Isthmus A La Carts grows, succeeds, but shows some flaws

If you know me, you know I can get testy about not working anywhere near the city center, and how that eliminates all those delicious food carts on the Square and the Library Mall from lunch contention. Sure, I've grown to love Oregon's modest restaurant scene, but there's nothing like Banzo, or Blowin' Smoke BBQ, or Surco Peruvian.

credit: Isthmus A La Carts Facebook page

So it's pretty great that Isthmus decided to try its hand at a food cart festival last spring, and nailed it so completely that a second annual Isthmus A La Carts was practically fait accompli before the 2012 edition even ended. The second go-around took place a week ago Friday (during Madison Craft Beer Week), and while it was both a blast and a bargain, the growth of the festival exposed a few weak spots that a third iteration should definitely focus on.

First: parking. Apparently, parking signs with the A La Carts logo were in too-short supply, so Paddle and Portage signs were deployed because...a confusing sign was better than no sign? I'm gonna say no. Even though I was pretty sure Paddle and Portage wasn't happening the same day (it's in July), I still wasn't sure where I could park and where I couldn't.

But hey, it was a reasonably nice day out (not raining, at least), so a little walk didn't hurt. And while we were walking up, we saw Surco's cart arriving nearly an hour after the start time. Surco was late last year, too, but that's honestly not a big concern for me; it's a long afternoon of eating. What I have a problem with is that it appeared they were open for like 15 minutes, closed up, and then (so I'm told) reopened much later. If a cart can't provide food for the majority of festival attendees, they probably shouldn't be invited back. (Kinda looking at you, Caracas Empanadas; you've run out early two years running now.)

And I wouldn't mind it if organizers standardized the way the carts present their festival menus. Some have clear signs indicating what's available off of the regular menu, but most don't. Requiring every visitor to either ask or lean forward to eavesdrop is annoying.

But OKAY enough about the complaints. It's a cheap damn ticket, and even though it went up a couple bucks from last year, it's still totally worth every penny. Here are some of my favorites of the festival.

Best single bite: Blowin' Smoke BBQ

It's possible that Blowin' Smoke is the best barbecue in town, but for A La Carts, their relatively dainty portions still managed to highlight what's so terrific about this Capitol Square cart. Smoked sausage was good, Carolina pork (served with a spoonful of sweet coleslaw) was great, but the burnt ends were rightfully the first to run out. Burnt ends are the best part of Kansas City barbecue, and Blowin' Smoke nailed these crusty, flavor-packed nuggets of pork.

Biggest surprise: Slide

Let's ignore, for now, the proliferation of the word "slider" to describe what are not actual sliders, but rather are mini-burgers. (Or at least leave it at that.) I had heard good things about the Slide cart, but hadn't gotten around to tracking it down. The Slide fest menu was unexpectedly veggie-heavy, and I'm not always a huge fan of beets. But the Beets the Meat sandwich was richly flavorful, with tender beets and a thick, creamy dressing. I'd pay money for it.

Best overall menu: JD's

This is kind of a cheat category, since I wasn't able to sample the full menu at really any other cart. But if you wanted a no-nonsense attitude with hefty portions, you were smart to get into the fast-moving JD's line and sample either the steakburger or the Polish sausage -- or maybe come back around a second time to have both. The cart team simply cooked up the sandwiches, chopped 'em into smaller portions, and let customers grab and go. I'd almost have given JD's the award for the next category, but for...

Best cart operation: Fried and Fabulous

Listen, no one's gonna complain about deep-fried Oreos and brownies. But rather than make people Sophie's Choice it when they got to the front of the line, plus staying on top of unpredictable order traffic, Fried and Fab just threw a big old batch of whatever was near the front of the cooler into the fryer, and owner Steve Lawrence would haul the piping hot platter out front to let customers grab their own little prize. The line surges through, the people get fresh, hot treats, and the cart crew can just do what they do best -- inside, cook; outside, pitch and pitch hard. Lawrence has a carnival barker's flair, and serves a delicious menu. If anyone had anything bad to say after the Fried and Fab experience, I'd call that person a liar to his face, straight up.

This is one event where my writing relationship with Isthmus earns me no special treatment, and I'm fine with that. This is also an event that doesn't really bend over backwards for children -- which is fine, it's their prerogative, but organizers were a bit over-stern in reminding interested parties on social media that kids do not get in free, and that it's not billed as a family event. Isthmus should stick to making the A La Carts event appealing, and simply putting ticket policies in clear print on the website. I know a number of families who chose to stay home as a result of less than warm treatment online. Maybe they should hire the Fried and Fab team to hawk tickets.