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One Nation Under Pod

Which Portland Pod Has the Best Collection of Food Carts?

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Introduced and Edited by Tony Perez

Like Jonathan Franzen, Odd Future, or the Miami Heat, food carts are neither as remarkable and revolutionary as magazine writers would have you believe, nor as washed up and overhyped as some detractors would claim. Plenty of ink's been spent already flacking for our mobile chefs—some of it well deserved, some of it hyperbolic, most of it "oh, how novel!" And we need another "So-What's-Up-with-These-Food-Carts" think piece like downtown needs another guy in an Airstream slinging bento.

Even if the relative value of their cost and convenience can be overstated, carts are undeniably an important part of the food scene in Portland, and barring some major changes in city code, that's not going to change any time soon. While we speculate whether the wave has crested (I'll save you time: yes), and whether a city of Portland's size and weather patterns can sustain a 2010 level of openings (no)—gifted, creative cooks continue to develop interesting and dynamic menus without the overhead or initial investment of a full-on restaurant... the savvy ones are making a living doing so. Most of these carts aren't going to have a decade-long shelf life—even the most successful aren't making a mint—but if we, the customers, are lucky, new entrepreneurial cooks will pull up in their parking spaces and make their own go of it.

The spaces themselves, I think, are worth considering. While plenty of cities have mobile food trucks, the prevalence of actual designed pods is still unique to Portland (though it seems that won't be true for long... Roger Goldingay, owner of Mississippi Marketplace and Cartlandia, says that it's not uncommon for other cities' development commissions to tour his pods). We have something in the neighborhood of 600 licensed food carts, and they seem to be opening and closing every day. It's tough to make a splash anymore if people don't know where to look for you. Yesterday I walked from my office to the brand-new taco truck four blocks away. Gone already. Not a trace. While certain carts have done well striking out on their own—two of my favorites, Lucy's Original and Wolf & Bear's, seem to do well all by their lonesome—it's easier to attract customers where an audience (along with power, plumbing, gray water disposal, and sometimes a commissary kitchen) already exists.

I've counted 20-plus designated food cart pods in Portland, and another dozen clusters of two or three. Saying that not all of them operate at the same level is an understatement. But what is it that keeps the tables full at Good Food Here while tumbleweeds roll across Green Castle's pavement? Why might two seemingly identical taco trucks do such disparate business?

Location clearly helps. SW 9th and Alder is obviously going to have a bigger lunch rush than SE 50th and Ivon. Covered seating can't hurt, neither do propane heaters, ATMs, and bathrooms... especially if you've spent the last few hours pounding light beer and you're looking to satiate a craving for drunk food.

Speaking of which, in case my body of work here hasn't readily been established, I'm of the opinion that most meals are better when accompanied by a drink. Knowing that I can have a beer with my food provides something of an incentive.

More than anything, of course, we're drawn to the pods whose carts offer us great food and great range. The best pods feel carefully curated—the owners have created an atmosphere and location that draws more applications than they can fit carts. They choose the ones they want, based not only on how mouthwatering the food might be, but on their ability to satisfy a variety of cravings.

Neeley Wells, operator of Good Food Here, recently lost a hot dog vendor and was looking to fill that hole. "They have a low price point, and kids like them," she says. Even if mom and dad are more drawn to EuroTrash's fried sardines, Wells knows they'll be more likely to return if the kids are happy. That type of planning benefits everyone.

Wells also has to take inner-pod competition into consideration. Her vendors' leases include menu protection, so when the new hot dog vendor opens for business, another cart can't start selling bratwursts. "It can be difficult," she says, "agreeing on what's competition and what isn't." If one cart wants to add a vegan corndog to the menu, maybe it gets sticky. "Usually it doesn't come to this," she jokes, "but maybe we'll classify hot dogs as something like 'cylindrical meats in a bun.'

"One thing I realized quickly," she continues, "is how much crossover there is between different ethnic cuisines." How many cultures have some variation on a flatbread topped with meat, cheese, or vegetables? A pod owner might be left pondering the legal definition of a taco.

And though there are occasional inner-pod disagreements and rivalries, most cart owners seem to understand that, at least ideally, they can operate in a symbiotic relationship with their "competition." Especially when it comes to carts with smaller focused menus, their particular scratch isn't going to satisfy everyone's itch—why not appeal to a whole family or group of friends?

