Food carts are the new covered wagon. Nomadic pioneers striking out in compact vessels with just the shirts on their back, the bread in their baskets and the rice in their pots, seeking to claim their own piece of this burgeoning culinary frontier. Seems like every day a new cluster of food carts springs up where once there was only a vacant patch of asphalt, and regardless of your craving, there’s nothing you can’t buy out out of a trailer now–from delicious basics like tacos, pizza, sandwiches, crepes, and noodle dishes galore, to hot cones of french fries with tarragon anchovy mayo, peanut butter and chocolate chip fried pies, and duck confit & apricot jam sandwiches. So paint your wagon, tuck your napkin in your shirt collar, and go have a food cart adventure. Here are my favorite spots to eat mobile.
I love sausage in all its incarnations, but there’s something special about a brat, and nobody does them quite like bratwurst barons George and Jameson Wittkopp. Born from the secret Wittkopp family recipe, which involves Carlton Farms pork and 14 different herbs and spices, these links are swoon-worthy even unadorned, but I recommend dousing them with sauerkraut, cheese, garlic, grilled onions and healthy dobs of whole grain mustard. For the calorically brave, order the käse, a fondue-like spread made from Swiss cheese, wine and garlic. Vegetarians rejoice, for Altengartz makes a chickpea-based Veggie Brat just for you. Bratwurst-loving night owls–the cart does late night service at SW 3rd & Davis on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 11pm-3am.
Built To Grill
Good Italian can be hard to come by in downtown Portland’s FoodCartLandia, but chef Brooke Howes set out to change that with Built to Grill. Peek inside the spotless little silver cart on SW 3rd Avenue to see a lineup of luscious paninis sizzling under foil-wrapped bricks–like the spicy meat-laden Italian Hero with proscuitto, salami and mortadella with spinach, and pepperonicini, the satisfying grilled chicken with spinach, mozzarella and sundried tomato pesto, and the portobello mushroom with carmelized onions and mozzarella, all made on Fleur de Lis Bakery ciabatta rolls. Add a cup of rich pasta fagioli, or the light and crisp salt and pepper calamari, and that’s amore.
Nobody in Portland does late-night dining quite like the Cartopia food cart cluster at SE Hawthorne & SE 12th, where an asphalt-covered lot hosts popular carts like Whiffies Fried Pies–savory and sweet moon-shaped pies filled with everything from pulled pork to peanut butter and chocolate, Potato Champion–heaping cones of piping hot thick cut fries and a variety of exotic dipping sauces, Pyro Pizza–complete with in-cart wood-fired pizza oven, and funky Perierra Creperie. While most food carts around town hit their stride during the noon hour, Cartopia gets interesting around dinnertime, and keeps things hopping until around 3 am. Now that’s an afterhours party.
There are few things in life more comforting than waffles, Nutella, and marshmallow creme, so imagine being confronted by all three at once, in the form of a warm golden waffle stuffed with the latter two, then folded like a taco and presented to you with soft white wings of mallow creme billowing out the sides. Yeah, that’s a lot of comfort. It’s also one of the most deliciously decadent things you’ll ever eat, which is the premise behind these popular North Portland waffle carts. There are ham and cheese waffles, sausage and maple waffles, peanut butter and jelly waffles, even lemon pie waffles. It’s like chicken soup for the waffle-loving soul, without the burnt tongue.
As we learned from a winged Jeff Goldblum, fusion attempts gone wrong aren’t pretty. But this popular taco truck’s marriage of Mexican and Korean street snacks is fusion gone wild in a good way. Inspired by a stomach-provoking visit to LA’s Kogi BBQ, Koi Fusion owner Bo Kwon deserted his corporate job to pursue the Great Portlandian Dream of owning your own food cart, and it’s going pretty well considering he now has multiple outlets all over town, selling deliciously unconventional tacos stuffed with tender shredded Kalbi short ribs, garlicky bulgogi beef and spicy tofu, bean sprouts and Napa cabbage-topped Seoul sliders, and Korean hot dogs with kimchi sauerkraut. Bo and company get around, so check the Koi website or Twitter to track down your next kimchi quesadilla fix.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai
The other day, I was half-listening as a friend kept trying to tell me about how he was a common guy. “Way to embrace mediocrity,” I lectured. He looked at me like I had four ears, which of course, I don’t, or I might have been listening a little better. “It’s hardly mediocre,” he said, astonished. “Have you eaten there?” Now that made me perk up, and we were able to have a more coherent conversation that turned out to be about one of downtown’s most delicious–and simplest–food carts, where you can order chicken and rice, or…chicken and rice. But no matter how strongly you feel about choice, you won’t feel deprived after trying this one-dish wonder, tender chicken boiled whole with salt, sugar, garlic and ginger, sliced, and served with rice, cucumber, winter melon soup and cheery chef/owner Nong Poonsukwattana’s achingly-good ginger garlic chile sauce. Utterly simple, yes. But common, it most certainly is not. And it seems all of Portland agrees–thanks to high chicken and rice demand, Nong opened a PSU cart and a Buckman brick and mortar to-go kitchen.
