Delicious food has been available from mobile eateries for a while now in Michigan, and Detroit has long had its share of taco trucks. But ask anyone who’s had a little dumpling filled with fresh octopus or a bowl of impossibly good vegan stew from a cart no larger than a large hatchback automobile: There’s more to the current nationwide food cart trend than well-prepared Mexican snacks.
Japanese. Spanish. Vegan. Pork. Korean. Burgers. Brisket. Fish and chips. Every cuisine has a cart somewhere in the U.S. — a little restaurant with no building, low overhead, and plenty of hungry customers. All of this is true of Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor, which opened earlier this month.
Standalone carts have been common elsewhere for a long time, and the concept of a place that serves cheap, crave-worthy food curbside is an inspiringly simple brand of genius.
But why stop there? Portland has been bragging about its diverse, courtyard-style approach for a few years now. I’ve seen the concept at work in Austin, and now it’s in Ann Arbor, satiating that quintessential American desire for choice.
Each of the carts has its own focus, and there are over a half dozen options. I would have written about Mark’s at opening, but given the variety, there’s simply too much food to sample for a single visit.
Among my first selections was a “headcheese hoagie” from the Humble Hogs cart. The proprietor is Keith Ewing, recently back in Ann Arbor from Houston. As I discovered in a brief conversation with him, he’s obsessed with pigs – history, farming, culinary uses, and everything in between. His passion is evident in his use of pasture raised animals and in the sheer deliciousness of the rich heritage pork in the hoagie, which is less a sandwich than a pile of moist, loose headcheese on a single piece of Zingerman’s Pullman Toast and slathered in onions and peppers. It’s an expensive plate for $6, but it’s delicious, the pigs are sourced well, and speaking from experience, it’s much more filling than it appears at first glance.
Taking a notably less carnivorous approach is The Lunch Room, a larger, well-organized vegan operation. Where Humble Hogs’ staff stands next to a pushcart barely larger than a beer cooler, the Lunch Room duo is tucked inside a small wooden hut that happens to have wheels, nicely outfitted and smartly covered in interchangeable menus, literature, and ads for branded goods like shirts and buttons.
On one trip, I ate the BBQ tofu sandwich, served on a whole grain bun, which was tasty but not as delectable as it looked. I found myself thinking, “This tastes pretty good for something so healthy” rather than “This tastes so damn good I’d beat that old man next to me to get the last one.” Still, I’m not a vegan, and I’d certainly eat that sandwich again, perhaps even aspiring to that level of quality in my own experiments with vegan cooking. Their slaw is also quite tasty, priced as a combo with the tofu at $5. And one can add a very well-made (and never cloying) cookie for only a dollar or a smoothie for only a few. Suck on that, McDonald’s Value Menu.
Immediately next to The Lunch Room is one of the newest additions to Mark’s Carts, an Asian-themed eatery called San Street tied to the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. If you’re not familiar, Zingerman’s empowers its staff with viable, interesting business ideas to leverage the Zingerman’s name and to work with them to create these new companies based on their passions. In this case, said passion is Asian street food.
Their weekly offerings will change, according to the proprietors, but the other week, they were serving up pork buns, a la David Chang. The pork belly is tender but crispy on the outside, and it’s wrapped inside a nicely prepared steamed bun with sweet-and-sour pickles, some sort of relish, and optional siracha. Each sells for $4, so as with Humble Hogs, patrons are paying for the quality (and, let’s be honest, the omnipresent Ann Arbor mark-up), but I’ll certainly be back to try their other buns.
Interestingly, both San Street and The Lunch Room conduct all their business from iPads, using a small attachment to the top of the device to run credit cards and process all their transactions. While cash is handy (and, I would imagine, appreciated), it’s hardly necessary.
Visitors may also head to the far back to stand in some of the longer lines (thus far, at least) to eat from Darcy’s Cart, which seems to be doing a fair amount of business with its traditional cart fare: meat and kimchi tacos. But they also sell a breakfast burrito and a host of other options, each using local ingredients.
In fact, many of the carts, including Darcy’s, publish a list of their local food sources. Among some of the names one might see on any given day are Zingerman’s, Calder’s, Black Oak Farms, and The Brinery.
Another outfit with a similar approach is Debajo del Sol, for which the flagship menu item is paella. They describe their menu as tapas, and that’s somewhat accurate in terms of the small plates and heavy Spanish influence, though I don’t think anyone would mistake their smoky chorizo corn dogs for traditional tapas. Hand-ground and hand-seasoned, the chorizo is definitely a treat, and the corn dog batter is exceptionally rich. One crunchy, fluffy bite will leave your lips coated in grease.
The other cart at which I’ve had a chance to sample is Eat, which has been a staple of the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market in Kerrytown for some time. They’ve recently been preparing their classic pork and beef sandwiches, the latter of which is covered in Brinery kimchi, though the lamb “Sloppy Joe” with aggressive spicing – I want to say North African flavors – was a new treat to me.
The Mark’s Carts model isn’t without its flaws – namely higher prices than similar ventures I’ve seen in New York or Austin and a cramped space without much shade from Michigan summer heat, let alone the snowy eventuality of winter.
Shutting down for the colder months aside, the other problems are hardly insurmountable: Quality and sourcing of the food is justification enough for the extra cost. Why not pay $9 for three small, healthy, interesting items instead of paying $7 for a plate of frozen french fries and a mediocre Reuben? And the mediocre environs are only a problem when it’s exceptionally crowded or hot, and neither people nor the summer sun makes pork belly taste bad.
On the whole, it’s definitely a success. And as much as I think many people would have predicted a positive outcome, it’s actually a bit surprising considering the regional history with food carts.
As cited in a recent NPR story about food trucks and carts across the Midwest, Mark’s Carts is one of the few success stories near the Great Lakes. (Of course, not mentioned in the story is the fact that Mark’s also hosts a commercial kitchen next door for food prep, presumably to overcome the requirements of local laws.) Chicago has a twenty-year-old law that forbids the production of food on trucks. Even hot dog stands are subject to the rule. And Detroiters are certainly familiar with the battles fought by mobile and community eateries like Pink FlaminGO and Neighborhood Noodle in order to get their operations running within the confines of the city’s regulations.
Still, this was inevitable in Michigan. Like sushi a couple decades ago or natural wine over the last five years or craft cocktails this year, it’s one of those fashionable concepts that apparently takes a while to permeate our heartland sensibilities.
Indeed, trends tend to reach the Midwest pretty late. Overlaid on a map, any food trend might look a bit like an epidemic sweeping down the well-travelled, heavily populated coasts before converging inward, like a big national race to Dubuque.
Some people think these food fashions die out over time, but that’s never really true. The hype is what dies while the food lingers in our local cultures in its own way. The best trends – sushi, craft beer, good coffee, cocktail bars – all continue past the initial shock and awe inherent to their newness.
So it will be with high end food carts – at least if the early success of Mark’s Carts is any indication.