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With more than 700 food trucks to choose from, here are 7 culinary carts you'll want to include on your essential PDX nibble and nosh list
The food cart scene in Portland is nearly 700 strong with pods or clusters of food carts dotting empty lots across the city. Some carts, like the ones above, are in pods that stretch along entire city blocks (SW 5th & Stark) with an established fan-base, while baby pods – with just one, two or three food carts – cater to local neighbourhood regulars.
Whether by the dozens or by the few, food carts are a delicious, legitimate, and beloved culinary mainstay on Portland’s foodie scene. The options available are wildly diverse. Prior to 2007, food carts provided mostly carny food – more novelty than epicurean. But five years later the scene’s changed entirely. Now there are more ethnic, artisanal, restaurant-quality meals available. Fois gras and chips? No problem. Barbeque jackfruit fried pie? Just down the street. There’s a food cart for every craving and a pod for every demographic.
Some carts are open seasonally, some only during the weekday lunch window, while others for only a few hours in the middle of the night to satisfy the after-club munchies. The carts – multi-national in flavours and delightfully eclectic in décor – and their legions of snack-seekers seem a fitting homage to the spirit of the American Dream: have idea, work hard, earn living, eat well, repeat.
This is your guy if you want to know about food carts in PDX. Brett Burmeister, a Portland native, is the unofficial go-to guy about all things food cart in the city. He’s owner and managing editor of Food Carts Portland, has produced an iPhone app and was co-founder of the Oregon Street Food Association, which helps vendors navigate through the bureaucracy.
Burmeister also provides tours that take people through a couple of downtown pods. You’ll walk a fair bit, all the while learning about the history of the food cart scene in Portland, picking up some really interesting trivia and stopping to sample some of the delectable food he’s telling you about.
Tours run Monday to Saturday, start at noon, last about 90 minutes, and cost $30 (kids 12 and under are free).
This was our first stop on Burmeister’s tour. EuroTrash is a gleaming stainless steel airstream making things like escargo drenched in garlic butter ($8), seared duck liver fois gras with chips ($14) and Portugese chorizo and chips with curry aioli ($8).
Its special on the day I was there was the “duck butter” – a super slider with fois gras, arugula and quail egg ($17). Creator and chef Charles Thomas got the concept for EuroTrash after years travelling around Europe and exploring cuisine from the finest restaurants to the simplest street foods. He marries flavours and ingredients prominent in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and other coastal Mediterranean regions.
After a brief introduction to EuroTrash’s menu and food philosophy, we dove into an order of “Fishy Chips” ($6), which were Spanish fried anchovies with lemon aioli. Crunchy, meaty, not at all fishy and absolutely delicious. I would happily snack on these every day.
The Grilled Cheese Grill might not look like much, but it always draws a crowd. It caters to the 20- and 30-something nostalgic for a taste from the past. In fact, the Grill’s slogan is, “Come by for a taste of your childhood, unless yours sucked. Then we’ll share a taste of ours.” And theirs tastes delicious.
It has grilled cheese combinations ranging from the tame to the absurd. If you want to keep it classic, order the “Kindergartner,” with Cheddar or American cheese on white bread ($3.75) or get fancy with the “Pre-schooler” and they’ll cut the crusts cut off for you (also $3.75). At the other end of the spectrum (way, way, way down the other end) there’s the Cheesus series of cheeseburgers. Instead of using traditional hamburger buns to ensconce the burger patty, they use two grilled cheese sandwiches to sandwich the burger. That’s right: a grilled cheese sandwich on top of a burger on top or a grilled cheese sandwich.
The Original Cheesus ($8.50) features one sandwich with pickles and American cheese and another with grilled onions and Colby Jack, with a 1/3 lb burger in between, along with all the fixins. The Queesus features Tillamook Pepperjack and Jalapenos in one sandwich, Cheddar and onions in the other. Same 1/3 lb burger, same fixins, same price ($8.50). And lastly, there’s (and you knew this was coming) the Baby Cheesus, which uses American and Colby Jack cheeses in between slices of white bread, on either side of a 1/3 lb burger ($6.50).
The Grilled Cheese Grill has three locations: downtown at the Alder pod, SW 10th & Alder; Northeast, in the school bus (literally), NE 11th & Alberta; and Southeast, in the Double Decker bus (again, literally), SE 28th & Ankeny.
