In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Chris Lay, contributor
Summer’s arrival in Madison brings with it an understandably renewed interest in our food cart culture, which for the most part has been hibernating. The nexus of these traveling tummy ticklers is undoubtedly Library Mall, and there are two notable spots selling almost identical fare and occupying real estate directly across from each other: Fresh Cool Drinks and Natural Juice, the duo of colorful carts primarily geared toward selling a variety of “fresh” and “cool” and “natural” juice drink and smoothie options. But, regardless of how high it is on the marquee, I don’t care about the juice. No, each of these carts also happens to sell monstrously large spring rolls, which are apparently unique to Madison.
I met up with Tone Madison‘s Scott Gordon for lunch last week, and we ordered a couple of these pleasantly overstuffed veggie windsocks from each cart in order to conduct one hell of a taste test.
I got in line at the Fresh Cool Drinks cart (whose name could easily double as a mid-aughts backpack rap group) and ordered two avocado rolls. One straight up veggie and another with shrimp. The total came to $8 for the whole sack of densely wrapped goodness that was passed to me through the almost uninvitingly small window in the side of the cart through which all business is conducted. Both carts, in fact, have almost comically small openings through which currency and goods are exchanged, which I clearly consider to be “notable” enough to point out here.
While I was waiting for mine, Scott hopped into the line at Natural Juice and ordered up a shrimp roll plus one with chicken. The cost for his order was about the same as mine. I assume that the two carts have undercut each other to a stalemate over the years, or somehow agreed on a reasonably low price ballpark. Natural Juice took a heck of a lot longer to process two rolls than Cool Fresh Drinks did, which we could probably chalk up to circumstance, or the extra complication of ordering a chicken roll. Anyways, be patient with your heroically multi-tasking food-cart workers during a lunch rush, folks!
The two carts’ rolls are pretty much identical as far as ingredients go. Each one had lettuce, carrots, cabbage, rice noodles, cucumber, some savory peanut sauce, sesame oil, and a squirt of hot sauce. Both of the shrimp rolls had roughly the same amount (and quality) of shrimp, which is a very important thing to note, but the Natural Juice roll simply lacked the flavor and textural pop of the one from Fresh Cool Drinks. Admittedly, while it is perhaps not fair to pit a veggie roll against a chicken roll but, while both carts were solidly deliciousFresh Cool Drinks’ avocado veggie roll took top honors in my book.
The biggest thing I will say that Natural Juice has going for it to get me back on their side of Library Mall is a roll that, according to their menu, is stuffed with jellyfish. I’ve never eaten jellyfish, much less known eating jellyfish was an option under any circumstances, and this seems like a great way to accomplish my heretofore unknown goal of eating jellyfish. Sadly, Natural Juice had been tapped out of that option when Scott and I decided to swing through for lunch. But man oh man, I am sincerely interested to find out what one of those gelatinous slippery bois looks like when prepped for human consumption, much less how it will taste all bumping up against avocado and peanut sauce.
So. There you have it. Fresh Cool Drinks takes the crown in our giant-spring-roll throwdown, unless that invertebrate add-on from Natural Juice manages to curl my toes something fierce.
New this week:
The city-funded Between The Waves conference makes some welcome changes to its programming.
Experimental musician Patrick Best reflects on his time in the late-’80s DC punk scene.
On a podcast short, we try to make sense of LÜM, a music streaming app developed in Madison.
The Digital Warmth podcast kicks off its second season with a conversation with Seattle-based producer and DJ Alex Osuch, aka DJAO and 7777777.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: The Shepherd Express talks with Madison comic Will Isenberg. Jay Som has announced an October 17 show at the High Noon. Rob Thomas meets Rob Thomas. The booze will finally flow at State Street’s Taco Bell this Friday, Madison Magazine reports. Historian Simon Balto visits WORT’s A Public Affair to discuss his history of policing in black Chicago.
This week’s Madison calendar: The Legalize It! DJ night returns to Mickey’s with a live set from Nika Danilova of Zola Jesus. Rooftop Cinema kicks off at MMOCA with three films by Sky Hopinka. And more.