Once more people discover how good some of Roll Play’s Asian street food is, it will become more of a destination for people who aren’t at Garver Feed Mill for some other reason.
In late May, Roll Play, a board game café that spent three years on State Street, moved as a “pop-up” into the historic, exquisitely renovated sugar mill on Madison’s East Side.
Bryant Moroder, project manager for Garver’s developer, Baum Revision of Chicago, said he’s working with Roll Play’s owners, Charles Thio, Sonia Tan and her husband, Jin Lee, to make them a long-term tenant.
“We have had a warm welcoming from the community,” said Tan, noting that customers have been asking them to stay.
The pop-up ends Sept. 16, she said, and the owners plan to finalize their plans by Wednesday so they can let customers know and confirm event plans. “We are looking forward to being a long-term member of the Garver community.”
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I like board games just fine, but my two recent visits have been solely for food, my favorite of which, hands down, has been Roll Play’s version of the signature Korean rice dish, bibimbap with soboro beef ($15).
Its chewy sautéed shiitake mushrooms were the best part. It also featured cooked spinach, crisp bean sprouts, shredded carrot, cucumber and pickled radish. The meat in tiny crumbled pieces was fantastic, as was the over-easy egg on top. Customers mix in house gochujang sauce, served on the side, which tied everything together beautifully.
Impossible brand meat substitute, chicken and tofu are the other options besides beef.
Another highlight was the Singaporean chicken rice ($12.50), which Thio, a native of Singapore, makes himself and said is Roll Play’s most popular menu item. Lots of tender, poached chicken came over ginger-garlic jasmine rice. It was topped with a braised egg and crisp cucumber, and was served with an amazing house-made chili sauce on the side.
Customers are offered a choice between white meat, boneless dark meat or a combination.
The kimbap ($11.50), another house specialty, is a good snack or light meal. The Korean seaweed rice rolls are like sushi rolls, but filled with warm rice, fish cake, ham, pickled radish, spinach, carrots, egg and bean curd skin. It can take 15 minutes to make, a little longer than most other items.
The tteokbokki ($10), dense, cylindrical Korean rice cakes, are made from scratch and take 30 to 40 minutes. But I didn’t mind waiting since they were the thing I was most excited to see on the menu.
I’ve been craving tteokbokki since having them at the former Mr. Kimchi on King Street. That made Roll Play’s rice cakes an even bigger disappointment. These were swimming in an off-putting sweet-spicy broth made with anchovy stock. Thin, triangular fish cakes made an appearance in the overly generous broth, but were unappealingly drowned in it.
The employee who took my order offered to add cheese to the tteokbokki for an extra $1. When I hesitated, he said he prefers it without. I wonder if it would have helped.
The jian bing ($10.25), a square Chinese-style crepe coated with egg, scallions and black sesame seeds, was also somewhat of a letdown. I ordered mine filled with tiny pieces of ham for an extra $1.50. In looking at the menu later, I realized it was supposed to come with a choice of sauce. Had I noticed the omission in time, sauce could have added some needed moisture.
The two dessert items I tried were both worth ordering. A mochi muffin ($3) was moist and not overly sweet, while the taiyaki ($2.75) was a slightly greasy but novel pancake molded into the shape of a fish and filled with red bean paste.
There are many other fillings available including Nutella, chocolate, cream cheese and strawberry jam. I can see these being popular with kids. My 17-year-old daughter took a bite, but wasn’t into it.
A yogurt and blackcurrant ($7.55) bubble tea with tapioca bubbles was more her speed. It wasn’t real thick and had an unusual, but likable, flavor. The bubbles had their own sweetness which is critical to good bubble tea.
Roll Play at Garver is slightly hidden by the free-form Glitter Workshop, in the gorgeous space that used to house the vegan café Surya. Roll Play provides stacks of ceramic cups and cold water in a glass bottle at the station where you pick up your silverware and napkins. Hand sanitizer sits on all the tables.
The game fee is $5 per party, but it’s easy for groups of any size to spend $20 or more on food and bubble tea and get the fee waived.
Some of the games can be played on Garver’s expansive patio for anyone trying to take advantage of the waning days of summer.
Thio said 50% to 60% of his customers come for the games, but a lot of gamers may eat while they play. Those drawn in by the food, might decide to play a game, he said.
Some days he expects will be busy aren’t, he said. “We are dependent right now basically on the people who come to Garver Feed Mill.”
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“We are dependent right now based basically on the people who come to Garver Feed Mill.”
Charles Thio, co-owner of Roll Play
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