Paper cranes brighten the Zen Sushi food cart on the UW Library Mall.
Folks who work on the Square have a serious case of cart envy. Madison's food carts are located for the most part either on the Library Mall on campus or right on the Square, and it seems that the more exciting cart cuisines are on the spot to cater to hungry university types, not hungry office workers.
I like a taco from El Burrito Loco or the Fragrant Rice from Wei's Food to Go, or a neat tray of sushi from Blue Fin, all positioned on the east side of The Square. But the number of food carts downtown has dwindled. The Library Mall has recently boasted Jamaican, African, Cuban, Greek, Chinese, Thai, vegetarian, soul food, falafel, juice booths, and, during the regular school year, the incomparable Ingrid's Lunch Box. (Come back soon, Ingrid.)
Zen Sushi is the Library Mall's sushi purveyor, and although Bluefin's cart is right outside Isthmus' front door, I was tempted by Zen Sushi's menu options. (Let me underline that I have nothing against Bluefin, which serves several varieties of rolls as well as tempura and teriyaki chicken.)
Zen Sushi features a couple of stew-like specials served over rice -- for instance, chicken curry Japanese style. Curry is apparently a popular Japanese dish, and differs from the more familiar Thai and Indian versions. It's thicker and sweeter than Indian curries, and has a slow burn in terms of heat. And of course the rice is white. Zen Sushi's chicken curry includes potatoes, green beans, carrots, and of course chicken -- good-tasting pieces, although there was not a lot of it.
Zen Sushi's specials come in three sizes: small ($4), medium ($5) and large ($6). This makes a whole lot of sense -- why must food always come in one-size-fits-all? If beverages can come in different sizes, why not entrees? The medium makes for a hefty solo lunch, and large could easily feed two.
Zen Sushi offers only a couple varieties of rolls, but they're both good -- a California roll and a futo-maki -- neither of which features raw fish. The futo-maki is a good-sized roll with cooked salmon, fried egg, shitake mushroom, spinach and carrot. Whip up a little sauce from the packet of soy sauce and the wasabi -- add a few drops of water to extend it, because it's still going to give a nice horseradishy kick -- and dip away. Both the California Roll and the futo-maki come as a serving of six ($5) or as a combo tray, which includes a serving of four and two inari, a rice-filled soybean pocket.
Lest you think that something described as a rice-filled soybean pocket sounds rather dreary, the inari -- slightly sticky rice in a little envelope of fried tofu with a sweet glaze -- is perfect dipped in the hot wasabi sauce you've stirred up. It's a hot-and-sweet rollercoaster of taste sensation -- okay, if not a rollercoaster, then a little zip down the block on a skateboard. The pretty box lunch is ornamented with a handful of edamame and a few slices of pickled ginger -- a sweet little touch of Zen.