Chasing Food Carts
Since publishing one of the first major surveys of Portland’s then-booming food cart scene Food Carts A Go-Go,” March/April 2009, we’ve witnessed the number of restaurants-on-wheels surge from 170 back then, to a number today that crests the 500—and counting—mark. That’s a 250% increase in just a little more than three years!
Not to be outshone, Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and Boise, Idaho, have jumped into the food cart fray, although city leaders to the north and east of Rose City have taken a more conservative approach to their growth by imposing stricter regulations governing how and where food carts may set up shop.
Food carts have spread across the region, showing up everywhere from downtown to neighborhood “pods”—groupings of vendors gathered in clusters on parking lots or anyplace there’s real estate not otherwise commercialized. Carts cater to business people at lunchtime, and they’re also a source for a quick weekday dinner for foodie families, and a late-night, post-club munchies fix for members of Generation Entitlement and night owls of all ages.
Where consensus divides is on the matter of cost. If you think all food carts were created (or, by definition, should be) cheap, the truth is that you can spend just as much at a food cart as you would at a decent diner. … But don’t short change the experience of eating outdoors, the communal experience, or the fact you’re putting dollars directly into the hands of local owner-operators. Not to mention the variety of cuisines on offer at food carts, and its purpose serving as an alternative venue for culinary school grads and chefs who have tired of life behind the restaurant line.
With its diverse appeal and clientele, food carts are here to stay.
Does any other city come even remotely close to what’s going on in Portland? Maybe Austin?
I think that the Northwest is kind of killing it right now. Seattle, with the new law changes has really seen a boom in new trucks, and there are some over there that are flat out killing it! Where ya at Matt, Marination, Skillet and then some great “sweet trucks”, Molly Moon’s and Street Treats. I also think LA has the food truck thing down. One of my very good friends actually gave me and article on LA Food trucks a couple years ago, and that is what got my head working. We are heading down to LA in May and plan on “chasing trucks” for our anniversary.
How is food cart culture different in NYC versus the Pacific Northwest?
After being back recently, it seems that NYC is more of a “push cart” atmosphere, where guys are setting up on corners and going for it. Did a lot of sampling, have to admit that the food is good, but I’ll take our NW carts anytime!
How do you see food cart culture moving forward?
I think that it will keep rolling. Literally! I cannot see it slowing down, as long as there are chefs that want to go the anti-establishment route this is going to survive and get stronger. One thing I think we will see is the truck guys, moving to include a brick and mortar in the plan. I think that once you create the demand and have the hype, it is a no-brainer. Skillet and Marination did this in Seattle and we are moving to that here in Walla Walla, hopefully by next week.
Andrae Bopp by John Valls
Food Cart by Patrick Barber