Who heads outside to have lunch when it’s raining? Portlanders, for sure.
So under gray skies and a steady rain, I joined the line at Straits Kitchen at Piknik Park, a collection of food carts in Southeast Portland. I wanted to try laksa lemak, a traditional noodle dish of the Baba-Nyonya people from the western coast of Malaysia. And I wanted to see what all the fuss was about the city’s food carts.
A walk, bike ride or drive around this food cart-crazy town can put you in reach of flavors from much of the world. You can find Ethiopian and Venezuelan, Norwegian and Brazilian, a purveyor of Scottish fish and chips, and even a place called Chicken and Guns, an award-winning cart that celebrates grilled chicken with Latin spices. And then there’s some of what you might expect — hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, Chinese — but it’s so not what you were expecting.
These aren’t your typical mobile food trucks; these carts offer cooking imaginative enough to wind up in a foodie magazine like Saveur, while drawing the interest of urban planners keen on creating vibrant communities.
“No other city has a food cart culture like Portland,” says chef Rick Gencarelli, who ran the kitchen at the notable Inn at Shelburne Farms in Vermont before moving his family to Portland in 2009. “The combination of a fanatical, value-focused foodie population mixed with friendly city regulations and costs surrounding food carts have created what is a very unique scene here in Portland.”
Gencarelli, who opened up the well-regarded Lardo cart in 2010, now has four restaurants in Portland and a fifth on the way.
Brett Burmeister, owner and managing editor at FoodCartsPortland.com, a website devoted to all things cart, said the numbers of carts in Portland started surging dramatically around 2008, in part due to a culture that embraces creativity and entrepreneurship, but also thanks to an overall renaissance in street food. That was also about the time when the food became innovative and creative — more upscale, less lunch cart.
Sometimes there’s just one cart all by itself, but more often than not the carts are arranged in a grouping that locals call a food cart pod.
“It’s a destination spot,” Burmeister said. “And food brings people together. So every day at these food cart lots, we bring community together. Sometimes you’ll run into a friend; sometimes you’ll make a new friend there.”
At the Piknik Park pod, order placed, we headed to a tented area with wooden picnic tables and a vendor selling beer, cider and other drinks. No one seemed to mind the rain dripping off the edges of the tent.
A few minutes later, a bowl of creamy laksa lemak was in front of us, steam rising in the cool, damp air. The authentic dish was perfect for a wet day in the Pacific Northwest, with strong flavors of spicy coconut curry offering a bit of a kick but more of a comfort-food hug. This dish is warm and filling, with vermicelli rice noodles, fried tofu and chicken in the coconut milk broth.
Chef Angie Ong grew up in Malaysia, came to the U.S. for college and is now doing all the cooking at Straits Kitchen in a style that goes back many generations. The laksa lemak is her mother’s recipe.
Our spoons made quick work of this traditional noodle bowl, but that was OK, as the mission for the weekend was to taste Portland’s most exotic food cart offerings.
And that became a problem. There’s just so much to sample in this place that some observers say is home to more street food vendors per capita than anywhere in the U.S. And when exotic includes not only foods from around the world, but also surprising takes on old favorites, it could take weeks to taste all there is to offer.
“Ask me for my top 10 favorites or most exotic food carts, and the list immediately has to be 25 or 50, sometimes even 100,” said Burmeister, who estimates that as many as 800 food carts were operating in the city in 2016.
Portlanders came up with food carts instead of trucks, he said, because of a law against businesses operating in the right of way. There was no problem with using privately owned parking lots, and the concept took off.
One of the advantages of the pod system is that people wanting different things to eat can gather in one place, like a mall’s food court. On our visit, we headed to the Tidbit pod because we wanted to try bulgogi at Namu Korean and Hawaiian, and Paper Bag Pizza, not so exotic but named among Portland’s top new carts by the local newspaper.
Tidbit Food Farm and Garden is one of the city’s nicest food cart pods, with a beer garden and lots of shared seating and a fire pit for cool weather. We grabbed seats and considered our options. The pizza place was closed, and the line was long at Namu, but we found some twists on more typical food that kept us happy.
We’re from Chicago, and we like our hot dogs Chicago-style, but when a hot dog is topped with mac and cheese, how can you refuse? The place is called Dog Town, but it might better be named Decadent Dogs because the hot dog we shared that day was definitely over the top: creamy mac and cheese made crunchy with chopped bacon on the dog, resting in a fresh-baked bun. Dog Town has many more unusual options like the Lamborghini, a house-made lamb sausage on naan bread topped with baby arugula and pickled red onions, and, this being Portland, a veggie sausage topped with arugula, pickled red onions, roasted pepper sauce, grilled leeks and shaved fennel.
Or we could head across town to Burmasphere, the first cart to showcase the flavors of Myanmar, including its national dish, lahpet thok, a salad of shredded cabbage, cucumber and tomato topped with fermented tea leaves, or to Wolf & Bear’s for the Iraqi-Israeli breakfast sandwich with egg, grilled eggplant and mango sauce. Or maybe to The Wild Hunt for the purple pickled egg or the paleo-friendly Cultured Caveman.
Time was short, but we managed to fit in two more stops. At Viking Soul Food, we passed on the herring in wine sauce but swooned over the warm lefse (kind of like tortillas) spread with lingonberries and soft cheese. At Jouk Li Jou, a new food cart offering Haitian cuisine, the savory smells of curried goat and oxtail stew were almost as inviting as the friendly conversation from chef and owner Mathilde Aurelien Wilson.
So much food, so little time. I guess that guarantees a return trip. I can’t wait to taste the grilled PB&J where the peanut butter is enhanced with coconut shrimp, curry and basil, and orange marmalade aces out the grape jelly.
Terri Colby is a freelance writer.