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New Tavernakaya sushi and poke food cart beats out 48 others

November 14, 2018

Tavernakaya’s new food cart selling sushi, poke and rice bowls, came out on top of the first phase of the city’s annual food cart review process, beating out 48 other carts.

The initial ranking will change once seniority points are added on, said Madison street vending coordinator Meghan Blake-Horst.

And it’s the adjusted ranking that gives the highest-rated carts priority in choosing a location on the Capitol Square or Library Mall in the coming vending year, which starts in mid-April.

Carts that aren’t interested in vending in either of those locations don’t have go through the review.

Forty-nine carts completed the process and were judged by 32 volunteer community reviewers over four weeks, from Sept. 10 to Oct. 6. Vendors were judged not only on their food, but on the cart’s appearance and originality.

Cart operators could get a maximum 100 points based on: flavor (20 points), design and visual impact (15 points), cleanliness and maintenance (15 points), menu (10 points), presentation (10 points), graphics and signage (10 points), originality and creativity (10 points) and total experience (10 points).

The Tavernakaya (or TK) cart got a score of 95.97. Braisin’ Hussies got 94.75, with Common Pasta getting 94.13.

Rounding out the top 10 were El Burrito Loco, Caracas Arepas, Fresh Cool Drinks, Ugly Apple, Surco Peruvian, Banzo and Curt’s Gourmet Popcorn.

“It gives us some confidence going into the next vending season that our menu will hopefully perform well and give our restaurants some good exposure,” said Tavernakaya owner Mike Ding.

Ding owns the 3-year-old restaurant Tavernakaya on the Capitol Square and the 8-year-old Umami on Williamson Street, with his wife Wendy Kuo. They also operate two Umami food carts.

The original Umami cart, which just does buns, is almost six years old and came in at No. 26. This season Ding did a second Umami cart, selling ramen, dumplings, and other items that are more reflective of the rest of the Umami restaurant menu. That cart got 14th place.

The results Blake-Horst recently announced are the reviewers’ scores. A second list will come out soon giving cart owners one seniority point for every year they’ve bought a mall or concourse vending licence, up to five years. No cart, even if it’s been around for 15 or 20 years, can get more than five points. That second list determines the order in which carts get to choose their location.

“It’s amazing to see what seniority points do to somebody’s placement,” Blake-Horst said, noting that once adjusted, Tavernakaya, for example, will choose in 18th position because it’s new. El Burrito Loco, meanwhile, will be the first cart to choose.

While more established carts benefited from seniority points, some operators received deductions for health code violations or missed vending days.

Carts cam apply for their licenses beginning Jan. 2. Twenty-three carts will be able to vend on Library Mall, and 26 on the Capitol Square, Blake-Horst said. She is spending this week finalizing her recommendations to the vending oversight committee for next year’s site assignments.

Ding said that for the review process, his cart offered five kinds of sushi rolls, two types of poke bowls, a curry rice bowl and the bacon-and-egg fried rice that’s popular at the restaurant, 27 E. Main St.

He said he hasn’t decided where’d he’d like to position the Tavernakaya cart. He’s leaning toward Library Mall because his restaurant, a modern Japanese-American gastropub, is already on the Square. “So we probably want to extend our reach onto campus,” he said.

Ding said he also plans to vend during the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

Part of the reason he wanted to do a Tavernakaya cart is to vend at more events and be able to do more catering offsite, which Umami already does successfully.

Tavernakaya is the only cart selling sushi and poke, and Ding had to work with the city-county health department to get special permission to handle raw fish out of a cart. He said the city made the exception for him because the food he’s serving is meant to be eaten raw.

The navy blue cart has some modern designs on it that reflect the restaurant’s aesthetic so that people make the association. Prices may fluctuate, but Tavernakaya’s cart menu ranges from $5 to $12, Ding said.

Ding and his wife opened the Tavernakaya restaurant with Wendy’s brother, Kai Kuo, in collaboration with the Food Fight restaurant group. They parted ways with Food Fight last year. Then, when Kai Kuo moved back to New York, Ding bought him out.

Wendy Kuo handles the administrative end of the business, human resources and marketing, while Ding focuses on the broader concepts. “Without her, my life would be very difficult,” he said.

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