Food Cart culture… has it reached critical mass in Ann Arbor?

    img_20110511_125430After a lot of little fits and starts, it looks as though, with the opening of Mark’s Carts, food cart culture is finally beginning to take hold in Ann Arbor. We may still be a decade or so behind the scene in Portland, but it feels good to actually be in the race. Here’s wishing all the fledgling food entrepreneurs the best of luck… I hope to make it out soon myself. In the meantime, however, I’ve got a firsthand report to share from my friend Arun, who has visited the food carts (211 W. Washington, Ann Arbor) the last two afternoons. Here it is:

    “I’ve been by the food court two days running. Today we had some awesome tacos ($2) – perhaps the micro greens were a bit precious, but the use of Clancy’s Fancy brought it back to Earth. The baked beans ($4) were strangely subdued – missing the typical amounts of sugar and molasses – but turned out to be appropriate since the accompanying braised pork belly ($6) was like candy. Yesterday, I had the set of three sliders. The first was a sloppy Yousef, aka Moroccan-style ground lamb with yogurt sauce, the second a Korean BBQ with kimchi, and finally a pork loin with a country mustard gremolata. I thought they were all great – very individual and distinct – but they worked together and were notably well balanced with each other in terms of flavor intensity. A locally-sourced, meat-heavy lunch for $10 for all three. Next time I would order one and something with more vegetables. It’s a fun, if self-satisfied, very A2, experience.”

    img_20110511_125401I don’t know who Arun’s taco vendor was, but I’m certain that he got the sliders from the folks at EAT, and, for what it’s worth, I agree with his assessment. I sampled their stuff at an event at Pot and Box in October, and it was great.

    From what I hear, a few spaces may still be open, so, if you’ve always wanted to open a restaurant, but haven’t had the capital necessary, now might be your chance. The cost to participate is $7,500 for the season, which runs March through November, and includes access to a commercial kitchen. (The way it breaks down is $833.34 per month for the months March, April and May, $1666.68 for the months of June, July and August, and $0.00 per month for the months of September, October and November.) Copies of the contract can be found by following the Mark’s Carts link above.

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      26 Comments

      1. Andy Cameron
        Posted May 11, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

        Kerri and I ate there today and had a nice time. She got a bbq tofu sandwich and I got 3 tacos (2 pork, 1 bean). The taco line was long and slow (esp slow), so Kerri finished hers before I got mine. But that’s how things work in the beginning.

        They will need to create some shade in the coming months tho. It got warm in there today and the heat seems to get trapped. In July and August it will pretty bad without artificial shade.

      2. Posted May 12, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

        I really liked The Lunch Room’s tangy Thai slaw.

      3. Bob
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

        Everything that is wrong with this latest yuppie/foodie fad is contained in the term “bbq tofu sandwich.” Come over for a six dollar, designer cupcake and I will tell you all about it. Bring me the head of Bobby Flay.

      4. LaidOffTeacherPatti
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        The idea of street food/food carts appeals to me for reasons I don’t know that I can articulate. I was scared that A2 would screw it up (i.e. $6 cupcakes) but the prices look reasonable from what I have been reading so far.

        But yeah Bob, I’m not a tofu person either!! :)

      5. Andy Cameron
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        That’s fine Bob, more for us. And how is bbq tofu some invention of yuppie/foodie culture? I’m no vegetarian, but most of the ones I know like to eat more than carrots and lettuce.

        I’m with you on the cupcake thing tho, and I have no objection to flaying Bobby.

      6. LaidOffTeacherPatti
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        I’m in for flaying Bobby too! Let’s cram some $6 cupcakes up his ass while we’re at it.

      7. Bob
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        I kid, I have nothing against the occasional tofu or being a vegetarian. I’m a reformed vegetarian myself. Even when I was one, I hated the idea of faux meat. Facon and notdogs are terrible and just made me miss the actual thing. I was fine just sticking with veggies and pasta. Tofu BBQ in particular is sort of ridiculous. BBQ IS meat.

      8. Kerri
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Some of us who are vegetarian like a little protein in our lives. It’s pretty hard to survive on pasta and veggies alone. For all of you vegetarians out there, The Lunch Box’s tofu bbq sandwich is great. Nice texture. The sauce is not very spicy, but they have a bottle of sriracha (another reason to love them) at the cart. The aforementioned slaw is excellent.

        If The Lunch Box weren’t at the carts, there wouldn’t be much for vegetarians over there. Not too many other options so far.

      9. Andy Cameron
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        I have a dream to one day operate a chain of Andy’s Headless Chicken establishments. There will be no fake meat, but neither could it be said that the chicken ever existed.

        And I’m not kidding. But it’s probably going to take a couple more decades before we can grow meat cost effectively.

      10. Brainless
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        Went there earlier in the week.

        The good:

        - Had the trio of sliders and a bag of homemade chips. Incredibly tasty.
        - Lots of variety – and they’re not even full yet.
        - They did a very nice job fixing up the courtyard.

        The bad:

        - The whole thing just seems like yet another nudge upscale (up-price, really) for downtown AA food. The food is NOT cheap. You can go over $10 in a heartbeat and hit $15 easily. That’s too much for daily lunch. Thus, this just becomes a special place for once in a while, which I’m guessing is not their vision. (Hell, the kids meal at the vegetarian place was five bucks. You can get a falafel that will feed a large adult from Jerusalem Garden for the same price. The BEST falafel in the universe, bar none.)

