STANDING AT THE corner of 9th and Alder in the core of the downtown district, I was completely overwhelmed with the number of food carts.
There were tacos, BBQ, a long line gathering outside a soup cart, Ethiopian, sushi, and one called the Frying Scotsman amid more than forty other carts. Just like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, and around the rest of the country, Portland’s food carts are on the rise.
Maybe it was a mistake to travel to Portland to research food carts a few weeks into my new diet. My personal trainer, John, wasn’t going to be happy with me.
I was first introduced to Portland’s food carts in October. I visited Ugarit Mediterranean Meals. The owner, Mohammad, greeted me with a smile and a cup of red lentil soup to keep warm as I looked over his menu in the drizzling rain.
I chose gyros. Mohammad cooked the meat on a tiny grill inside his green and yellow striped cart while telling me how hard it was to get quality lamb. He spun and reached gathering lettuce, cucumbers, hummus, and tomatoes. The gyros were a delicious mess.
I knew I’d be back in Portland soon to explore more food carts.
The publicity that Nong’s Khao Man Gai has received caught my eye as I looked for lunch. Articles written about Nong’s cart from Travel + Leisure, Cooking Light, and Men’s Health hang around her window.
Nong, originally from Thailand, has developed a Bangkok-style one-dish wonder. Chicken and rice is all she serves but she does it well. A strong taste of ginger is just below overpowering. The rice and chicken are wrapped in butcher paper with a container of red sauce made of fermented soy bean puree and garlic, ginger, Thai chilico, vinegar, and sugar, and folded into a nice little square — perfect for an on-the-go meal.
Lamb, rice, and baklava
The next day I was trying to stick to my diet as I visited a pod (the name given to multiple food carts gathered together) on the campus of Portland State University, looking for a Turkish food cart.
Sadi said, “Welcome my friend,” as I approached his cart, The Sultan’s Kitchen. I ordered lamb and rice. A tomato-based sauce and yogurt with garlic and mint drenched the top. The lamb was so tender my plastic fork slid through it with ease.
He gave me a free piece of baklava after I told him I was in Turkey for the summer. It was so good that l bought five more pieces. People kept coming up to the window and he kept it up, “Hello, my friend,” and “Good to see you, my friend.” With Sadi, I got the feeling he actually means it.
The next day I decided screw the diet. I can’t write an article on food carts while trying to stick to a diet. If I’m going down, I might as well go down big.
So I chose Burgatroyd. Jamey, who recently took over as owner, also greeted me with a huge smile. I could get used to the friendly service around here.
I ordered the Classic with fries. There’s a circus-like tent installed by Roger Goldingay, the owner of the Mississippi Marketplace pod. I ate under it, even though it was sunny.
The bun (not supposed to be eating flour) was thick and soft, the burger just the right amount of juicy, the vegetables fresh and crispy. The special sauce completed the burger so thoroughly that I was really gratified to be breaking all the rules.
The fries (not supposed to be eating oil) looked like normal fries but weren’t. I asked Jamey if they’re cooked in a special oil but she said it’s tarragon salt, pink peppercorns, and a secret ingredient.
Since the diet was already sunk I decided to get some dessert (not supposed to be eating sugar). Crust and Common Pie Shop in the Q-19 pod was my next victim. When I got there I was extremely disappointed to learn they weren’t only sold out of chocolate crème pie but were out of every one of their sweet pies. Only savory was left.
What kind of pie dealer doesn’t have sweet pies? The trip wasn’t a complete waste though because I came across a possible new food cart trend: indoor seating. The Q-19 pod is behind Quimby’s at 19th, a full service bar and pizza restaurant. Food from the carts can be brought in and drinks ordered at the bar.
I decided on one more location to try for dessert before getting back on the road. Brother Bob’s Roving Bakery on North Killingsworth and Greeley is in Northwest Portland. It feels a little more run down and industrial than the other places I’ve visited. It may not be a “destination” pod but Bob makes some great desserts. After considering the cookies, waffles with berries and whipped cream, and huge cinnamon rolls, I opted for the funnel cake.
The warm sweet bread was a perfect ending to my food cart weekend. Do I regret blowing the diet? No way. I only regret not eating more the first two days. But then again, I haven’t seen John since I returned. I get the feeling he’s not going to be happy.
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Ryan Dorn is a freelance writer and photographer based out of Seattle, Washington. He's navigated busy trains in Japan, canoed in Southern Ontario, walked the Roman Road in Ephesus, and climbed granite towers in Yosemite. You can follow his travels and work at www.ryan-dorn.com or on Twitter at @DornWrites.