Carts can share resources with their podmates as well—combine certain types of supply orders—and with varying hours of operation, some vendors even find it helpful to share employees.

If it seems like a good business model—and from the way pods are popping up, it must—prospectors should know that a lot more goes into it than posting "carts wanted" on Craigslist.

When Greg Goodman of City Center Parking—the operator of all the downtown pods—started leasing to the carts over a decade ago, the company had no idea what it was in for. The carts bring in substantial rent money (a patch of land in a downtown lot costs $500-550 a month), but the company has shelled out for the numerous expenses associated with suddenly running 100 little restaurants. That means upgrading power supplies, paying for dumpsters, and buying 15 solar-powered trashcans for $4,000 each.

The successful Eastside pods—the ones that have been built from the ground up—have taken the infrastructure even further. And considering the time and money they've put into it, they're none to pleased when imitators pop up in the neighborhood without jumping through the same hoops. Pod owner Goldingay would like to see the city go to greater lengths to enforce their regulations. He's put a lot into permits, environmental precautions, and health and safety regulations, and it's clear to him that not everybody's playing by the same rules.

For the time being, we'll trust the invisible hand of the burrito market to sort the wheat from the chaff (or some taco-truck equivalent). The Mercury dispatched a team to seek out the best pods in Portland to help you, our readers, make wise decisions on which to bother with, and once you're there, what to eat. Using a highly scientific rating system, our team will evaluate pods based on the following criteria:

Standout Carts: One a scale of one to five, how likely are you to drive across town just because you're craving Nong's Khao Man Gai, or a breakfast wrap from the Big Egg? We'll also tell which carts were the clear standouts.

Range: How diverse is the pod's offering? Are there three hot dog stands and two bento carts, or is there enough variety to satisfy the cravings of an entire Mormon family reunion?

Vegetarian/Vegan Friendly: Should herbivores make a special trip? Can they get by? Does that asshole keep Bob Marley's Legend on repeat?

Seating/Amenities: Do they take care of everything you need to enjoy yourself in a variety of climates, or are you stuck sitting on the curb?

BONUS...Access to Booze: Does brown-bagging seem safe enough? Is there beer on the premises? Can you take your pod fodder to a nearby bar?

D STREET NOSHERY

3221 SE Division

reviewed by Ned Lannamann

The D Street Noshery may be a total oddity in Portland's saturated food cart scene, in that it lacks both Thai and Mexican options. Not that we're complaining. The utter absence of food-cart staples like burritos and pad thai leaves plenty of room for a peculiar but fulfilling array of food, including a couple unique offerings. (And if you can't find anything that satisfies here, the original Pok Pok takeout window is literally across the street.)

The first thing you'll notice is that D Street is one of the city's most adorable pods from a visual standpoint, with ample seating (both covered and not) and some of the cutest food carts you can lay your eyes on. Herb's Mac and Cheese takes top prize: The charmingly designed cart looks like a tiny retro diner on wheels. I'll admit I wasn't crazy about their mac: cooked penne with a thick béchamel sauce poured on top, plus whatever toppings—meat, vegs, extra cheese—you ask for. It tasted gloppy and plain, although those two qualities characterized my very favorite foods at age eight. (In other words, kids will eat the fuck out of it.)

A close runner-up in the adorability sweepstakes is Pie Spot, a blue-green trailer that's adorned with detailed directions on how to make your own pie. (Sample instructions: "1. Turn on your favorite music. 2. Tie up your hair and put on your cutest apron." See what I mean? Adorable!) The Pie Spot's pie comes in both sweet and savory varieties, encased in thick, sturdy slabs of buttery crust. Savory options like the chicken pot and the mushroom and gruyere come with a side salad, so you're not just packing pure pie crust into your mouth, as tempting as that is.

The famed Koi Fusion often parks one of their trucks here, and their Korean tacos are always a solid choice, but D Street Noshery's best-tasting meal comes from Fuego de Lotus, a Venezuelan-themed cart that offers arepas—sweet corn cakes accompanied by a variety of fillings from black beans to pork belly. Get the Revolutionaries Plate, which includes rice, fried plantains, and a pink cabbage salad, plus plenty of magical sauce. It's not a ton of food for $9, but that leaves plenty of room for Pie Spot's pie—or for a crisp ice from Oregon Ice Works, a dairy-free frozen dessert styled after East Coast-style Italian ice, made with real fruit and sugar. The mango-pineapple with serrano pepper was fairly mind blowing. (Oregon Ice Works also offers a drippy, juicy pork Philly sandwich that'll conquer most hangovers.)

