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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Overcast
The Daily


Capitol Square food carts lead the way in Madison's 2013 city ranking

Curt's Gourmet Popcorn tops the list with maximum seniority and zero deductions.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein
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The Madison food cart rankings for the 2013 season have been compiled, after a new, longer, two-week evaluation period that ran from Sept. 23 to Oct. 5. And there's a familiar name at the top of the list: Curt's Gourmet Popcorn that parks weekdays at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Doty Street, a block off the Capitol Square. Curt's was followed by a longstanding cart on the Square, El Burrito Loco, located at MLK and Main Street. That intersection is also the location of FIB's Fine Italian Beef and Sausage, which was atop the 2012 rankings and placed third this year. FIB's has also opened a second cart, FIB's 2, which came in at 23.

Each year, Madison street vending coordinator, Warren Hansen, marshals volunteer tasters to review the offerings at current carts and from any newcomers who aim for vending spots on the UW Library Mall and Capitol Square for the following season. The 20-25 tasters are charged with rating the carts on the food itself (40%, including flavor, overall menu, and presentation); the cart's "apparatus" (40%, i.e., how does the cart look -- Clean? Attractive? Well maintained?) and originality (20%, meant to reward someone branching out to new cuisines or items, and to avoid an over-concentration of any one type of food, for instance, hot dogs).

Seniority (years are capped at 7) is added in; demerits for health or vending code violations are subtracted; and voila, the final score. Rankings are used to help give out sites for the following year, avoiding the turf wars that some cities experience. If a cart scores below 70 overall, no vending permit is issued.

This year, 53 carts participated in the review, up from last year's 48.

Here are the top ten carts:

  1. Curt's Gourmet Popcorn
  2. El Burrito Loco
  3. FIB's
  4. SoHo Gourmet Cuisine
  5. Johnson Brothers Coffee
  6. Fried & Fabulous
  7. Melted
  8. Slide
  9. Zen Sushi
  10. Caracas Empanadas

Noteworthy for its inclusion in the top ten is Melted, a new cart that made it in without the benefit of any seniority points. Melted appeared at this past September's Taste of Madison and it bills itself as an "urban grilled cheese shop." Grilled cheese carts have been a popular type in street-food-crazy cities (think Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas) and even Milwaukee, but Melted will be Madison's first dedicated grilled cheese purveyor.

Some street-food-crazy reporters such as myself are fond of breaking down the city's evaluation rankings in various ways. Ranking on food only (throwing out apparatus, originality, demerits, etc.), the list looks like this:

  1. Madison Sourdough
  2. SoHo Gourmet
  3. Cafe Social
  4. Melted
  5. Caracas Empanadas
  6. El Burrito Loco
  7. Banzo 1
  8. Slide
  9. Bulgogi Korean Tacos
  10. Luamprabang

And the overall rankings (food, originality and appearance included, but without the seniority or demerit scores) results in this top ten:

  1. Melted
  2. Soho Gourmet
  3. Fried & Fabulous
  4. Slide
  5. Bulgogi Korean Tacos
  6. Curt's Gourmet Popcorn
  7. El Burrito Loco
  8. FIB's
  9. Caracas Empanadas
  10. La Empanada

New carts appearing in the review in addition to Melted were Bulgogi Korean Tacos, Bubbles Doubles, Curd Girl, Dandy's Frozen Treats, Gilli's Panini, Cafe Social (a coffee vendor that has been appearing Saturdays at the Hilldale Farmers' Market and Sundays at the Monona Farmers' Market), Saigon Sandwich, and Indian Princess House. Some of these could begin vending if there are spots that open up this fall; others will wait until the start of the 2014 season in April, when new assigned sites will take effect.

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