Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a two-part series, with the second running in the August issue
Mark’s Carts, the long-awaited food cart lot around the corner from Downtown Home & Garden, is now open. There’s been a lot of coverage of the process, of the growing food cart trend in cities across the US finally coming to Ann Arbor, and of how it ties in with the local food trend.
If you’ve missed this, what Mark Hodesh has done is to install a paved lot and rent spaces out to independent food cart operators (in other words, the name is kind of ironic because the carts are the only thing that isn’t Mark’s). There’s a fenced concrete lot, with ample parking for carts, plus power and water. There’s also a commercial kitchen nearby for prep, but visitors don’t see that. The site is very much a work in progress. Seating was a big problem initially, but it’s improved a lot as they’ve added more places to sit (including actual tables) and more tarps for shade. There’s also an adjacent construction site, which when completed will include a greenhouse and still more seating.
Process-wise, it’s simple. You pick a cart, walk up to it, and stand in line to order. This isn’t fast food, and some items take longer than others. Some carts take credit cards, some don’t. We won’t even try to print hours for any of the carts here, because they vary from cart to cart, and they’re likely to evolve before you read this. Check http://markscartsannarbor.com/ for a list of all the carts as well as links to their individual websites.
But what you really want to know is: how‘s the food, and what’s good? So read on…
The food: American/Mexican, locally-sourced (yes, all of it)
Most popular item: Carnitas tacos
The owner: Paul Kessenich (the cart is named after a friend who suggested he open one)
Paul Kessenich didn’t feel there were enough food options in Ann Arbor that were both tasty and cheap, so he wanted to show people it was possible to do locally sourced food inexpensively. He succeeded.
Breakfast burritos: inspired by the burritos he ate in Santa Barbara, they’re different from the ones usually found around here. A thin omelet combines with other ingredients (there are a number of options) to produce a tasty meal in a tortilla. In addition to eggs, you can get potatoes, cheese, chorizo…the list goes on.
Carnitas Tacos: authentically Mexican, these are earthy and porky, served with a sprinkle of white onion and some chopped cilantro. Both the mild and hot salsas were really good, so pick based on your tolerance (hot isn’t very hot). Eat these piping hot, as the freshly-fried tortillas will seize-up on you if left to sit.
Potato Cakes: a special on one of our visits, they were covered in chorizo, kraut, and topped by an unusual ingredient: “hand-massaged” kale (the kale is chopped, tossed with olive oil, and then, well, hand-massaged
to tenderize it). Excellent.
Debajo del Sol
The food: Spanish, and Spanish-inspired
Most popular item: Chorizo Corn Dogs
The owners: Jay Scott and Cristina Trapani-Scott
When they honeymooned in Spain, they fell in love with the country and the cuisine, so this pair of professors (he teaches culinary arts, she teaches English) decided to open a food cart focusing on Spanish dishes as well as dishes that have the same freshness and flavor palette Spanish food does. Interestingly, they were an (obviously successful) Kickstarter project.
Duck Fat Fries: crispy-fried discs of potato served with duck and chorizo gravy and garnished with blue cheese. They may sound like an unholy cross between patatas bravas and poutine, but trust us, these crispy fried discs of potato are heavenly and addictive. They tend to run out, so grab them when you can.
Paella: they’ve been doing a Catalan-style pork paella, on a gas grill beside the cart. While paella is traditionally cooked outside, this has posed a number of challenges (temperature control, nervous health inspectors, etc.). They’ve got a larger paella pan on order, and plan to do more traditional ingredients such as rabbit (will they dare to do snails?). Worth having, and we expect it will only get better.
Side Dishes: Chorizo Corn Dogs (chunks of homemade chorizo dipped in cornmeal batter and deep-fried, with a mayonnaise-based sauce) and Sherry-Vinegar Potato Salad (refreshing, vinegary and simple) are very different and both very good.
Maria’s Almond Cookies: soft and full of ground almond, these are a must-try.
The food: Meaty sandwiches from
The owners: Helen Harding and Blake Reetz
Blake Reetz and Helen Harding became well-known as the executive chef and front of the house manager at the much-mourned Jefferson Market and have been doing catering since. Their cart’s been operating at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market for some time, and they’ve now expanded to Mark’s Carts.
Korean BBQ sandwich: braised beef in a Korean-style marinade (bulgogi-esque but not bulgogi) topped with kimchi from a local pickling business, The Brinery, this sandwich is a meal in itself and a good one. It’s hard to eat as an actual sandwich, so either grab a fork or give up on your shirt. Either way, it’s worth it.
Venison Sloppy Joe: made from Michigan whitetail venison, simmered with the usual sloppy joe ingredients plus juniper berries. Tasty.
Rhubarb and Custard Pie: rhubarb — it’s what’s in season (and how, the ones in our garden are immense this year). And it’s great in this pie, with a bit of custard added to mellow the flavor.