It’s good that I don’t live far from Mark’s Carts–and its companion business for libations, Bill’s Beer Garden–because it took several attempts to try Seafood Driven, the newest cart in the outdoor food court on W. Washington.
During the April awakening for the other five carts, the only sign of life at the seafood shack was a hanging wood fish skeleton decoration, blowing in the breeze. A chalkboard message appeared at the end of the month, explaining that the wrong type of deep fryer had been delivered, delaying the opening until early May. A few days later, the chalkboard announced a Cinco de Mayo grand opening.
I headed over soon after. It was a weekend evening, and a harried-looking sous chef was pleading with a long line of customers for patience–they were having problems with the cash register/order slip system. I hung on to score the last order of fish and chips (to the dismay of the guy behind me).
Turns out the buzz was well founded: the two hefty cubes of Icelandic cod, lightly battered and fried just enough, were nearly perfect. You get tartar sauce and another dipping option; the only one they had left was a mix of blue cheese, green onion, and mint, which was surprisingly nice. The fish dominated their bed of well-seasoned fries, with malt vinegar available alongside the ketchup.
I next tried to meet a friend for lunch, only to find the cart closing ninety minutes after opening, completely sold out. With lobster rolls, clam chowder, and fried clams still to taste, I came at the beginning of lunch service the next day.
I was not disappointed. The lobster chunk salad was as fresh and delicious as you’d expect of Monahan’s-sourced seafood and benefited from a light sprinkle of chives. The sandwich costs sixteen bucks, but it felt like a worthwhile splurge–the filling is generous enough to fall out of the big roll, and the quality is high.
An even more generous order of fried clams cost half as much and came out quick and hot in cornmeal-crisp dusting. I chose the smoky onion sauce, which coolly complemented the salty clam strips (no grimy bellies, thank goodness). A bit of Old Bay-like seasoning on the oyster crackers likewise complemented the very creamy and slightly peppery clam chowder.
All in all, it’s a stellar debut for Seafood Driven, well worth the wait. I’ll be back, especially to pair those clam strips with a cool brew at Bill’s, for a virtual Atlantic Coast vacation meal close to home.
Conveniently, on the days I missed Seafood Driven, I could turn to my other assignment: trying everything at Pita Cruiser, the other new-for-2016 cart. Its sliced grilled chicken shawarma stands out, moist and garlicky and topped with good fresh-tasting tzatziki sauce, feta, tomatoes, and onion. You can cut the warm, thick-style pita it comes on or pick it up. For eight dollars it seems like a decent deal.
The lettuce in the Greek salad was neither cool or crisp. That’s the kind of thing you should expect in a food truck, but the other carts in the court are setting a high standard, on salads and everything else. Pita Cruiser seems more mainstream, with preformed instead of carved gyro meat, for instance. Even the tasty made-from-scratch falafel, a lovely chartreuse green from its parsley, was fried up in an unappetizing knuckled handprint shape. Sweet potato strips were also fried to the max, but the cool tzatziki mellowed the intensity nicely.
Tight confines, weather, and other variables can make a food cart a feast-or-famine business. Menus built around delicate ingredients and fresh produce carry more risk. And the principals, often young culinary entrepreneurs operating on tight margins, can be hot and stressed. Patrons cognizant of such challenges may be better prepared to enjoy what’s fun and interesting and give an alfresco pass on the compromises.
211 W. Washington
Mon. & Tues. lunch, Wed.-Sat. lunch & dinner. Some carts open Sundays, weather permitting.
Prices and hours vary.