If Venezuelan food doesn't appeal, maybe try the Brazilian fare next door at Samba Shack. While the pork-heavy feijoada might be their most popular dish, their fish muqueca—a robust seafood stew that feels more African than Brazilian—is worth trying. With a coconut milk base, the muqueca's bold flavors make for a hearty meal that'll propel you through Portland's wetter months.

I haven't mentioned the best part about D Street, which is that the Captured by Porches microbrewery stations one of their three trucks here, pouring suds Thursdays through Saturdays. Their beer is as good 'n' local as it gets, with a sterling IPA, plus seasonal choices like a wonderful, flavor-packed apricot ale that'll blow away your misconceptions about wussy fruit beers. Take a growler home—and you can grab some fish, too, from the Flying Fish truck, a fully stocked mobile fishmonger that camps out here on the weekend. Operator Lyf Gildersleeve offers all kinds of fish ready to grill or poach—or eat raw, as he's got sushi-grade fish as well. NED LANNAMANN

Standout Carts: 4 (Fuego de Lotus, Captured by Porches)

Range: 3

Vegetarian Friendly: 4

Seating: 5

Access to Booze: You could probably brown-bag. Plus beer on premises—really good beer.

Carts: Awesome Cone, Captured by Porches, Flying Fish Company, Fuego de Lotus, Herb's Mac and Cheese, Koi Fusion, Pie Spot, Oregon Ice Works, Samba Shack, Slice Brick Oven Pizza

SW 5TH AND OAK

Reviewed by Sarah Mirk

This is the original—the food cart pod that was a food cart pod a decade before "food cart pod" was a phrase. As any downtown office dweller knows, the block of SW 5th between Oak and Stark is a standby for finding any sort of lunchtime food you could want for under $6: The block's 26 carts include four Thai carts, four taco carts, and two carts both named "Sabria's." It's where families who've been dishing up cheap, simple foods for over 10 years share curb space with hip startups.

The lot is one of many owned by City Center Parking, which leases to about 100 carts. The carts are great business for a surface parking lot, says City Center President Greg Goodman, but they're not planning on expanding to lease to carts in any new lots. "We want to concentrate 'em. They all do better when they're concentrated."

"There's a lot of great chefs out there, a lot of these people are minorities and they do great ethnic food," says Goodman. "This gives them the opportunity to open a business when they might not otherwise be able to."

Huong Tran remembers when the street had just five or six carts, back when she first started cooking in her own little Saigon Food To-Go 13 years ago. Tran's mom gave her the money to start the cart after she emigrated from Vietnam in 1996 and was looking for a way to feed her three sons. Talking with Tran banishes all nouveau ideas that running a cart is a romantic pursuit. "I don't like this job, but I had family early," says Tran. "I have to take care of the family." Her dream job, after years of serving teriyaki chicken and salad rolls on the street day-in, day-out? Something in an office.

Down the block, Punjabi immigrant Hermaio Singh opened New Taste of India 13 years ago, too. The family-run cart is known for serving lunches with retro prices: A tasty vegetarian lunch special runs $6 and is enough dahl, masala, and naan for two people. The food cart boom has been good for the old-school family, says Hermaio's 24-year-old son Ranjodh. "It's actually been pretty good. A lot of people come here to get all kinds of food," says Ranjodh.

Among the fresh-faced carts on the street, Brunch Box has won fans for their artery-clogging grilled-cheese cheeseburger schtick (but should be better known for their hands-down, best-ever $4.25 veggie burger). El Cubo de Cuba 2 puts together impeccable dishes of simple foods (rice, plantains, beans) that transform into delicious, thanks to their authentic spicing and cooking. And no cart can beat the friendliness of Give Pizza a Chance, which sells a damn good slice of pizza both for purists (cheese is only $2.50) and fussy foodies (a blue cheese-covered Mom's Favorite slice and homebrewed ginger soda runs $6). SARAH MIRK

Standout Carts: 4 (Give Pizza a Chance, Brunch Box, El Cubo de Cuba 2)

Range: 5

Vegetarian/Vegan Friendly: 5 (plus plenty of vegan options)

Seating/Amenities: 3

Access to Booze: No booze ops here.

