Portland is the Food Cart Capital of the World, even beating San Francisco and Germany for the title. Even more surprising than this, however, is the fact that during my year in town I somehow managed to miss out on all of them – and for that I don’t have a very good excuse at all. So, making a return trip, I knew I had to make amends for such an overwhelming gap in my food education. I enlisted the help of a good friend to tackle a Food Cart Crawl. That’s right: I was going to eat as much as I could in one day. Go big or go home.
The food carts are spread across the city, from south west Portland, to the south east and the north. This includes Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, that bizarre American classic chicken and waffles, and even British fish and chips. It truly is a mix of all cultures and foods.
Our first stop was SW 4th Avenue, between Hall and College. We were both hungry by this point, which was rookie mistake number one as, instead of saving room, we decided to go all out: a total error in judgement. Error number two was deciding to have a soup-based meal, mine a giant cup of pho (it was as big as my head) from Vietnamese Báhn Mì Sandwiches, my friend’s a hearty red bean, chicken and rice soup from The Portland Soup Company.
We sat on a bench quietly eating our goodies, feeling the warmth spread from my toes up. I’m not ashamed to say that I finished it in about five minutes flat. The noodles weren’t amazing but they were plentiful and the broth fragrant. My companion’s soup was thick, hearty and delicious. We had to move on, so off we waddled to SW 9th Avenue and Alder.
We passed by The People’s Pig, a food cart specialising in all things pork, and Flavor Soup House, run by two dashing young Portlanders. These food cart heroes were young; I’d heard tale of passionate food entrepreneurs, desperate for the public to taste their wares – food carts made this possible. The dream of the nineties was indeed alive in Portland. I eyed up the various carts with some trepidation. There were an awful lot of Thai carts, all touting the same dodgy looking pad thai, but really only one caught my eye: a Korean taco stand, of all things. Bizarre? Yes, but definitely intriguing.
Bulgogi is usually Korean-style marinated barbecue beef, though you can also have chicken and pork, as it really refers to the style of preparation and cooking. I had, however, never thought of putting this into a taco form. It was slightly ingenious, especially for the taco-loving American consumer. My friend and I decided to share an original beef bulgogi taco which came lovingly presented in two tacos on a bed of freshly prepared onions, lettuce, beansprouts and kimchi, topped with mayonnaise, a healthy dose of sriracha and a sprig of coriander.
We took our first bites and, amazingly, the terribly full feeling in our stomachs disappeared. The crunchiness of the beansprouts, combined with the beautifully tender beef and the slight spiciness of the kimchi was a perfect combination, all of it in that lovely floury taco tortilla. My mouth waters at the memory of it; it was beautiful.
It seemed like a good one to finish on, particularly as all of the other food carts were now shut, but my friend told me I had to try just one more thing, so we headed back into the centre of downtown to find Violetta, the burger food cart turned establishment on the edge of SW Taylor’s new Director Park.
Violetta was evidence of how far food cart culture could take you. What had started out as a popular food cart, conscious about sourcing locally and the environment (all of their packaging is biodegradable or recyclable), had turned into a pop-up restaurant at the top of the newly developed Director Park. It was impressive.
We decided to share a Violetta burger: local beef patty, fresh onions, slow-roasted tomatoes, fresh lettuce and pickles, all sandwiched within freshly baked buns – with white truffle fries. Thank goodness we were sharing because despite the fact that I was now pretty much a walking fridge, I could’ve polished off the entire thing by myself. The fries were especially delicious but the burger was beautifully made; juicy and succulent. I was licking my fingers for hours later.
I’m not sure how I made my way home that evening; the rest of the day was a blur thanks to the inevitable food coma. I know I didn’t manage to make it to many food carts but I was determined to head back the next time I was in town; it needed to be done as this small taste simply wasn’t enough. So did Portland earn its title of Food Cart Capital of the World? Well you might have a different opinion but my food coma said it all: total satisfaction.
An extremely informative guide on Portland’s food carts, along with locations and Google map guides, can be found here.