The urban food court that burst into bloom in May on West Washington, near the corner of Ashley, has to be the most novel Ann Arbor eating scene in recent memory. Credit goes to impresario Mark Hodesh of Downtown Home and Garden for having the vision and the wherewithal to transplant the trendy food truck concept from the coasts, Portlandia, and other hipster hotspots. The cluster of a half-dozen or so wheeled kitchenettes, collectively known as Mark’s Carts, has fast become a place to see and be seen at lunchtime and on Friday evenings. (Some offer dinner on other days, and breakfast as well; check markscartsannarbor.com for weekly updates.) Teen jazz buskers frequently set up shop amid the picnic tables, blooming vines, and hibiscus bushes, adding to the mellow picnic party atmosphere.
But enough about the scene: When the music stops and you’re sitting quietly on a hot bench with your compostable fork poised, how does that midair morsel taste? Is the food as much of a draw here as the concept? I’d say yes, with some qualification.
Authentically yummy creations can be savored here, like the decadently gruyere-rich mac and cheese from Humble Hogs. The Taiwan-inspired mushroom or pork belly steamed buns from San Street are carefully calibrated for salty-sweet balance with condiments of pickled cucumber and ginger-scallion sauce. I also loved the delicate grilled whitefish soft corn taco with raw beet slaw and peppery sauce from Darcy’s Cart; a heartier appetite would be satisfied by a few of Darcy’s pork tacos, or the huge walnut/bean/kale “burger” that overflows its bun with bulky texture and earthy flavor.
Vegetarians and people who have to go back to work without a siesta can head to the Eat cart for a virtuous tagine of parsnips and other root vegetables, garbanzo beans, and kale in a softly spiced broth. Lamb and beef entrees are also available. Chef Blake Reetz adapted the recipe for his fruit pies from ones passed down in his farm family; with a honey-sweet layer between their filling and their flaky crusts, the pies are such a huge draw that you might miss out if you come late in the meal hour.
Popular at the Lunch Room vegan food cart (the tallest and the only wood-paneled one) is fresh Thai-style slaw that’s served beside a barbecue tofu sandwich; tuck it under the bun for a great $5 lunch. Romaine lettuce in the “vegan way Caesar salad” was crispy, but flavorless garbanzo beans seemed out of place, and I longed for a robust garlic and lemon dressing. A cute and healthy kids’ meal of PBJ, carrot sticks, and applesauce plays off the Lunch Room’s name and is topped off with a chocolate-chip cookie. Grownups will want to opt for one of the crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside Mexican hot chocolate cookies, charismatically cayenne charged throughout.
The tapas-oriented Debajo del Sol cart has another light and bright dessert: a trio of almond cookies, made with almond meal and thus gluten free, per chef Cristina Trapani-Scott’s family recipe. Cool melon soups rotate through this cart’s creative menu. If a splurge is in order, there’s an outrageous chorizo corn dog, or exotic Quebecois poutine-esque potatoes fried in duck fat, then swamped with sausage gravy and blue cheese.
Even before mention of Humble Hogs’ headcheese hoagies, you’re probably sensing a mix of pioneering new ground and updates on standard fare. Mark Hodesh may have been seeking ethnic street food, but along the way he’s curated a cadre of young locavore chefs who are putting worldly spins on some longtime familiar foods. An Indian chaat cart to come from Hut-K may spice up the mix, and low overhead costs mean the lineup of tasty and affordable fare can continue to change. There’s already been one defection, though: the People’s Pierogi Collective bowed out after a few weeks. (Find them back at Detroit’s Eastern Market, where they do the heavy volume they count on.)
Lukewarm and kind of chunky fruit smoothies from the Lunch Room were perhaps the least successful offering I sampled during one ninety-degree week. It’s not easy to serve icy drinks at these mobile mini-enterprises, because the health department has strict rules about the storage of ice, and the carts don’t have freezers. Hodesh says he had no trouble with health rules while setting up the big shared kitchen he runs for the carts, but the owners have had to negotiate their challenges independently.
Serving temperatures might not be such an issue if the venue weren’t already getting toasted by the propane grills of several carts and that big ball of fire in the sky. As of early July, inadequate shade from tiny carts, tiny trees, and a few strung sailcloths left people sweating and scrambling through the cement hardscape. I wilted one noon when the half-shaded stoop I’d found turned out to be downwind of a cart’s exhaust fan. Hodesh has since installed more canopies and several misting fans, which help to make hot days less fierce.
I’ve enjoyed exploring version 1.0 of this distinctive venture. With crowds already swelling into the hundreds at lunch, the plan to operate well into Michigan’s gorgeous autumn seems appropriate. Can you imagine savoring all that hearty food around the cozy firepit that Hodesh is ready to pull out at first chill? A good proposition for this economic climate, Mark’s Carts need only temper our actual climate to keep al fresco fans coming back in droves.
211 W. Washington, 662-8122
Carts set their own hours, which continue to be in flux. Lunch is the only time all the carts are open. Darcy’s Cart opens first, Mon.- Thurs., at 8 a.m. for breakfast; the Lunch Room is the only cart offering dinner every weekday. Check the website for weekly updates: markscartsannarbor.com/
Appetizers and entrees, $2 -$9. Drinks and desserts, $1-$4