How nice it would be to live in Portland. That's the thought that kept running through my mind as I sat on a bench downtown one sunny lunch hour last fall, eating some of the juiciest, crunchiest, tangiest fried chicken I've had in years. Here is a city full of all the things I love: bookshops and bike routes; smart urban planning and open-mindedness; a vibrant restaurant scene blessed with access to the Pacific Northwest's amazing local produce, wine, and microbrewed beer. And hundreds upon hundreds of food carts.
It was those carts that brought me here. I'd been hearing about Portland's food cart phenomenon for years, and assumed it was just another manifestation of the nationwide mobile dining trend—those fleets of roving trucks that tweet their locations for frantic pickups of Korean tacos or artisan cupcakes. But every time I talked to friends in Portland (a good many have moved there over the years), I got a different story: Something else is going on here, something much more resonant. Hundreds of food carts have set up in parking lots all around the city, I was told, and they have completely changed the way the people of Portland eat.
When I walked out of my hotel midmorning and stumbled across the first of many "pods," as clusters of carts are known here, in a sprawling former parking lot, I sensed they were right. This was the food court of my dreams, with dozens of vehicles—shiny concession trucks; hand-painted storage trailers retrofitted into kitchens; sheds on wheels—serving everything from schnitzel to pulled pork sandwiches to jambalaya (from a former chef of Galatoire's in New Orleans, no less). A Scottish cook was frying fish and chips in a renovated camper, explaining to a customer the difference between haddock and cod; a Polish woman browned homemade pierogis with caramelized onions on a well-worn kitchen stove. A line snaked down the block and around the corner for one particular cart with a hand-painted sign describing its signature offering: khao man gai, Thai-style chicken and rice.
It was here that I planned to meet Andy Ricker, chef-owner of the city's celebrated Thai restaurant, Pok Pok, to get a handle on this scene. When he arrived, a soft-spoken 48-year-old with tattoos of Thai ingredients on his arm, he explained that the woman who had opened the cart, Narumol Poonsukwattana, used to work in his kitchen. Ever since food carts took off in Portland a few years back, he said, "It's been harder to find and keep restaurant cooks."
The dish was unbelievably delicious, with flavors pungent and precise. A Thai take on Hainan chicken, the tender meat was poached in a broth scented with ginger and garlic, and served with rice cooked in that same liquid, flavorful and silky with the chicken's rendered fat. A sweet, sticky sauce of fermented soybeans and black soy sauce came on the side, providing the perfect sweet-tart punch. When the lunch rush died down, I asked Poonsukwattana, a slim, cheerful woman with a seemingly boundless reserve of energy, why she started out serving just one dish at her cart. She told me a story about working at Thai restaurants that served lots of inauthentic recipes skewed to what the bosses assumed were American tastes. "I wanted to serve just one Thai dish really well," she said. "And this is my comfort food." She's since started serving a few others, including phenomenal Sriracha-spiked chicken wings, but her initial impulse—to build her menu slowly, focusing on excellence each step of the way—has remained. It's something she would have found impossible were she to have opened a full-service restaurant.
So, why Portland? The following morning, I drove north, crossing the river and passing through one leafy neighborhood after the next to meet a man who is more prepared to answer that question than most. Brett Burmeister, a Portland native who has made it his life's mission to promote the city's food cart culture. He runs the website FoodCartsPortland.com; produced its popular iPhone app; and helped found the Oregon Street Food Association, a trade group that lobbies for vendors' rights. A friendly guy with shaggy bangs overlapping his glasses and impressive muttonchops that almost reach the tips of his smile, Burmeister has never owned a cart himself; he fell into this world after blogging about walking around Portland and realizing just how much good these carts have done for his city.
"Food brings people together," he said as we ate breakfast at Mississippi Marketplace, a pod in the northern part of town with a handful of carts encircling rows of picnic tables. Young families pushed their strollers over to The Big Egg, a bright yellow truck serving brunchy dishes like powdered-sugar-coated Monte Cristo sandwiches filled with Gorgonzola and ham; bleary-eyed hipsters dipped forks into big cups of rice and vegetables and mock meat from a cart called Native Bowl. As we talked, Burmeister drew a map of the city in my notebook, identifying other notable pods, most of which were in neighborhoods beyond downtown. Once you get outside of the downtown area, Portland looks and feels like a sprawling college town, residential streets lined with bungalows alternating with thoroughfares of commercial storefronts. These pods have provided a new way for Portlanders to engage with each other and the urban landscape.
There are around 475 carts open at any given time. Unlike other cities where obtaining a cart and the necessary permits is cost-prohibitive or full of red tape and black-market pressure, here the city seems to encourage the proliferation of food carts. In John T. Edge's new Truck Food Cookbook (Workman, 2012) he writes "When street food advocates…speak of American cities that serve as honest incubators of a street food scene, Portland is the name on the tip of everyone's tongue." He cites a study commissioned by the city's bureau of planning that found that "food carts have a positive impact on street vitality and neighborhood life and advance public value, including community connectedness and distinctiveness, equity and access, and sustainability."
That's to say nothing of how the carts empower people who might otherwise be stymied by the costs of opening a brick-and-mortar business. "Portland has always had a DIY mentality," Burmeister explained. The food-cart model breeds ingenuity and diversity: There's an inherent understanding that it's not acceptable to do something someone else is already doing in the same pod. It's also sparked creative competition. "The bar keeps rising," he said, offering as an example his latest discovery: a vendor serving handmade pasta with ingredients from a nearby urban farm. "Fresh pasta and garlic scapes, from a cart!"
