To a girl that grew up on a dirt road called Rustic lane, street food has always been foreign fodder contained in the pages of timelessly trashy teen novels about LA and movies my mom probably didn't want me to watch. For all practical purposes, street food was something that dragons and the tooth fairy ate while they were kickin' it in alternate-universe Mexico.
Even if you feel a bit less hyperbolic about food sold out of carts, I'd wager a guess that the phrase conjures images of tacos dripping grease and bursting hotdogs on wonderbread buns.
Well, I'm here to tell you that such veiws are becoming, well, wrong. The September 2009 issue of Bon Appetit declares "the art of the street cart" a "delicious dining revolution."
After my Friday afternoon encounter in Madison, I'm inclined to agree. Who knew?
We stumbled upon this diag-esque strip of brick at the end of State Street, tucked between an odd shaped Catholic Church and the University Library. Lining it were eight or ten street food carts, offering everything from smoothies to Indonesian fare. With four hungry adults to feed, we shopped around and then gathered back on the lawn of library square to share our findings.
Jason's choice was Hibachi steak. While they clearly win the award for best-dressed mini trailer, it wasn't all looks-- that hibachi steak was pretty good too, salty and tender, with a spicy sweet tang from the barbecue style sauce that topped it.
From the Indonesian cart, Kakilima, we chose a dish that was fried chicken and potatoes, served with a tangy sauce. The seasoning reminded us of the massaman chicken curry at Tuptim. It was served with a salad of pickled carrots and cucumbers-- the crunch and tang contrasted the softness of the rest of the dish nicely.
South of the border style food may seem like an unadventurous cop-out of a choice for street food-- unless your my dad, the quesadilla master. He can do things with beans and a tortilla that Napoleon Dynamite can't even imagine. The chicken quesadilla from Sabores Latinos cart didn't contain beans, but was otherwise a fine specimen of the trade, if a little messy.
Over all, we had a pretty stellar dining experience-- great variety, great flavor, and great price (about $5 a dish). According to 77 Square, "the definitive" Madison entertainment guide this is not quite concidence as "getting a spot, a good one, on the Mall requires enduring a process regulated by the city. Each September, a group of 20 judges reviews each cart and assigns a point rating based on physical aspects, food menus and variety." And while I'm sure we've all got a thing or two to say about government, this seems to be one thing Madison got absolutely right.