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Sunday, February 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Snow
The Daily
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Isthmus A La Carts 2013 is the opening feast of Madison's new food cart season
Most of these carts do vend regularly, but not together.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

At the Isthmus A La Carts food cart festival on Friday night, I kept overhearing people saying things like "Have you been to Freshly Baked?," "I got this at Freshly Baked," and "How's the line at Freshly Baked?"

What, I asked myself, is Freshly Baked? How has a completely new food cart escaped my attention, especially since I saw the cart roster program for the festival designed just two days before?

As the editor in charge of Isthmus' food coverage, I try to keep a pretty close eye on what's going on with Madison's food carts and their comings and goings. Well, "try" makes it sound like it's a chore, when it's not -- it's one of my favorite things to do that's also a part of my job. I look forward to the city's annual September cart review and the launch of new carts every spring. So whatever this awesome Freshly Baked was, it had caught me snoozing on the job.

Then I realized that Freshly Baked was what these attendees were calling BJ's Kolaches, a year-old cart that serves six different flavors of savory Czech dumplings, as well as some sweet. Granted, "Freshly Baked" is exactly what the cart has painted in large letters above its serving window. It only says BJ's Kolaches on the side, which anyone who was making the circuit of the 20-plus carts and booths at Friday night's cart festival would probably not have noticed.

I felt better. I've had "Freshly Baked" BJ's Kolaches before, and as I've written before, you can't go wrong with any of the varieties. Friday night, I had a buffalo chicken. Another winner.

I missed last year's inaugural fest while at a conference, so I was interested to see carts drawn from various vending times and areas drawn together -- Capitol Square, Library Mall, the "West Dayton mini-pod," late night, and farmers' market Saturday vendors were all represented and serving samples of various elements of their menus. Last year's fest had what everyone remembers as perfect weather; this year was a little chilly, but not so much that it stopped anyone from drinking cold beer (from Leinenkugel's) and Wisco Pop.

Most of these carts do vend regularly, but not together, not in an area where you can get together with your friends and have a picnic, and not with sampler sizes so that you can try multiple carts in a single meal.

New on the scene was the all-vegan Ladonia Cafe, which probably won some converts to its excellent BLT made with housemade seitan bacon along with fresh Vegannaise on Batch Bakehouse bread. A person in front of me in line at neighboring cart wondered if the word "vegan" might have been scaring people off. It did seem to be true that the carts serving the most meat also had the greatest number of people in line for food. Unscientific observation, just saying. Ladonia also had lemon poppy seed scones and a housemade ginger lemonade with a bit of a kick to it. Good stuff.

At Slide, I picked the beet slider. This was because I was feeling a little bad about having written that Slide's meat sliders were a little stronger than their veggie options. I was feeling bad about this in a very Madison sort of way, wondering if I was unfairly adopting a societal norm that privileges meat over vegetables. I thought I should give the beets another chance. The slider was very pretty -- Slide's little buns are perfect -- and I loved the creamy dressing, which could give Plaza sauce a run for its money. The beet slice was nice and sweet. For a beet slider, it was pretty great. I was happy to live in a city where you can get a beet slider at a food cart festival. I felt better.

Taquitos Marimar, new on Library Mall this spring, had tamales and tacos on offer. I had a good chicken taco, with two fresh griddled soft corn shells, and a bit of chipotle mixed in.

JD's, a cart that traditionally vends late night, brought its legendary steakburger, which I finally got to try. Every good thing you've heard about this wonder between slices of Wonder Bread is true. Meltingly delicious.

Fried and Fabulous, another late night regular, was doing its thing (brand-name sweets dipped in batter and deep fried, State Fair-style) and passing them out to folks waiting in line -- battered deep-fried Oreos unexpectedly turn soft and gooey inside.

Not currently a Madison cart, but vending at several area farmers' markets, was Chef K. Clark Pickles and Preserves (though the name on the cart above the serving window was "Home Grown"), where chef Kimberly Anderson was serving three kinds of pickled vegetables -- Moroccan asparagus, carrots, and surprising parsnips -- and three kinds of beer jelly, on crackers. Beer jelly? You bet. It actually does taste like beer. Which is a good thing.

This year, 750 tickets were available, and the fest was sold out over a week before it was held. The audience votes on its favorites, and this year the winner was SoHo Gourmet Cuisine.

Many other carts were on hand. Even with sample sizes, I don't think anyone could try every cart, and I skipped some of my favorite vendors, simply because I have already eaten a lot of their food. But there's still an entire summer ahead to taste more.

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