Laurel Burleson (right) has taste and waste in mind at the Ugly Apple. Bruised fruits taste great used in the cart’s signature apple fritters (left).
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described states as the nation’s “laboratories of democracy” for driving innovation on social and economic policy. The same could be said about the impact of mobile vendors on Madison’s food scene.
Food carts are operated by entrepreneurs looking to carve out a niche in a notoriously difficult industry. With more carts making their way to the streets each year, vendors need to creatively distinguish themselves in a crowded field. Quality ingredients, healthy entrees, inspiration from regional cuisines and local sourcing set these five carts apart.
Laurel Burleson opened Ugly Apple last fall as most carts were heading into winter hibernation. She specializes in breakfast, serving apple fritters, oatmeal, muffins, biscuit sandwiches and market frittatas, which change each week depending on what local produce is available. As spring vegetables start to trickle in from local farms, the menu will diversify.
Burleson is committed to sourcing produce that tastes good but is on its way to the compost heap only because it lacks aesthetic appeal. “I still get some strange looks from farmers when I ask, ‘Hey, do you have anything you don’t want to sell? Will you sell it to me?” says Burleson. “Lately, it’s been a lot of squash and rutabaga. But what I have heard from farmers is that when spring takes off, I should be able to buy some overstock vegetables, the stuff that’s left over at the end of the day and is probably not worth bringing back the next week.”
This year, Ugly Apple is parked at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Mifflin Street on Tuesday, Thursdays and Fridays 7-10 a.m.. On Wednesdays, the cart heads to the west side to vend at University Research Park.
Daniel and Leticia Hernandez do Mexican the Cali way with their shrimp taco (left).
A touch of California
Wife-and-husband team Leticia and Daniel Hernandez have settled into a nice groove with their cart, Cali Fresh, located on the Library Mall. This will be the third year Cali Fresh will vend on campus. The couple took some time off this winter but were back in action by mid-February serving taqueria-style tacos, burritos, quesadillas and chalupas.
Leticia says the cart’s cuisine is true to its name, blending traditional Mexican fare with California street food.
“[The menu] comes from a family background in restaurants. For me, it was all authentic Mexican growing up,” says Leticia. “Daniel is from California. He used to have a job where he’d travel up and down the state. So there’s definitely inspiration from all these little places he visited on the road.”
California natives seem to recognize the Golden State’s influence on Cali Fresh’s menu — it’s unique among Madison’s Mexican carts in its daily offering of a shrimp taco (its best seller) and shrimp quesadilla. It also offers a vegan taco based on roasted cauliflower.
Leticia says they have quite a few regulars who keep coming back for a reminder of home. “When we first started selling at Library Mall, it was a shock just how many students were from California,” says Leticia.
Yes, this is homemade pasta. It’s headed to delicious bowls at Common Pasta, served up by co-owner Brian Baur (right).
One food cart that braved it through most of the winter was Common Pasta. Chef-owners Brian Baur and Thomas Durbin say they were pleasantly surprised that business turned out to be just as brisk as the weather. Common Pasta has been vending on campus, 1025 W. Johnson St., since it opened last fall. The cart’s spicy mac and cheese has proved popular no matter the season.
“We start cooking at six in the morning, extrude all of our pasta off-site, bake fresh bread and make the sauces every morning,” says Baur. “It’s always been important to us that we don’t cut corners. We prepare each pasta to order in a pan just as we would in a restaurant. I’m pretty sure we are the only food cart with a six-burner stove.”
In mid-April, Common Pasta will join the crowd of carts on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. There, downtown lunch-goers can expect to see short rib ragu, pesto (made with basil and kale), and mac and cheese, as well as rotating specials. Last month, the cart served lumache pasta with smoked tomato sauce, parmigiano reggiano and spicy Italian sausage. Another recent special was spaghetti and meatballs.
“We’re trying to make the best-quality pasta you can get for eight dollars in the city,” says Baur. “I think we’re doing it.”
A sea salt caramel — also made fresh daily by Baur and Durbin — is complimentary with every dish.
Melanie Nelson (right) focuses on a good-for-you menu at the two Good Food carts. Thai tacos (left) come wrapped in lettuce.
Serving the healthiest food possible has been Melanie Nelson’s mission since opening Good Food in 2010. It turned out to be a winning strategy, enough to warrant the opening of a second cart, Good Food II in 2014. This season, Nelson is taking her healthy cuisine to a new level.
“I’ve been learning about the metabolic disasters that can result from too much sugar. And pretty much everyone is eating too much sugar,” says Nelson. “I was seeing sugar everywhere I looked. The dried cranberries, the candied walnuts, the peanut sauce, even the balsamic vinaigrette had honey in it. I couldn’t do it anymore. So I decided to revamp the whole menu to go low carb.”
The new menu still has six items that can be served as a salad or in a wheat flour tortilla wrap. Low-carb versions of old favorites like the Caesar Supreme and Lunchtime in Albuquerque are on the menu. New additions include a citrus-avocado-kale mix that features chopped pink grapefruit and oranges tossed with kale, diced avocado, pickled red onions, salted sunflower seeds, crumbled feta and citrus vinaigrette. The option of adding grilled chicken or tofu is also still available.
“We took away all the honey. All the frozen orange juice concentrate. All the added sugar. The idea is to make everything 30 net carbs or less. A lot of the items are much less than that,” says Nelson. “We still use some fruit and I’ve started using stevia as a sweetener.”
Nelson has also introduced a new method of delivery for her entree salads: lettuce tacos (it’s built like a tortilla wrap, only the salad is rolled in a lettuce leaf). Good Food I cart is staying at its spot in front of Walgreens on East Main Street this year. Good Food II will return to the Library Mall.
In April, Nelson’s new brick-and-mortar restaurant — Good Food Low Carb Cafe — is set to open at 4674 Cottage Grove Road.
Amie Swanson of Ladonia Cafe (right) focuses on fresh flavors, with her roasted sweet potato tamales, pinto beans, organic brown rice and fresh housemade salsa.
Ladonia Cafe’s Amie Swanson doesn’t plan on changing her menu much this season. Ladonia will continue to serve staples like the tamale platter, BLT sandwich (made with meat-free, tempeh “bacon”) and quinoa salad. All items sold at the cart are vegan, and most are gluten free. But Swanson doesn’t make a big deal out of it.
“Shh....I’m a secret vegan,” says Swanson. “Over 80 percent of my customers aren’t vegan or even vegetarian.”
But Swanson says her customers don’t care if her food happens to be animal-free; they come back because the food is “fresh, tastes great and is satisfying.”
“I try to balance all the meals I put out with some protein,” says Swanson. “I’ve had some roasted vegetable sandwiches that taste good, but afterwards I was still hungry. That’s because it didn’t have a protein.”
Swanson offers occasional specials. She’s also developing a new salad that she hopes will be on the regular menu soon.
Street construction on the Capitol Square starting in April will temporarily relocate some food carts to nearby downtown locations. The Ladonia Cafe food cart, usually in front of 1 E. Main St., will move in front of the Madison Municipal Building until construction is complete in mid-summer.