Movable Feast Portland’s Food Cart Scene
Portland’s food-cart scene is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it’s grown to legendary proportions. According to local experts, there are as many as 700 food carts scattered around the city.
In fact, the food cart scene is so robust and delicious that it’s drawn raves from Bon Appétit magazine and CNN, which claimed Portland is home to the world’s best street food. And these aren’t your run-of-the-mill hot dog wagons or packaged sandwich coaches. These are full-fledged tiny kitchens serving up gourmet concoctions of every variety, from pho to fancy-schmancy grilled cheese. If there’s a food you’re craving, chances are you can find a food cart serving it up in Portland.
While there’s no definitive history of Portland’s food cart scene, most people link its rise to the recession of the last decade. At that point, the economy was spiraling downward and restaurants were closing at an alarming rate, as the population had less disposable income to spend on multi-course dinners at expensive restaurants.
At the same time, the Food Network was growing in popularity, helping to make “chef” a respected profession. This led to more and more people enrolling in culinary schools, who graduated to find either sparse employment opportunities, or jobs so horrible that they became rapidly disenchanted with the restaurant industry.
Portland’s foodie culture had grown by this time, as well. Folks were interested in finding the next great bite, and at a reasonable price. Enter experienced chefs looking to serve the masses. Add in Portland’s lenient zoning laws and the low start-up cost of launching a food cart, and a delicious movement was born.
The restaurant industry’s loss is everyone’s gain. These culinary school graduates and entrepreneurs have brought expertise, a spirit of adventure, and a willingness to experiment to bear on Portland’s food scene.
Get ready to try everything (and anything) from a fresh Baja fish taco to a burger with the buns replaced by grilled cheese sandwiches. There’s also gingery Thai chicken (khao man gai) and melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi. It’s all out there on the streets of Portland if you know where to look.
Whereas in most cities you need to follow your favorite food trucks from location to location, in Portland, most food carts stay put in groups called “pods.” This makes it easy to bounce from one to another, creating your own sampling menu. And it also makes it easy to return to a favorite day after day.
If it’s your first trip to the city, you may want to start your food cart culinary adventure with a tour. Check out eatadventures.com or foodcartsportland.com for a spirit guide to snacking.
But if you’re ready to explore on your own, here is the download on a few of the biggest pods to help you get started on your culinary adventures.
Alder Street Food Cart Pod: Located near the legendary Powell’s Books (between SW Alder and Washington streets, from SW 9th to SW 10th Avenues) lies Portland’s largest cart pod. Here, you’ll find some of the most well-known carts, including Nong’s Khao Man Gai, which serves up that gingery Thai chicken we mentioned earlier, and which has been praised everywhere from the Food Network to The New York Times; The Frying Scotsman, which fries up traditional British fish and chips to order; and The Whole Bowl, offering up vegetarian bowls that have been called “the best lunch in Portland.”
Fifth Avenue Pod: This daytime, downtown location (on SW 5th Avenue between SW Oak and Stark Streets) offers a number of Thai and Indian carts, as well as Tabor Czech Food, which delivers “The Original Schnitzelwich.” Pioneer Square and Waterfront Park are both nearby, so you’re bound to find yourself here at some point during a visit.
Third Avenue Pod: At this pod, which is located on SW 3rd Avenue between SW Washington and Stark Streets, you’ll find amazing vegan and vegetarian food from DC Vegetarian, as well as carts offering cuisine from Mexico, Egypt, Thailand, and Vietnam. Take your meal to Waterfront Park for the perfect picnic. Cartopia: For late-night bites, this is your spot. Located on SE Hawthorne Boulevard at SE 12th Avenue, Cartopia has a covered, heated seating area, and most carts stay open until midnight Tuesday–Thursday, and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Favorites here include Potato Champion, which dishes up crispy, twice-fried Belgian-style fries, and Perierra Crêperie for the perfect Nutella-banana crepe.