PORTLAND - This city might be best known as America’s craft beer capital but anybody who’s visited this hip Oregon city where man buns, flannel shirts and funky doughnuts reign, will know it for something different — its food carts.
Truth be told, one long weekend here isn’t enough to hit a fraction of them. With over 600 on the roster, you’d have to eat at a food cart daily for almost two years to visit them all, and even then, you’d be behind as they’re frequently changing.
I don’t let that deter me, though. I’m on a mission to sample as much of Portland’s food carts (and its beers, to be honest) in the short time I have. Although I’m more successful on my beer mission, I do take a decent bite out of the carts. Just one bite tells me why Portlanders are so gaga about carts.
Dishing out the details
I’m staying at the Hotel Monaco in downtown Portland, giving me easy access to about 250 food carts (the rest are in other parts of the city). Food carts are grouped into “pods” that contain anywhere from a few to several dozen. Some have creative names — Cartopia, Tidbit and Cartlandia, for instance — while others are known by their location.
I do most of my sampling at SW 9th Avenue and Alder Street. Locals refer to it as the Alder Pod and it’s a cart-lover’s paradise with about 60 carts occupying a two-block radius. It’s where I meet Brett Burmeister — owner of Food Carts Portland, which offers tours — who eats lunches daily at carts with one exception. “I take Sundays off,” he says. Good timing, as most of the popular carts are closed that day.
While many cities have food trucks, Portland’s scene is truly unique. For starters, carts, more appropriately called trailers, aren’t allowed to park in streets, a law that’s been around since they first appeared in the 1980s. Instead, they park in lots, each space slightly wider than a car on average.
Above: The food carts in Portland come in all shapes, colours and sizes.
The support these food carts receive is also almost unprecedented. “From the people and the foodies to the government, Portland has been so supportive,” says Julia Barrett, co-owner of The Dump Truck. “They’re very welcoming to trying something new and funky.”
Want to open a new food cart, though? Good luck. “To get a new space, the wait list is about 10 years,” Burmeister says. But keep your ears open, as people do sell their carts — about 90 per cent are owner-operated — when they’re ready to call it quits, some commanding as much as $10,000 (U.S.).
Besides meeting health codes, carts have one other main requirement to fulfill: The ability to move. Yet that’s an irony because some wheels are no thicker than a piece of paper.
Around the globe in one city
One of the best things about Portland’s food carts is no cuisine gets left behind. Whatever your taste buds desire, from whatever part of the world, healthy or not, you’ll find it.
Seeking comfort food? Hit the Grilled Cheese Grill where the Cheesus — two grilled cheese sandwiches swaddled around a burger — steals the spotlight. Craving a burrito the size of your forearm? Honkin’ Huge Burrito, which has been around since 1992, is your ticket. If, though, menus throw your head into a tailspin, visit Nona’s Chua Man Gay. There you can get chicken and rice. Or rice and chicken. Doesn’t matter how you order it, those are your only two options.
Yet it’s not only the variety of cuisines these carts sell, but also the various styles of each cuisine. For instance, if you you’re craving falafel, you have to specify whether you mean the Israeli or Lebanese version. Same goes for Mexican and every other cuisine.
“Foods have so many regional differences, and the food carts reflect that,” says Burmeister, adding that Portland’s palate is very discerning. “It’s why there’s not one fast food restaurant downtown.”
My tour with Foodcarts Portland includes four samples, three of which appeal to my plant-based diet. We start at the Dump Truck, which specializes in Chinese dumplings, and I might as well have just ended here as the Potato Curry and Down2Earth are to die for. There are two other dumplings on the menu, the bacon cheeseburger being the most unique, and the menu rarely changes. “Whenever we try to swap something for our main flavours, people throw a fit,” says Barrett, who learned how to make dumplings from a man who owned a dumpling restaurant in Beijing, where she once lived.
From there, we visit Ole’ Latte Coffee Roaster for artisan coffee. I try the pumpkin-poached orange latte with the most beautiful design on the froth — I hate ruining it. Yet one sip is all I need to tell me I’m coming back, and when I do, I’ll make a mark on their “suspended coffee” board.
The pay-it-forward program lets you to pay for a coffee for somebody (you get a 10 per cent discount on your total order) and mark it on the board; people who can’t afford a cup can then redeem that mark, one per day. “Giving back to the community was important to me,” says Todd Edwards, owner of Ole’ Latte Coffee Roaster. “We try to keep everyone caffeinated, even those who don’t have much.”
Above: It is standing room only at most food carts in Portland.
I travel next to a Persian food cart, Caspian Kabob, where I enjoy a veggie kabob over basmati rice. The rest of my group raves about the signature Kubideh Kabob with ground beef and lamb.
Our last stop is A Little Bit of Smoke Carolina BBQ, which specializes in Carolina-style BBQ. My non-vegan tour mates are served the Hogpile BBQ with black-eyed peas, pulled pork, slaw and red BBQ sauce.
By the way, if you’re an eco-friendly eater like me, Portland, a leader in sustainability, has you covered. Many carts use biodegradable and compostable containers and utensils, but some have taken the next step by becoming a GO Box vendor. Food cart eaters pay a minimal yearly fee to get their fare in boxes that are picked up by bike courier and then reused after sanitizing.
Unfortunately, though, Portland’s food cart scene is facing an unknown future. Many pod spaces are on the chopping block, possibly being turned into highrises and other buildings. Burmeister is hopeful, though, the city will change its laws to allow carts to park on streets.
One pod that doesn’t have to worry about parking issues. The Portland International Airport pod. I’m so surprised to find it there, and I get one last fix as I leave by grabbing a tofu bowl, perhaps the best I’ve had, from Koi Fusion. Suffice it to say my food cart experience from start to finish was beyond delicious, or should I say, cart-licious.