Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Portland Food Carts: An Eat-Along Adventure

If you are human and eat food, you've heard about the food cart scene in Portland. In one of those fateful cosmic events that leads to huge success, the collection of Portland food carts had grown quite praise-worthy, just as the the economy took a blazing nosedive. Suddenly, the $6 street meal went HUGE. The lure of self-employment and low-overhead inspired investment bankers and the like to drop the briefcase and pick up a spatula. While businesses across the board were gasping for breath after the economic sucker-punch, the mobile food units of Portland were growing fast (about 30% in 2009).

It's a hopeful story about the unexpected gifts born of adversity, but that's not why you should go. You should go, because street food is GOOD. Other cities, like NY, LA, SF, NOLA, and MSP, have embraced the food cart concept with open arms, so you don't have to travel to P-town for a good taco or falafel. That said, Portland's scene is especially awesome, and has inspired many a food cart in other locales.

I may have mentioned something in my last post about how much I love Portland (still recovering from P.O.S.) ... So, as one more blog-post homage to my new favorite city, I want to give you a PDX food cart breakdown.

First, one of the best resources if you're lucky enough to hit the scene is the Food Carts Portland website. This will help you figure out what there is to eat in your 'hood. 

I went on a walking tour of Portland's downtown street carts as part of the IACP Conference. We literally ate ourselves into a stupor, and I feared I may have to purchase one of these to get through the rest of the conference. This merely scratches the surface but it will give you a window into what the fuss is about:

Get a bunch of culinarians together and what's the first thing we want?


Yep, PORK. We kicked off the tasting with the Porchetta Sandwich from The People's Pig. Uber juicy. Napkins required. Porchetta, I've noticed, is kinda hot these days in the food world. It's a savory Italian pork roast, including meat, fat, and skin of the pig, seasoned with herbs and slow-cooked until melty-goodness stage is reached.

With what could we possibly follow that?


Yep, that's a 10 inch wiener.
(tee hee)

Bro Dogs serves up crazy good hot dogs and sausages in a special bun they call a "Panagle"-- part panini, part bagel. It's fluffy and sturdy enough to hold a heck of a lot of toppings, but honestly, just a plain bro dog with mustard is totally righteous on it's own.

Right next to Bro Dogs is the perfect morning-after spot: The Brunch Box on SW 5th and Stark. This place serves up burgers and sandwiches that will cure (or at least sedate) the nastiest of hangovers. We tried the "Youcanhascheeseburger":  A burger patty with pickles and the works, served between two grilled cheese sandwiches made with Texas toast. The "Redonkadonk Burger" is all that PLUS egg, ham, Spam, bacon, and more American cheese, and no I'm not kidding.

Our next stop was Potato Champion:


Here's where it gets really crazy:


Poutine. It's a French-Canadian thing. French fries, seasoned gravy, and cheese curds. You know you want some.

This next stop (yes, we're still eating) is one of the innovations that makes the new food cart scene so interesting.
What exactly is that, you ask? Well here's what it looks like:


That's a taco, stuffed with Korean-style Bulgogi Beef, topped with sesame cabbage, bean sprouts, cilantro, and a side of Kim Chi. There's a definite addiction factor. I wish I had been hungrier, but as you can see we had already eaten an obscene amount of food, and my taste receptors were starting to blur from over-indulgence.  

But wait, there's more:

mwahahahahahahaaa!

That's Ziba. She rolls the pita by hand, into a strudel-thin dough, and then fills them with different combinations of meat, cheese, and vegetables. This is a very popular cart. I had a taste of Ziba's spinach and cheese pita. It was wonderful, and not at all what I expected when I heard the word Pita. Crackly and brown in spots, tender and chewy in others. Mmmmm....lots of love in those pitas. Can't wait to go back on an empty stomach. 

That was where about half of us threw in the towel, while the rest of the gang continued on to Cacao for some drinking chocolate. You know it's bad when you don't even have room for chocolate. All week, the conference was abuzz with Cacao's chocolaty beverages, but sadly I never got to try.

There are a couple more places I must mention. First, Spella Caffe. On our way to the food carts we stopped here for some serious coffee, and by serious I mean, WINE SERIOUS. They have a huge passion for beans here, and offered us perfectly brewed steaming cups from a small coffee grower in India. If you're serious about coffee, don't miss Spella while you're in Portland.

Finally, I had heard about this little place that served only one dish, done perfectly: Chicken and Rice at Nong's Khao Man Gai. Nong is from Bangkok, and gives herself fully to this simple, beautiful dish. This is how her menu describes it:

"Poached chicken with rice cooked in chicken stock. Served with soybean sauce (mixed with garlic, ginger and chilies) Bland soup served on the side to complete the dish. "

I loved this place. It was my last pit stop before hitting the road out of Portland, and it was a meal with so much heart. It gave me what I call, "Happy Tummy", and got me all the way back to Montana.

The End

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great description of the food cart scene in Portland. It felt like I was right back there standing next to you!

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