Thursday, August 8, 2013

Day 88 - Eating from a Food Cart

I have never eaten from a food cart. While this seems like a simple thing that should have happened much earlier in my life, I have actually avoided food carts for the first 30 years of my life. Something about them has always seemed dirty to me, which caused me to fear I would get food poisoning or worse if I ever ate at one of these portable restaurants. As a result, I avoided food carts at all costs. Whether I was downtown, at a fair, on the way home after a night out, or hungry beyond belief with no other options, I wasn’t eating from a food cart. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Admittedly, I knew my perspective was probably an overblown, irrational concern that was causing me to miss out on some delicious food, but I was OK with that. I was happy in my food-cart-less, food-poisoning-free bubble, and I had no intentions of changing.

Then came my “I have never...” year, and the subsequent discovery of the Madison Meet and Eat festival. This traveling gathering is basically a celebration of Madison food carts and their unique offerings, which was something I knew I should probably experience... along with eating from a food cart. In turn, I made plans to attend tonight’s edition of the Madison Meet and Eat festival being held at Meadowood Park on the city’s south side. This decision was intended to serve two purposes. First, I would address my fear of food carts head on and experience a food cart meal for the first time. Second, I would enhance my ongoing “I have never...” sub-challenge of being a vegetarian for a week by gaining the experience of trying to eat a meatless meal from the limited choices made available on a food cart menu. With my plans set, I made a quick stop home after work to pick up Rachael, and we made the brief trip to Meadowood Park to experience the Madison Meet and Eat festival for the first time.

Meet and Eat!
Arriving at the park, Rachael and I took in the sights of a moderately sized crowd stirring about an open are split by rows of picnic tables and rung by food carts. While the quantity of food carts was fewer than I expected, there were more than enough choices to make our visit to the festival a full experience. With our car parked, Rachael and I made a quick lap around the park to give the food choices a once over. The aromas of Asian, American, and Latin American food filled the area as we walked past carts selling kettle corn, smoothies, Thai food, steak, hamburgers, empanadas, and Chicago style hotdogs. Although I wanted to try any number of the chicken and pork offerings at a variety of the carts, I quickly settled on vegetable empanadas made at the busiest cart in the lot, Caracas Empanadas. When I weighed the remaining choices, the decision seemed an easy one. After all, I figured I couldn’t go wrong with a corn, mozzarella, and thyme stuffed empanada accompanied by homemade cilantro sauce.

After placing my order at the empanada cart, I stood by waiting for my food to be ready. While my food took some time to arrive, I enjoyed taking in the scenery and watching the crowd around me as I waited. After a brief period, Rachael decided to go to another cart to order some Thai noodles for her meal. She had enough time to order her food, receive it, and find a place at a nearby table as I continued waiting. I started growing slightly impatient as I stood by and watched a backlog of other orders stack up at Caracas. With so many customers putting in orders after me, it was clear there were likely many orders before me. Sensing my growing impatience, one of the other customers waiting nearby reassured me the empanadas were worth the wait. Stated simply, she wasn’t lying.

Veggie empanadas... Ohhh myyyy...
Another 10 minutes passed before I finally received my food. Sitting down at the table next to Rachael, I immediately opened the small white bag containing the empanadas and set the hot, fried pastries on a set of napkins in front of me. Realizing I would need more space for the food, I flattened the empty white bag and set it on the table. With a wider eating space before me, I immediately dug into the food. After a quick dip in the cilantro sauce I took my first bite of my first empanada. The warm pastry presented a rush of flavor that was good enough to make me forget about my week long vegetarian effort and my earlier longing for a bite of meat. Continuing, I happily nibbled away at my meal, which disappeared quickly with my enthusiasm. By the time I finished my meal Rachael was hitting a wall of fullness following her Thai noodles and bubble tea. I tasted a few bites of her noodles (also vegetarian) before the two of us decided to wrap up our first experience at the Meet and Eat festival and my first experience eating at a food cart.

What was left of the Thai noodles

Today I faced a ridiculous fear of food cart meals and came away with an experience that was altogether positive. The Meat and Eat festival at Meadowood was filled with great people and vendors that were there to make the most of an otherwise typical summer evening. The meals at the food carts were fantastic. I couldn’t ask for anything more from an experience. While I’m likely to give a food cart a close look before I consider eating from it going forward, today’s experience helped me break down some walls and opened me up to an entirely new array of food choices. Now, I’m hopeful I will be more willing to dabble in the Madison food cart scene. After today, I feel like I would miss out on a lot if I didn’t.

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