It can be tantalizing to walk Portland's streets.
It can be tantalizing to walk Portland’s streets.
Around 9 a.m., the aromas of grilling beef, baking bread, simmering broth, sauteing onions, sizzling bacon and just-ground coffee drift through the city.
By 10 a.m., residents and tourists alike start to make their way toward favorite food carts — mobile units of every size, shape and color, from converted Airstream trailers to banquet tables topped with tarps. They’re clustered in “pods,” some with formal names like Good Food Here or Cartopia, in the corners of parking lots or along the edges of entire city blocks.
By 11 a.m., you’d better be in position at the more popular carts, or you could be in line for a while. Or worse — be forced to go somewhere else.
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“By 1 o’clock, she’ll sell out,” says David Siegel, who along with his wife, Linda, has scored one of the coveted sidewalk tables at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, one of Portland’s most beloved carts, at the Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street pod.
The “she” David is talking about is Nong Poonsukwattana, who in 2003 moved to Portland from Bangkok — a city that certainly knows its street food — to open her own restaurant.
But the economics of doing so were overwhelming, and as hundreds of other Portland restaurateurs have done over the past couple of years, Poonsukwattana set aside her dream for the time being to sell a limited menu from a custom-made cart.
“I’m not making millions,” says Poonsukwattana, who seems to win over as many with her engaging smile as she does with her incredibly tender organic chicken, moist jasmine rice and a faintly fermented, ginger-tangy “special sauce” that ties it all together. “But I am doing all right.”
With more than 460 carts registered in Oregon’s Multnomah County and dozens more applying for a license monthly, many foodies are finding it hard to try them all. It’s an ethnic bonanza.
There are, for example, two Venezuelan carts and one Bosnian, as well as a Hawaiian joint and the very popular All-Vegan BBQ.
But the Siegels keep coming back to Nong’s. “This is one of the best,” David says. “This chicken, it’s amazing. It’s so tender, it really does melt in your mouth.”
Portlanders say that devotion to high-quality ingredients, — with the typical Oregon obsession with local, organic, sustainable — is why the food carts have taken off.
And it’s reasonably priced: The typical cost of a full meal from a Portland food cart, including drink, is $6.
Food carts have gained in popularity in other major U.S. cities, but it was in Portland that the phenomenon started, a craze spurred on by a flagging economy in a city already famous for its food savvy.
On a Friday at midnight at the pod at Southeast 12th Avenue and Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, the scene is like a graduation party. It’s one of the few food-cart pods that keep late-night weekend hours and reward visitors with wood-fired pizzas, made-to-order crepes and more.
More than 460 food carts operate in Portland. For a taste of them, see below. They’re scattered through 36 major pods (each pod has four to 10 carts open, depending on who’s taking a day off).
Snow White House Crepes
Pod: Southwest 10th and Alder (noon to 11 p.m. daily)
Why it’s worthy: The menu is more than a dozen pages long. If it can be put into a crepe, owner Abby Tian, who’s usually there chatting up the customers, will cram it in there.
Eat this: The cheese-gooey Swedish meatball as entree, and then one of the fruit/homemade custard concoctions for dessert. Prices are $3-$6.50.
Pod: Southwest 10th and Alder (11 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. weekdays)
Why it’s worthy: Chicken and rice done Thai-style, so well and so simple, it’s almost unbelievable. The chicken really does melt in your mouth, and the dipping sauce is a light, fermented broth scented with ginger and garlic. Go early, because there’s usually a line, and sometimes they run out.
Eat this: Khao man gai (chicken with rice) for $6.
Pod: Southwest Ninth and Alder (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily)
Why it’s worthy: Everywhere I went, people said, “The best latte you’ll ever have in your life is at Spella.” These are strong words, especially to me, a serious joe junkie, and in a town that takes its coffee very seriously. And then I had not one, not two, but three lattes at Spella in rapid succession. It’s that good. The espresso is so smooth, I wanted to marry it.
Drink this: A latte ($3.50), for sure. Or anything made with Spella’s personally roasted beans and hand-cranked, piston-fired, manually extracted espresso machine. And they actually ask you if you want a glass of water.
