On a sunny spring day on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library Mall, an adventurous eater can sample bayou jambalaya, Peruvian cilantro rice, Thai spring rolls, Indonesian nasi goreng and crunchy balls of falafel, all without traveling more than a city block.
For a city of a few hundred thousand where food trucks are deemed too big for downtown corners, Madison’s street food scene is astonishingly varied and well-produced.
If no one drops out before the official April 15 start date, this year will see 42 food vendors in carts and tents, mostly on the Capitol Square and the UW-Madison Library Mall. Newcomers like Mad City Fry Guy and LuangPrabang join favorites like Ingrid’s Lunchbox, the vegetarian Dandelion cart and El Burrito Loco.
As interest in street food continues to rise, Madison has become a model for other cities.
Warren Hansen, who licenses and manages street vending in the city, has presented twice at the San Francisco Street Food Festival. About a year ago, he visited Asheville, N.C., to help that city form its own street food policies.
“Everybody admires it,” Hansen said of Madison’s street food. “We’re sort of a unicorn. We don’t have school busses selling food.”
THE CART OF CUISINE
As Twitter makes it easier to follow a favorite food truck, cities have struggled to address the concerns of brick-and-mortar restaurants that see food trucks as unfair competition.
“Proprietors of fixed-location food service establishments worry that every lobster roll that’s handed over from a truck is $18 lost from their own kitchen,” he wrote. “Municipal authorities need to learn to welcome the explosion of innovation happening around them and stop trying to choke it off.”
Since the 1980s, Madison officials have made strong choices about street food, from the look and size of food carts to where they park and when they can move into and out of place. The carts are closely regulated by Hansen, the city-county health department and a volunteer team of tasters that reviews the food every fall.
This seems to be working, given the varied, colorful collection of carts that draw diners downtown whenever the weather is good.
“What I thought was unique about Madison was the city’s engagement as a kind of curator of street food,” said Southern food writer John T. Edge.
Edge’s “Food Truck Cookbook: 150 Recipes and Ramblings From America’s Best Restaurants on Wheels” is set to be released by Workman Publishing in early May. It includes a chapter on Madison and recipes from Jamerica, Dandelion, Buraka and LMN O’Pies.
“At a time when a lot of cities are struggling with how to either encourage street food or limit it — a lot of them are doing a little bit of both — I thought Madison’s approach, shepherded by Warren Hansen, was forward-thinking,” Edge said.
“This idea of curating an idealized world market of food on the university mall is pretty boss.”
The number of food carts has risen from a few dozen to more than 40 since Hansen started with the city in 1998. The carts are, by ordinance, very small. With a limit of 56 square feet (8-by-7 or 6-by-9), most can fit just a few people inside.
But it is unlikely Hansen will approve more carts for weekday Capitol vending.
“We are truly at capacity. We couldn’t jam another one downtown if we wanted to,” Hansen said. Carts that are “on the bubble” for Library Mall and Capitol spots currently vend near Union South. One cart is on a waiting list.
Meanwhile, Mayor Paul Soglin wants to expand the purview of the carts from Farmers’ Market Saturdays and weekday lunches.
Inspired by Off the Grid, a food cart-focused event in the San Francisco Bay Area, the city is planning a recurring event that would bring food trucks to underserved neighborhoods where “fast food” often means a burger and fries from McDonald’s.
“Strong neighborhoods have access to fresh produce, restaurants where you can sit down and order a meal that’s freshly prepared,” Soglin said. “If you look at weaker neighborhoods, fresh produce is difficult to come by and the types of restaurants are marginal.”
Soglin hopes to get the event started in late spring or early summer.
“It places demand on the food cart vendors,” he said. “They’re up early preparing food; they’ve already got a pretty full day. Adding an evening is not going to be easy.
“I’m hoping we can encourage (food carts) to take a chance and come out on some regularly scheduled evening. We want to make it work.”
Though Madison food carts don’t move like the trucks in larger cities, the most recent members of the food cart fleet understand the power of social media for building a line at their window.
Melanie Nelson is the owner of Good Food, a rustic wooden cart with a focus on “seasonal, creative” cuisine like “strawberry love” salads and vegan tortilla soup. She tweets daily specials and offers special treats to her 600-plus Facebook fans.
“Facebook is really awesome for small businesses,” Nelson said. “I had over 100 ‘likes’ before I even opened.”
That engagement pays off. On a recent windy weekday, Nelson’s crew forgot to put the specials sign outside the cart, which is parked at 33 E. Main St.
The butternut squash soup nearly sold out anyway.
“People came up and ordered it by name, even though we didn’t have the menu out,” Nelson said. “So thank you, Facebook, for selling my soup.”
Banzo, a new Israeli falafel cart owned by Netalee Lev Sheinman and her fiance, Aaron Collins, uses Facebook to advertise specials like cauliflower soup drizzled with truffle oil, baba ghanoush and its new delivery service.
“It’s amazing how many different cultures of food there are here,” Sheinman said. “I lived in New York and I still couldn’t find a restaurant that I liked as much as Chautara.
“And the carts — there’s Surco the Peruvian one, Jamerica. Café Costa Rica just did a cart. The Thai cart (LuangPrabang) has amazing food. And it’s so affordable here. And authentic!”
Banzo, which vends on the Library Mall, hopes to open a small, casual cafe on the north side at 2105 Sherman Ave. in the next few months. Sheinman said the food cart itself is “the best marketing you can do” before opening a restaurant, to introduce people to the food.
Their plan points to a well-established fluidity between stationary restaurants and food carts. Buraka, an African restaurant on lower State Street, started as a food cart and now maintains both. Jamerica and Electric Earth Cafe operate both carts and restaurants; Lao Laan-Xang plans to run a new food cart starting this spring.
ON A ROLL
What makes barbecue from the Blowin’ Smoke BBQ truck cart more appealing than a sandwich served inside? Edge tried to describe it in his new cookbook.
“Back in the 1980s, people booked tables in the back of a restaurant — the chef’s table,” Edge said. “You’d sit there, and the grand chef in his white toque would deign to hand you little morsels of this or that.
“People get that intimacy with street food. You look somebody in the eye, they cook your food and hand it to you.”
FIB’s Fine Italian Beef and Sausage takes that message one step further. As customers order an Al Capone (a massive sandwich of Italian sausage, roast beef and peppers), the sounds of “25 or 6 to 4” thump from the cart, which is lined inside with Chicago album covers.
“It’s more than a cart to me, it’s an experience,” said FIB’s owner John Handley.
On a recent afternoon, Handley was sporting a Bears sweatshirt and offering the “Rod Blagojevich special”: bread (soaked in gravy) and a bottle of water. The most popular sandwich is Italian beef, called the John Belushi.
For Handley, the food cart was just the beginning, leading to a brick-and-mortar branch in McFarland and, hopefully, another food cart run by his wife.
But for Maggie Richter, proprietor of El Burrito Loco, 11 years of success means she’ll probably stay where she is, smiling from the window of a cart on the Capitol Square.
“Every year, we add a little bit on our menu,” she said. “We are successful because our customers love the food. They are still loving the food.”