Cities from coast to coast have embraced the street food phenomenon, and Madison is no exception. But we do things differently here, and whether it’s because of our unique approach or despite it, the local food cart scene, with fare ranging from dumplings to falafel to fusion tacos, has never been stronger.
by grace edquist | Photos by Sharon Vanorny
PHOTOS BY SHARON VANORNY
Clockwise from top-left: The volcanic and onion dill-icious tots from Pots N Tots; Rudy Siahaan from Kakilima; the southwest sandwich from Melted; a customer (and customer-in-training) order from Bubbles Doubles; Maria Garcia of Taquitos Marimar.
It’s just before 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. The lunchtime rush around the Capitol Square is starting to taper off, but dozens of hungry patrons are still lined up in front of many of the fourteen colorful food carts scattered around the concourse. As I stroll from one block to the next, surveying my mobile meal options, a tropical-looking cart on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and East Mifflin Street catches my eye. I join the two-person queue.
“And what can I get for you, miss?”
I step up to the counter of the Bubbles’ Doubles food cart, taking another few seconds to scan the menu taped to the side before answering the exuberant man peering out from the cart’s service window. Although the choices are few, common among Madison’s street vendors, the names of the items are unfamiliar. The lengthy descriptions and photos help.
“A doubles with chicken, please,” I say, handing him $4.
Morris Reid, a.k.a. Bubbles, of Bubbles' Doubles
A few minutes later, my doubles is ready. It consists of two pieces of thin, fried East Indian flatbread, called bara, stuffed with a curried chickpea mixture and vinegar-cucumber chutney. It’s a popular street food in Trinidad and Tobago, where the man in the cart, Morris Reid, nickname Bubbles, is from. I cross the street to devour my doubles from a bench, careful to unwrap only one end, as Reid had suggested. I can taste the influence of Indian cuisine, especially from the curried chickpeas. The flavor is pretty mild until I hit a patch of the zippy chutney and hot sauce. It’s an unexpected delight, and I’m glad to have tried something new.
That’s the thing about food carts. There’s always something new to try. Mobile cuisine in Madison ranges from kettle corn and vegan BLTs to sushi and spring rolls to empanadas and Korean barbecue—and, as of last July, Trinidadian street food. A few carts hold an affiliation with brick-and-mortar restaurants (like Surco, Banzo and Jamerica), but most operate as stand-alone businesses. Some carts serve fare from the owner’s homeland you might not find in a local restaurant, while others capitalize on recent food trends or local favorites. Many cart owners have culinary backgrounds, but even those range from working the fryer at a local pub to serving as sous chef at a steakhouse. It’s a diverse mix, reflective of Madison’s dynamic dining scene. And it’s growing, with a city-wide street vendor total hovering close to eighty, the highest it’s ever been.
The food cart phenomenon in Madison echoes the nationwide boom in mobile food, and the appeal isn’t hard to figure out. Street food strikes a balance between fast food and local restaurant. Like the former, it’s cheap and convenient, which makes it accessible to more people and easy to grab-and-go. But a food cart or truck menu often reads like a condensed version of a local, sit-down restaurant’s, with quality ingredients, interesting flavors and an original concept.
The stature of carts and trucks has skyrocketed particularly over the last five years, giving rise to dedicated websites, TV shows and cookbooks, including one published in 2012 that featured four Madison carts. There are never-ending listicles telling us where to find the best street food—another platform showcasing the strength of Madison’s carts, as USA Today’s included us as a top-ten city for food carts along with heavyweights like Portland, Seattle and New York City. Heck, even a new film, this summer’s Chef, is about a food truck.
This year also saw the formation of the National Food Truck Association, an advocacy group much like the National Restaurant Association. If the group succeeds, writes prominent food writer David Sax in the New York Times, “It will signify the rapid evolution of the business from a quirky fad to a national industry with an estimated $1 billion in annual revenue and a growing political voice.”
As cities across the country are still ironing out the details of how these food carts and trucks are regulated, Madison is considered somewhat of a pioneer in the field. Street vending got its start here in the 1970s with the now-defunct food cart Loose Juice. In the ’80s, the city introduced several street vending ordinances. Then in 1998, Warren Hansen was hired as the city’s street vending coordinator, a title he still holds today, to oversee the licensing process and work directly with cart owners. As far as Hansen knows, Madison is the only city with a dedicated staffer that has such a role. Because of this unique system, Hansen fields calls from around the country—Portland, Asheville, Los Angeles, Boulder—about how food carts work here, and he’s been asked to speak at street food conferences in places like San Francisco.