Carts: Aybla Grill, Boolkogi Taco, Brunch Box, Bulkogi Fusion, El Cubo de Cuba 2, Fish and Chips To Go, Give Pizza a Chance, Julie's Food, Khob Khun Thai Food, La Jarochita, Mr. Taco, New Taste of India, Real Taste of India, Smokin' Pig, Ploy Thai, Sabria's, Saigon Food To-Go, Sa Leng, Schnitzelwich, Spoons, Steaks 5th Avenue, The Swamp Shack, Taste of Poland, Thai Sky, Veli Thai

MISSISSIPPI MARKETPLACE

N Mississippi & Skidmore

Reviewed by Tony Perez

When I made the move from North Portland to Southeast, I was surprised how little I missed it. I always had fond feelings toward that Fifth "Quadrant," (and still do), but all my old haunts seemed easy to replace. George's became Claudia's. Pho Jasmine became Pho Hung. Saraveza became Belmont Station. One ritual, however, has left a gaping hole in my weekend: that late Sunday morning stroll down to Mississippi Marketplace for the Big Egg's breakfast wrap. A grilled tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, and for me, bacon. Sounds like pretty standard fare until you've tasted how perfectly the choice of Gorgonzola cheese (choice is misleading at this point; it's a compulsion) mixes with their particular poblano salsa and yogurt-lime sauce. Divine.

When I timed my breakfast right, I could follow it up with a just-barely-afternoon beer and the New York Times on Prost!'s deck. Ah, nostalgia.

The pod opened in 2009 when owner Roger Goldingay enlisted Michael Tunson to defy Joni Mitchell's wishes and pave a grass lot on the corner of North Mississippi and Skidmore. A squat, boarded-up building that only Marlo Stanfield's crew could love became a mini-Hofbräuhaus with an elaborate gilded exterior and one of the better patios in Portland. And while Prost! has their own formidable menu of brats, pretzels, and the like, they've formed a symbiotic relationship with the carts wherein, so long as you buy a beverage, you're free to enjoy any cart's food at their tables.

Next door to the Big Egg is Garden State, a small chrome box serving up Sicilian-style street food—meatball heroes ($6.50), fried chickpea sandwiches ($6.50), and arancine, a saffron risotto ball filled with seasonal vegetables and fresh mozzarella cheese ($1 each). Owner/operator Kevin Sandri doesn't skimp on anything, and by building relationships with farmers he's been able to source the freshest ingredients. Not content to rest on his laurels (including the judges' award at WW's 2010 Eat Mobile event, and some gushing from none other than Ruth Reichl), Sandri opened a second cart in the lot, Burgatroyd. Using something of a build-your-own burger model, patrons start with a Highland Oak beef patty on a toasted brioche bun, with special sauce, lettuce, and onion for $4. A 20-deep list of accoutrements—pickled beets, avocado, sautéed morels, house-made pancetta—ranges from 25 cents to $1. Thin, hand-cut French fries run you $2.50, but are piled high and can easily be shared.

Also not be missed are the stuffed sopapillas ($6-9) from Jesse Sandoval's Nuevo Mexico—crispy fry breads, just slightly sweet, stuffed with meat or veggies (I'm partial to the carne adovada, pork marinated in a red chili sauce). You can find taco trucks anywhere, but it's a treat to find authentic north-of-the-border-style cooking.

My only complaint—and to hear Goldingay tell it, the most common one—is the erratic hours. On two recent mid-week visits after work, the whole west side of the lot (half of the carts) was shut down. In his next venture—SE 82nd's Cartlandia—he's looking for more carts (he's got room for three times as many), and will be picking and choosing to have all hours of the day covered.

Standout Carts: 4 (The Big Egg, Garden State, Nuevo Mexico)

Range: 3

Vegetarian/Vegan Friendly: 5

Seating/Amenities: 5

Access to Booze: brown-bagging and full bar at Prost!

