A barbecue sandwich is possibly the perfect food-cart dish. The filling, slow-cooked meat, is an ingredient that loses nothing from being cooked off-site, and it’s a dish that benefits from the attention of a specialist. The Blowin’ Smoke cart on the Capitol Square is a perfect place for a grab-and-go lunch downtown: for a mere $7, you can get a lunch that took 14 hours to cook but only a moment to throw together.
If you analogize food carts to birds returning from their Southern winter habitats, Blowin’ Smoke was the first robin of spring this year, setting up shop in front of the Tenney Building while there was still plenty of snow in the forecast. It’s there every weekday.
The proprietor, Robert Bishop, says he’s usually there at about 8 a.m., but that only cold sandwiches are available that early, and he sticks around until about 2 p.m. The menu is carved on a piece of wood and looks like it was made to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. The selection features a variety of sandwiches and sides along with a rotation of daily specials.
Smoked meat is the specialty of the house at Blowin’ Smoke. For $5.50 a la carte, you can have your choice of beef, pork, ham, chicken or turkey, all slow-cooked ahead of time to fork-tenderness and available with either “original” or “hot” barbecue sauce.
Sides are potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans, a six-bean salad, or broccoli salad with raisins. Drinks are billed on the menu as cans of chilled Pepsi products, but on my visit, Coke was also available — a rare and laudable setup for the soda-drinker with particular tastes. Seven dollars gets you a sandwich, one side and a drink.
The sandwiches themselves are wrapped in deceivingly tidy paper bundles, skewered with a toothpick and a wee pickle. I’ve had both the smoked pork and the pastrami, both of which were stuffed so full of tender meat that I wondered afterward how it had all fit into that small package.
The pork was especially overstuffed, with just enough spicy sauce (the hot option is pretty tame) to add a bit more moisture, but not too much to overwhelm the flavor of the pork, which is showcased by the slow manner of its preparation. If you’re accustomed to eating flavorless supermarket vacuum-packed pork, Blowin’ Smoke’s sandwich will be nothing short of a revelation.
While the smoked-meat sandwich provides, essentially, a hand-held medium for enjoying shredded pork, the pastrami is more of a cohesive sandwich. Its flavors blend together into a salty/sweet combination that’s more than the sum of its parts. Thickly layered meat bulges out from between two slices of marble rye, layered with Swiss cheese and a generous stratum of sweet pickle. Spicy brown mustard is theoretically optional, but gustatorily indispensable.
My dining companion went for the six-bean salad, which was dressed with a light and tangy mayo-based sauce. I had to test the baked beans, which are now among my favorites in Madison. The beans are firm, not canned-mushy, and have a wonderful kick provided mostly by that underrated spice, plain old black pepper. On a future visit, I might have to order an additional portion. Blowin’ Smoke’s sides are reasonably sized, but the beans are so flavorful that it’s disappointing to reach the bottom of the container.