As it is with all the things we see around us every day, it's easy to take Madison's food carts for granted. We see them parked overnight, slumbering, in lots all over the city. They do business throughout the downtown and campus areas, and they're right there around the edge of the downtown farmers' market every summer Saturday.
Earlier this week, USA Today published a list: the "10 Best Cities for Food Trucks This Summer," and wouldn't you know, Madison was listed along heavyweights like New York, Los Angeles, Austin and Seattle. We are blessed, USA Today wrote, with "an unexpectedly satisfying street food culture centered around the university's Library Mall and Capitol Square."
On Friday evening, that geographic center made its annual shift to Olin Park, and the Isthmus a la Carts festival once again reminded Madison residents just how good we have it here. I had family visiting from the Fox Valley area (Happy Mother's Day, mom!), and the impression the festival made on them was just as strong a personal reminder for me.
My wife and I arrived a few minutes before the gates opened at 4 p.m., and carts were still arriving from their usual stations around town. A respectable line had already formed; I wasn't sure how many people typically snuck out of work early to beat the lines. Five minutes later, though, we were in and ready to eat.
It can be hard to not remember the first bite of the afternoon most fondly, since I think most people go in pretty hungry, and it's just so satisfying. But I truly think the nasi goreng (chicken fried rice with lightly pickled vegetables) and ayam bakar (barbecued chicken with peanut sauce over white rice), both with crunchy krupuk chips, from Kakilima represented the best overall performance from any cart at the fest.
Lest you think there's no reason to keep reading, though, there were other definite standouts. Fried and Fabulous is a perennial Isthmus a la Carts superstar, alternating between chicken nuggets and deep-fried Oreos to an eager throng out front. That Oreo was exceptional, molten within its pancake-y shell.
Ladonia Cafe has something of a hill to overcome: no meat. I know, there's nothing wrong with vegetarian/vegan cookery, but people don't go to an unlimited-food event to eat healthy. (You don't win friends with salad!) But the tamale shooter -- tempeh bacon and kale in soft masa, with beans, rice, and salsa -- was actually very satisfying and flavorful.
Also meatless? The deliciously fried goodness that is the falafel from Banzo. Pitas ran low around 6 p.m. for the deservedly-popular cart, and it was one of the first to close up altogether. Luang Prabang served a fine, fat spring roll, but had already cooked off its supply of Spicy Chicken Calli by 5:30 p.m.
Bubbles' Doubles was a new cart for me, serving little parcels of Caribbean fare not unlike a loose taco. Very messy, but the hot sauce was hot, and the veggie version actually outpaced the chicken.
There was meat, and nothing but meat, at Taqueria Sabor Queretano: a goodly portion of cumin-y shredded beef, but not in any form of taco. Similarly, El Burrito Loco served up a mini taco salad rather than so much as a fraction of a burrito. In this case, that's a good thing, a decision that helped the festival lines move a little more quickly.
That approach was not practiced by the new Gili's Paninis, a.k.a. Toast, depending on which sign you read. The sandwiches were big and tasty -- I had pastrami, thousand island, and provolone -- but the cart was serving the full menu, to order. I waited in that line, on principle, for over 40 minutes. This overly-generous service ends up not doing anyone any favors.
Compare that to Slide, which trims its menu to three items, serves them halved with a small handful of potato chips, and preps a few of each in advance. The Buff Chick was tangy and messily delicious as always, and the Mr. Sweet Potato Head carried heady scents of its curry-spiced sauce. Bing-bang-boom, on to the next cart.
The weather did not hold out in the same fairly glorious fashion in which it started, with stiff breezes bringing more clouds and less warmth by the halfway point. At least it wasnâ€™t raining, and the variety of food and drink is unimpeachable. I was sad to see a couple carts miss the fest, like the new Melted grilled cheese cart, which had a staffing issue to deal with. But this morning, there it was at the farmers' market, serving both food and as evidence of Madison's food cart bounty.