It was certain that Madison would take to food carts and trucks in its own way. In larger cities like Los Angeles, the urban sprawl is ideally suited for mobile gourmet offerings that develop rabid followings. The trucks/carts stop in locations where nothing of similar quality and creativity is available -- around museums, say, or in the parking lots of lonely wine shops.
In Madison, carts are centered on campus and downtown, where there are plenty of other options nearby already. The food skews to ethnic entrées; there is Ethiopian at Buraka, for example, whose brick-and-mortar restaurant is mere steps away. And there is Indonesian, Greek, Japanese, Caribbean, Chinese and Thai. While all have their avid fans, none quite owns a signature standout dish.
Banzo seems different. Banzo has a tight focus: falafel sandwiches. It uses social media. It has rabid fans. If a Banzo cart were dropped into Seattle or New York, it would make it.
Banzo began on campus two years ago and has since added a second cart on the Capitol Square. It's also expanded to a full restaurant on Sherman Avenue near Maple Bluff.
The restaurant's menu will be familiar to fans. It features the same core falafel items, a broad range of presentation options and a couple of specialty sandwiches not always available at the carts. Plus, there's a short beer and wine list.
At the restaurant, sandwiches arrive on neat little chrome stands instead of a takeout carton, which doesn't slow the devouring of them.
Fresh falafel is a food ripe for adoration. Non-greasy exterior should give way to a moist, verdant (from parsley), cake-y interior. When they are right, as they are at Banzo, the crispy, nutty chickpea-flour balls provide textural backdrop for a number of additions. These are then tucked into better-than-expected pita bread, shipped from Jerusalem via Chicago. This effort makes an enormous difference. While other pitas often suffer from dryness, here they are fluffy and light, rather than chewy and tough.
With the fundamentals nailed, Banzo is ready for variations: the classic Banzo, which is falafel and hummus; the F-bomb, which sports either grilled chicken or beef; and the Harvest, which has thick hunks of caramelized eggplant. These are topped with chopped pickles and stuffed with extra-crunchy house-made potato chips. Available sauces are tahini, yogurt and hot chili.
It's the little details that give rise to intense fandom. Why are there potato chips in a sandwich that already has crispy fried falafel? Because they're amazing that way. Why pickles? Yet more crunch -- and acidity. Enter the newfangled world of urban cart cuisine, where flavors and textures are maximized and options are "and/and" rather than "either/or." These are sandwiches of addiction.
Beware...the schnitzel may cause nighttime cravings. It is seasoned fried chicken in a pita, and, as foods that can be eaten all at once without any utensils go, it is a near-perfect object. So tasty, in fact, that I returned the very next day after my first apprehensive try. I became, I'll admit it, at first bite, yet another of the city's many Banzombies.
Ordering at the restaurant is a two-step process. #1: "What do you want?" And #2: "How do you want it?" Most entrees are available as a pita, a platter, a hummus plate or a salad. But only the pita offers the all-in-one-bite flavor/texture experience. While the other options are fine, they can be a bit of a letdown by comparison.
A few sides are available. There's refreshing tabouli, heavy on the parsley; tasty cinnamon-y Majadra rice; rich and divinely creamy hummus; and a vaguely underwhelming baba ghanoush. The eggplant doesn't taste quite roasted enough, although curiously, it appears in fine form on the Harvest sandwich. Hot, hand-cut fries round out the list.
For soup, there's a lentil with toasted cumin that is satisfyingly spiced. For dessert, there is nicely dense and not-too-sweet baklava.
The restaurant has a large deck in front that faces west toward Burrows Park and makes for great sunset dinners. Surprisingly, there isn't a bike rack, even though the majority of summer customers appear to arrive on two wheels.
Banzo's restaurant feels less harried and even more focused than its sister carts. If you're already a fan, this is a welcome extension to Madison's hottest falafel empire. If you're not yet a Banzombie, well, you're only a bite away.