Saturday, July 31, 2010

Portland's fabulous food carts

I must admit it's taken me a while to get excited about the food cart/truck thing which has been a massive craze on the West Coast for the past couple of years. It seemed to me particularly suited to the US with its warm climate and car-centric society where the only food on offer when you're on the move is a Jack in the Box or a Taco Bell.

But then there's Portland, as so often the exception to the rule, which now has over 500 carts offering what seems like the whole world's food in a single neighbourhood. (For those of you whose geography is hazy it's just south of Seattle, but on a much smaller, more laid-back, grungier scale. For instance it has a bookstore (Powells) which takes up an entire block and has its own garage. Love it.)

We toured a few at the end of my recent Oregon wine trip with local food journalist, Mike Thelin, a great guy who has become an unofficial minder to the world's visiting food press.

First stop was Nong's Khao Man Gai (above), a Thai truck on 10th and Alder where the speciality is boiled chicken and rice. Which doesn't sound wildly exciting except that the chicken is cooked in an amazing scented broth (served alongside with what tasted like cucumber and mooli in it) and a piquant soybean sauce. If I hadn't had to stuff my face from several other trucks I'd have made short work of it.

We then moved on for a quick 'schnitzelwich' at Tabor (on SW5th and Stark) which is - as it sounds - a schnitzel in a bun with a eastern European-style red pepper relish. KFC eat your heart out!

If we hadn't been rushing to catch a plane we'd have probably carried on all day but we had to round it off with a deep-fried crawfish pie at one of the most popular carts, Swamp Shack. Outrageously good pastry (which begged to be dunked in Tabasco sauce) but a bit light on crawfish, I'd have said.

By the end I was totally converted. It's a great way to have a cheap, home-cooked lunch that varies every day.

I now feel like an evangelist and want to see food carts all over my home town of Bristol. There are some already except they don't call them carts: My mates Jess and Todd of Trethowan's Dairy have a toastie and raclette cart which they set up at St Nick's farmers market every Wednesday and also take to festivals. Felafel King have a well-established 'stand' at Narrow Quay and Agnes Spencer's Jamaican Jerk chicken turns up at the Love Food Festival - and elsewhere for all I know. There must be more - it's just a question of a 'rebranding' exercise as the marketing boys would say. Replace stalls with carts.

Do you have any food carts near you and what do you eat there?


  1. Sorry you did not get to the carts at N. Mississippi. There you would have found the best meatball sand in town (Garden State); The Big Egg, with egg filled sandwiches; The Sugar Cube for fab desserts and Nuevo Mexico for bean and meat stuffed fresh sopapillas. A great location for 4 of the cities best carts.

  2. So many carts, so little time . . . Those sound great and it's good to have something to come back for ;-)

  3. Fiona,
    It was great to have had the opportunity to talk both food carts and cheese with you at the salmon bake during IPNC. If I don't forget, I will update you on the "Say Cheese" dinner later this month.

  4. I'll definitely mention that along the way!