After the winter of the polar vortex, it's been the spring of the lingering winter. Opening day for food carts, April 15, dawned with snow on the ground. Construction, somewhat delayed, will soon displace carts on Library Mall (watch this space for news as it develops). Some southeast-area vendors are in their usual spots, like Saigon Sandwich at North Charter and West Johnson. Others have decamped to the Square, and some are venturing to a weekly roster of suburban locales.
Newcomer Melted, stationed on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, was drawing lines for its over-the-top grilled cheese sandwiches. The "Glazed Doughnut," for example, is a Greenbush doughnut, split and filled with brie, raspberry jam and applewood smoked bacon, and grilled. It was undeniably tasty, but also greasy -- well, obviously, but after half the sandwich, not in a good way. Other Melted treats include sandwiches based on the hot dog, the jalapeño popper and the caprese (tomato and pesto), and all come with delightful small cups of tomato soup, for dipping.
Fried and Fabulous has a new sandwich and salad menu at East Main and South Pinckney, saving its roster of deep-fried Oreos, etc., for its late-night and farmers' market appearances. What is fried now? Chicken nuggets, shrimp, cheese curds, mushrooms and tofu. These can be ordered solo, with dipping sauces; atop a salad, where the sauces become dressings; or stuffed in a bun.
Salads feature romaine and surprisingly flavorful grape tomatoes. The best of the toppings is the most unlikely: the tofu, fried to order. It's crispy on the outside, dusted with a light seasoning; ethereal within. The salad comes in a large cardboard soup container, an arrangement that might charitably be described as "clumsy." I liked the chili lime vinaigrette, but even as much as I enjoyed the tofu, this salad-and-fried combo is not likely to stack up against nearby salad/wrap juggernaut Good Food. Why not include some fried desserts? There is, after all, no dessert cart on the Square.
Slide, now with two carts, is parking one of them on the Square (near Walgreens). Its "Buff Chick" is a lovable buffalo chicken slider. The "Beets the Meat" is a veggie, gluten-free slider that can make you feel virtuous enough to order a side of Slide's excellent house-made potato chips, which, frankly, you should strongly consider ordering whether you are feeling virtuous or not. (Slide also has a new brick-and-mortar presence inside the Cenex station in Cottage Grove, at 207 W. Cottage Grove Rd.)
Happily, Bubbles' Doubles is now at Wisconsin Avenue and East Mifflin Street most weekdays. An addition to the southeast campus carts last fall, Bubbles' Trinidad and Tobago fare is a welcome changeup downtown. The menu is simple: There are doubles, which consist of curried chickpeas topped with a vinegary, spicy cucumber relish tumbled into a fried East Indian flatbread; and either vegetable or chicken roti. These are rich curries wrapped in proprietor Morris Reid's homemade Trinidad and Tobago-style rotis, a super thin, flaky wrap that includes a layer of ground yellow split peas, cumin, garlic and pepper. The chicken roti, currently one of my favorite eats anywhere in the city, is the sort of hefty lunch I always vow to eat half of and save the rest for tomorrow, which works out well if "tomorrow" can be interpreted as "2 p.m." I always ask for the hot sauce.
Also on the East Mifflin block now are Blowin' Smoke BBQ, Teriyaki Samurai and King of Falafel. I'd get my falafel from Banzo (now in front of Anchor Bank), but at King of Falafel, tahini lovers can find an under-the-radar hit, and a rock-bottom bargain, with the happily messy "veggie sandwich," just $4. Melty chunks of eggplant (the menu says it's fried, though I would have guessed roasted) are paired with french fries, lettuce, tomato, dill pickle and raw onions, doused with tahini sauce and rolled in a large, flattish pita. The pita was a little dry, but the fries provide a wonderfully salty counterpoint to the mellow eggplant and the earthy tahini; the dill pickle perks up the whole assemblage. (Note: The menu does not mention the onions -- beware.)
At lunchtime on weekdays, a group of carts will gather at spots around the city. Mondays and Fridays it's the Dairy Drive meetup (actually at 2702 Agriculture Dr. in front of Madison Media Institute), Tuesdays near American Parkway (last week, in front of Herzing University at 5218 East Terrace Dr.), Wednesdays at University Research Park on the west side, and Thursdays in front of the far-west-side Edgewood College branch at 1255 Deming Way.
Loosely banded together as Let's Eat Out Madison, these carts are also meeting weeknights from 5 to 7 or 7:30 p.m. at a growing number of locales around the city. Mondays, they'll be at Wheeler Road (behind Gompers school) and a second crew at Winnequah Park in Monona; Tuesday it's Midvale at Midvale Elementary and also at Maple Bluff beach; Wednesday it's the far southwest side at Country Grove Park and the far east side at Sharpsburg Drive at North Star Drive, in Grandview Commons; and Thursday it's Circle Park off Atwood Avenue and in Middleton Hills at High Road and Century Avenue.
Last Friday on Dairy Drive, Slide, Taqueria Sabor Queretano, Porktropolis and a market stand from Ruegsegger Farms were lined up. Porktropolis, a trailer from the Sun Prairie barbecue restaurant of the same name, serves a hefty pulled pork, pork brisket or beef brisket sandwich (or a combo brisket); additional sandwiches with cheese and kraut atop; a side (creamy coleslaw, beans, or mac 'n' cheese), as well as a choice of six house-made barbecue sauces. The sweet "Scorched Aronia" sauce has actual aronia berries in it.
The forecast is for a great summer.