Food carts are a great way to taste the diverse flavors of Madison. With everything from Vietnamese bahn mi and Venezuelan empanadas to French crepes and Filipino lumpia, the world is at your fingertips. Let’s Eat Out, a local food cart coalition, takes the carts to the streets with the mission to support local mobile food vendors, and bring neighborhoods together while expanding access to local foods. Here are a few favorite food carts that serve a variety of ethnic dishes.
Filipino cuisine finally takes to the Madison streets. Masarap, which means “delicious” in the spoken Filipino language of Tagalog, is owned by Bryan Draves, with support from his wife, Melissa. Draves was born in the Philippines, though he’s called Madison home since he was seven.
Filipino food is inherently a fusion cuisine, having roots in Chinese, Spanish, Pacific Island and more recently American culinary traditions. Try Draves’s mom’s legendary lumpia recipe (aka Filipino egg rolls) or the caldereta, a filling stew made with a rich and smoky coconut-tomato base, potatoes, carrots, bell peppers, chickpeas and green olives, served with rice.
For Draves, supporting local extends beyond the food—the cart itself was built by Baraboo Woodworks, a company on Madison’s east side that creates handcrafted wood products using lumber sourced from area communities and small family forests. Check the cart’s Facebook page for its current location.
Peruvian cuisine is still new to many Madisonians, and a meal from Surco is a great introduction. Try the chicken adobo, chicken chunks simmered in piquant adobo sauce, served with crunchy slaw, and rice and lentils, or the chicken with chili, a not-too-spicy cream-based sauce with aji chili undertones, shredded chicken, potato pieces and a hard-boiled egg over rice.
Vegetarians can enjoy the tacu tacu, a traditional Peruvian dish that combines rice and beans into a cake, which is cooked to crispy perfection and topped with a savory sauce and fresh avocado slice. The self-serve hot sauces by the window are not to be missed. Find Surco on UW–Madison’s Library Mall.
Cart de Costa Rica
Though Café Costa Rica no longer offers sit-down service, its cart is in full swing.
Owner Thony Clarke, aka Mango Man, cooks up his famous Latin soul food dishes with that characteristic Caribbean flair. The savory chicken curry and roasted pork are favorites. Sweet fried plantains round out the meal and are heavenly paired with one of Clarke’s famous made-from-scratch hot sauces. You might prefer the island-style tilapia, a tender fillet of tilapia covered in Clarke’s signature Island sauce and served with white rice, beans and sweet fried plantain. Homemade empanadas are ideal for a grab-and-go snack; choose from meat or vegetarian options. Café Costa Rica sets up on Library Mall.
Jakarta Café owner Maggie Jingga is as sweet as ice cendol, a drink from her native Indonesia. On a hot summer day, this delicious beverage made from rice flour, milk, pandan leaf, tapioca pearls and palm sugar (the combo miraculously hints at butterscotch) may provide all the refreshment you need.
Hungry? Fill up on the sesame chicken, succulent bite-sized pieces of chicken in a sweet-savory sauce. The side of fried rice delivers a hint of heat from chiles and a just-right zing from roasted garlic slivers. Vegetarians and gluten-freegans will delight in the peanut lontong, pillowy rice cakes with thick peanut sauce and a refreshing lettuce and red bell pepper garnish. Save some room for the banana bread roll, warm pockets of soft dough filled with banana and vanilla cream cheese and a drizzle of chocolate. Find the cart on Library Mall.
South American Delights
A walk or bike ride around Capitol Square on a Saturday morning is sure to build an appetite. A warm empanada from Caracas Empanadas is just the thing to satisfy your hunger. Try the pabellon, a divine mix of slow-cooked and shredded beef, black beans and fried sweet plantain with a creamy cilantro sauce.
Other favorites include the shredded beef and cheese empanadas, sweet plantain and roasted garlic empanadas. Or if you prefer something sweet with a cup of coffee, enjoy the fruit and cream cheese-filled empanadas or the churros with a dulce de leche caramel sauce.
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