Say "April 15" and most Americans think of taxes. I think food carts. That date's the start of the season for Madison's Mall/Concourse vendors, which means new sites for some veterans and the debut of first-timers.
The mobile food season opener used to have more impact when carts closed around Thanksgiving and reappeared with the daffodils. These days, more carts are vending through the winter. For vendors who are shuttered for deep winter but like to get an early start, it's been a challenging spring. Let's Eat Out Madison, the evening cart meetup on Midvale (Tuesdays) and Atwood (Wednesdays), has encountered Everests of snow, unseasonable cold and thunderstorms. Noontime on April 15 was at least sunny, but blustery enough to send wastebaskets, tip jars and napkins flying.
On Library Mall, the only new cart making an appearance was Umami, from the Williamson Street restaurant of the same name, serving five varieties of savory buns. Two buns and a side of either edamame or wonton chips is $7. The pork belly features several nice chunks of oven-roasted meat with hoisin sauce, scallions and pickled cucumber with a fresh, fluffy, slightly sweet bun.
Note that the spicy tofu bun is spicy only because it comes with spicy mayo and spicy scallion "salsa." The tofu itself is not only not spicy, it was desperate for a marinade. Next time, I'd go for the Korean barbecued beef, which also comes with the excellent spicy mayo and spicy scallion sauces. Also available: tofu with hoisin sauce and a spicy pulled pork with miso peach chutney.
On Tuesday, Taquitos Marimar debuted, featuring what they call healthy Mexican. The cart is associated with the former Taquería Marimar on Greenway Cross, and serves tacos, gorditas, burritos, tamales and whole-wheat quesadillas. Whole wheat is also available for the burrito.
Slide, new last year, is also on Library Mall. Among four meat and four veggie sliders, the meat's the star. The Buff Chick, a stewed version of Buffalo chicken wings topped with blue cheese, is a solid satisfier. Two sliders and a side are $7. Among the veggie options, the "Mr. Sweet Potato Head" isn't quite a substitute for the sweet potato wrap from the recently departed Dandelion cart.
BJ's Kolaches stakes out territory in front of Grainger Hall in the 900 block of University Avenue. These savory filled buns are Czech food by way of Texas, and they remind me most of knishes, though the dough is fluffier and sweeter. I have yet to find a filling that doesn't work here. Among Philly cheesesteak, sausage jambalaya, spinach and artichoke, buffalo chicken, beef brisket, and spicy kielbasa, it's hard to choose. These are a flat $3, with a good two-plus-a-drink deal for $6.50.
In front of the Geoscience building in the 1200 block of West Dayton, four carts are lined up in this up-and-coming southwest campus mini-pod: Thai's Cuisine, In-N-Out Empanada, Blowin' Smoke BBQ's second cart (the first is on the Capitol Square) and the new Fortune Cafe.
In fact, I was Fortune Cafe's first customer. The bright green cart, run by two sisters, features mostly Indonesian food, with a foray into Italian (spaghetti with meatballs and shrimp linguine).
An entree that's easy to like is ginger garlic chicken ($7): diced chicken marinated in a ginger sauce served with perfectly cooked white rice. I was, however, tempted by a dish called balado egg ($6), a typical Indonesian street food of hardboiled eggs in a tomato-onion sauce, served with rice. The sauce was light and sweetish, not at all spicy, which balado apparently is in Indonesia. (Ask for hot sauce to add to taste.) Both entrees come with a plain but pretty good chopped cucumber and cabbage salad, lightly dressed with what you might call a sweet vinaigrette. Added fun: wagon-wheel-shaped shrimp chips.
A real delight here is cendol, a milky Indonesian dessert that tastes of vanilla and brown sugar, with blobs of green rice flour and fresh pandan leaves. It's probably related to bubble tea in a way, but so much better.
Also of note on Dayton: In-N-Out sells yerba mate and alfajores as well as empanadas.
No new carts were in evidence on the Capitol Square. The most recent addition there is the SoHo dumpling and salad cart, new last year, which moved downtown from campus over the winter.
In other news, the all-vegan Ladonia Cafe will be coming to Library Mall soon, according to its Facebook page. The menu will be tamales, chocolate chip waffles and a "BLT" sandwich with house-made tempeh bacon. Plus scones and homemade ginger limeade. The unifying culinary theme here would seem to be "vegan."
And vegan "burger" cart Igo Vego is planning a return. However, changes in kitchens (two times in six months last year) forced a reevaluation. Owner Tammy Markee-Mayas has found a new commercial kitchen but won't be able to open right away. She's aiming for May and concentrating on raising funds to restock her supplies. Markee-Mayas is also looking into the possibility of selling her vegan burger patties online and frozen at farmers' markets.