A World on Wheels

Food carts bring delicious cuisine from around the globe into the heart of Madison

Rudy Siahaan serves up Indonesian dishes at his Kakilima cart.

Rudy Siahaan serves up Indonesian dishes at his Kakilima cart.

PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY

Few places in wisconsin offer the kind of culinary adventure found daily at UW’s Library Mall. Even though the spot itself may seem unassuming, the food lining the well-known walkway makes the landmark one of the most distinctive and diverse places in the region. 

And no matter what kind of food a vendor sells, authenticity seems to be the secret ingredient for success.

Rudy Siahaan bought the Indonesian food cart Kakilima from a friend, who perfected his most popular dish, ayam bakar. It is a generous plate of barbequed chicken breast topped with peanut sauce and served with rice and acar, a spicy, pickled vegetable, or krupuk, deep-fried crackers. You can also just call it the “Number 3.”

Siahaan admittedly isn’t very confident with his English, but he gives one good tip for anyone thinking of starting a food cart: “Make authentic food.”

Perhaps that’s how he is picking up adoring fans from near and far and bringing them back to Library Mall again and again.

Indeed, location matters.

“Library Mall is pretty much the center of Madison,” says Markos Regassa, owner of Buraka. For more than two decades, Regassa has filled the bellies and souls of old and new diners alike with his Ethiopian fare. He could probably be called the king of the local food carts, since he got into one of the trendiest food crazes before it became popular.

“And now we have a lot of diverse, good food at the Library Mall,” Regassa says.

Regassa’s most popular dish is dorowot, a slow-cooked plate of berbere-spiked chicken and carrots. Add a side of traditional sourdough bread called injera, and top it off with a rich cup of Ethiopian coffee. But if you don’t like what he’s cooking, he has some great advice.

“If someone doesn’t like a food cart, they can walk up the street,” he says.

It’s hardly a walk up the street—more like five or six steps—to find other food to sample. Nowhere on the isthmus can you find such diversity in dining in such close proximity.

You can devour practically anything from Venezuelan empanadas to falafel from Israel. Indonesian, Peruvian and Laotian carts also compete for customers during the lunch rush.

Everybody Has a Story

While a delicious meal is the mainstay, the food alone doesn’t make the carts appealing. The people behind them bring vibrancy and excitement to the scene, offering Madisonians and visitors a literal taste of their cultures.

PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY

Caracas Empanadas

Although the food choices are vastly different, most of the cart owners share similar stories. A majority of them grew up somewhere far away from Madison, and many never considered opening a mobile restaurant. Most came here for entirely different reasons but ended up staying because they liked the place.

Case in point: Luis de Dompablo opened his food cart three years ago but has actually called Madison home for the last three decades. He came here from Venezuela to attend school, and after graduation he spent years running his own horticulture business. But when the economy crashed, his small business came down with it. Through that adversity, he came up with what would eventually be a brilliant idea.

He opened his own food cart, Caracas Empanadas, using his family’s recipes for empanadas.

“It’s great today,” says de Dompablo. “I wasn’t expecting at all what happened. People love the empanadas.”

A staple in many Latin American countries, the deep-fried delights typically include ground or shredded beef and cheese, chicken and pulled pork. The recipe de Dompablo uses comes from his father, who worked as a chef in their family restaurant.

“I started making them for my kids,” says de Dompablo. “It was a need of keeping my culture alive at home. It was a need of feeding my kids.”

And now he’s serving up flavors of the Venezuelan culture to his customers, too.

“It’s right there. You’re walking by it,” says de Dompablo. “You don’t have to walk by an establishment. It’s just there, and I think that is why people just stop by the window. Two minutes—you’re done. The locals are now more open to the different cultures.”

The owner of Taquitos Marimar, Maria Garcia, says her food is easy to swallow, even for an unadventurous eater.

“Tacos and burritos nowadays are so popular,” says Garcia. “It’s almost like pizza.”

That doesn’t stop the native Mexican from sharing some of the more traditional dishes while giving them a twist to suit her customers’ tastebuds. She’s known for her whole wheat quesadillas because of the special, moist quality of the tortillas.

“Those are really popular,” Garcia says. “The food is very authentic. ” 

Garcia moved to Madison when she was seventeen, and she never left. For years she’s operated the Mercado Marimar grocery store, and when the time was right, she made the food cart business a family affair. She cooks, and her twenty-five-year-old son sells. It’s a business that has seen much success during its first year.

“It’s been really good,” Garcia says. “It’s different than the grocery store—the pace is different. I like it.”

It’s All About Community

Though this food utopia seems to thrive in downtown Madison, many food carts are traveling across the city. 

Banzo’s sweet success proves that a food cart can be successful just about anywhere in Madison and can feed more than the daily appetite.

Netalee Sheinman and her partner, Aaron Collins, started their food cart with the goal of selling the best falafel in the Midwest. Sheinman grew up in Israel but was working as a teacher in Harlem when she and Collins decided to make a move back to his hometown.

“Mediterranean food had blown up in New York,” Sheinman recalls. “And [here] it didn’t seem that was the case—especially for late-night food.”

Sheinman and Collins opened their first food cart two years ago at Library Mall. But as their falafel took off, so did their opportunities. Now they own a second food cart and a sit-down restaurant on Sherman Avenue. They also offer catering and delivery services.

Banzo serves up baba ganoush, couscous, Majadra rice and hummus. But it also hits home with American staples like Philly cheesecake and beef sliders. Falafel may look funny to some newbies—a brownish ball with a bright green inside—but it’s been a hit from nearly the first day. 

“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” says Sheinman on owning a bustling business. “But it’s a really fun and welcoming community. We had a lot of help from people who already worked in the food carts, who were very kind and volunteered a lot of information.”

That same kind of support can be found at the Madison Meet & Eat gatherings, an organized effort by the city to empower neighborhoods and strengthen businesses.

For the last two summers, the Parks Division and the city brought food carts and vendors to local neighborhoods. The idea was to encourage people to get out and connect for a night out. It started out in one neighborhood near Madison’s west side, and by year two the weekly gathering expanded to two other neighborhoods across the city.

The food cart scene may be mobile—but something much more permanent is happening in the Madison area, for customers and food cart purveyors alike.

“It’s a very nice place—unique,” says Sheinman. “Everyone is very supportive and helps each other.” 

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