Suong Tran is the owner of the I'm Here Vietnamese cuisine food cart.
Even though the lunch hour is long-gone this Tuesday afternoon, the inimitably-named I'm Here remains busy on Library Mall. Owned and operated by Suong Tran, the food cart featuring Vietnamese cuisine and cold drinks is one of the city's oldest, serving Madisonians for some two decades. The lunch side of I'm Here's menu is dominated by spring rolls, egg rolls, and a variety of fried rices, while the drinks side runs from lemonade to limeade to carrot juice.
Among the food carts scattered around the mall, I'm Here is one of the few to remain open late into the evening. This is due to the most distinctive element of the menu, namely the smoothies that serve as I'm Here's afternoon specialty. Cold and sweet fruit smoothies dominate the list of offerings, though the refreshments can turn more shake-like with possibilities like chocolate or coffee. Standing out, however, are options like avocado, carrot, red bean and mung bean, not your typical smoothie ingredient.
Tran is outspoken about city policies that govern the locations offered to every food cart. She temporarily shut down I'm Here for a brief time in late 2003 following a dispute with the city over her moving the cart on multiple days from a location on the Capitol Square down to Library Mall. She's back up and running, though, serving lunch and smoothies on her preferred end of State Street.
Tran took the time to answer several of our questions.
How long have you been open?
I've been open here in Madison for about 20 years.
It's pretty late in the season now. How late do you plan on being open this year?
It depends upon the weather. When there's no snow, I can stay open later. Some years there's no snow, and other years there is a lot of snow. So it depends.
Your menu looks like it focuses on two areas; Vietnamese food and smoothies. Where did you learn to cook?
In Vietnam. I learned them from my family. They're the family recipes.
What's your most popular dish?
People like the fried rice a lot.
What kitchen to you use to cook?
At the I'm Here restaurant. We opened it some time ago, but later closed it. We only use it for cooking for the cart now.
How's the process for getting the permit?
The permit is easy, but getting and holding on to a good spot is more difficult. Every year, the city has people come and review the carts. Whoever has a higher score gets a better spot.
Then the rules depend upon the season. From May 15 to October 14, it's the "high season" as they call it. During this season, you aren't allowed to use somebody else's spot if they don't show up after 10:30 a.m. Otherwise, you have to wait until 4 pm to move. When winter comes, though, you can use somebody else's spot if they don't show up.
How are things going with the smoothies?
Again, it depends upon the weather. Is it hot out? Then yes, people get the smoothies.
What kind of smoothies do people like?
Usually, people like the strawberry-banana, but lately they've been going more for the coconut smoothies. Many people like to try it.