As this year’s brutal winter morphed into a challenging, cold, wet spring, the diminutive restaurants parked in the courtyard behind Downtown Home & Garden had a difficult start to the season. And for 2014, the annual turnover at Mark’s Carts is significant; just three veterans–San Street, Hut-K, and El Manantial–are returning. Joining them this year are Great Grilled Sandwiches, Xdelica, and Simply Spanish, as well as Old Carolina Barbecue Company and Mighty Good Coffee, the last two both off-shoots of brick-and-mortar stores.
I recognized the cart housing Great Grilled Sandwiches as the one used the last two years by AA Pizza Pi. The new sandwich enterprise also recaps ideas and concepts from other carts past. As at the former Beet Box, students intent on real-world practice–in this case twin WCC business undergraduates Jay and Jeet Nirban–run the cart. And the brothers share their driving concept–the perfect grilled cheese sandwich–with the old Cheese Dream. In their vision, these are substantial endeavors, comprising three layers of wholesome organic bread alternating with cheese, vegetables and/or meat, and flavorful spreads. The version I tried–Jay’s Chicomole–combined diced chicken breast, mozzarella, and a guacamole-broccoli spread on ancient-grain bread grilled into a pleasantly toasty, cheesy concoction–no fireworks but certainly not a dud. The menu also includes a couple of wraps.
Xdelica, manned by Sean Zhang, hawks Asian fried dumplings in portions small enough for a snack or large enough for a meal. Although I was told chicken is usually an option, the two fillings available on the day I visited were the Shangri-la, a beef and onion curry, and the Han Dynasty, a finely minced mixture of pork and shiitake mushrooms. Both were flavorful, with nicely chewy skins and crisp edges, though the beef curry oozed a slick of yellow oil when I bit through it. An intriguingly named ginger salad was simply chopped iceberg lettuce and thinly sliced cucumbers with a spritely ginger dressing. Topping an abundance of white rice, braised pork rice featured tender diced cubes of stewed pork, potato, and carrot in a sauce scented with star anise–a comfortingly homey dish.
Taking diners to a different part of the world, Xavi Vitta’s Simply Spanish cart offers tapas, sandwiches, and paellas. Modest and low-key but firm in his conviction about the deliciousness of Spanish cuisine, Vitta presented me with numerous pintxos (Basque-style canapes) as I waited for my orders–tapas before my tapas. Lacking a glass of wine on which to rest the treats, I quickly polished off pungent slices of morcilla (blood sausage), txistorro (a Basque sausage rather similar to chorizo), and lushly rich Iberico ham.
A sandwich of sobrasada (a thick Mallorcan chorizo spread) and fried egg on a crusty baguette highlighted how wonderful simple ingredients, when well matched, could be. But a wispy layer of that luscious Iberico ham was lost inside a thick baguette dressed with an almost invisible smear of olive oil and grated tomato–give me more oil and tomato and fresh pepper! Another sandwich of tortilla (a dense egg and potato omelet) and Manchego cheese could have used a good swipe of allioli, the Spanish version of garlic mayonnaise. I missed the taste of olive oil in the fried Potatoes Bravas, but, as Vitta explained, it’s not economically viable in the United States to fill a fryer with olive oil. Though it could have used a zippier filling, a vegetable empanada had a wonderfully flaky crust, and who wouldn’t love warm dates cinched with crispy bacon? A helping of vegetable paella fresh off the fire was beautifully cooked, but with strong winds making the day cold and unpleasant for outdoor dining, I wondered how well the paella would fare sitting over a low flame for a prolonged period between customers. I’m hoping to taste Vitta’s seafood paella and fideua (thin noodles and seafood cooked paella-style) when the weather is warm, the courtyard busy, and he’s tending pans of both. In the meantime, Vitta’s Belgium chocolate cake–not Spanish but utterly creamy and decadent–can finish off any meal with a luxurious sigh. And I hope, one Saturday morning, to start my day with the churros and chocolate Vitta has promised will appear soon.
I didn’t visit the other two new carts. With the weather less than cooperative–and actual buildings elsewhere–I figured I could check out Mighty Good Coffee and Old Carolina Barbecue Company another time. For now, I have my fingers crossed that the summer will become glorious and the carts will enjoy a boom season. As the staging ground for new dining ventures, that courtyard brings another fun twist to summer in Ann Arbor.
211 W. Washington
Hours vary among the carts and during the season, but most are open most days for lunch, approximately 11:30 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m.; some are open for dinner, primarily on the weekends, from 5 or 6 p.m. until they run out of food