        - The lines are way too slow. If/when this thing fills up with 10 carts, they won’t really be able to fit everybody in. And do you want to wait 20 minutes for a couple expensive tacos?

        - Did it not occur to anyone how much trash would be generated in a lunch hour? Three small trash barrels piled high and spilling onto the ground. It will be a yell0w jacket’s paradise if they don’t fix that.

        - There’s not enough seating. Just a few benches inside the courtyard. There’s a long, low wood retaining wall across the street along the surface lot. I image most folks will end up sitting over there.

        Overall:

        My vision of “cart food” was shaped by hot dog and bagel carts and such in NYC. Two minutes and couple bucks and you’re good to go. While there is certainly a market for this food court (I sincerely think this is going to be successful based on the crowds), it just seems kinda weird in a town with so many other inexpensive lunch choices.

        I would recommend everybody go and check it out one time. You won’t regret trying it. I’d be interested if anybody makes this a regular place, how much they spend and how much time it takes come mid-summer.

      11. Kerri
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        I second everything Brainless said above.

      12. Andy Cameron
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        I’m sure there will be adjustments re things like trash, seating, and hopefully shade as time goes on. And If there isn’t a large enough market for cart food at these prices you’ll likely see some simpler options at lower prices in the future.

        I also don’t think they have access to the kitchen yet, so that might be slowing some of them down.

      13. Mr. X
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        Don’t worry. There won’t be any problem with bees. It’s not like they’re next door to a garden supply store selling flowering plants.

      14. LaidOffTeacherPatti
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        Okay, I went there at about 2:30 today (I took today off). I had a really good warm spinach salad (hold the goat cheese–I do not like goat cheese) and it was $6. I also got some warmed bread with it because I really wanted tacos and they were out and they felt sorry for me. I’d say it was worth $6 because it had some yummy ‘shrooms on top and tons of balsamic vinegar which I know is expensive.

        But yeah, I’m with Brainless–no way could I afford $10-$15 every day for lunch every day!

      15. Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        Maybe I’m not cool enough to understand, but hasn’t Ann Arbor had food carts at least since the ’90s, when I was buying hot dogs from them? Granted, more options sound good, though I do share Brainless’ concern that I expect to spend less than $5 when I walk up to a cart for lunch.

        I suppose I should check this out–I just don’t often have reasons to go to Ann Arbor anymore.

      16. Andy Cameron
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        Murph, I think a lot of the attraction is that they’re clustered, so you can go with groups of friends who may want different things, or you can get sides, etc from different carts. A lot more options than one guy with dogs and brats, or a different guy a half mile away whose menu significantly overlaps the first guy.

      17. Andy Cameron
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        And $5 sounds nice, but the options so far look to be oriented more around locally sourced high quality food (which I know will drive some to decry it as terrible yuppie whatever), so they aren’t going to make any money charging $5. So far there aren’t any cheap deep fried meals, but I suspect that may change.

        I’m not an activist for yuppie/foodie crap by any means, but I don’t mind paying a little more for good food. I think this is an option with some promise.

      18. tight wad
        Posted May 12, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

        Food carts have much lower overhead and operating costs than the built in establishments they’re competing with. Even with quality local foods, I’d expect more moderate pricing from a cart. If I’m paying $15 for lunch, I expect it to come with a couple martinis and a side order of air conditioning.

      19. Andy Cameron
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        I paid $7 for my three tacos and a diet coke.

      20. Edward
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        Did you dip the tacos in the diet coke?

      21. Andy Cameron
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        The hot salsa at Darcy’s is legit.

      22. Brainless
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        I agree that one could easily go below $10 at the cart court. I have only gone once and had sliders and chips for $12. Others are posting lower prices for some choices. Please keep them coming so we can comparison shop from the comfort of Mark’s living room.

      23. LaidOffTeacherPatti
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        Okay, I had an unexpected day off today (long story–I wasn’t suspended or anything but I was supposed to be at camp and…it’s a long story) so I biked up to Mark’s Carts again. I went to the first one on the left (delgado…something). I got the potato dish which was only $4. It was good, but at the end of the day it was a sliced potato, deep fried with some sauce. The sauce was delicious and like I said, it was tasty. I wish I had gotten the $5 chicken and mushroom dish which was served over rice. Looked much better. They also had chorizo corn dogs that looked good, but I don’t eat pork.

        I looked at the Lunch Room cart and they had something that looked kind of cute…a kid’s meal of a sandwich, carrots, apple and chips (I think it was)…$5…not unreasonable, I guess. I also looked at Eat’s cart. They only had some tofu thing for $8 and I do not abide tofu. The hot dog cart had hog’s head (I think) something for $6…if it was like a whole hog’s head I guess that’s pretty awesome!

      24. Bob
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

        Without tasting any of it yet, I’m going to argue that it all pales compared to Le Dog.

      25. LaidOffTeacherPatti
        Posted May 13, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

        I’m a fan of Pop’s Hotdogs…and yeah, Le Dog is awesome. So is Ray’s Red Hots. Now I’m hungry.

      26. Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

        Without tasting any of it, I’m going to agree with Bob about Le Dog, and raise him one: nothing there will be as good as Pilar’s Tamale Cart.

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