As a kid in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Luis Carmona grew up eating plantains, a tropical staple of the island’s cuisine.
Yet for some reason, he finds it hard to describe a savory plantain to someone who’s never had one and make it sound good.
“I say it’s like a chip with kind of a salty, nutty flavor,” Carmona said. “They’re like ‘Ah, that sounds disgusting.’ If they look at it, they’re like, ‘Oh, that looks like a banana. That also sounds disgusting.’ It’s definitely very hard.
“It’s easier to just give them a piece: Try it.”
Carmona is the young proprietor of El Wiscorican, a food cart in its second year vending on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s south campus.
Carmona came to Wisconsin a handful of years ago to play guitar in a band. He spent some time in culinary school “for a brief sprint” in Puerto Rico, but found he preferred being his own boss. In May 2017, he launched a food cart named both for the island he left and the state he adopted.
Five days a week from 11 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., El Wiscorican serves hearty sandwiches, slow-cooked meats and savory rice outside the doors of the Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences building at 1225 W. Dayton St., across the street from the Department of Computer Sciences.
“This is my first venture into the food world,” Carmona said. Puerto Ricans are “known for our fried food, plantains. Our rice is very unique; we use pigeon peas. Our pork is very, very flavorful too.”
El Wiscorican’s top seller is pernil, pork shoulder rubbed with garlic, oregano, salt and pepper and cooked slowly until it falls apart under a fork. It’s one of two options for the “plato del día” (plate of the day, $9), a hearty meal best filled out by seasoned rice and sweet or savory plantains.
For the second option, garlic chicken, Carmona tosses dark meat chunks of chopped-up thighs with a mild cilantro-based pepper and herb sauce. A slightly more spicy version of the sauce owes its kick to habaneros, with some pineapple to balance.
Carmona smashes savory plantains to about a quarter inch thick, then fries them to a golden yellow and sprinkles them with salt. The result is pure starchy satisfaction. Sweet plantains ($3.50 as a side) melt like banana custard.
Annatto (also known as achiote) tints the seasoned rice orange. It’s studded with salty green olives, starchy little pigeon peas and inch-long sections of bacon.
Carmona makes his own bread for El Wiscorican’s take on a tripleta ($9), a three-meat sandwich of beef, pork and chicken. The bun, called pan sobao, is soft and lightly sweet. That triple-meat filling is, of course, substantial, along with Colby cheese and “mayoketchup.” Potato sticks on the bottom offer a crunchy contrast.
The secret to the sandwich is an herb sauce, similar to a chimichurri or a salsa verde, made with cilantro and a couple kinds of vinegar, “to pickle it out.”
“It helps cut” the fattiness of the sandwich, according to Carmona. “Our food is pretty heavy.”
Carmona picks up plantains at local Asian markets and dried spices at Woodman’s. Starting with the bread at 4:30 a.m., he preps each day at FEED Kitchens on Madison’s north side. He found help and mentorship in the proprietors of Metropolitain Handcrafted Street Food (Parisian-style po’boys), Buzzy’s Lake House (lighter lake fare) and Braisin’ Hussies (international, slow-cooked bowls and tacos).
Carmona bought his food cart on Craiglist from a seller in Milwaukee. He found out later that it’s two feet too long to be eligible for a spot on the Capitol Square or the UW-Madison Library Mall.
So Carmona joined Let’s Eat Out, a collective of food carts, and looks for opportunities to vend at events like the Madison Night Market (the final night market is set for Thursday, 6-11 p.m., where State and Gilman streets meet).
El Wiscorican has cultivated regulars on campus, too. Some folks come out multiple times a week for (unlisted) daily specials.
“The faculty has been great to us,” Carmona said. “One professor brought 12 of their students and paid for everyone. They’re thankful a cart stayed here, because normally this is a transition spot.”
On Tuesdays, El Wiscorican usually makes its variation on mofongos, fried, smashed plantains with garlic that Carmona adapted for the food cart. Wednesdays they do a “beer rice” with bacon and marinated skirt steak. Other days bring jibaritos — sandwiches with plantains instead of bread — and pastelón, a layered plantain casserole Carmona compared roughly to lasagna.
He doesn’t mind making comparisons like that, he said, to introduce people to the food.
“We get a lot of, ‘Hey, do you have tacos? Do you have burritos?’” Carmona said. “Puerto Rican food in general, unless you’re someone who has gone to Puerto Rico or have friends who are Puerto Rican ... people don’t know what it is. And it’s hard to explain, like if I just say ‘we have pork and rice.’
“The most similar to us would be Cuban food. Dominican food is similar to ours too ... our food is very Spanish and African influenced.”
Like many food cart owners, Carmona would like to have a restaurant someday. He thinks there’s a market for El Wiscorican’s food, but he’d need to learn more about scheduling, teaching staff, all of the non-food things that go into running a brick and mortar business.
For now, Carmona has been happy to see regulars return. The Puerto Rican community turned out when Carmona’s cart started vending last year, and the line of people caught the attention of scientists and students on campus.
“When we first started we would have lines of a bunch of Puerto Ricans, and then people around here were like, ‘There must be a line for some reason!’” Carmona said. “We tapped into the market quicker than we thought.
“Thankfully I’ve been able to manage,” he added. “There’s people coming out even in the rain.”