Food Carts a Go-Go
A guide to Portland’s culinary carts
From the March/April 2009 issue
By Lizzy Caston
Stomachs are grumbling across Portland, Oregon.
Like clockwork around noon, a mass of people sets out to satisfy their hunger on the best of what the city has to offer. Korean grilled kalbi beef ribs and chap-chae noodles or traditional Japanese yakisoba noodles. Rib-sticking Hungarian beef goulash served with a dollop of sweet paprika sour cream. Veracruz-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Spicy and highly aromatic shrimp pad Thai. Fork-tender, smoky barbecue pulled pork. Sicilian pizza served from a colorful purple-painted school bus.
This isn’t a once-a-year food festival or special event. This is everyday dining in Portland. From American comfort food to international specialties, Portland is home to more than 170 food carts and counting—one of the largest per capita populations of food carts of any city in the United States, according to the City of Portland’s “Food Cart Study,” taken in 2008.
It doesn’t take a study to see food carts are everywhere. They’re lined up in rows along downtown streets and surrounding neighborhoods, some are grouped into “pods” located in parking lots, while others set up solo in choice locations around the city.
The reasons for the popularity of food carts in Portland are complex. Unlike cities such as Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., which have strict rules about where carts can operate, zoning regulations and business laws in Portland are a bit more open-minded. A growing reputation as a world-class food city combined with a “Keep Portland Weird” attitude that loves anything a little bit offbeat provide method to the city’s food cart madness.
Dr. Ethan Seltzer, director of Portland State University’s School of Urban Planning and Studies, sums it up this way. “Portlanders love to support small-scale entrepreneurs and local businesses. We also have a vibrant downtown and up-and-coming areas where people love to stroll and gather. Food carts illustrate Portland’s values that streets are for people.”There is another, simpler reason for the city’s burgeoning food cart scene: The food! It’s fast, fun, tasty, and affordable. Not to mention, a whole meal can often be purchased in the time it takes to drive through a burger joint, and for about the same price as your daily extra-large mocha.
Take, for instance, La Jarochita’s taco truck, which brings new meaning to the concept of a “value meal” with their $4 chile relleño burrito that takes two hands to heft. At Sawasdee Thai, two people can get stuffed for $6 on a giant container of the “Emerald”—stir-fried spicy veggies and tofu with peanut sauce and a healthy serving of jasmine rice on the side.
Sure, one might be a little bit suspicious of food this cheap that comes from what sometimes looks like a tin shed on wheels. But keep in mind, food carts are under the same strict rules and health inspections that apply to restaurants. Low rents, low labor, and low equipment costs help keep prices low.
There is also an inherent sense of connectedness that often occurs between food cart diners and the cart owners. Unlike restaurants, you can get to know your server, cashier, and cook since they are often one-in-the-same person.
It is early morning on the corner of SW 9th Avenue and Alder Street in downtown Portland. A few construction workers huddle next to Loco-Loco Burritos to fuel up on warm, just-off-the-griddle tortillas and hearty breakfast burritos made with scrambled eggs, potatoes, and fresh tomato salsa.
One cart over, the affable owner of the Bosnian Ziba’s Pitas is busy preparing her signature flaky cheese-and-spinach pitas and seasoned cufte meatballs.
At the intersection of SW 5th Avenue and Stark Street, John Eads, the owner and chef of Give Pizza a Chance, makes his own sodas from scratch and cooks with organic, local ingredients as much as possible. His rustic handcrafted pizzas, which feature a 50% whole-wheat crust, have developed a cult-like following. Suddenly a slice of ‘za—topped with artichoke hearts, Italian sausage, and feta cheese—becomes something to really look forward to for lunch, rather than just something to grab and go between meetings.Not all carts are simply lunchtime affairs, however.
On Portland’s eastside, at the corner of SE 12th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard, a late-night food cart “pod” has emerged with a festive atmosphere that serves hungry families looking for an affordable meal, as well as bar goers looking to wind down from a night of imbibing.
From $2 carnitas or roasted lamb tacos at El Brasero, to smoked turkey legs at Q’ BBQ, this conglomerate of food carts is also home to Potato Champion, Portland’s only food cart serving Canada’s national dish, poutine—crispy french fries smothered in rich, brown chicken gravy and mixed with cheese curds. It sounds like college cafeteria food gone wild, but poutine is highly addictive and highly filling. Potato Champion has elevated their recipe into gourmet status with the addition of fresh rosemary in their gravy, plus they offer a wide choice of sauces for their regular “frites,” such as tangy rémoulade or garlicky aïoli.
Part of the fun of food cart dining is the discovery of these quirky places and the foods they offer. Food carts generally don’t advertise, they can be difficult to find, they have odd hours, and they might be here one day, gone the next.
However, imagine the delight and surprise of coming across a shiny metal trailer that just happens to serve some of the best Italian street food in the city. Garden State, named for owner Kevin Sandri’s New Jersey birthplace, draws customers from all over for his melt-in-your-mouth saffron-flavored arancine (fried risotto balls), slow-roasted porchetta and garlic on ciabatta bread, and juicy grilled pepper and sausage sandwiches. It’s the next-best thing to a Roman holiday.
Food carts are a wonderful way to sample local specialties and try out new cuisines at price points that fit most anyone’s budget. Businessmen slurp noodles next to taxi drivers, while moms and dads pick up a fast and tasty dinner for their eagerly awaiting families. New York City is so passionate about their food carts that a group has formed to hand out yearly “Carty Awards”—perhaps Portland will follow suit?
Food carts will never replace the civility of white-cloth restaurants or a home-cooked meal. But for an everyday celebration of international cuisines, and as a way to get quick, quality food at budget prices, Portland’s food cart scene can’t be beat—no passport or airline ticket required.
Portland’s food cart chronicler Lizzy Caston has sought street food satisfaction in every corner of her hometown, as well as wherever she travels. This is her first story for Northwest Palate.
More on Food Cart culture in our March/April 2012 issue!
Front Slide photo: It may be “just” a cart, but you won’t find flakier, tastier pitas anywhere than at Ziba’s Pitas.