Carts: The Big Egg, Big Top Waffles, Burgatroyd, Dogfeather's Organic Coffee and Fresh Juice, Garden State, Native Bowl, Nuevo Mexico, The Ruby Dragon, Sushi Tree

GOOD FOOD HERE

SE 43rd & Belmont

Reviewed by Tony Perez

SE Belmont's Good Food Here might be the best example of a well-curated pod. With 16 carts sharing a not-particularly pedestrian-heavy lot on SE 43rd and Belmont, it'd have to be. Unlike the downtown pods that cater mostly to business folks on their lunch breaks, or Cartopia, which is set up on a major intersection close to late-night revelers, Good Food Here can't rely on built-in foot traffic.

So Good Food Here, probably more than any other cart pod, is a destination. It starts with the look and feel—no other lot has put as much into aesthetics. It's not just the landscaping, which is heads and shoulders above the rest, but the carts themselves. Each has a distinctive look, none of which is "I spent 20 minutes spray painting this trailer."

It's certainly a little more geared to families than some of the other pods—Neeley Wells, the pod's operator, has made a conscious effort to ensure there are some kid-friendly options (plus, you know, ice cream).

Food cart hours can be erratic—we've all been burned by unexpected closures—but Good Food Here tends to be a little more consistent. Carts are contractually obligated to stay open a certain number of hours a week, and even during the winter months I never had the experience of seeing a mostly shuttered lot. It's not a late-night place—carts close by 10 pm out of deference to the more residential neighborhood.

While it might not have the same range or sheer numbers that downtown eaters can choose from, cart for cart, it's got the best offerings in the city.

EuroTrash's menu is a tough one to nail down—it's vaguely Mediterranean, but seems to takes cues from the Iberian Peninsula as well. The fishy chips ($5)—breaded, fried Spanish anchovies with lemon and sea salt—are a must try. The prawn baguette ($7) is a big sloppy, delicious mess. I mean that in the best way possible. It's a big doughy French roll topped with five large prawns, a heap of slaw, cilantro, and curry sauce.

Lardo, too, is well worth your trip (though if you're counting Weight Watchers points, this isn't your cart). The name is Italian for cured fatback, "a cut from the back of a pig that is kind of like bacon without the meat." They even fry their french fries in it. The best item I've had is the porchetta sandwich (though the stock is limited; I've gone back twice only to have my heart broken, which, on the other hand, might be better than a coronary heart disease). It's served on a ciabatta roll with caper aioli and gremolata.

On the other end of the spectrum, Kitchen Dances serves a range of vegan and raw foods. I had their golden beet ravioli with hazelnut pesto and heirloom tomato marinara ($7), but some of the wraps they were preparing looked appetizing enough to please a porchetta lover like myself.

I haven't even touched on Namu (whose elaborate pulled pork plate I can't recommend highly enough), Aybla Grill (excellent veggie mezza platter if Kitchen Dances isn't doing it for you), or the desert options (The Sugar Cube rivals most brick-and-mortars in town, and Fifty Licks is becoming a Portland institution), but there'll be time for all that. When lesser pods inevitably revert back to desolate lots, Good Food Here should have some staying power.

Standout Carts: 5 stars (EuroTrash, Lardo, The Sugar Cube, Fifty Licks, Namu)

Range: 4

Vegetarian/Vegan Friendly: 5

Seating/Amenities: 4

Access to Booze: brown-bagging and the occasional onsite booze opportunity

Carts: Aybla Grill, Crème de la Crème, Da-Pressed Coffee, EuroTrash, Farmer Joe's Backyard Cornucopia, Fifty Licks, Kitchen Dances, Lardo, Las Loncheritas, Namu, Rockabillies, Rollin' Etta, The Sugar Cube, Sweet Pea's Brulee, Urban Garlic, Yum Zap

ALDER STREET POD

SW 9th & 10th, between Alder & Washington

Reviewed by Alison Hallett

"Pod" seems an inadequate word to describe the food carts located on and around SW Alder. The full block-and-a-half between SW 9th and 10th, bounded by Alder and Washington, is more like a cart city, or cart shantytown; more spontaneous and unplanned than the newer pre-fab encampments to which the word "pod" more accurately applies.

The SW 10th cart city is crammed with as many carts as the sidewalks can bear, from Food Channel-approved upstarts to standbys that've been around since the days when we all thought food carts were kind of sketchy. (Props for playing a long game, Snow White House Crêpes.)

