In September, Mack and I spent ten days in Portland, Oregon. I’m hoping to cover the highlights of our trip over a series of posts.
When deciding where we would vacation last fall, we had a short list of American cities we had yet to explore. Portland was at the very top, and given its vibrant food cart culture, it seemed fitting to pay them a visit on the heels of our biggest What the Truck?! event to date. We knew about the sheer number of food carts in the city (somewhere between 400-600), had heard about their well-established food pods (clusters of food carts), and researched some of the vendors that have received national attention. We were more than ready to experience the mobile magic ourselves.
I have to say, our initial impressions weren’t positive. Our first encounter came on night one, after checking into our hotel. We had located a food pod about two blocks away on Alder Street, and were hoping to score a quick dinner.
This pod, like most others in the downtown core, was made up of carts set up on the periphery of parking lots. Although we did encounter actual “food trucks” over the course of our trip, most vendors were set up in converted trailers, connected to city power and water hook-ups. Many were far from well-maintained.
Dual purpose lots
For visitors like us, it also wasn’t evident where patrons were supposed to sit, without obvious dining areas in sight. A few days later, after familiarizing ourselves with the neighbourhood, we located a park nearby, but for a city known for its pedestrian leanings, the lack of benches was surprising.
Worst of all, the vast majority of vendors were closed! We learned quickly that most downtown carts only operated during the lunch rush, while pods that catered to the evening crowd were located in other parts of Portland.
Sorry, come again
On the plus side, this did narrow down our choices quite significantly, given there were only three carts still open at 6:30pm that night. We ended up ordering from neighbouring vendors, picking up a Cuban sandwich ($7.50) from El Cubo de Cuba, and a yellow chicken curry ($5) from the aptly named I Like Thai Food.
El Cubo de Cuba and I Like Thai Food
Unlike food trucks, which are set at a grade or two above street level, many of the food carts in that area were constructed from converted trailers. As a result, we were able to peer directly into the kitchens and watch as our food was being prepared.
Although it didn’t make sense for us to partake, El Cubo de Cuba participates in Go Box, an initiative that attempts to decrease the waste of disposable food containers by encouraging the use of reusable take-out boxes. It’s just neat to see an example of a program that can flourish only with a critical mass of vendors.
With seemingly no other option, we brought our food back to the hotel for consumption. The curry was absolutely steaming hot, and cooked to order, the chicken was tender amongst the softened vegetables. I couldn’t get over how inexpensive it was – $5 for a generously portioned curry and a side of rice was unreal.
Yellow curry and Cuban sandwich
Similarly, the pork in the cuban sandwich was dripping with juice, and with meat stuffed to the brim, Mack could barely finish it. The tater tots were a fun alternative to fries.
Eats After Dark
Two days later, we made plans to check out one of the late night pods across the river. About a half hour’s walk from downtown, Cartopia on Hawthorne and SE 12th was adjacent to numerous bars and restaurants. This proximity was the case for the two other late night pods we passed through later that week (one on Mississippi Avenue and another, with live music, in Clinton), and made perfect sense given the pods’ complementary nature to brick and mortar businesses, enhancing street life all while providing a hangover cure.
Cartopia was set up on a vacant lot, and the carts, like those we had first encountered, were also plugged into the power and water systems. Unlike the downtown pods, however, Cartopia had a canopied seating area and portapotties. And with a simple string of lights, it looked like the perfect place to spend a warm fall night.
We were swayed by the promise of poutine ($5) from Potato Champion, but it ended up being the least favourite food cart dish of our trip. Although the fries were all right, the “curds” were mozzarella chunks, and the gravy was weirdly sour and unstrained, which left chunks of onion amongst the sauce to contend with.
We fared better for dessert – Perierra Creperie had the longest line of any vendor, and after trying a delicate chocolate and banana crepe ($6) made literally in front of us, we could see why.
From Whiffies, I indulged in a deep fried peach pie ($5). Freshly fried, the pastry was deliciously crackly.
Enjoying my deep fried pie
No doubt, the advantage of pods was the ability to mix and match – for the price of one entree at a casual upscale eatery, we were able to sample three different items. Though we didn’t crunch the numbers, we were almost certain we spent less on food in Portland than we have in our other trips to American cities in recent years.
The Money Cart
Our hallelujah food cart moment came halfway through our trip, when we made our way to Brunch Box on Oak Street. Featured in season one on Eat St., this was the cart that had become seared in my memory, the money shot of the YouCanHasCheeseburger haunting me.
What is the YouCanHasCheeseburger, you ask? It’s a burger on steroids – instead of a regular bun, all of the makings of a burger, a patty, lettuce, tomato and onions, are bookended by two Texas toast grilled cheese sandwiches. All for $6.
It was far from gourmet, but that burger was our most memorable meal, probably because it met our sky high expectations, built up after years of anticipation. The buttery crispness of the grilled cheese just melted into the beef, with sauteed onions providing a sweet finish.
The burger made such an impression on us, in spite of the caloric feat, we returned to Brunch Box…two more times.
Ecstatic to be back for a grilled cheese
Because food pods have taken root all across Portland, many of the popular vendors have been able to open multiple locations.
We returned to the Alder Street pod for lunch one day so we could dine at carts that were already closed on our first visit. Though we were in the thick of the lunch rush, there were surprisingly few people around the pod. With so many vendors competing with one another, we had to wonder how some were able to survive, especially with such limited operating hours.
Mack made a beeline for Grilled Cheese Grill, a cart with three locations in the city. They had an impressive selection of classic and modern grilled cheese combinations, with Mack ultimately deciding on the Gabby ($5.75), with Tilamook cheddar, colby jack, swiss, mozzarella and bacon. He enjoyed it, but said it paled in comparison with the simple but solid grilled cheese sandwich from Brunch Box.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai is easily Portland’s most famous food cart, renowned across America for the sole dish they sell, a Hainanese chicken rice. They have two locations in the city, and both close up shop once the day’s inventory has been sold.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai
The front clerk charmed those waiting in line, his carefree disposition translating into effortless upsells and smiling customers. I was easily convinced to add an order of fried chicken skin ($1) to the basic order of poached chicken and rice ($6.75).
Chicken and rice
Terrible photo aside, the dish transported me back to Asia. Served in a paper packet sealed with an elastic, the slow braised meat was some of the best chicken I’ve had, and even better when accompanied with a bite of aromatic, shiny rice and a drizzle of ginger and garlic-flecked chili sauce. The order also included a small container of fragrant broth, which I inhaled.
No doubt, the sheer number and panoply of carts was impressive. Though we weren’t sure how they all sustain themselves, it was entirely true that a high quality meal could be had at street corners all over Portland. Let’s hope Edmonton’s food truck culture continues to develop in this direction!