Special grill chicken pita from King of Falafel.
"Wow, I'm envious," was usually the response when I told people that I was a member of the city's Food Cart Review Committee, eating at all of Madison's Mall-Concourse food carts, over the last two weeks. "How do you get that gig?" was the usual follow-up comment. (Basically, you have to volunteer. It's like how 80% of life is just showing up.)
The members of the committee are about 20-25 volunteers recruited by city of Madison Street Vending coordinator Warren Hansen from among city workers and others whom he knows are fans of the carts. They are charged with eating at every food cart and all cart wannabees for the 2015 vending season during the two-week cart review period, which ran Sept. 22 through Oct. 4. This year, there turned out to be 52 vendors to sample.
All this eating is in service of ranking the food carts for the city. When all the scores are tabulated (results should be released by the city in the next week or so), the top-ranked carts get their first pick at favored sites for the coming vending season.
Scoring is not just for food. The first 40% of the total is for food. Another 40% is for "apparatus" -- the look of the cart, clarity of signage, appearance of cleanliness. And 20% is for originality -- "whatever they do that is different from everyone else," as the reviewer instructions say.
Week one was devoted to covering campus-area carts. To eat at each one, you'd have to eat at five carts on one day and then four carts a day for the other four days of the week. The first Saturday was for current Dane County Farmers' Market-only participants, a light morning of six carts, including two popcorn vendors and a coffee-only cart. Week two was for the current Capitol Square carts, a roster that worked out to four carts on one day and three others for the four following days of the week.
Then: Super Saturday. The 2015 wannabees lined up on MLK Blvd., 11 of them. If it were the Boston Marathon, this would be Heartbreak Hill.
Even though I've been eating at the food carts for years, this was my first year as a member of the committee. Somehow, the sheer volume of eating involved didn't become fully clear to me until I picked up my badge and clipboard at the Madison Municipal Building and started figuring out an attack plan.
Being on the committee is fun, but it's also work. The cart review has expanded over the years to encompass two full weeks, but now at over 50 carts, it's on the verge of becoming too complex of an enterprise. Madison is the only city in the country that holds an official city review of carts, so far as vending coordinator Hansen is aware.
Week one, campus area, involved visiting carts at several sites, due to the ongoing reconstruction of the UW Library Mall. So at least there was some exercise involved biking from feast to feast. Fortunately, the weather was gorgeous all week, so biking from the Isthmus office on the Square to the campus each noon hour was pure pleasure.
My first, five-cart noon resulted in a great fusion (or confusion) of cuisines, some indigestion and poorly packed leftovers (my poor packing, to be clear) precariously loaded in my bike bag.
I never got much better at knowing what to do with all that food. I would ask a cart owner or operator to give me a sample size, which they would gladly agree to and then go ahead and give me the full size of whatever it was... and maybe a couple of side dishes for good measure. After testing each while hot, as all committee members are instructed to do (or, in the case of a smoothie, cold), I would end up making it back to the office balancing a Seussian tower of takeout containers. I brought food home, I shared food with a friend, I enjoyed afternoons of nibbling at my desk, I gave food to a homeless man.
While I never became skilled at packing up leftovers, I did learn a few things from my two weeks as a city food cart review committee member.
1. Relax -- enjoy your meal.
The first two days involved me trying to eat enough of the food to give an honest evaluation of the cart's cuisine while piping hot, worrying if I had eaten too much or not enough, and moving on. The joy I had always felt while eating at carts started to dwindle. The third day, I threw the schedule out the window. I sat down with the three empanadas that Luis Dompablo of Caracas Empanadas had prepped for reviewers and savored every bite, not thinking about what I had to do next. This is your mindfulness lesson.
2. Don't always order the same thing.
I made an effort to skip my usual favorites. I always asked if the owners had any recommendations. I ended up discovering wonderful new dishes. How had I missed the chicken adobo at Surco Peruvian for so long? I also learned, on a cold cold Saturday, that bubble tea tastes pretty decent served hot.
3. Say hi, and ask questions if you're curious.
Often the cart owner and chef is also the person dishing up the food. They like sharing stories. Rocky So, of SoHo Gourmet, had whipped up a chicken mushroom congee soup, and explained congee (in this instance, basically a rice soup) as he prepped the container. John Handley of FIB's, the Chicago-themed cart, displayed a perfectly composed Chicago dog in its container, as if he had just painted a still life, before he closed it up and handed it over. Sean Lee of Bulgogi Korean Taco gave me a crash course in his Korean hot sauces, which he says they make by hand (customers can add them to taste; they're in squeeze bottles on the cart).
4. Good food is good food.
It's difficult in the review process to compare single-item carts (just popcorn, only coffee) with carts that serve an entire menu of food. Still, good food is good food. Food is not always best when it is burning hot. Good food also tastes good as a nosh later on at your desk or even the following morning for breakfast.
Also, food tastes best when you are hungry. Which I may be once again, sometime in the next week or two.