Street food is one of the hottest culinary trends in the nation. Spots like Portland, San Francisco and L.A. are leading the way with carts and trucks that do more than dish out economy fare for folks on the run. In Portland, for instance (generally considered a leader in cart culture), street stands specialize in cupcakes and panna cotta, Korean short ribs and bibimbap, schnitzel sandwiches and fish and chips.
On the other hand, if you happen to be touring the museums on the mall in Washington, D.C., and want to grab a bite to eat on your way to the nation's Capitol, you're confronted with a sea of food stands - all serving the same mummified hot dogs and factory-produced ice-cream novelties.
Madison falls somewhere in between. Wizened wieners are definitely out. But where is our panna cotta purveyor?
Surveying the carts that have found their way to the top of the city's official rankings over the last handful of years, it seems that Madison likes some adventure (South Asian and African offerings have been consistently popular). But in the long run, the food doesn't stray much from stir-fries, burritos and smoothies.
One of the criteria for the city rankings is "originality of menu items." And thankfully there has been some innovation, even as old favorites continue to generate lines.
Year after year, Buraka tops the Isthmus readers' favorites poll, and while its menu doesn't change much, its quality is high and consistent. In fact, my mall dining partner Donna refuses to order from any other cart. I love the earthy chicken peanut stew (available in half or full orders, $5.50/$7.50).
The vegetarian version is a best buy at $4.50. It's spicy and full of vegetables and served with a vinegary lentil-onion salad on a round of injera, a very sour sourdough pancake. But since Buraka is also a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, sometimes ordering there feels like a street-cheat. (Many regular restaurants also field a cart, including Cafe Costa Rica, King of Falafel, Jamerica, Athens Gyros and Electric Earth Cafe.)
Kakilima, the Indonesian cart that topped the city's rankings in 2009, has four regular menu items and two specials daily. Something quite different is the tahu goreng, a salad of fresh greens topped with tiny cubes of organic tofu that have been sautéed (rather than deep-fried, apparently the usual for tahu goreng), adorned with a sweet peanut sauce and served with a side of white rice ($5.75). Add a little hot sauce from the squeeze bottle on the counter. The flavor contrasts may be a bit jarring at first, but it's a vibrant, lighter alternative for summer.
Santa Fe Trailer joins the several Mexican carts in town with Tex-Mex; it would be nice to see more of this kind of cuisine variation, offering difference without outlandishness. Here the green chile rules, whether in the stew ($4/$6) or the melty blue corn enchiladas ($5).
Bonne Journee, a relative newcomer to the cart scene, is up and running on MLK Boulevard. Crepes and beignets ($2) do double duty as desserts or as snacks, but I'd head to the three entrees, coq au vin, chicken over rice and ratatouille (all $6). While the coq au vin is more coq-au-vin-ish than something a Parisian would recognize as a model representation of the dish, it is unbelievably tender dark-meat chicken in a mushroom and carrot gravy that seems to have had, at some point in its life, an affable relationship with wine and black pepper. Mop it up with the two slices of French bread.
For me, Spice Yatra continues to reign as the best cart in town. A recent addition to the menu is an Indian "taco" made with seasoned chicken, lettuce and a yogurt sauce in a tortilla wrapper. It's quite good, but I'd still opt for the Indian dishes, from the daily chicken saag to specials like the rajmah (kidney bean curry) or the mutter paneer (homemade soft Indian cheese in a creamy curry, all $6-$7). My usual M.O. is to swear that I'm going to eat half and save the rest for the next day, only to find myself carving forkful after forkful off the 50-yard line until I find myself with an empty tray. (Or would that be a touchdown?)
And that's what good street food is all about, Charlie Brown.