Warren Hansen, Madison's street vending coordinator
“My job requires a lot of juggling,” says Hansen. “There are a lot of people involved.” Those other people are from the health department, the parks department, the streets division, city planning and the restaurant industry, to name just a few. In most cities, which don’t have a Warren Hansen, officials from far-flung departments draft regulations and coordination is left more to the cart owners themselves. Regulations are often monitored and enforced by the police, like in New York City, or by some broader government entity, like the inspections division in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Mostly Hansen serves as a point of contact throughout the extensive process of obtaining the necessary licenses to start vending. “[Hansen’s] the reason this wasn’t a total nightmare,” says Kay Kratochwill, who runs the new Pots N Tots cart with husband Rob. When the Kratochwills decided they wanted to start a food cart last Christmas, their first step was calling Hansen after they saw his name on the city’s website. “We had no idea where to start,” she says.
Friends Jessica Wartenweiler and Kayla Zeal also benefited from having a point person once they decided to open a cheese curd cart, the aptly named Curd Girl that slings Wisconsin’s favorite fried snack on Saturdays at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. “We did everything from the ground up,” says Wartenweiler. “It was just a ton and ton of Internet research and working a lot with Warren, learning about all the licenses and regulations, and talking with other cart owners.”
Ah, the licenses and regulations. Just like starting any kind of business, there are all kinds of stipulations that need to be followed, like the square footage of the cart, how far the service counter can protrude and what kind of prep work you can conduct inside the cart. Unsurprisingly, this kind of city oversight elicits a range of reactions. “A lot of people don’t even want to do carts because they think the regulations are crazy,” says John Handley, a seasoned cart owner with six years of operating the successful FIBs Fine Italian Beef and Sausage cart under his belt. “But you have to have rules or else it would be chaos.”
The food cart rules are seen by some owners as helpful; they make life easier and level the playing field. Others recognize them as just a necessary part of the gig. Still others see them as a bit micromanaged. Melanie Nelson, who runs the Good Food cart, has a hard time with the size requirement—if you’re vending on Library Mall or the Square your cart can be a max of fifty-six square feet. “You can only fit so much in a food cart the size of a shoe box,” she says. It limits how many people can work inside the cart and how much food she can churn out, and how quickly.
Kayla Zeal and Jessica Wartenweiler of Curd Girl
Carts are substantially smaller than the better-known food trucks that are often associated with cities known for their robust street food, like Los Angeles, Austin and Portland. “I was actually really surprised to find out that food trucks aren’t allowed in Madison,” says Curd Girl’s Wartenweiler. The only trucks permitted vend from special events and at parks—trucks Cupcakes-A-Go-Go and Kona Ice are among them. They aren’t eligible for spots downtown on the Square or Library Mall. Space on the isthmus is just too limited.
The nice thing about trucks is that there’s space to cook inside. Fire up the grill, roast some meat, slice up vegetables—you can, at least theoretically, do it all.
But not inside Madison carts. You can’t actually cook in them, only reheat and assemble. A few things are allowed—a deep fryer is OK to have in a cart, for example—but much of the prep work and actual cooking must be done in a licensed commercial kitchen.
“That was one of the biggest obstacles for us,” says Wartenweiler.
Christine Ameigh of Slide says she and about five other carts currently use space on East Washington Avenue where Viet House, a short-lived Vietnamese restaurant, used to be. Reid of Bubbles’ Doubles uses FEED Kitchens, which recently opened on the north side as a resource for food entrepreneurs. Others find space within restaurant kitchens, as is the case with Pots N Tots, who use Ten Pin Alley in Fitchburg. Good Food’s Nelson has her own commercial kitchen on the west side that she inherited from the retired LMNO’Pies cart.
John Handley of FIBs
FIBs owner Handley and his wife saw the challenge for food carts to find a commercial kitchen as an entrepreneurial opportunity. The couple is launching their own commissary for food carts, called Capital Kitchen Rentals, off Fish Hatchery Road. At press time, Handley said it was on schedule to open in late July.
