Food carts are becoming the coolest mode of getting fed. There are food truck races on American television, and carts big and small popping up in cities across the U.S.
These grab-and-go eateries aren’t new by any means – think street food around the globe – but across the States the trend is finally making the jump from hot-dog carts on New York street corners and music-box ice cream trucks, to a well-rounded menagerie of foods, both sweet and savory.
It was the Northwest city of Portland that pioneered this movement, years before it was “the thing” to do. These days you can find everything from Ethiopian to gyros, waffle sandwiches to Korean barbecue, all served by a friendly street vendor. In researching my upcoming GrassRoutes Guide to Portland, which hits stores this August, I had an incredible time finding serious food in these small hideouts.
2310 N Lombard St, NE Fremont and Mississippi Sts, and SW 3rd Ave and Ash St
The so-called Dutch tacos made to order at Flavourspot have become so popular that the single cart has multiplied to three. And frankly, I could eat practically anything as long as it was sandwiched between these perfectly sumptuous waffles.
Crispy around the circular edges, and buttery soft in the middle, the waffles act as flavor amplifiers, bringing out the best in fillings like smoked gouda and Black Forest ham with organic maple butter, or vegan sausage, or whipped cream cheese with local raspberry jam.
Unless your hunger pains are overwhelming and you order the mega MB9, loaded with six slices of Canadian bacon and three of the domestic strip variety ($6.25), you’ll be spending under $5. Coffee, made fresh every half hour, is the ideal drink to pair.
SE 13th Ave and Lexington St
Head to the Sellwood neighborhood, in southern Portland, for a mini trip to Sicily via the Garden State food cart. As with many of the best Portland eateries, Garden State sources much of its fare from nearby bountiful valleys like the Willamette and Applegate.
Devil’s Chicken is a must if you can handle the heat from crusted black peppercorns, served with panzanella for $12. Soups vary each day, but the arancine are always there—little balls of delight stuffed with your choice of cheese or meat ragu and dusted in home-made breadcrumbs.
2827 NE Albert St
Todbott’s is unique in many ways – first, there’s a small space for you to sit on the smooth bamboo floor inside the tiny eatery, second, this place has popularized the word “onigiri,” not your usual foodie jargon outside of Japan.
The onigiri here, rice triangles wrapped in seaweed, are made with Oregon-grown brown rice and stuffed with traditional combinations like wild salmon and umeboshi (special pickled plums) or mixed sea vegetables marinated with sweet tamari. If, like me, you’ve eaten your fair share of these perfect to-go snacks in Japan, you’ll be impressed with the authenticity, married with the use of high-quality local ingredients.
In addition to these triangles ($3 each, two fill me up), you can order healthy red miso broth ($2) or curried rice with organic beef ($6). This cart started on a bicycle, and has now found a cozy nook to call home.
Taste of Poland
SW 5th and SW Stark Sts
This food cart was early on the scene, and though it may not be the most sophisticated of them all, it reliably cooks up some seriously tasty grub sans pretension. There are sandwiches to go, but my reason for seeking out Taste of Poland are the glorious steamed perogies, stuffed with Polish sausage, potatoes, and carrots.
After a shopping rampage through the Saturday Market, I recommend upping the ante with the chicken meatballs, served with potato perogies and some fresh cucumber slices ($6). Nothing will cure a bout of buyer’s remorse quicker. I just wish I could track down this cart in the afternoon – the generous portions would be a perfect antidote for too much locally-brewed beer, which there is plenty to speak of in this sudsy city.
4734 N Albina St
For dessert en-route to a live performance, swinging by Junior Ambassadors can’t be beat. Neither can the gingersnap and basil ice cream they make. The flavors may not end up on the traditional side of things, but new is good in this case.
The most memorable taste experience for me was a scoop of Dorian Grey, and not just because I’m an Oscar Wilde fan. This is Earl Grey ice cream, made with tea from Portland’s Tao of Tea. The short menu is organized by meal – breakfast ice creams like coffee and granola or bacon-maple, lunch ice creams like strawberry chipotle or avocado, drink ice creams like the aforementioned Dorian Grey, and the most far-fetched dinner ice creams like coconut curry, corn on the cob or asparagus.
Don’t knock it before you try it. That said, you can order on the tamer side with the crowd-pleasing chocolate on a peanut butter pretzel stick, or vegan “Almond Ice.”