Food carts are the go-to lunch hotspots in Madison, and it’s no secret why. Great food; fast service; and you’ll be eating outside, enjoying parks, sights, breweries…anywhere the carts set up. We’re excited to share two newer favorites that, if you haven’t heard of them yet, are bringing something fresh to an already eclectic scene.

The Walking Jerk

Madison native Daijah Wade, chef and creator of The Walking Jerk, comes from a long line of Black women who know how to liven up a kitchen. She talks about how her grandma’s Southern spirit always made the house sizzle and how her mom and every one of her aunties bring their own flair to the kitchen. As the only one compelled to open her own restaurant, Daijah finds herself playing a pivotal role in her family legacy.

The vision came when Daijah lived in Indianapolis. There, she served her tacos to small, local businesses, like barber shops and people she knew. “I didn’t really know what the heck I was doing. I was just doing this because I love to cook and I kind of needed the money. I was in pure survival mode.” She was at a point in her life where choosing between gas and groceries was a weekly occurrence.

As bad luck would have it, Daijah moved back to Madison in March 2020, the beginning of COVID. To cope, she tried to think of what she could do to make lockdowns easier for everyone around her. The answer came in the form of candles and body butter because, in that moment, opening a restaurant didn’t make a lot of sense.

“I really wanted to cook, but I was a little bit scared. I didn’t really know how this would turn out. Everything inside me was just driving me to follow my dreams. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My partner, Andrew Ack, was like, ‘What do you love to do?’ I love to cook. Delicious foods are my love language. So we went back to the taco thing—I came up with this vegan jackfruit taco, and we just ran with that.”

The Walking Jerk’s menu is entirely vegan, making it stand out from other Madison food trucks with vegan options. Daijah often talks about appealing to the vegan-curious, but I don’t think that does justice to her food. Vegan-curious implies some degree of testing the waters of a lifestyle to see if it’s right for an individual, but good food is just good food. Nothing to be curious about here. If you like jackfruit, a variety of locally sourced oyster mushrooms, and damn good jerk sauce, there’s no doubt this is the place for you.

Perfectionist that she is, Daijah’s jerk sauce comes from a lifetime of getting it just right. “Jerk was something we only ate if we went to Chicago. Other than that, I didn’t really eat it, but I would crave it when I got home. I didn’t know there were jerk marinades you can use, and when I found them, they didn’t really taste like what I knew. So I started obsessing over the flavor profiles of it. When I created it on my own, my recipe was pretty off. I didn’t have the right ratio, but I had all of the ingredients. This drove me to want to create this flavor that I fell in love with.”

Green onion, thyme, garlic, ginger, a little bit of brown sugar, salt, and allspice. Throw in some Scotch bonnet peppers or habaneros and, when done right, you’re left with a truly addicting jerk sauce. To wash it down, Daijah offers a fruit-of-the-day lemonade. If the jerk sauce wasn’t enough to take your brain all the way to the Caribbean, this is the island-hopping puddle jumper you needed.

Now, if you’re jerk-curious, The Walking Jerk offers a jerk platter to let you discover if the jerk lifestyle is right for you. “A jerk platter comes with red beans and rice, your choice of jerk mushrooms or the jerk jackfruit, we have a barbeque sauce now or a hot jerk sauce, and then you get some stir-fry cabbage, sweet potatoes, and macaroni.” Side note: the jerk lifestyle can be right for everyone.

Daijah is hoping to one day open a brick-and-mortar space. It’s ambitious, but that’s who she is. Big dreamer, big doer. She also knows it’s important to take it all one step at a time. “Embrace the journey and have a lot of gratitude. Things aren’t always how you plan them to be, but just keep at it.”

This year, expect to find The Walking Jerk at a lot of pop-up events and breweries (check out their Facebook page for up-to-date information) as Daijah seeks a more permanent spot for her food truck.

The Roost

Fried chicken, the food so good they serve it in buckets. That said, I’d rather eat one freakin’ good fried chicken sandwich over several pieces of meh. Enter The Roost, Nate Krause’s Midwestern interpretation of a Southern staple giving tastebuds a reason to wake up.

Far from a classically trained chef, Nate had a short stint earning his stripes in the kitchens of Great Dane and Lombardino’s. Then COVID happens, so he and his roommate start a ghost kitchen concept in their apartment, Secret Restaurant. “We called it the restaurartment, and our electricity bill was…large. It didn’t really pan out. Then I started working for Jason Beilke, who owns Jason’s Jerk, and I found somebody who was selling a food cart for a great price. Bought it and went from there.”

As Nate saw it, there’s no way to lose with fried chicken. It’s a concept that’s proven itself time and time again. In addition, he already had a recipe he could work with thanks to Secret Restaurant.

“We do our own brine and breading. We cook everything to order in the cart. You’re not allowed to have raw chicken in the cart, so what I do is brine it, bread it, then I bake it. It’s fully cooked, then it’s flash-fried in the cart. But it doesn’t lose the moisture because of the brine; it’s still juicy and tender.

“What we’re really known for is our Badgerville Spicy Sandwich. That’s a chicken cutlet that’s breaded; fried; then dipped in our spicy butter, which is cayenne, honey, and butter. It’s just delicious. And it’s topped with our house coleslaw, which we shred the cabbage for and make the coleslaw base from scratch. It’s both creamy and vinegary—nice and creamy to cool the heat of the sandwich, and vinegary to cut through that heavy fried chicken butter. It all comes together for a really nice bite with a little bit of pickle and brioche bun.”

So how spicy is it? Well, Nate initially called the sandwich the Nashville before receiving a lot of complaints because it wasn’t spicy enough. Instead of making the sandwich spicier, he simply acknowledged that he’d made a really good chicken sandwich and just changed its name. “I call it Midwest spicy; it’s not gonna hurt you, but you’ll get a little zip. It’s not a food challenge. It’s meant to be enjoyed.”

In Wisconsin, a deep fryer also means fries and curds. It’s a simple menu, and it’s solid. There’s also lemonade and sweet tea to wash it down, meaning Arnold Palmers are par for the…well, you know. Nate’s also adding the option of a honey mustard sauce to go with his sandwiches and tenders.

Having worked in two of Madison’s landmark restaurants, Nate has a profound appreciation for being part of Madison’s restaurant scene. “Madison takes a lot of pride in its restaurants. There’s beautiful scenery here, like the terrace, but the thing I feel connected to is the restaurants. I’ve only felt encouragement and positivity from the people here.”

That community connection feeds Nate’s aspirations to grow within it. He wants to one day open a small counter-service restaurant with a couple taps, but he’s not looking to overextend his passion. In fact, it seems to me he sees the potential to grow stronger through humbler undertakings.

“I have a good relationship with a lot of people in the community. I’m trying to build this into something special. I’m proud of the business, but I’m trying to get to a point where I’m even more proud of it and I can do even more things. I’d love to be in a position to give back—give people jobs, help with charitable giving. It’s important to me.”

In a sense, he’s already there. In addition to operating The Roost, Nate plays guitar in Distant Cuzins (The Cuz), a Wisconsin-born band playing with the passion of punk and gall of rock. Not a lot of food truck owners can say they perform at the venues they serve, but it’s bittersweet. Nate compares the experience to watching your baby grow up because he has to acknowledge that, with the great staff he has on board, the food cart can work just fine when he needs to step away. It also means he’s done a fine job putting The Roost in a position where it can add to what makes the Madison food scene so special.

Kyle Jacobson is a writer who thinks, hot or cold, revenge is a dish that just shouldn’t be served.

Photographs by Eric Tadsen.

The Walking Jerk

The Roost