My final day in Portland was reserved for exploring the thing that most people had suggested… Food Carts!
With 700+ food cart licenses in the city and between 400-500 operating at any one time, I was spoilt for choice. I’m not sure I could name a single cuisine that wasn’t represented in food cart form somewhere in Portland. The choice was overwhelming, so I opted to do what we’ve all done so regularly on this tour… outsource the responsibly! Armed with several specific twitter suggestions from you lot I met up with Bob, who, along with his team at Big Red Arrow operate a walking food cart tour of Portland… perfect!
Food trucks began in LA, but the food cart scene was what really kicked off in Portland… essentially, static spots for vendors who sell out of vans. The trucks/vans still have to be road legal, as well as meet professional kitchen hygiene standards, but they rarely move.
Bob was a fountain of knowledge when it came to not just the food cart scene in Portland, but individual cart owners and their back stories. As we walked around 3 of the pods (a pod is the collective noun for 3+ food carts… there are 12 recognised pods in the city) these were the stand out carts and dishes that you simply can’t walk past… in the order we ate them, not their brilliance!
FROM THE ALDER STREET POD (the largest with 60 carts)
1) Dump Truck – Cool name, cool branding and very good steamed dumplings. With a minimal menu on offer you know what they serve has to be good! Every dumpling is hand-made and packed full of goodness. The owners had lived in Beijing for 5 years and fallen in love with dumplings, but struggled to get hold of a decent one when they moved back to Portland… so they started making their own. I went for the classic ‘Mr Ma’s Special’ (very authentic with pork, ginger and green onion) plus a ‘Down2Earth’ Dumpling which is their vegan option of mushrooms, cabbage and rice noodle with a little spicy tahini over the top. This also do a ‘Cheese Burger Dumpling’… the epitome of east meets west!
2) Savour Soup House – this was, as far as Bob knew, the only food cart that operated with it’s own farm to source the produce. I tried two small samples… both were divine. The potato and sturgeon soup was a warm, comforting cross between potato and leek soup and a clam chowder. The ‘Black Bean and Smoked Ham’ soup tasted like liquid feijoada! Their soups and sandwiches are also seasonal and, therefore, at their very best.
3) Aybla Grill – This food cart business is run by Syrian born, Mediterranean grill chef Saied Samaiel. He was executive Head Chef at the Hilton in Portland was several years, but eventually decided if he continued he’d just burn himself out. So set up the food cart to take great food back to basics. I tried the falafel and, unlike awful rubbery or dry versions of the dish I’ve tasted elsewhere, this was deliciously light, moist and beautifully spiced. Every falafel is made fresh each day and Saied goes through 25-30 pounds of beans a day to make sure they are always the highest quality!
4) Satay Indonesia – When @Mija_Rex pointed out that anything served on a stick from a food cart would be perfect, I was insistent on taking her up on the challenge! This was the perfect way to do it. Authentic Indonesian flavourings and cooking methods applied to locally and ethically sourced Oregon meat. Derek, who’d lived in Indonesia for a while, was creating even the most tempting, mouth-watering aromas from his cart long before you got to taste the super succulent chicken. Great value for money at his cart too!
5) Mumbo Gumbo – The portions here are definitely not on the light side. I had one of the Bayou Gumbo seafood pots with rice and a little cornbread muffin. Every mouthful had more seafood… prawns, clams, crawfish and oysters… and it was so good. I’m still particularly excited about getting to visit New Orleans, Louisana in the coming weeks so this was the first taste of what’s to come. What was more amazing was that Chef Matt was operating the truck on his own and struggling by with just one hand, having broken the other!
FROM THE SW 5th & OAK POD (the oldest pod in the city, but one of the smallest)
6) Korean Twist – A gorgeous bulgogi beef taco from here was at the top of the list for the most vibrant and colourful… not to mention flavour. Having tried a few taco options in LA from the Kogi Truck I knew what to expect from Korea and Mexican fusion, but still the flavours here surprised and amazed. Tender marinated beef, crunchy slaw-like topping and a fiery hot sauce. Still easily eaten handheld, despite how much they cram into the flour taco.
FROM 3rd & WASHINGTON POD
7) Cultured Caveman – a van that’s serving paleo-friendly food out of a cart (actually not just ‘a’ cart anymore… following their success they now have 3 carts and a restaurant!). But it all started on wheels and I can see why it took off. The menu sounded incredible and if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d already eaten so much I would have taken Kassie up on her suggestions for trying just about everything. Instead, I opted for the bacon almond dates which had the most gorgeous sticky sweetness to the what was otherwise a savoury item. If I’d have saved it until last, it could have been dessert.
8) Pulehu Pizza – Annabelle, who grilled me up an Alsatian Pizza with local bacon, couldn’t have been more friendly or happy to chat. She runs the cart with her husband Pierre and together they love just making gourmet pizzas the grilled way. The dough is made fresh every day with local flour and once it’s been rolled to order and cooked on the grill is has an idyllic snap and crunch to it. There lots of topping options, but Annabelle suggested I go for one of their best sellers, the tomato-less pizza. French in style, but truly Oregon in ingredients it was delicious. Pity I couldn’t eat more than a slice on a full belly, so instead sent it back with Bob for him and his team to share.
Needless to say, there were hundreds I didn’t get to try… from Scottish vendors, to carts offering menus from Mauritius, Transylvania, Thailand and Span. I actually felt a little annoyed that I’d left the food cart pods until last, because it meant it left no time to try a few others before leaving the city.
Which of the other 400+ food carts would you suggest I try next time?