Mark’s Carts has the festive feel of a carnival midway, except there are no rides and the food’s a whole lot better. “It’s about 50 percent food and about 50 percent local experience,” Downtown Home & Garden owner Mark Hodesh says, describing his latest venture, an open-air food court on W. Washington between First and Ashley. “People just really enjoy watching someone cook through a window, and out pops their food.”

There were five food carts when Mark’s Carts opened in May, and Hodesh expects that number to double eventually. Each food cart offers a different style of ethnic or regional food, from Spanish specialties at Debajo del Sol to the Lunch Room’s all-vegan menu. Hodesh says he didn’t recruit vendors and he didn’t have to. “They found us. The whole idea is contagious.” For some operators it’s their first business. Others, like Blake Reetz, already had a cart and were an occasional presence around town at places like the Farmers’ Market but were looking for another venue.

Reetz, thirty, also owns a catering company, and both the company and the cart are called Eat. “We had a cart at the Farmers’ Market last fall on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” he says. “Then we heard about this.” Eat serves sandwiches, and Reetz sold a hundred of them in the first two hours on opening day. As befits someone who sold his fare at the Farmers’ Market, all his ingredients are locally sourced–which means that when he’s out of fixings, he’s done for the day.

Another vendor moved halfway across the country to open a cart called Humble Hog. Keith Ewing left Ann Arbor for Houston and a job as an environmental health and safety manager a few years ago. Recently downsized, he resolved that whatever he did next in life it was going to be something he was passionate about. That turned out to be cooking pork and head-cheese hoagies. “I have a passion for pigs,” he shrugs. He’s paying $7,500 a year to rent his space, and the cart itself cost him another $7,500, so for a combined $15,000 plus food costs, he was able to set himself up in the food service business.

Mark’s Carts occupies the space where the entrance ramp to the old art deco parking structure used to be before the city tore it down. It’s enclosed by a green iron fence at the front and east side, and a wooden privacy fence screens the view of the remaining ground floor of the parking structure to the west. The court is shaped a little like Oklahoma but with a longer panhandle that juts off the rear along an alley. Two long benches flank each other in the center of the court, surrounded by the food carts, which ring the perimeter. A few more benches hug the wall, and in May Hodesh was in the process of adding a few tables along with more seating on a small plot of land between the food court and Downtown Home & Garden, under the old Hertler Brothers sign.

Lisa Waud, owner of Pot & Box on Felch, was sitting with a friend on the steps at the rear of the court. It was the second time she’d made the trip down for lunch that week, and she took the buffet approach. “I had a chorizo corn dog from Debajo del Sol, then a summer salad from the Lunch Room,” she said. “Then I went back to Debajo and got us truffles.”

Hodesh bought the strip of land in 2008 with no particular purpose in mind. “It wasn’t doing much,” he says, “parking a few cars and collecting broken bottles.” At the far end of the alley, he also owns the old union hall on East Liberty next to Downtown Home & Garden’s parking lot. He bought the hall in 1976 and rented it out to architects for awhile, but recently it’s been vacant. Then, last August, he remembered the food carts he’d seen at a Brooklyn flea market on a visit to his daughter in New York a few years back, and Mark’s Carts was born.

The union hall is vital to the success of the project, Hodesh says, because by law a food cart must be tethered to a licensed commercial kitchen where vendors can prepare and process food and store it at proper temperatures. He’s turned the rear half of the building into that kitchen; vendors prepare food there and run it to the carts a hundred feet up the alley. “The city and [county] health department have been fantastic,” Hodesh says. “We brought it in on time and under budget.”

Hodesh’s mind is on urban planning as well as business. “That block of 200 West Washington’s been kind of desolate,” he says. “This makes a nice transition from the Old West Side residential area to the downtown business area. It’s cheerful, low-impact.” And it’s a nice use of a pocket of land that’s too small for a building. “It’s just making something out of what you have,” Hodesh says. “And it fits the neighborhood.”

Mark’s Carts, 211 W. Washington. 662-8122. Daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Individual vendors’ hours vary–check website for vendor hours.