Whether or not life is a picnic is still up for debate, but lunch is definitely a picnic when it comes from John and Jen Dovydenas’ downtown cart cottage, which is so terrifically charming you’ll be looking everywhere for the seven dwarves that must live in it. Stuff your basket with seasonal salads and imaginative sandwiches like the garlic spears and gruyére with pesto (on housemade bread), plus a few of the signature chocolate chip walnut cookies–they’re so delicious you’ll hear a thousand Disney bluebirds singing at first bite.
The Big Egg
“I’m not sure about that!” Mette shouted in genuine alarm when she saw my lunchtime prize–this North Portland brunch cart’s “The Ultimate,” three layers of crosshatched Applewood smoked bacon fraternizing with gobs of warm creamy Nutella between two inch-thick slices of golden grilled Grand Central brioche. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor the high of cholesterol. Speaking of which, I also highly recommend their monumental Mississippi Monte Cristo–one (big) egg is introduced to grilled Black Forest ham and tangy gorgonzola, then they get drizzled with maple glaze, and party down between two slices of crunchy vanilla cardamom brioche French toast. Eating it might have been life changing and it was definitely outfit-changing, but that’s my fault for breaking my own rule of no wearing white shirts to the food carts.
The Grilled Cheese Grill
Elementary school did not represent the best years of my life–I was bookish and sported a headgear, my mom made me wear homemade corduroy pants up through fifth grade, and my parents never bought me me school lunches or Capri Suns or Fruit Roll-Ups because they were “unhealthy.” So it’s odd that I like this nostalgia-laden cart so much, because the Capri Suns and big yellow school bus dining room render it a blast into the awkward past. But maybe because I can buy whatever I want for lunch now, I can handle it. The grilled cheese sandwiches run the gamut from your basic model, the Kindergartener (white or wheat, American or Cheddar), to fancier versions like the BABS (bacon, apple, blue cheese, and Swiss on rye), and sweets like The Jaime (mascarpone, Nutella, and grilled bananas). Then there’s the almighty Cheesus–a fat juicy hamburger cradled between two grilled cheese sandwiches (one with chopped pickles scattered amidst the melted cheese, one with diced onions). And in case I haven’t mentioned it, they have Capri Suns. Oh, and two more locations, on Restaurant Row and downtown.
The Portland Soup Company
Beautiful lushly green Portland owes much of its aesthetic endowments to the approximately 8,403,094,972,874,892,984,873,922,108 raindrops that fall on our fair city every year, and when the rain is falling and the frigid winds blow, it’s only natural to crave soup. Hot, thick, creamy, tastes-so-good-I-burned-my-tongue-and-I-don’t-care, ultra-comforting SOUP. Thank goodness we’ve got this charming cart to get us through the long cold winter, with its applewood-smoked trout chowder, chicken and roasted Pasilla peppers soup, and andouille gumbo. Since soup’s soulmate is a great sandwich, try the slow-smoked pork sandwich with cabbage apple slaw and chicken with smoked gouda, bacon and brandied pear mayo. A couple of salads round out the menu, and to finish, there’s brown sugar lavender tea cake. Kind of makes me eager for the rainy season.
Wolf & Bear’s
So the last time I had a really good Iraqi-Jewish breakfast was…well, okay, never. Hence, I was delighted to stumble across these intriguing carts, where the cute couple who owns them (he grew up in Israel, she’s spent time in the Middle East and is a lifelong vegetarian) turn out deliciously authentic Middle Eastern dishes like the gorge-yourself-worthy sabich (sah-beek), aka “Iraqi Jewish traditional breakfast”–thick pita spread with hummus, stuffed with grilled eggplant, cucumber, pickles, greens and slices of boiled egg, and topped with housemade tahini and mango pickle. It puts my usual breakfast of scrambled eggs and chocolate chips to shame, frankly. Everything here is either vegetarian and most dishes are or can be vegan, and they serve Extracto coffee with freshly cracked cardamon. So if you haven’t had a good Iraqi Jewish breakfast in ages, leggo that Eggo and seek the sabich.