Saturday’s cook-off was advertised as a competition, but the six carts and throngs of visitors were all winners.
The six food carts of Mark’s Carts on West Washington Street went head-to-head in a cook-off sponsored by French cookware manufacturer Le Creuset on Saturday. Customers tasted free samples of each cart’s entry and submitted ballots marking their favorites.
To first-time diners, the cook-off looked like a special event. But for returning visitors, the mix of students, families and other Ann Arbor locals enjoying the live music was just another afternoon at Mark’s Carts.
“It’s a favorite place of city staff for lunch during the day,” said Ann Arbor resident Jamie Kidwell, who saw a sign advertising the cook-off when she came for dinner the night before. “They did class it up a little bit, I think (the food is) still all good on any day.”
Sarah Suhadolnik, a third-year graduate student at the University, came to Mark’s Carts for the first time Saturday after she heard about the carts and cook-off through a friend of a friend.
“It was great,” Suhadolnik said. “Surprisingly, I liked the kimchi stuffing best, which is definitely outside of my normal food repertoire.”
After the day’s taste, Suhabolnik said she’ll probably come back to Mark’s Carts to eat.
Each cart was given a differently colored Le Creuset pot to create a dish in the same style as its regular menu. Most of the owners modified one of their popular dishes for both new and returning customers.
“Let’s give each of the carts a pot, the same pot, so they are on a level playing field and see what they can do with it,” said Trish Ranallo, Le Creuset territory manager for Illinois and Michigan.
Ranallo said the goal of the event was to generate business for Mark’s Carts and Downtown Home and Garden. The competition was second to the publicity.
“We figure today they’re all winners because of the crowd and the exposure, but we will crown a winner,” she said.
At 1 p.m., Ranallo collected the 221 ballots and disappeared to calculate the winner. By 1:30 p.m. the crowd had thinned, and most people who had cast ballots earlier had moved on with their weekend plans.
The people still sitting in the courtyard turned toward Hut-K Chaats after hearing a scream of delight. Ranallo had snuck behind the cart, which serves a healthy version of traditional Indian street food, to tell Sumi Bhojani the cart’s shanu chaat won the cook-off.
Sumi’s husband Swaroop Bhojani, owner of the Hut-K Chaats cart and Hut-K Chaats restaurant on Packard Road, was less shocked than his wife at the announcement.
“Frankly, I wasn’t surprised because this is the most popular dish at the restaurant,” he said. Though shanu chaat, a sweet and spicy dish consisting mainly of chickpeas, is a regular on the restaurant’s menu, this was the first time it was served at the cart.
“We loved (the event). Good crowd and amazing response,” Bhojani said.
Mark Hodesh, owner of Mark’s Carts and Downtown Home and Garden next door on South Ashley Street, was all smiles on Saturday.
“Perfect weather, good publicity and (the cook-off) was a big hit,” he said.
In addition to the cook-off, Hodesh cooked five gallons of chili and chef Matt Banks smoked two briskets for anyone visiting the store to taste.
Downtown Home and Garden’s third-annual pickling contest, which offered 54 pickles, medleys, chutneys and salsas for patrons who wished to participate in judging, took over the new greenhouse space behind the store.
Phillis Engelbert, co-owner of another cart in Mark’s Carts called The Lunch Room, said she sold out most of the dishes on the menu in addition to giving away all the samples for the cook-off.
Hodesh and Ranallo are open to holding more cook-offs in the future. They were already discussing possibilities for future events and special offerings involving all the carts moments after the winner of Saturday’s cook-off was announced.
“It was just a good vibe out there,” Hodesh said.