Isthmus held it’s third ever food cart festival called “Isthmus a la Carts” on May 9, 2014 at Olin Park. It was a streeteaters paradise: almost all of Madison’s food carts in one spot during a pleasant but windy May afternoon. The event sold-out to 500 ticket holders and it’s easy to see why. Who would pass up the chance to sample dishes from Madison’s food carts all in one spot for $20? (Note: the 2013 fest experienced rain and this year was much nicer. Ticket prices in 2012 were $15)
Here were my favorite food cart items from Isthmus a la Carts in 2014:
Choices at Gili’s Paninis
1. Gili’s Paninis is a new cart this year and I was honored to be the first “customer” at their cart during the fest. The format is kinda like Subway: choose your bread, sauces, meats and cheeses and they’ll prepare you a custom sandwich. But here the ingredients are fresh and the choices are unique. I had pastrami and smoked turkey with red pepper mayo and pepper jack plus all the veggies. Later on at the fest Gili’s served sweet paninis made with Nutella. Warm, gooey Nutella.
Starting the fest off right with a whole panini from Gili’s
2. Sticking with the sandwich theme, I loved Slide‘s Mr. Sweet Potato Head slider. The curry sauce is a nice touch.
Slide’s Mr. Sweet Potato Head
3. Fried and Fabulous did not disappoint. I think they had the longest line at all times but it’s understandable considering they were serving deep fried Oreos, jalapeno poppers and popcorn chicken. The cart owner Steve even had his whole family pitching in to help keep the line moving. Thanks for the extra dipping sauces Steve’s dad!
Deep fried Oreo from Fried and Fabulous
4. Bubbles’ Doubles was a welcome addition to this year’s fest. It was great to see cart owner Bubbles-who is perhaps the friendliest food cart owner in all of Madison-and enjoy his spicy doubles (doubles are a common Trinidad and Tobago street food. And they’re delicious.) A run to one of the drink carts was necessary after this stop.
The fest was not without some disappointments. Some of the advertised vendors (Melted, Caracas Empanadas) never showed up at the fest. The gates opened at 4PM but only one or two carts were serving food at that time, cart owners clearly needed more time to set up the event and some were still pulling in after the fest opened. The lines were long but moving quick in most places.
What Isthmus said about a la Carts
Location: Library Mall
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never been to Buraka on State Street–I’m always nervous to try new places due to fear of the unknown…even though I’ll try just about anything once. Strangely enough though, I’m more apt to try new foods at a food cart. Maybe it’s because I’m not tied down to sitting in a restaurant, therefore making it ok if I don’t like my food? Maybe it’s because it’s less expensive than a restaurant so the risk ratio is lower? Who knows. Either way, I had my sights set on Buraka today to try something new.
The Buraka food cart
With 8 menu items to choose from, my stomach was overwhelmed. The line was a little long though, so I had extra time to decide. I noticed that immediately after an order is placed, you are served your food. This avoids the potentially awkward situation standing around in front of people who are trying to order their food while waiting for yours…I feel like this happens to me often at food carts.
Everything is available in either a half or full portion, and you even have the option to combine dishes if you can’t decide on just one, which I thought was great. Each item is served with your choice of either rice or injera, a homemade Ethiopian flat sourdough bread. I decided on the chicken peanut stew with the injera–it came with a small cold lentil salad on the side, too. I splurged on a lemonade for good measure. Everything together was $7.
I opened up my styrofoam box and was pleasantly surprised. The stew was basic: chicken and red potatoes in a brown peanut sauce. It was served on top of the injera–the injera itself is a strange thing. It wasn’t what I was expecting to receive…it was spongy and light and didn’t really resemble bread, but still had a nice flavor. The flatbread was a great pair with the stew because it absorbed the liquid along with flavor, so it was great to use to sop up the tasty extras at the end. There was a perfect ratio of chicken to potatoes, and each were cooked evenly. The peanut sauce was a little spicy (I am a weakling when it comes to spicy things, so it probably wasn’t that bad), but the cold lentil salad was perfect to counteract the spices and my runny nose. I ate every last bit of this dish and plan on hitting the real restaurant in the near future to sample their other yummy dishes! I would highly recommend this to anyone looking to try something new from a food cart!
Speed: 4/5 (the line was long, but actual food serving time was extremely quick!)
Overall: 4/5 plates