Cart Blanche: 15 food carts to hit up this summer

Expanding options mean more must-visit places
Cart Blanche: 15 food carts to hit up this summer
Photo by Kaia Calhoun

It’s summertime, that time of year when a Madisonian’s heart turns to the eternal question: Dude. What the heck am I having for lunch? Increasingly–and happily–the answer involves the words “food” and “cart.” In recent years, Madison’s food cart scene has expanded not just in terms of food options–think everything from international to Midwestern staples like sliders and tater tots–but also in terms of location and availability.

While downtown places like King Street, Capitol Square and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Library Mall will always be hotbeds of food-cart hubbub, it’s not unusual to find clever and appealing food carts in more off-the-wall locales. After scanning (and sampling) the encyclopedic list of Madison food cart options, we’ve picked out a mix of the new, the reliable and the delectable.

Braisin’ Hussies
The key question when you approach Michael Sollinger’s faux white-brick front is a simple one: taco or bowl? Either one is an ace delivery system for the slow cooking-style melange of offerings, beginning with braised pork belly in a miso glaze and ending with braised pork shoulder paired with a seared pineapple pico de gallo. The fact that the meats (Fox Heritage Farm) and veggies (R. E. Golden Produce) are local is an added bonus. Capitol Square, corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Mifflin StreetCart Blanche: 15 food carts to hit up this summer

Bulgogi Korean Tacos
Madison continues to discover and revel in the sweet spice of Korean barbecue–aka bulgogi–served here in easy-to-eat formats (tacos, quesadillas) in keeping with Mexican tradition. Here, the steak, tofu and chicken nestle with cucumber shavings, tomato, bean sprouts and cilantro. If you’re craving the flavor carnival of bibimbap, you can score it in a traditional mix (fried egg front and center, thank-you-very-much) or wrapped in a burrito. Either way, don’t forget the chili paste. Library Mall

Buzzy’s Lake House
You can be forgiven for feeling like you should have brought your fishing pole and flip-flops to Cynthia Heffling’s homey cart, decorated to look like everyone’s favorite weekend getaway. Luckily, you don’t need either to enjoy the Bobber Chicken, the jerk-spiced pile of chicken on brown rice or organic greens that tops the menu marquee here. Don’t overlook the daily specials, which so far have included Italian sausage and ham and cheddar sandwiches. Capitol Square, corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Mifflin Street

Common Pasta
The award for most ironically named cart goes to Common Pasta, because there’s nothing ordinary about the fare here. You have three pasta options for entrees, but that’s all you’ll need, as all three are outstanding offerings created by two chefs who’ve worked in some of Chicago’s top kitchens, including The Bristol and the three-Michelin-starred Grace. Served in generous portions, the kale pesto and ragu are satisfying, but nothing tops the mac ‘n’ cheese made with a combo of select cheeses. The cart is even uncommon, as it has a certain luxe feel with a butcher-block countertop and a steel sign donning Common Pasta’s beautiful bread-scored logo, which reminds us not to forget to order a loaf of sourdough to complete one of the most gourmet food cart meals you’ll probably ever have. 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

dZi Little Tibet
One of the few types of international cuisine previously unrepresented in Madison Food Cart Nation is now filled by dZi Little Tibet (the “dZi” refers to a valuable precious bead sacred to Tibetan culture). Traditional momo dumplings–made daily, about 3,000 served per week–filled with chicken, beef, tofu or vegetables are the obvious picks here, but there’s a lot more to whet your lunch appetite, including curries and, for the true eat-and-runner, chicken lollipops. Most of the herbs and produce are grown locally in Verona. Library Mall

El Burrito Loco
The stereotypical Styrofoam container is scarcely enough to contain the wonder that is the house special burrito at El Burrito Loco, a popular item at an uber-popular, uber-friendly cart. Your Monstro-sized flour tortilla is packed with beef or chicken–no cheap rice filler here–and then drizzled with a rainbow of enchilada sauce and sour cream. It’s big enough to carry you into next Tuesday, but you’ll want to come back tomorrow for another. Capitol Square, corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Main StreetCart Blanche: 15 food carts to hit up this summer

El Grito Taqueria
To be honest, when the founder of Latinos for Trump made that instant classic remark about taco trucks on every corner, this is what we envisioned: A cart like El Grito Taqueria, where an ever-evolving weekly menu (usually with one veggie and two meat options) pops up colorful tacos with everything from pork and pineapple to splashy squash and spicy chicken mole–with lots and lots of fresh cilantro, naturally. El Grito is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get, but you know it’s always going to be the best lunch you had this week. Top of West Washington Avenue

Hibachi Hut
No need to stress over whether you’d rather dive into a pile of Hibachi Hut’s teriyaki or hibachi-cooked meat — either option is going to end up satisfying. The grilled chicken and steak double as a tender sponge for the savory flavor of the sauce, leavened with cabbage, mushrooms and broccoli. We recommend splurging on some egg rolls to soak up some of it. Library Mall

Leia’s LunchBox
Screw the galaxy far, far away–jump your X-wings into hyperspace immediately and get over to Leia’s Lunchbox, where the proprietors know what die-hard Wisconsinites truly crave: huge, creative burgers, fried chicken sandwiches and fried cheese curds. Plus, the Lunchbox often sets up shop in the late-night hours Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, all the better to blow up those fourthmeal-style cravings like the Death Star. Corner of North Frances and State streets

The Looking Glass Bakery
Tacos and sliders will only take you so far–to create a perfect food cart experience, you’ve gotta track down some dessert, and that’s where The Looking Glass Bakery comes in. It’s home to an ever-changing array of melt-in-your-mouth cheesecake flavors as well as cookies and cupcakes, so there’s literally no chance you won’t find something to cap your lunch here. Looking Glass moves around more frequently than many food carts, so prepare for the hunt. Check website (, Twitter and Facebook for locations

Luang Prabang Thai Food
Pad Thai is one of the staples of the food cart bible, and this Lao-Thai cart serves up a reliable version of it. But it’s the affordable avocado spring rolls, packed to the gills with crunchy vegetables and leavened with tasty/spicy peanut sauce, that make stopping here a must. Library MallCart Blanche: 15 food carts to hit up this summer

It’s Napoleon Dynamite nirvana at this Americana food cart, where seasoned tater tots narrowly overshadow the Crock-Pot sandwiches on the menu in terms of sheer deliciousness. With 69 tot varieties and 67 different sandwiches, Pots-n-Tots has one of the largest food cart menus in Madison. Whether you’re craving Cajun style tots, taco tots or oh-so-upscale Parmesan-garlic tots, you’re going to find the perfect potato-ey complement to your pulled pork sandwich. And if you want to save the sandwich for later? We won’t tell a soul. Capitol Square, corner of North Pinckney and East Mifflin streets

Teriyaki Samurai
The Bushido warriors and the Great Wave off Kanagawa painted on the sides of this food cart give you some clue of what you’re in for when you stop at the Samurai–in this case, we’re talking delectable, popcorn-sized pieces of chicken and veggies (cucumbers, broccoli, peppers and more) drenched in a sweet teriyaki sauce. The meat’s char-grilled to perfection. Capitol Square

Ugly Apple
If you want to feel extra-good about the food you’re buying, swing by Laurel Burleson’s cart, where perfectly delicious local produce overstock becomes savory pancakes and frittatas. The Ugly Apple’s true calling card are the seasonal fritters, fried, dusted lightly in sugar and served warm. They’re enough to make any Madison morning memorable. Capitol Square at Martin Luther King Boulevard; University Research Park