. Strange Donuts and the Blind Tiger are kitty-corner neighbors and the staff at the latter don't seem to mind if you lug along your dozen box from the former when you pull up for a beer or two. (If you were forced to pick one or the other, though, go for the weekend-special, sweet/savory amalgam doughnut called the Stranger.)

My Baileys' Range smoked burger patty.

Baileys' Range and Bridge are fellows in a St. Louis-area restaurant group, and if even if you're a Madisonian who rails against Food Fight, you'd be hard-pressed to not be impressed with the shakes at Range or the tap list at Bridge.

Other travels away from Dane County include food cart-turned-restaurant The Kangaroost in Appleton (slightly weirdly located in a former religious center), a sports bar called Mikey's next door to O'so's brewery in Plover, and a stop for brisket at Smoque in Chicago at the tail end of a road trip to sample some of Off Color Brewing's finest concoctions.

The best things I ate

Some of 2014 (Part 1)'s best bites took me by surprise: the cheap and delicious "how have I never ordered this before?" gyros at People's Bakery, the fried haddock at Mikey's (I mean, it was really good), the bacon-laced savory bread pudding at Bridge -- that last one I shared with my Beersball crew, and I admit I had selfish thoughts afterward. Others were less surprising, like the highly praised corned beef hash at the Pine Cone, or the perfectly cooked steak and eggs at the Weary Traveler. There's always that smoked fish course from the Funk Factory pairing dinner at Forequarter.

Tory and Patrick's Red Dragon pie. Amazeballs.

But here's my top three. In third, Grampa's Pizzeria's ginger cake: just slammed with real ginger, warm and moist with just a little bit of caramelization around the edges. A jaw-dropper. Second place: the Red Dragon collaborative pizza from Salvatore's Tomato Pies and L'Etoile chef Tory Miller. This baby was loaded up with about a half-billion mostly Southeast Asian ingredients, and hardly a one was wasted.

Tops? The burnt ends at the new Blowin' Smoke BBQ storefront. (Not pictured because I ate them too fast.) I had them at the cart, and they were okay, and I had them a second time during my review, and they were okay, but there was one serving I had...fat and char, meat and smoke, juicy and perfect. I don't even care that my number one Best Thing for two straight Kyle Ate Here posts has been barbecue; if these burnt ends were all I had to eat for a month, I'd be at peace. (Okay, or resting in it.)