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Madison food cart 2012 rankings embrace FIB's, popcorn carts
FIB's tops the final rankings with five years of seniority and no deductions.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

The food cart rankings for 2012 have been compiled and Madison has a new name at the top of the charts: FIB's Fine Italian Beef and Sausage.

Last year's #1 ranking cart was Ingrid's LunchBox, a long-time city favorite, especially for her Dane County Farmers' Market breakfasts. However proprietor Ingrid Rockwell announced her retirement from the cart last August.

Each year, at the end of September, the city reviews all the current carts and all new carts who wish to vend on the Mall/Concourse (UW Library Mall and Capitol Square) the following season. A panel of freelance tasters (this year there were 18 of them), recruited by Madison street vending coordinator Warren Hansen, sample the food at each cart. Tasters rate carts on their food (40%), a category that includes flavor, overall menu, and presentation; their "apparatus" (40%), which includes design and visual impact, signage, cleanliness and maintenance; and originality (20%), which might take into account factors such as how many other carts sell the same kind of food, or if there's something special about the menu or the cart itself.

Finally, years of seniority (capped at 7) are added in, and any demerits for health or vending code violations are subtracted, to come up with the final score. Hansen believes this review process may be unique to Madison -- he's never heard of another city that does this. The rankings help determine site placement for the following year, avoiding turf war scenarios. And if a cart scores below 70 overall, no vending permit is issued.

This year 48 carts participated in the review, up from 44 last year and from 46 in 2010.

FIB's tops the final rankings with five years of seniority and no deductions, although, interestingly, it actually had a slightly higher evaluation score last year, when it ranked second. If looking only at the taster's food evaluation score, FIB's comes in 12th.

In the overall final rankings, Curt's Gourmet Popcorn came in second and Zen Sushi came in third, followed by Dandelion Vegetarian and El Burrito Loco. Zen Sushi is back with regular weekday appearances at Library Mall, after only sporadic appearances last spring and summer. Here are the complete official final rankings (PDF).

Here are the top ten:

  1. FIB's
  2. Curt's Gourmet Popcorn
  3. Zen Sushi
  4. Dandelion Vegetarian Foods
  5. El Burrito Loco
  6. Buraka
  7. Teryaki Samurai
  8. Fried & Fabulous
  9. Good Food
  10. Umami

If looking at the tasting panels evaluation on food only (leaving aside apparatus, originality, demerits, et. al.) the cart coming out on top is a newcomer, Taquitos Marimar. The top ten in the food-only rankings go like this:

  1. Taquitos Marimar
  2. Banzo 1
  3. Buraka
  4. Surco Peruvian
  5. Kakilima
  6. Blowin' Smoke BBQ
  7. Banzo 2
  8. Good Food
  9. Fried & Fabulous
  10. Madison Sourdough

The overall panel rankings without the seniority or demerit scores added in results in a slightly different top ten:

  1. Fried & Fabulous
  2. Umami
  3. Dandelion Vegetarian
  4. Banzo 2
  5. FIBs
  6. Taquitos Marimar
  7. Good Food
  8. Banzo 1
  9. SoHo
  10. Kakilima

New carts in the review include Umami, Ladonia Cafe, SoHo Gourmet Cuisine, Slide, In N Out Empanada, and Fortune Cafe. SoHo, Slide, and In N Out can be found currently vending in the southeast vending area on the UW-Madison campus, which has become somewhat of an incubator for carts waiting to get a license for the Mall or Square. Slide is in front of Grainger Hall, SoHo in front of the Educational Sciences building on West Johnson, and In N Out in front of the Geology Building on West Dayton.

In fact, there is almost what might be called a mini-pod of southeast vendors these days lined up lunchtimes on the West Dayton block in front of the Geology Building: Banzo 2, In N Out, a second FIB's cart, and another Chicago Dog/sausage/Italian Beef cart called Raffy's. (Mote: the latter two do not appear in the 2012 review results because they are not applying for Mall/Concourse licensing).

Hansen explains that construction has made southeast sites U3 and U4 unusable and so he moved more vendors to Dayton Street. That worked because "there's plenty of room, with a nice wide terrace." Hansen notes that vendors "appear to be doing well there," so he's considering revising the southeast site placement to include more carts in that block. He's also going to do away with a site on Park Street "near the bike path bridge" because it has not proven to be a good location.

SoHo Gourmet Cuisines prepares a variety of dumplings (potstickers) with fusion fillings, along with two salads. Slide serves sliders, though none are traditional burgers.

Among other new carts, Umami stems from the Williamson Street restaurant of the same name.

Missing from the review was the Monty's Blue Plate cart. Monty's general manager and chef Matt Pace says that while the cart will no longer be on the Square or at Library Mall, it will be used at special events and as part of Monty's catering program.

The cart roster continues to juggle four popcorn carts, although two of the four are different from last year's four: Curt's Gourmet comes in at number two, Ernie's Kettle Corn at number 29, and newcomers Golden Square Kettle Corn at number 40 and Capitol Kettle Corn at 42.

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