Husband and wife team Mike Ding and Wendy Kuo are hospitality pros.
“They say it's in the blood,” said Ding. “I grew up kind of working in restaurants.”
It’s been eight years since Ding and Kuo opened Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar on Williamson Street. One food cart followed, then another. Then, in 2016, the team opened their Wisconsin tavern meets izakaya spot, Tavernakaya, on the Capitol Square.
It was only a matter of time until they parlayed its success into a namesake food cart (TK, for short) all its own. TK is Tavernakaya minus the tavern. Where the brick-and-mortar location at 27 E. Main St. places an emphasis on the pub with a full bar and menu items like tempura cheese curds and togarashi fries, the food cart focuses on bringing veggies, seasoned, salmon and tuna to hungry lunchtime crowds.
It’s a winning strategy: even before its vending season began, TK earned the highest raw score among judges in the first wave of 2018’s food cart review process. The “raw” score is about quality, while the second round factors in seniority points. Together they determine each cart’s vending location. Those fans of the cart were forced to wait until April 15 of this year, when the cart officially set up shop in coveted spots on Library Mall and the Capitol Square.
TK’s menu covers a lot of bases. There’s a vegan option (a $5 veggie roll that changes daily) and sushi rolls prepared daily at the Tavernakaya base kitchen, including familiar choices like a California roll ($6), with crab stick, avocado and cucumber nestled in nori and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Comforting bacon and egg fried rice ($8) stars Nueske’s bacon.
The crowd favorite, Ding said, is the poke bowl (tuna or salmon, $10; or spicy for $1 more). TK’s version of the Hawaiian dish mounds white rice or greens with a mix of edamame, cucumber, seaweed salad and, of course, seasoned and sesame-flecked fish. Ribbons of wasabi aioli and sweet eel sauce top each generous serving, which gets a crunch from a scattering of wonton strips. Easy to tote and convenient to eat, it’s the ultimate grab-and-go lunch — particularly as temperatures climb.
“People like it a lot, especially in the warmer months,” Ding said.
TK’s refreshing fare is well suited to Madison’s litany of summer events, including Concerts on the Square and the recent La Fȇte de Marquette. But the duo’s reach extends beyond the city’s borders with corporate events, weddings and graduation parties.
In May, Ding and Kuo opened an additional outpost of Tavernakaya in the Wisconsin Dells, at the Grateful Shed Truckyard alongside Melted and Pasqual’s Cantina. Ding described the destination as a biergarten meets food court in the style of Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg. Boasting an expanded menu and housed in a fixed structure, this newest venture operates more like a fully functioning restaurant than a food truck.
The Truckyard is the sixth property in Ding and Kuo’s charge. It’s safe to say they are busy. But the pair still makes time to step behind the window, serve customers and see their reactions.
“It gives us a bit of a connection to the customers, and it introduces people to some of our food,” Ding said. “Sometimes people will come to the restaurant because they tried something at the cart, so we find it's a lot of good cross-promotional opportunity.
“It's really that face to face with the customer. I find that really satisfying.”