For me, the food cart will always mean the fatty, delicious Lucky (Paradise) Dogs, the New Orleans junk food icon made famous in A Confederacy of Dunces. I used to scarf them down as a young punk.
How far we’ve both come! In the mid-2000s, the food cart hit America’s streets in earnest. In 2011, Zagat added L.A. and New York food truck and cart reviews, and the trend hasn’t bypassed Salt Lake City. UrbanSpoon lists 22 local trucks and carts as of this writing, serving everything from discount ramen or horchata to gourmet Asian sliders for a fraction of the cost of sit-down restaurants.
I tried to hit four carts, but it wasn’t easy. All were closed for Memorial Day weekend. Union Street Eats’ “spring break” coincided with my deadline with eerie accuracy and The Curryer had car trouble the first time I tried to find them. Finally, with only a few excuses, I was able to make it to three.
World Dog (meat and vegan sausages and wieners)
2200 S. Highland Dr.
Salt Lake City, UT
Tues. – Sat., 11:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
World Dog offers an eclectic selection of international wieners and sausages in Sugarhouse. The cart, parked on the sidewalk in front of the Sundance outlet, is a little hard to spot if you’re driving on Highland.
The all-beef dogs are The Naughty Dog ($5) and The Austin ($4). Both are a tad salty. They are set on non-descript, soft white-bread buns—better bread would improve them. The Naughty Dog’s macaroni adds a creamy texture, and the bacon is the perfect combination of fatty and lean. The classic chili cheese combo of the Austin is delicious, improved by the addition of French’s fried onions. The Sicilian ($5) sausage, on a thicker style of bun, is a perfect spicy combination of onions, green peppers and tomatoes. The Taj’s ($4) tandoori-marinated tofu dog is unfortunately bland. While some may enjoy the sweet-spicy crunch of the mango chutney and pickled cucumber, the experience was jarring for me. For $1 extra, you get a bag of chips and a canned drink. Another $2 buys a chocolate-covered frozen banana with sprinkles.
The Curryer (meat and vegan Indian)
300 S. Main St.
Salt Lake City, UT
Mon. – Fri., 11 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
With a menu that changes daily, The Curryer offers Indian curries in the heart of downtown. The day I went there, a sizable crowd suggested they are popular. I tried all four curries offered as combination plates. The Vegan Pumpkin Curry ($5.50) is creamy, sweet and mild, while the vegan Chana Masala (chickpeas and tomatoes, $5.50) is spicy and tart. Both are good, although the Chana Masala could use more depth. The Chicken Tikka Masala ($6.50) and the Chicken Tandoori ($5.50) both suffer as well, with a lack of “low notes” and general depth of flavor. The day I tried it, the tandoori chicken was a bit dry. Worse, they were out of chicken in the tikka masala, so I was offered the sauce only. The result was that my chicken combo had three small chunks of chicken, for which I still paid the full amount of $6.50. Another issue: good, Indian-style rice should be fluffy and close without being sticky, but Americans prefer drier individual grains of long-grain rice, which is what The Curryer serves, so I was unable to eat my curry Indian style, scooping it up with the naan.
The true saving grace of The Curryer was the handmade Naan ($1), a fluffy flatbread. Kim Pettit, one of the cart owners, was on hand making the bread, wrapping it around a fabric-covered straw disc and cooking it fresh in the tandoor. It was perfect and delicious. I’d go back for naan any day.
Union Street Eats (vegan Mexican)
Northwest corner of 400 S. and 200 E.
Salt Lake City, UT
Tues. – Sat., noon to 3 p.m.
The most elusive of my food cart prospects changed hours three times between my assignment and the day I finally found them. I was nevertheless thrilled to finally try the food, which made up for my repeatedly failed trips by being fantastic. Chef Larayn Clegg cooks up vegan soft tacos ($3, or a two-taco, chips and salsa plate for $6), burritos ($5), nachos ($4) and quesadillas ($4-$5). The La Paz Tacos includes fried, marinated tempeh, shredded cabbage and a delicious, creamy Bueno sauce. The Barbacoa Luna Quesadilla is delicious, stuffed with a surprising ingredient: spicy, chipotle-marinated, grilled jackfruit and delicious vegan cheese. Finally, the Diablo Tacos (my favorite!) feature fiery garlic mushrooms and black beans, with ginger sour “cream” sauce. Union Street also benefits Ching Farm Rescue and Sanctuary, donating five percent of their sales to the sanctuary.
Unlike brick-and-mortar restaurants, food carts operate at the whim of weather and may change locations for special events, run late setting up, or have to go get propane, so always call or check the website, twitter or Facebook page before setting your sites on a specific cart and always have a back-up plan for lunch. What carts lack in predictability, they make up for in value, so try them instead of skipping lunch.