The overall effect is overwhelming: The crowds, the smells, and the sheer variety of available options. There are regular hotdogs (Olympic Hot Dogs, which also offers a veggie dog) and Japanese-style hot dogs (Domo Dogs, which does not); Southern barbeque (A Little Bit of Smoke) and Hawaiian barbeque (Island Grill); not one, but two Korean-fusion joints, which combine Korean flavors with Mexican forms for the type of cultural cross-pollination that once indicated colonialism and now screams "follow us on Twitter!" (Our money's on Korean Twist.) And so on. And so on.

You already know about some of the pod's real standouts: Addy's Sandwich Bar is one of my favorite carts in the city, top-notch sandwiches on Little T's baguettes. Most sandwiches are $6.50, but it's worth an up-charge for the sweet, salty duck confit with cranberries and cabbage. (And while you're there, find a friend who'll share the chocolate sandwich with sea salt and olive oil—trust me.) Nong's Khao Man Gai's chicken and rice is a one-dish cart that's deservedly renowned. The People's Pig boasts porchetta prepared on-site. And you can't go wrong with a build-your-own grilled cheese sandwich at Savor Soup House's grilled cheese bar, which includes house-made pesto and grilled onions; the obvious complement is a bowl of tomato, orange, and fennel soup, but try stepping outside the grilled-cheese comfort zone to pair your sandwich with vegan split pea, or carrot, ginger, and coconut.

Another solid option is the Noodle House, serving fresh hand-pulled noodles topped with meat, tofu, or seafood. The chef is formerly of Beaverton's Du Kuh Bee, which also spun off Frank's Noodle House (on NE Broadway), and the noodles are on par with what Frank's dishes up. For more homemade noodle-type things, try the homemade dumplings at the inelegantly named Dump Truck: The traditional Chinese pork dumplings are a surefire bet, but don't shy from the more esoteric offerings—the potato curry dumpling was particularly good. Try a sampler, with six dumplings in whatever combination you choose; mix and match with house-made dipping sauce (including "secret sauce" for the bacon cheeseburger dumpling), it makes for a surprisingly filling, varied lunch.

Picnic has phenomenal cold sandwiches, including a beet and goat cheese, and ham with pickled carrots: it's picnic food just slightly better than what you'd make yourself. Tito's Burritos will happily sell you a burrito the size of your face. And while their pho was underwhelming, the Vietnamese cart Mai Pho gets points for ingenuity—their menu features the decidedly nontraditional "Happy Bowl," whose brown rice, beans, and avocado is clearly designed to appeal to hungry lunchers waiting in the always too-long line for Whole Bowl next door.

The pod abuts O'Bryant Square, where, on a sunny day, you can find the plaza crammed with people: office types on lunch break; kids risking cryptococcal meningitis to feed potato chips to pigeons; a barefoot, crazy-haired street violinist who dresses like he's playing a street violinist in a movie. It might take a while to wrap your head around the whole sprawling mess, but it's worth it.

Standout Carts: 5 (Nong's, Addy's, Picnic, The People's Pig)

Range: 5

Vegetarian/Vegan Friendly: 4

Access to Booze: Brown baggin'

Carts: #1 Bento, 808 Grinds, Addy's Sandwich Bar, Ali Baba's Kebabs, A Little Bit of Smoke, Altengartz, Aybla Grill, Bangkok Duck & Chicken, Be Map, Best of Brazil, BBQ Fusion, Choza's Peruvian Food, Cool Harry's Yogurt, The Dump Truck, Easy Healthy Street, Eat This, Euro Dish, El Cubo de Cuba, E-San, Flogene's Southern Fried Chicken, The Frying Scotsman, Huong's Vietnamese Food, I Like Thai Food, Island Grill, Khao Moo Daeng, Korean Twist, Locos Locos Burritos, Mai Pho, New Taste of India, Nong's Khao Man Gai, The Noodle House, Olympic Hot Dogs, The People's Pig, Picnic, Primi Panini, Red Guava, Rotissol and Greens, Samurai, Savor Soup House, Sawasdee Thai, Sheish Kabob, Snow White House Crêpes, Somtum Gai Yang, Sushi Roll Plus, Taqueria El Rodeo, Thai Food Factory, Thai Me Up, Tito's Burritos, Touch Down's, Twisted Sistas, Ugarit Mediterranean Meals, Wet Hot Beef, Whole Bowl, Ziba's Pitas

