Lauren Justice Photos
Now that a handful of food carts tough it out and serve food through the winter, opening day for the cart season is less obvious. But April 15 is the day new carts officially begin vending, and when some of your favorite stops show up in different spots. Sometimes the whole arrangement is different, as on the Square this spring, where the MLK slots are empty in favor of an orderly progression of carts along the first block of East Main Street.
Library Mall, rebuilt last year, sadly still lacks enough electrical outlets to accommodate all vendors. And some of the light pole outlets ended up 10 feet off the ground, so those carts have to bring ladders, reports Warren Hansen, street vending coordinator for the city of Madison.
There are now a few “curving diner counter/bronze sculpture” objects scattered among the carts, where diners can eat while standing up. Initial observation shows that this is not how most people want to eat their lunch, although the unoccupied counters proved popular among some elementary school-aged kids who saw them as excellent climbing opportunities.
A new entry on the mall this year is Fortune Cafe, which has been vending Saturdays at the Farmers’ Market. Maggie Jingga’s bright chartreuse cart is home to Indonesian-inflected dishes like a recent daily special of chicken curry. This was outstanding, with fresh carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes and cilantro in a sweet mild curry sauce, topped with kering kentang — a relish of peanuts and very thinly sliced potatoes, fried and then candied in a sweet sauce. It’s kind of like topping your curry with Cracker Jacks, only much, much better.
Don’t leave without trying the banana bread rolls, egg-sized loaves filled with a custard-like blend of cream cheese, slices of banana and bits of chocolate, served lusciously warm. Also worth an order is the cendol, a bubble tea-like drink tasting of vanilla and brown sugar, made with fresh pandan leaves.
Bidding Library Mall adieu is Zen Sushi. The longtime Japanese cart was relocated to a spot in front of Grainger Hall, 975 University Ave., during last summer’s construction, and proprietor Megumi Lohrentz opted to stay there this year. I’ve never had any dish there — from homey niku-jaga to salmon rolls — that was less than satisfying, and would track the little cart down if it were parked at the tip of Picnic Point. (Zen Sushi re-opens April 27 after a brief hiatus.)
Also in front of Grainger on Wednesdays and Thursdays is a new cart called Delights, serving Asian dishes including a standout summer roll. Shrimp and sausage were perfectly balanced with mint and bits of pickled vegetable; a single garlic scape ran through the whole roll and stuck out the top like a vegetal antenna. Also available are steamed bao — a fluffy, slightly sweet bun surrounding a stew of pork, beef or curried vegetables. The veggie curry was excellent, though the filling-to-dough ratio could be increased a bit. Other weekdays, Delights vends at Epic or University Research Park.
Ich Liebe Dich features three macs: a standard, a bacon mac and a weekly special with specialty cheeses (brie, for example). The bacon mac is just about everything you want in a mac ’n’ cheese. It’s of the creamy/slightly mushy noodle school (à la the legendary Kipp’s) rather than of the al dente school (Noodles & Company). Side salads are coming soon.
The Pickle Jar cart — made from barn boards from co-owner John Pickle’s grandfather’s barn in Missouri — wins for best new cart exterior. Try the brisket (grass-fed beef, slow smoked) or the pulled pork sandwich, which come with vinegary, ketchupy, not-too-sweet sauce and a side of pickled relish (a mix of onion, carrot and cuke). The Southern-style cart also sells a pimento cheese sandwich “just like Grandma Scotty’s.” Or go just for dessert, a slice of home-baked fruit pie (recent offerings have been blueberry or peach) with a sugar-glazed crust, or a not-too-sweet, generous slice of carrot cake, with a yummy stripe of lemon drizzle running through it.
Find Pots-n-Tots, the can’t-stop-eating-them novelty-spice tater tot cart at 1025 W. Johnson St. on Thursdays and Fridays. Like a growing number of vendors, Pots-n-Tots divides the week between a downtown spot and an outlier location. Mondays, the cart is at Epic Systems, Tuesdays at Electronic Theater Controls in Middleton, and Wednesdays at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission Building at 610 Whitney Way. Other carts head to University Research Park, Dairy Drive or a handful of other spots.
Locations are still in flux, says the city’s Hansen, who tries to get everybody into a spot that’s going to work for them. So if you don’t see your favorite cart, keep looking. The season is just gearing up.