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 U.S. finally coming to Ann Arbor, and of how it ties in with the local food trend.
Editor’s Note: This article is part two of a two-part series. The first ran in the July issue. See www.ecurrent.com for the entire story.
The food: Asian street food, with a focus on high-quality ingredients
Most popular item: Pork Buns
The owners: Ji Hye Kim and Kristen Hogue Jackson, as part of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses
Ji Hye and Kristen, both Zingerman’s managers, discovered they share an interest in the street foods of their childhoods…so when Zingerman’s asked employees to come up with ideas for new businesses, they stepped forward with this concept, which is kind of like an Ann Arbor version of Momofuku. This started a long process of research and a lot of cooking. They’ve rolled the cart out with only two items, but plan to add more.
Pork Buns: How can such a huge slice of pork belly taste so light and fresh? These are Taiwanese-style pork buns, scrumptious with melting pork fat, tender braised pork with a drizzle of hoisin and threads of green onion inside a folded-over steamed bun called a gwa pao. This isn’t health food by any means, but it’s worth it.
Mushroom Buns: The same configuration as above, but with a filling of marinated shiitake and wood ear mushrooms, accented with a bit of spicy mayo. Note: the gwa pao for the pork buns are made with a bit of lard; for the mushroom buns they use a vegetarian variant unless you request otherwise.
The Lunch Room
The food: Vegan, but has a much broader appeal
Most popular item: Barbeque Tofu Sandwich
The owners: Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo
Friends and next-door neighbors who love to cook together, for Phillis and Joel a food cart was the obvious next step after parties and pop-up restaurants. Since they’re both vegans, they cook that way – but they’re trying to do food that appeals to non-vegetarians as well, and they’re generally succeeding.
Aloo Yoop: a vegetarian coconut milk-based curry – sweet, extremely light, very flavorful, and with great texture between the potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, onions, and the rest. It has more of a Southeast Asian flavor than an Indian one, and is not excessively spicy. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to like this dish a lot; the only thing that would make it better would be a nice pile of rice to eat it with.
Barbecue Tofu Sandwich: the Lunch Room’s answer to barbecue pork sandwiches, this has slices of good-quality firm tofu in a sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce on an Avalon Bakery whole wheat bun.
Side Dishes: The Tangy Thai Slaw is outstanding; chilies, scallion, cashews, sesame, and a horde of other flavors blend together to create a complex but not overwhelming experience. The assortment of hummus and tapenades with Avalon bread was also good.
Cookies: unlike the bread, the cookies are made in house. Hands down, the Blackstrap Molasses Gingersnaps were our favorite. They’re exceptionally good, and you’d never have a clue that they’re vegan. They’re gooey, strong-flavored, and coated in demerara sugar. And best of all, they’re only $1 apiece. The Mexican Chocolate Cookies (with hints of cinnamon and chili) and the Chocolate Cashew Cream Truffles are also great, but the Molasses Gingersnaps…wow.
The food: American, slow-cooked and prepared from scratch
Most popular item: Mac & Cheese
The owners: Keith and Angie Ewing
Keith Ewing was laid off from his corporate job in Texas, so he and his wife moved back to Ann Arbor where her job was and followed their passion for cooking. They eventually plan to raise their own pigs and perhaps start a public house, but for now they are trying the general concept out with a cart (and sourcing their pork from Niman Ranch). All dishes can be ordered in full or half portions.
Headcheese Hoagies: the most frequently mentioned item when discussions of Mark’s Carts arise, usually with a tone of disbelief. Believe it. It’s not a hoagie, and it’s not headcheese the way you probably think of it: the headcheese (bits of meat from the head of the pig, all chopped up) is seared until crispy on a grill, then served over a grilled slice of Zingerman’s bakehouse white bread, topped with onions and peppers and a wavy line of mustard. But it’s a catchy name, the flavors go well together, and the grilling (they started doing it because Angie thought it was gross served cold) makes the headcheese taste like carnitas, or like the crispy browned bits that fall off a good roast.
Divine Mac & Cheese: it’s easy to see why this is the most popular item, because while it can stand on its own, it also makes a great side dish to everything else. Rich, cheesy (though not heavy or sticky) and with a buttery crumb topping.
Miscellaneous Braises: they’ve usually also got at least one braised meat dish on special, served over more of that grilled bread so that it soaks up the sauce. We’ve tried the cinnamon soy pork belly (almost like candy), and the braised beef with currants and rhubarb (all the flavors showed through without being overwhelming).
Blueberry Buckle: great buttery crumb with a hint of cinnamon and a tender cake. They don’t skimp either on the blueberries or the portion size.
Lisa and Joe have been blogging about food in the Ann Arbor area (and points beyond) since 2004. Check them out at www.kitchenchick.com.