CARTOPIA

SE 12th & Hawthorne

Reviewed by Marjorie Skinner

Cartopia wasn't the first food cart pod in Portland, but one could make the argument that it was the first pod to cater with united success to the bleary-eyed kids stumbling home from the clubs of Southeast Portland—which is to say, it was the first one to be hip. Almost as soon as it arrived, the poutine at Potato Champion became the most talked about guilty pleasure after a long night of drinking and (caloric intake-justifying) dancing at Holocene. Before you knew it, the corner had turned into a party destination. These days things have mellowed a tad, but the food is still going strong, there's plenty of covered seating, porta-potties (plus a sink! With running water!), heaters, and if you must, there's beer and wine next door at Tiny's (for the hard stuff, the Ladd's Inn and Jolly Roger aren't much further afield). The current lineup sees the Champ joined by Pyro Pizza, Bubba Bernie's, El Brasero, Whiffie's Fried Pies, and the Perierra Crêperie.

For the most part the food here is probably best enjoyed the way this pod was originally intended: drunk, starving, and homeward. However, visits during the light of day have also revealed its popularity among young parents, teenagers, and Francophilic elderly women from Ladd's Addition who are hankering for a crêpe. This pod should also be given props for the fact that almost every one of its carts offers vegan options (except for Bubba Bernie's, who discontinued their vegan jambalaya over a year ago).

Cartopia's two most controversial carts are Bubba Bernie's and El Brasero. Those for whom Southern comfort food is tantamount to religion have widely condemned Bubba Bernie's—and far be it from me to pretend any greater authority. But the fried oyster po'boy hits a certain spot, the $8 price point doesn't seem so bad if you split the huge sandwich with a friend, and it's an excellent vehicle for their buffet of yummy barbecue sauces.

El Brasero's lot within the pod is the biggest, with its own separate covered tables, but its line is not always the longest. Its prices are high compared to better Mexican carts on less beaten paths ($7 burritos), and the vegan options they boldly advertise are dry, spongy reminders that both you and your carnivore friends would be happier at nearby Los Gorditos.

Likewise, the savory crêpes at Perierra filled with classic combinations of ham, gruyere, and egg leave carnivores writhing in satisfaction, but a vegan version featuring one of their more inventive combinations of tofu cream cheese with spinach, mushrooms, and pumpkin seeds elicited more comments of "interesting" than "delicious." Also, it probably doesn't get much attention, but their berry smoothie is ideal refreshment on a hot day.

Potato Champion and Whiffie's Fried Pies are both suited for moments of self-destruction, and if you're too much of a locavore to stop by the Sevvy for some Hot Pockets, Whiffie's is a far more socially acceptable (and I guess technically healthier) option. Actual Canadian tourists have approved the poutine at Potato Champion, but it should be saved for your darkest moments. If you've a slightly more civilized salt craving, you can get regular fries, too, with a plethora of dipping options.

The truly standout cart at Cartopia is Pyro Pizza, whose large-ish personal wood-fired pies are among the best in town, but with what's usually a far shorter wait and lower price point ($7-8). The toppings are elegant and fresh, and you can sub a vegan cheese on any pie. The to-go option is one of the highlights of the neighborhood.

Standout Carts: 3 (Pyro Pizza)

Range: 4

Vegetarian/Vegan Friendly: 4

Seating/Amenities: 3

Access to Booze: brown-bagging

Carts: Bubba Bernie's, El Brasero, Perierra Crêperie, Potato Champion, Pyro Pizza, Whiffie's Fried Pies