Pod: Southwest Ninth and Alder (lunch weekdays)
Why it’s worthy: Inexpensive and tasty pho made using the freshest ingredients, and owner Nary Hazelett (whom some locals call “Mary”) is as friendly and accommodating as can be (she’ll switch out ingredients or add things if you ask). The vegetarian spring rolls are fresh and filling, too.
Eat this: Beef pho $5.50, which sports a savory broth in its 32 ounces.
Smokin’ Pig BBQ
Pod: Southwest Fifth and Oak/Stark (lunch weekdays)
Why it’s worthy: For starters, they let you have free samples, so if you don’t like it, nothing ventured but chances are you’ll like it. What’s not to like? This is South Carolina-style barbecue, sweet and tangy, a little spicy. They offer three sauces — mild, medium and hot — for more moistness, and the portions are generous.
Eat this: The super-tender pulled pork on a platter, with baked beans, vinegary coleslaw and a spongy roll ($6).
Pod: Southwest Fifth and Oak/Stark (8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays)
Why it’s worthy: So many reasons, not the least of which is that they do breakfast and make their English muffins from scratch, and they’ll put just about anything on a burger, including blue cheese, vegetarian sausage and Spam, all at the same time, if you want.
Eat this: The YouCanHasCheeseburger! ($5) involves two grilled-cheese sandwiches made with butter-slathered Texas toast that barely contain a juice-dripping slab of beautifully grilled Angus beef. There’s a frill of green leaf lettuce for color, and more cheese.
Built To Grill
Pod: Southwest Third and Washington (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays)
Why it’s worthy: As with all of the carts, everything is made to order, but this one specializes in Italian dishes such as pasta and panini. The owners have a sign posted asking folks for patience — they only have two burners — so be prepared for a tiny bit longer wait than you might have elsewhere, but you won’t be sorry.
Eat this: Fryer Friday is the day to be here, when you can get the amazing salt and pepper calamari ($5). The BST is pretty good, too, a panini with bacon, spinach and tomato, mozzarella and roasted garlic aioli ($6), as is the grilled muffuletta ($6), which contains house-made pesto.
Big Fat Weiners
Pod: Southwest Third and Ash (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays)
Why it’s worthy: David Thornton is usually wearing a wiener hat as he grills up your dogs, and Jason Graham lovingly piles on so many toppings, it’s hard to know there’s still a dog in there somewhere. But while “Whole Lotta Love” blares from their speakers and smoke pours out of the grill, you’ll take down some of the tastiest — and possibly weirdest — toppings imaginable: smashed Fritos and avocados, maybe, or chipotle cream cheese and bacon.
Eat this: Anything the guys hand you. Beware: They’re known to throw bacon on dogs that aren’t supposed to have it — because they like you, and they like bacon.
Bombay Chaat House
Pod: Southwest 12th Avenue and Yamhill (10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday)
Why it’s worthy: One of the best cheap lunches for vegetarians, the $5 meal of rice, naan, dal and two veggie sides had such a rep I had to go check it out. You also get chai while you wait, so it’s quite the deal. Stay out of the controversy over this cart versus the original and you’ll be better off, because it’s all about the food.
Eat this: The lunch special. Throw in a couple of chaats (snacks) if that’s not enough — the pishwari breads with syrup and the samosas are all heavenly.
Whiffies Fried Pie Cart
Pod: Southeast 12th and Hawthorne (8 p.m. to 4 a.m. nightly)
Why it’s worthy: There are some carts that locals mention repeatedly as must-tries, and this is one of them. They put all kinds of savory ($4) and sweet ($3) stuff inside their deep-fried pies, and it’s all good, especially late at night, after you’ve been out for a while and have worked up an appetite.
Eat this: The Kahlua pork, the banana Nutella chocolate or the BBQ brisket with mozzarella.
Pod: Mississippi Marketplace (noon-dinner Wednesday through Sunday)
Why it’s worthy: Half the people go to this cart to see if former Shins drummer Jesse Sandoval can really make food, while the other half go because they already know he can. The small menu focuses on tacos made New Mexican style, and the food comes out well spiced and not greasy, all made from scratch. It’s fabulous.
Eat this: Carne adovada sopaipilla ($5.50) with a Mexican Coke