September 29, 2015
The genesis of the food cart phenomenon in Portland was unexceptional. A few street corner hot dog carts that grew into randomly placed burrito and Thai noodle stands. But then, like primordial soup, an early cluster of carts arose in a parking lot at the corner of Stark and 5th, and a new sensational species was born. From Hungarian goulash to Norwegian Meatballs, here are a few of our favourite food carts in Portland to try on your next trip.
TÃ¡bor’s was among the first thirty food carts in Portland. “The food carts provide wonderful power to everybody,” stated TÃ¡bor proprietor Karel Vitek, who escaped communist Czechoslovakia, earned a Portland State philosophy degree and then opened his homage to Czech cuisine. “This is solid food that the most creative minds in Portland make.” Vitek says he cooks for up to 1,000 people a day, adding pop-up specials like Hungarian goulash that launches an aroma marketing campaign, leading to a tweet-up rush that lasts until the pot’s been scraped clean.
Schnitzelwich: Stark & 5th
Nong Poonsukwattana Narumol’s “Nong’s Khao Man Gai” (Thai poached chicken and rice) cart remains open “From 10am Until Sold Out.” Diners line up early for her “Khao Man Gai,” the only entrée she serves. Nong’s empire has grown from its humble food cart beginnings into two brick and mortar establishments, a not-uncommon food cart phenomenon. Located on Alder and at Portland State University, the latter’s menu has expanded to five delicious entrée items.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai: 9th & Alder
Cliff Allen’s mesquite grill fires up flank steaks, pork poplette and occasionally, for those fortunate enough to be in the vicinity, an entire pig. Barbequed pork has long been a food cart staple, but Allen’s twists include the “Porchetta,” a delectable double sammy in which he roasts pork tenderloin and assorted seasonings inside a pork belly. Add hearty bread and a little bitter rocket for contrast then let the mouth watering commence.
PeoplesPig: N. Williams Ave. between NE Cook and NE Fargo
It’s unknown if the Vikings every vanquished the shores of the Willamette River, but their legacy remains intact at Viking Soul Food. The Norse god Odin himself would be pleased with this menu, featuring “Norwegian Meatballs,” “Polse” (chicken sausage) and a house smoked salmon, replete with pickled shallots and Norwegian potato lefse.
Viking Soul Food: SE Belmont St between SE 42nd & SE 43rd
Few food cart impresarios can hold a flame to the tale of Han Ly Hwang; Kim Jong Grillin’s chef/owner learned of his conflagrated cart a couple of hours after said cart received top honours at the Eat Mobile food cart competition. Fast forward four years and Hwang has returned to the streets with two carts. Grab the napkins and dig into the “Bibim Box,” juicy short ribs or other meats served over japchae (glass noodles), rice and chef’s signature runny egg, all surrounded by fermented veggies. The fried wonton skins will also knock you out.
Kim Jong Grillin’: 4606 S.E. Division St. & 5427 N.E. 42nd Ave.)
There are those who love French fries and those who adore tater tots, and for the latter there’s no place better than The Dog House, home to “Truffle Treasure,” “Soulmates” and other tater tot bowl concoctions. Located at SE Division’s Tidbit Food Farm and Garden, a food pod 2.0 complete with picnic tables and a stage, the grass fed beef burgers feature such hits as “1 Night in Bankok,” a thick patty smothered with candied bacon, peanut butter and sambal chilli, among other interesting condiments.
The Dog House PDX: SE 28th Place & Division
Chippys go way back in UK culture, so much so that many expats have tried to cash in by tossing fish & chips on the menu in the States without much culinary effort. Not so The Frying Scotsman, owner James King’s handcrafted menu that has recently earned a “Top Twenty Fish and Chip Shop in America” status. (King is #4!) There’s battered cod to be sure, but we suggest you go local with battered halibut or mahi-mahi. King recently added Haggis Supper to the menu. What self-respecting Scotsman wouldn’t?
The Frying Scotsman: Alder & 9th
Food carts cut their chops on meat, easy to grill, season and serve. Garden Monsters calls in the carnivores as well, but serves pork, steak and other cuts as an accessory to robust salad greens. Consider the “Paul Bunyan,” iceberg and romaine lettuces, roasted red potatoes, red peppers, red onions and, well, you get the idea. Want vegan chicken to go with your “Colossal Cobb?” They got it. Though there are over 600 food carts in Portland, Garden Monsters remains the only one that specializes in fresh entrée-sized salads.
Garden Monsters: SE 28th Place & Division
Just when you didn’t think Portland could possibly launch another novel food cart (after all this is the scene that produced the “Cheesus Burger,” thick beef bookended by two grilled cheese sandwiches), along comes Bing Mi!, purveyor of jianbing, a northern Chinese crÃªpe. It’s taken 2,000 years for jianbing – it’s rumoured genesis from a Shandong Province general’s need to feed his troops – to arrive, but the combination of black bean paste, chili sauce, pickled vegetables, green onion, coriander and fried cracker within a grilled crÃªpe has been well worth the wait.
Bing Mi: 9th & Alder
We can’t conjure up a list of the best food carts in Portland without paying homage to the Mexican food stand, a go-to curbside cafeteria long before food carts became cool. However, this being Portland, Holy Mole is no ordinary taco truck. Chef/owner Fernando simmers more than 30 ingredients to create his signature mole. Weekend enchilada specials join the standard weekday menu of “Mole Poblano” and “Pozole Blanco.”
Holy Mole: SE 33rd & Hawthorn
Our partnership with Delta connects you to a wide range of destinations across the United States and Canada, bringing a foodie tour of Portland’s food carts within reach.
Written by Crai Bower