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The chap we’re meeting is unmissable: he’s tall, rangy, in laid-back clothing that’s typical for Portland, and in possession of a heroic set of mutton-chop whiskers. His name is equally memorable, and I’d say he has one of the best jobs in the world: if he had a business card it would probably read: Brett Burmeister, Portland food cart expert.
Before heading to Portland, Oregon, I’d heard all the jokes, chuckled at the earnest coffee-heads in Portlandia, and its reputation as duck-fat-soaked Porkland. As someone who always travels with an improbably long list of eating opportunities instead of an itinerary, I thought I knew exactly what was on the menu: a riot of restaurants, microbreweries, urban wineries, one of the world’s finest farmers’ markets. The city invented the foodie as hipster – for which we must forgive – but that’s because Portland’s geography has created a green land of fertility, pioneering the whole farm-to-fork movement. It is a food spod’s Xanadu.
But, somehow, I managed to overlook what turned out to be the most exhilarating part of my visit. I didn’t realise that street food was as ingrained in the city’s culture as the coffee grounds under the nails of its baristas; that this has been the case for over 30 years; and that there are over 600 “street fooders” scattered throughout the city, in communities they call “pods”, each with its own identity.
They spring up on former parking lots, street corners and the forecourts of the city’s many craft microbrewers (a particularly happy symbiosis). Some are relatively slick, with beer trucks, covered seating, Wi-Fi and ATM machines (Cartopia on SE 12th and Hawthorne); some are little more than a ramshackle collection of like-minded souls (Alberta 15, 1477 NE Alberta Street). But for the greedy and adventurous, each one is an absolute trip.
Anyone thinking, yawn, another hotdog/burger/burrito hagiography, stop right now. Sure, the usual suspects are represented, but the burgers will be made with aged, organic beef, or served in just-fried doughnuts (yep, doughnuts); buns will be hand-proved brioche; and the pickles lactic-fermented by the beardy chap behind the counter. You can eat for days without touching a cliche’d “gourmet junkfood” suspect: there’s deliciousness from every nationality you can name: Colombian arepas, Romanian chimney cakes, Egyptian koshari, deep southern shrimp and grits. Hell, there’s even Maine lobster and seared foie gras and chips.
Cart blanche: food truck tour
It can feel overwhelming to try to make sense of Portland’s food carts on your ownsome, which is where bewhiskered Brett comes in. Over the course of an enthralling morning, he gives my husband and me a primer, a taste of everything from slippery, savoury Beijing potsticker dumplings from the Dump Truck – which even does a bacon cheeseburger dumpling – to home-smoked sockeye salmon sliders with a mild pineapple teriyaki sauce from Salmon Fusion, fished in Alaska by the cart’s owner.
There are usually around 40 active pods at any time. We kick off at the city’s largest and most established, at SW 9th/10th and Alder: it’s a maelstrom of activity, with 60 vendors covering a city block. It’s here that we find what is probably the best-known cart on the scene, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, and begin to understand what all the fuss is about. Even the most rickety-looking outfit will be doling out little bites of perfection: El Taco Yucateo, for instance, where we have panuchos as brightly coloured as a Keith Haring painting: yellow taco, chicken, bright pink cebollas curtidas (pickled onion), green avocado, earthy black beans. It tastes every bit as vivid as it looks. We’re hooked, and immediately want to discover more.
It’s easy to fall in love with a city so besotted with food. No wonder its residents do so much cycling and rambling: it’s to build up an appetite. At the farmers’ market at Portland State University (a typically low-key descriptor for this food-lover’s heaven: sprawling and picturesque) dozens of stalls are piled high with brightly hued produce, home-baking, local-made charcuterie, and, of course, street food. Here we meet up with Karen Brooks, Portland’s best-known (and best-loved) restaurant critic. Karen is the queen of the culinary scene. Her book, The Mighty Gastropolis, is the essential tool for anyone planning a visit. We’d like to explore a little further afield than the city centre pods, so which of her “pavement gourmets” should we hit next?
Karen’s recommendation is to try Tiffin Asha, at North Beech Street, on an arty stretch of historic Mississippi Avenue (a rare, non-pod cart). The food is so on the money I’m still pining for it now. Former pastry chef Elizabeth Golay’s take on southern Indian food is the stuff of obsession. Her pakora-fried chicken in the lightest, frilliest dosa pancake, perked up with homemade chutneys and spiked by “gunpowder” spice mixes, is officially one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted, ever.
Karen also tells us not to miss the city’s lauded falafel stands – it’s fair to say that fried chickpeas have never been so luxurious, so revelatory. Also at her behest, we check out the coffee from microroaster Olé Latte back on SW Alder; with its roster of single-origin espresso beans and “pay-it-forward” programme, it’s a shot in the arm for a caffeine-addicted city that thinks it has seen it all.
Tweet street: using social media
Soon we feel confident enough to strike out on our own. Twitter is a boon to the street-food seeker. It provides times and locations for hungry pilgrims, telling when a truck will be in an area, what’s on its menu, and when items are sold out.
We head across the Willamette river to Mississippi Marketplace, at 4233 Mississippi Avenue, to eat big, blowsy, scone-like biscuits and crisp, fried chicken in a creamy bacon-spiked gravy at Miss Kate’s Southern Kitchen. I think these are the definition of indulgence until we go to Big Ass Sandwiches for its signature ciabatta bun stuffed with roast beef, cheese sauce and hand-cut chips: yes, a steak and chips sarnie. “Truly a monster,” says Brett.
The ramshackle Pod 28 at SE 28th and Ankeny is a treasure. There’s a craft beer truck (a huge hooray from my husband) that is romantically called Captured By Porches. The beers – a particularly good IPA – come in Mason jars, all the better to accompany mammoth, melty toasted sandwiches from Grilled Cheese Grill, fluffy falafel with caramelised onions from Wolf & Bear’s, or hand-pressed masa tacos stuffed with sultry, achiote-spiked cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) from Güero at 113 SE 28th Avenue.
Even after nearly a fortnight of eating more than is sane or healthy, there’s still so much to discover. Bizarrely, at no point does jadedness kick in. Still, we only manage to get round to a fraction of the carts, missing out the likes of the Cultured Caveman with its paleo-diet offerings or “sweetgeist” merchant Sugar Cube, with its transgressive take on cakes: the “Amy Winehouse” is topped with icing sugar “coke”, its chocolate caramel cupcakes are penetrated by salted potato chips.
We’ll have to come back, perhaps next time in September, to coincide with Feast Portland (feastportland, the city’s food and drink festival. It features a legion of street food chefs, which are showcased as enthusiastically as their bricks and mortar equivalents.
Portland’s food carts have fed millions, launched careers and contributed to urban regeneration: a no-go square once known as “crack park” is now full of happy lunchtime grazers. As Brett suggests, the much-imitated industry attracts everyone from classically trained chefs to home-cooking immigrants. “What they have in common is pride in their product and knowing they’re working for themselves,” he says. And if it works for them, it sure as hell works for me.