À LA CARTS

SE 50th & Ivon

Reviewed by Courtney Ferguson

I have to be able to count on you, neighborhood food cart pod! I love your joie de vivre and casual attitude, but I can't be the only one working on this relationship. Yes, I'm talking to you, À La Carts on SE 50th and Ivon. In four visits during prime hours, only half your carts were open. And let's not even talk about your coffee cart, Coffee Can Café, with the goofy and impractical hours of 11 am-6 pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Granted, you definitely have some nice qualities—the Italian gut-bomb sammies from Shut Up and Eat are pure delicious, particularly the stacked eggplant parm with breaded and thinly sliced eggplant, mushrooms, melted provolone, and grilled onions. I also had a totally snarf-able schnitzel pork sandwich from reliably open VanSchnitzels, who specializes in German comfort food, which was akin to a quality fast food sandwich with great cart-made condiments like pickles, curry ketchup, and spicy mayo. The friendly family at the Deadliest Catch does up seafood, all housed in a huge tour bus; their ceviche is quite good along with their fresh crab legs and garlicky shrimp. I also had pretty good fare from Jazzy's Barbeque (try their beef brisket), Azul Tequila Mexican Taqueria, We Be Weiners, and Taste of a Gyro. How was the fondue from Fon-Due-It, wild game burgers from Over the Top, and vegetarian burgers from Off the Griddle? Who knows—they weren't open. [Clarification: At dinner time (roughly 6 pm) on Sunday, June 19th when this reviewer visited Off the Griddle it was not serving food. They appear to be keeping true to their hours otherwise.] The pod ambiance is well-appointed, if a little utilitarian, with spacious seating around and under an expansive white tent, complete with on-site ATM (some carts take cards), wi-fi, a full-service hair salon in a trailer, live music on many Saturdays, and beer and wine on Saturdays. But probably À La Carts' best attribute is that you can haul all your grub over to North Bar for a complete trip down the whiskey well. You can always count on North to promptly open its doors at 3 pm. Just sayin'.

Standout Cart: 4 (Shut Up and Eat)

Range: 3

Vegetarian/Vegan Friendly: 3

Seating/Amenities: 4

Access to Booze: Brown-bagging, occasional onsite drinks, and nearby bar.

Carts: Azul Tequila Mexican Taqueria, Chicken Run, Coffee Can Café, The Deadliest Catch, Fon-Due-It, Jazzy's Barbeque, King's Wings, Off the Griddle, Over the Top, Salon Bucci, Shut Up and Eat, Southwestern Pizza Company, Taste of a Gyro, VanSchnitzels, We Be Weiners

CARTLANDIA

8145 E 82nd (SE 82nd & Springwater Corridor Bike Trailreviewed by Wm. Steven Humphrey

Since food cart pods and bicycles go together like red beans and rice, it's amazing there's only one pod in town (so far) designed specifically with the cyclist in mind. Though still getting on its feet, Cartlandia—conveniently located off the Springwater Corridor bike trail at SE 82nd—is already a fun place to take a break during a wearying ride. It boasts a nice covered seating area, an ATM, bathroom, TV, a mini-basketball pop-a-shot for the kiddies, and (delightfully) a complimentary bicycle pump. As for its culinary delights... well, as previously mentioned, it's new to the game. Cascade Burger's "Epic Burger" is currently the pod go-to: A tasty, heaping sandwich of locally grown goodness and a steal at only $6. Also of note, Sakura Bento's teriyaki chicken plate (also $6), although deceptively simple in appearance, it packs a huge punch. (Overheard from a six-year-old: "It's the best I've ever tasted!") And while the rest may not be "destination carts," there's not a dud in the bunch. The London Pasty Company provides hand-held pasties (meat and vegetable/cheese and onion pies, as well as sausage rolls) for the cyclist on the go, while Savvy J's Southern cuisine (featuring serviceable, if not overly exciting, chicken/shrimp/fish/oyster po'boys) and Cheesesteak Nirvana (Philly in style, if not in substance) are for those who have time to lie back and digest. Obviously vegans may want to steer clear until the next wave of carts appear, which—along with the addition of beer—are allegedly in the works. Until then, I offer this advice to Cartlandia—or any of the pods springing up around town who are just as guilty of this crime—OPEN... ON...TIME. As of 12:20 pm the day I reviewed Cartlandia, only two of the six carts were ready to serve food, and one (El Jeffe's Fresco Grill) didn't open at all while I was there. That's bullshit, people. Lunch is at NOON, and if you can't be up and slinging grub by that time, you may want to choose a different occupation. Despite the media blowjobs you may have become accustomed to, being a food cart operator in Portland does not make you part of a privileged class. Whew. Okay, lecture over. All that aside, Cartlandia has a lot going for it, and will undoubtedly provide more in the future—and not just for those on two wheels.

Standout Carts: 3 (Cascade Burger, Sakura Bento)

Range: 3

Vegetarian/Vegan Friendly: 1

Seating/Amenities: 5

Access to Booze: Bring that brown bag.

Carts: Cascade Burger, Cheesesteak Nirvana, El Jeffe's Fresco Grill, London Pasty Company, Sakura Bento, Savvy J's

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