While the size restrictions and the need for commercial kitchen space are part of the licensing process in other cities, what really sets Madison apart is the annual review that helps determine each cart’s assigned spot downtown.
“I don’t think there’s a single other city that does it,” says Hansen. The juried review process happens in late September and early October each year. About twenty-five volunteers, many of them city employees, visit all the participating carts and rate them in three categories: forty percent is on the food, another forty on the physical cart, and then twenty percent on its originalty. “I thought originality should be made more important,” says Hansen, so he recently bumped up its weight. Scoring for originality encourages new cuisine types and discourages duplicate concepts. If there are already three taco carts downtown and you want to start another one nearby, you won’t score well in that category unless you add a little creativity. The review also allows bonus points for consecutive years in business, capped at seven, and takes deductions for any health code or vending citations. When applying for a license to vend on the Square or Library Mall, cart owners can request three weekday sites and three Saturday sites. “The review scores determine who will get which site, or a site near their request, or maybe no site at all,” Hansen says. This year fifty-three carts applied to vend on the Square or Library Mall, the most ever.
Christine Ameigh of Slide
With a set number of spaces, there can’t be an increase in the number of carts assigned to the Square or Library Mall, but that’s not slowing the overall growth. More carts have started vending in the southeast area of the UW campus, near Union South, and there’s been a marked rise in the last two years in popup events that bring the carts to neighborhoods and parks outside of the city’s core, like Isthmus A La Carts, the carts out at University Research Park, the city’s Meet and Eat events, and Let’s Eat Out, which Ameigh of Slide started in 2012.
“I just couldn’t believe that the only people getting to experience food carts were people that worked downtown or went to UW,” she says. All these events have meant that Hansen is issuing more street vending licenses, which in turn stiffens the competition for the downtown spots. Tougher competition means the quality is rising, the food is getting more interesting and the carts themselves are pretty spiffy.
Says Hansen, “I think food vending is in its heyday in Madison.”
If you can’t hit all eighty-plus food carts in one year, at least make a point to stop at these ten, which together represent the exciting and diverse mobile cuisine our fair city has to offer
BONUS: Use our Food Cart Guide for more information on these and other Madison food carts
Bulgogi Korean Taco
The steak tacos from Bulgogi Korean Taco
Korean barbecue is popping up all over the city, and now we finally have a street food option to satisfy our bulgogi cravings. The tacos come with choice of steak, chicken or tofu, plus corn or flour tortilla. The onions, cilantro and kimchi (scallions, tomatoes, cilantro, lettuce and bean sprouts) on top add punch and crunch. For fuel and flavor, this new cart is a must-try.
FIND IT: Weekdays on the Capitol Square Concourse on East Main Street in front of Walgreens.
The Southwest grilled cheese from Melted
It’s about time we had a grilled-cheese-slinging food cart. And with ingredients like aged cheddar, chipotle aioli and thick-cut bacon, all on Batch Bakehouse bread (and that’s just the ingredient list for the stellar Southwest sandwich), these aren’t your average grilled cheese options—they’re gourmet. Sure, artisan grilled cheese is a bit trendy, but in a state like Wisconsin, in a city like Madison, it’s more than hip. It’s homegrown.
FIND IT: Weekdays on the Capitol Square Concourse across from DLUX on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and on Saturdays during the Dane County Farmers' Market.
Whole wheat tortilla taco with rice and beans from Taquitos Marimar
Healthy Mexican food? Count us in. With fresh local ingredients and whole wheat tortillas, Maria Garcia dishes out tasty tacos, burritos, enchiladas and quesedillas. The excellent and filling vegetarian burrito includes squash and avocado and is welcome twist on the classic. The salsa, bursting with flavor from diced tomatoes and chiles and a sprinkle of cilantro, is good enough to eat on its own, and the perfectly marinated meats make for superior tacos.
FIND IT: Weekdays on the Epic campus in Verona for 2014 season. Usually on Library Mall. Thursadys nights at Meadowood Shopping Center.
Oseng tahu from Kakilima
The names of Kakilima’s authentic Indonesian dishes may sound unfamiliar, but food-cart-goers needn’t shy away. The cart’s four mainstay dishes and two daily specials never fail to please. Plus, each item is followed by a handy description of what’s in it. Vegetarians and omnivores go nuts for the oseng tahu, a vegetable and tofu curry dish. Uninitiated? The ever-popular ayam bakar, with barbecue chicken and a peanut sauce, is a gateway to the wonders of Indonesian fare.
