This is not your father's Ann Arbor. While comfort food exists in abundance in the Tree City, Ann Arborites are often left scratching their heads when trying to find something new that is not necessarily served by the slice or attached to a wing.
Enter Mark's Carts, established by Downtown Home & Garden owner Mark Hodesh in May of 2011. As Autumn descends in 2013, there are seven distinct options to choose from. Affordable fast-nosh (most meals range from $5-$12) and an emphasis on locally grown ingredients are the unifying characteristics among these vendors.
For authentic Mexican fare from a healthy approach, there's El Manantial, a venture that debuted in the courtyard in the spring of 2013 (local BBQ joint Satchel's also came aboard for spring and summer but transferred its operation to tailgating as the U of M football season opened).
Owned and operated by Mariano Rodriguez with an assist from his wife Gwen, the emphasis is on fresh produce and flavorful textures. A simple, scaled-down menu features three staples: tostadas, quesadillas and tortas (a Mexican sandwich served on artisan Telera bread with avocado and jalapenos).
Your choice of meat includes Al Pastor (marinated pork), Pierna Al Adobo (pork leg and dried chile peppers) or Pollo Gisado (chicken in a dark chile sauce). Tacos Al Pastor are also offered as well as seasonal favorites like Flautas and whole rabbit with rice and tortillas.
San Street, the brainchild of Zingerman's alumnae Ji Hye Kim and Kristen Hogue Jackson, serves up Vietnamese street food with hometown flourishes. Their Banh Mi, a Vietnamese take on the American hoagie/hero/sub/poboy, comes in eight varieties including two traditional pork versions as well as chicken, beef, mushrooms and two tofu choices. The sandwich's zesty snap comes from the addition of pickled daikon and carrots, cucumbers, jalapenos, cilantro and siracha mayo.
For vegetarians and vegans there's Hut-K Chaats, an operation conceived by cancer researcher Dr. Swaroop Bhojani and his wife Sumi, a teacher. Chaats are small Indian dishes served by roadside vendors, similar to the Spanish tapas concept. Raw food ingredients accented by naturally-derived sauces and chutneys provide nutrition without sacrificing flavor. The gluten-free option is a nice touch.
Delicious wood-fired personal-sized pizzas are made to order at A2 Pizza Pi. There's excellent standards like the meat-lovers (pepperoni and sausage) and traditional Margherita pies as well as the more adventurous Aroogula and the Pear Pi made with locally grown pears, Gorgonzola and chopped walnuts. New pizzas rotate often and salads with Michigan cherries round out the menu.
Your humble narrator hasn't had the chance to dine at the remaining three carts (reviews forthcoming before the carts shut down for the offseason starting in November) but here's a bit of info on them.
Darcy's Cart sustains an eclectic Mexican diner-styled menu which emphasizes locally sourced foods. The pet project of University of Michigan math professor Paul Kessenich has a decidedly Mexicali bent with breakfast burritos and tacos as well as more time-honored American favorites.
The Beet Box, founded by U of M students, is another California-inflected eatery geared toward the health-conscious consumer.
Grilled cheese deluxe with gourmet appeal can be found at Cheese Dream.
One of the sublime elements of Mark's Carts is the option to dine next door at Bill's Beer Garden. The outdoor beer hall features 8-10 Michigan craft beers on tap as well as wine and soft drinks. The joint venture is named after Mark Hodesh's long-time business associate Bill Zollowski, a fixture in the Ann Arbor restaurant/hospitality community.
The Southeastern Michigan sustainable food source initiative continues to thrive and Mark's Carts and Bill's Beer Garden are two more success stories.