One of our stops on Burmeister’s tour was at the Dump Truck. That’s “dump” as in “dumpling.” It serves modern versions of the traditional dumpling, which resemble Japanese gyozas or Chinese jaozi. It offers fillings such as potato curry, Portobello mushrooms with noodles, and even one with bacon cheeseburger. Prices vary depending on which filling you get, but mix’n’match samplers are 3 for $4, 6 for $6, 8 for $7, and 10 for $8.
This is a close-up of the dumplings we had at the Dump Truck. The dumplings are pretty but look at the container: this is the GO Box, a re-useable container that allows vendors and customers to reuse plastic containers.
Nearly 60,000 take-away containers are thrown away every month from PDX food carts alone. This program was born out of necessity when rubbish bins started overflowing with take-away containers from food trucks, especially on Alder Street between 10th & 11th. Because train tracks bisect that block, new homeland security regulations made the addition of rubbish bins illegal, deeming them a potential national security threat.
The only solution was to go green, and GO Box was born. The program costs $12/year to participate in and anyone can join by paying the fee when they purchase their first Go Box meal with a participating vendor. They’ll receive their food in the GO Box and when they’re done, they return the container to a drop site where they’ll receive a token in exchange for the box. The boxes are professionally cleaned and returned pristine to participating vendors. The next time they buy a meal from a GO Box vendor, they’ll use the token to receive another GO Box meal. Not bad for $1/month.
This unassuming food cart is Nong’s Khao Man Gai. It was closed when we went by on our tour, but during the week at lunch time, you’d be lucky to see the signage with the hoards of hungry diners dwarfing this 8×8 cart, waiting for their bundle of chicken and rice ($6.75).
There’s only one dish on the menu, and that one dish has garnered Nong fans from across the country and a place on Gourmet magazine’s list of top eight food carts in Portland.
In Nong’s native Thailand, Khao Man Gai is one of the most popular dishes, translating literally to “rice and chicken.” Nong poaches free-range Draper Valley chickens and steams the rice in chicken broth and Thai herbs to create this deeply satisfying and aromatic dish. The meal is served on butcher paper and topped with home-made sweet-savoury-spicy sauce.
Zizzo’s FC is an Italian food cart opened and owned by Sal Zizzo, a midfielder for the Portland Timbers Major League Soccer team, along with his childhood friend, Steven Wilson. Zizzo, not surprisingly, is the face of the operations while Wilson is the talent behind the cart.
The menu is small with well-selected items that represent the “best of” from Zizzo’s family, which also runs an Italian restaurant in San Diego. Zizzo’s favourite is the cannoli, and he has the shells shipped fresh from his uncle’s restaurant. Other fan favourites are the meatball sub and Caprese sandwich (both $6).
“Bao” in Chinese means “bun,” which I’m guessing is the reference behind BaoPDX, even though the cuisine isn’t Chinese. It nods toward Asia Pacific, but aside from the use of a rice flour-based fluffy bun as the wrapper, flavours are a lot more multicultural. Fillings include savoury pork belly, jerk chicken; spam and tamagoyaki, ginger orange tofu, and bbq beef. ($3 each)
This is Charlene Wesler, sole proprietor of the Gaufre Gourmet. She’s also a parent and a full-time student, yet she has time to operate this incredibly popular food cart. Every day is a sell-out and the only reason I got a waffle was because she knew our tour group was coming through. And even as I was chatting with Charlene, waffle in hand, more people were coming up to the window hoping to get one too. So sad… for them.
These Liege-style waffles are traditional in Belgium, where the brioche-like dough (not batter) gives the waffles a chewy, dense texture. She also uses pearl sugar that crystalizes and gives the waffles a carmelized coating. Sweet and savoury options are available such as Belgian chocolate ($3.75), maple bacon ($5), the Monte Cristo (with turkey, ham, Swiss cheese and strawberry preserves $7), and the milk & honey (see next slide).
This was so pretty and so delicious it warranted its own photo. Gaufre Gourmet’s Milk & Honey waffle ($6) is the ultimate sweet-savoury treat: goat cheese mousse and honey-roasted pistachios drizzled with balsamic caramel sauce. No wonder it’s Gaufre’s most popular offering.