PORTLAND, Ore. — The many accolades earned by chefs in this city are rooted in what the land offers. They succeed by adaptation to their environment.
That’s especially true with the city’s bustling food cart scene, which has become an incubator for great restaurants. Whether inspired by Norwegian comfort food, Peace Corps missions to the Republic of Georgia, or Thai “chaos in a bowl,” the menus reinvigorate and challenge both customer and chef to think harder and dream bigger.
The culture of Portland food carts — cheaper than restaurants and meriting just a couple-dollars tip (and sales-tax free, to boot) — allows diners to assemble their own multicourse tasting menu, provided they don’t mind a moderate walk or a quick bike ride. Luckily, most food trucks are assembled in pods scattered across the city, making it easy to visit multiple trucks at each stop.
Start in southeast Portland, where Viking Soul Food does one thing and does it well. The simple, steel-bodied trailer is adorned only with a red umbrella. A sign promises “marvelous handcrafted edibles,” and the menu is as stripped down as the cart itself.
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Here you will find lefse, and not much else.
Like crepes without the milk and eggs, these Norwegian potato-flatbread wraps serve as a versatile bed for sweet and savory entrees that co-owner Megan Walhood’s great-grandmother put on the Christmas table every year. The fillings can include heavy-duty pork-and-beef meatballs or a local grab of mushrooms and Oregon-grown hazelnut patties.
The seasonal winter lefse presented a well-balanced mix of goat cheese, pears and walnuts under sherry-sugar reduction — fresh, elegant and simple. Another lefse of house- (er, cart)-cured salmon with pickled shallots and crunchy watercress presented a slightly lighter take.
The real star, though, may be the $3 appetizer of pickled herring and onions, meaty fillets that manage to be bright and salty without overbearing fishiness.
As a bonus, pop by the Brazilian House cart next door for the coxinha, a ball of shredded chicken and spices fried in dough into the shape of a drumstick.
Then walk (or hop on a rental bike) to a rising star of the culinary scene, Carte Blanche, where “Supreme Dictator for Life” Jessie Aron is willing admit to Thai influences from her days in the kitchen at the bicoastal sensation Pok Pok, but says her chief culinary driver is avoiding repetition.
“Usually when I explain the cart, the looks I get back are confusion,” Aron said. “We’ve gotten used to confusing the customer. Until they try the food. Then they’re just happy.”
Here you’ll get mysteriously-named bowls like “Mischief” and “Rum Tum Tugger.” Layered in a way that makes each bite genuinely different from the last are a fruit salad with diced pineapples, snap peas and corn in a sesame-miso crema, and a small heap of prawns.
Oh! The prawns! Crusted with coconut, cashew and Kaffir lime, they are a revelation — sweet and citrusy, firm but yielding, the combination balances perfectly against a bed of jasmine rice. The eggplant in the vegetarian version was similarly impressive, glazed in a Thai lime-chili reduction and crisped to a satisfying crunch.
Before your next stop, consider one of Aron’s compost cookies. Don’t worry, this isn’t “Portlandia” gone rogue; it’s just the compilation of what they had hanging around. One winter evening, potato chips and raisins joined pretzels and chocolate chips in a salty-sweet, straight-from-the-oven collaboration.
Georgian-style street food
Have you had enough yet? You have not. Because across the river is a slightly different take on international cuisine, borne of two former Peace Corps volunteers who met in the Republic of Georgia and decided to bring what they ate there back with them.
Behold, Kargi Gogo (roughly translated to “good girl”) and a carb-laden end to one night in town. Here you can go vegetarian and not miss the meat.
Start with the $8 pick-three combination, from which you can sample dumplings, a garlic-walnut purée wrapped in eggplant and khachapuri, a gooey blend of feta and a local sour pickled curd called sulguni inside a thin crust that doubles as perhaps the best grilled cheese in town.
The dumplings, khinkali, come with a brief introduction from co-owner McKinze Cook, who advises diners to lift them from the doughy knot at the top, flip them and eat them from the bottom. It’s an elegant solution to keeping the juices evenly layered over the filling. Eating the dough knot, she says, is optional.
Whether you take it all in one go or parcel it out over a couple days, Portland’s international cuisine remains on the fringes while the sun shines brightly on the stuff of more traditional childhood comforts: carts starring grilled peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, homemade marshmallows and gourmet BLTs.
So you’ll have to look. But for those with an open mind and a curious palate, an exciting reward awaits.