In some cases, the carts' originality stems from the way they express something personal about the owners and where they come from. After we left Mississippi Marketplace, Burmeister drove me to a small pod with a cart called PDX 671: The name combines the Portland airport code with the area code for Guam. The young couple that runs the cart, Edward and Marie Sablan, are from the tiny island in the south Pacific. When we arrived, Edward was tending marinated chicken and short ribs on a smoking grill while his young son and daughter ran around the picnic tables. Inside their 16-by-8 feet cart, which looks not unlike a restaurant kitchen, Marie was serving up orders of annatto-tinged, smoky tasting red rice; titiya, the coconut milk—enriched flatbreads that are central to Guam's indigenous Chamorro cuisine; kelaguen mannok, a salad of chopped grilled chicken with lots of freshly grated coconut, lemon juice, onions, and hot peppers. "This is our fiesta food," Edward told me, a mix of Filipino, Japanese, and Spanish influences. "It's what my family cooks, and what our friends from Guam prepare when we get together." I had never come across any of these dishes before, anywhere in America.
Same goes for the fragrant sumac-seasoned stuffed onions, lentil soup, and beet salad at Aladdin's Castle Cafe, where Ghaith Sahib and his mother, Nawal Jasim, prepare Iraqi home cooking in a cozy camper painted mustard yellow. "In his country, it's a point of shame for men to cook at home," Ghaith's wife and cart co-owner, Tiffany, told me, "But he's a great cook." The couple met in Amsterdam after Ghaith was injured by a car bomb during the war in Iraq. He was able to come to the States and, ultimately, to bring his mother over. Opening a food cart serving Iraqi and other Middle Eastern dishes was a way for them to create a business around something they enjoyed and knew how to do well. It took off: They now have a small restaurant in addition to the cart.
It's true all over the world—whether it's a noodle vendor at a hawker stall in Singapore or a cook in Brooklyn who totes her insulated cooler full of tamales from place to place—selling home-style food on the street is a natural, and empowering, way for people to provide for themselves and their families. When I talked to these vendors in Portland, and saw their sincere smiles when customers told them how much they enjoyed their food, I witnessed yet another important layer to all of this: These carts allow so many immigrants to stake their claim in Portland, to become a part of a very diverse community while honoring their cultural heritage.
In other cases, the carts' originality is a result of creative cooks breaking away from the restraints of a restaurant kitchen. This was the case with many of the carts in the last pod Burmeister took me to, Good Food, a leafy space with a small beer garden. There were incredible aromas wafting from a cart called Lardo, where I ordered a juicy porchetta sandwich fragrant with herbs and garlic and slathered with a gremolata made with local hazelnuts. The accompanying fries were insanely flavorful and crisp, cooked in lard and tossed with fresh herbs, parmesan, and fleur de sel. "We're buying from the same producers restaurants are buying from," said co-owner Rick Gencarelli, a former restaurant chef who cooked with Todd English, among others, before moving to Portland.
For dessert, I walked a few steps over to a sixties-era camper painted like Neapolitan ice cream, in shades of pink, white, and chocolate brown. Called the Sugar Cube, it's where Kir Jensen, who spent years in restaurant pastry kitchens, turns out silky panna cotta striated with dark chocolate and espresso-flavored cream; homemade ice cream sandwiches in flavors like salty caramel; and other elegant, elaborate sweets. "I wanted to show that excellent food can come out of a cart," said Jensen, who just released her first cookbook, The Sugar Cube (Chronicle, 2012). "And I get to experiment more because the business is mine."
The pod that everyone insisted I visit was Cartopia, the first to create a dedicated seating area as the focal point of a pod, and the first to bring a cocktail cart to the city of Portland. I visited one night with my friends Carrie and Janie, two former Brooklynites who have good reason to brag about their new home. "Can you believe this pizza?" Carrie said as we devoured a margherita pie under a twinkling canopy of fairy lights. I couldn't. It was wood-fired and hot from the hand-built brick oven at a cart called Pyro Pizza, and it cost all of seven bucks. I finished one and immediately ordered another. The ponytailed owner, John Eads, grinned when I complimented his pies and his prices. "Sure, I can raise my prices, but why?" he posited. "This is not food for the elite. It's made for the masses."
I spent the better part of my last day in Portland continuing to drive and eat. Veggie Burgers. Fondue. Poutine. Fried sardines. Pie (sweet and savory). I really should have rented a bike. I could barely go a few blocks without spotting another pod—here a barbecue truck parked near a ramshackle beer bar with a sprawling garden out back; there a few more doing brisk business selling country-fried steaks and curries to customers at the strip club next door. (There appear to be as many strip clubs in Portland as there are food carts, but I guess that's another story.)
Finally, I came upon the cart that Burmeister had been raving about, a candy-apple red one flanked with bistro-style tables where people were eating homemade ravioli and sipping wine. Inside, a young cook named Rachael Grossman was rolling out pasta dough as the late afternoon sun shone in through the cart's window.
As she dropped a tangle of tagliatelle into boiling water and started sauteing heirloom tomatoes she got from an urban farm nearby with a glug of good oil and garlic. It occurred to me, as I watched this woman cook, that she was doing what she was meant to do, what all real cooks are meant to do: prepare meals thoughtfully and with the finest ingredients, for her neighbors and friends. She told me about the months she spent cooking in Italy, how it had changed her life, how she loved making pasta with all of her heart. "In this country, this kind of food is something that's trapped inside fine dining," she said. "It doesn't have to be."