I have seen Madison's food cart future, and its name is Banzo. I've been waiting a while to write that sentence, and while it's corny, it's also sort of true.
Banzo, a falafel, grilled chicken and hamburger slider cart run by Aaron Collins and Netalee Sheinman, is brand new, operating just since the annual city food cart review that took place at the end of September allowed fresh vendors into the Madison street food marketplace.
Yes, it comes social-media ready, with a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, @banzomadison. Both simplify the process of making contact with the mobile cart. In the olden days, food carts had neither (in fact, there was usually no way to get in touch with a cart, short of showing up and going to the window), so customers couldn't call to see if a cart was going to show up on a particular day, or if a favorite dish happened to be the daily special. Now it's a matter of a follow or a like to see what a cart is up to, and that's more than just something trendy; it's a little thing, like pay-at-the-pump, that makes everyday city living just a little easier.
The shining silver cart is wrapped with a bright lime-green vine-and-leaf motif topped off with a sprightly garbanzo bean logo designed by Madison-area graphic artist Alex Wahlberg (wrapping by Speedpro Imaging of Waunakee). Collins and Sheinman studied the process at a falafel takeout deli in New York City with the idea of coming to Madison and opening a food cart. Collins is from Madison; Sheinman, his girlfriend, is from Israel, and the falafel recipe is direct from Israel "with our own touches," says Collins. With falafel, "Everybody does a little something of their own."
The two picked up the cart already built at a place called Cart Concepts, in Connecticut, and towed it 1,000-some miles to Madison to start the business. "We knew this was what we wanted to do," says Collins.
"We wanted Banzo to be a fresh new take on street food," he continues, and while that's an of-the-moment sentiment, it does factor into the product. So does the little flourish of a curlicue squirt of tahini on top of the falafel instead of a blob, for instance, or the specially designed trapezoidal cardboard containers that hold the pita sandwiches just so.
All of that wouldn't amount to a hill of garbanzo beans, of course, if the food wasn't worth eating. But the food is good, and the falafel, Banzo's signature dish, is very good indeed. It's fresh fried in the cart, the chickpea spheres freshly made each morning, as is the accompanying hummus. The exterior, studded here and there with sesame seeds, is crispier than any falafel I've ever encountered.
Falafel comes as a sandwich ($6) or as a plate ($7) with hummus and pita, a small salad of fresh greens, and Israeli couscous (larger than "African" couscous, somewhat resembling barley). It's topped with your choice of tahini, yogurt or hot sauce. Other entrees are the Chick (grilled chicken), the Slider (ground beef patties made from meat from the Jenifer Street Market), the Harvest (cucumber, tomato and eggplant) and the F Bomb (falafel combined with either the hamburger or the chicken), and these come as a sandwich or as a plate as well. Sides include hand-cut, fresh-fried french fries.
Banzo received very high marks in the city's food cart review. It was the highest-scoring newcomer in the review. And if you throw the points granted for cart seniority out the window, Banzo would come in second overall in the rankings.
To backtrack: Every September, a panel of volunteer tasters eat at every operating food cart and at carts that wish to get into Mall Concourse vending next season. Over the course of six days, the testers rate the stands on food taste and quality (40%), cart appearance and presentation (40%) and originality of menu items (20%). To complete the score, years of seniority (capped at seven) and any demerits are figured in. The scores help determine cart placement for the next year.
While Collins and Sheinman are currently refining the operation at lunchtime, they hope to enter the late-night scene on State Street, perhaps bringing back a one-time-only Badger game-day special, fried cheese curds, with curds from the House of Wisconsin Cheese.
Banzo is currently parking on West Dayton near Charter Street, in front of the Geology building, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., but starting Nov. 1, it will move to the Capitol Square to park near the corner of Main and King Streets. Their plans for the winter vending season are currently "to tough it out." Collins says he's spoken with other cold-weather stalwart Blowin' Smoke BBQ and is optimistic. "We have fryers and ovens and grills in here," he notes. "We should stay pretty warm."