FIND IT: Weekdays on Lake Street between State and Langdon streets for 2014 season. Usually on Library Mall.
Pots N Tots
The volcanic tots from Pots N Tots
If you’re looking for some comfort food with a bit of a gourmet twist, seek out Pots N Tots, which just started vending this spring. With nine different flavors, and more in the works, the tater tots are far more exciting than your frozen-in-a-bag variety. Chef-owner Rob Kratochwill makes them fresh to order, and douses them in herbs and spices he mixes himself. The handmade cart with tots-inspired takes on famous paintings is itself worth a visit.
FIND IT: Weekdays on West Johnson Street between Brooks and Mills streets on the UW campus. Thursday nights at Meadowood Shopping Center.
Báhn mì from Saigon Sandwich
Chewy baguette, crunchy vegetables, savory meat and a little zip. Behold the báhn mì, a Vietnamese-French fusion sub finally made mobile by the Saigon Sandwich cart last fall. Fill out a ticket to customize your order, circling your choice of protein—barbecue pork, chicken, meatball, pork chop, tofu or special combo (barbecue pork and steamed pork roll). You also pick your toppings, and we’d endorse all of them—cilantro, carrot and daikon slaw, cucumbers, jalapeños, dehydrated fried onions, mayonnaise and pâté. Voilà! A flavorful and filling—and, at $4.75 a sandwich, affordable—lunch.
FIND IT: Weekdays on the corner of West Johnson and North Charter streets on the UW campus.
The avocado spring roll from Luang Prabang
There are a lot of Thai and Lao food options in this city. But something’s special about Luang Prabang. And that something is the avocado spring rolls. Gigantic and fresh, these burrito-sized rolls filled with cold noodles, cabbage and peanut sauce, not to mention huge slices of fresh avocado, make for quick and easy street food. The best part? Each roll is only $2.50. Sisters Tuy and Kai Anongdeth also churn out dishes like squash curry and pad thai.
FIND IT: Weekdays on Lake Street between State and Langdon streets for 2014 season. Usually on Library Mall.
A doubles from Bubbles' Doubles
One of the most intriguing new carts of the past year is Bubbles’ Doubles, a cart vending the popular street food of Trinidad and Tobago. Charming owner Morris Reid (a.k.a. Bubbles) serves “doubles,” a flatbread filled with curried chickpeas and crunchy cucumber chutney, plus chicken if you so choose. Say yes to the hot sauce. One doubles is not entirely filling, so if you’re hungry, grab two.
FIND IT: Weekdays on the Capitol Square Concourse on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and East Mifflin Street and Saturdays at the Dane County Farmers' Market. Some evenings at Let's Eat Out gatherings.
Sweet Thai Chili wrap from Good Food
It’s a simple name matched with a simple menu, and that’s why it works. Owner Melanie Nelson uses quality local ingredients, organic when possible, to make such nourishing creations as the Sweet Thai Chili with carrots, tomato, onion, cucumber, basil, cilantro, sweet chili sauce and homemade peanut sauce (using Yumbutter’s Asian Jazz). Add chicken or tofu if you like. Like all menu offerings, it can be ordered as a wrap or salad. When cold weather hits—the cart vends year-round—the homemade soups are perfection.
FIND IT: Weekdays on the Capitol Square Concourse in front of Walgreens on East Main Street.
Blowin' Smoke BBQ
Three Little Pigs sandwich from Blowin' Smoke BBQ
Meat, meat and more meat. That’s what you should order from Blowin’ Smoke, a Kansas City style barbecue caterer- turned cart-turned Waunakee restaurant. Chef-owner Robert Bishop smokes his meat in custom-built smokers. Reap the benefits of that hard work by indulging in offerings like the Three Little Pigs sandwich—complete with sliced pork, ham maple bacon, Swiss cheese and chipotle mayonnaise on a fresh kaiser bun. It’s a bit messy, but boy, is it worth it.
FIND IT: Weekdays on the Capitol Square Concourse on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and East Mifflin Street.
Grace Edquist is associate/web editor of Madison Magazine.