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Portland's food carts a winning stop

Instead of going mobile, groups of carts take up space in parking lots across the city for a spirited gathering of foodies and inventive operators.

November 22, 2009|By Katherine Tulich

Reporting from Portland, Ore. — It's like walking into someone's backyard barbecue. There are groups of people standing and chatting, while others are sitting and eating at makeshift picnic tables. Haphazardly strung lights give the scene a festive atmosphere. But this isn't someone's private party; it's a gathering of food carts in Portland.

Food carts: An article last week about the proliferation of food carts in Portland, Ore., incorrectly identified developer Roger Goldingay as Ron Goldingay. —

There are five carts parked in this "pod" at Southeast 12th and Hawthorne, and the food selections are appropriate for the late-night crowd it generally attracts.

Even though winter is approaching, a rain shelter and propane heaters are enough to induce hardy Portlanders to line up in the cold. Besides, the hot food choices will soon warm you.

There's the brightly painted Potato Champion cart selling $3.50 cones of Belgian-style fries with an array of dipping sauces, including ketchup with rosemary and truffle oil and anchovy mayo, and the Canadian comfort food poutine -- big plates of fries covered with spicy hot gravy and cheese curds.

The newest cart, Whiffies, has been an instant hit, with long lines waiting for its $4 hot crescent-shaped fried pies with savory fillings that include barbecued brisket with mozzarella or blackened salmon with onions and peppers. Sweet pies are $3 and filled with piping-hot fruit or rich mouthfuls of peanut butter cream with chocolate chips.

Though mobile food trucks nationwide have seen a huge upswing in business in a down economy, Portland's food carts (they call them carts, though they are actually trucks) have their own maverick character.

Unlike most cities, where food trucks are truly mobile (and in many cases laws require them to move after a certain period), in Portland about 90% of its 400 carts never leave their spaces. Instead pods of food carts are nestled side by side in parking lots all over the city. They stay permanently at the location, paying a monthly fee of about $500.

As a foodie town with an abundance of good local produce, Portland has attracted innovative young chefs for years. Start-up costs for food carts are minuscule, making them an attractive alternative to opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. "When the economy was good, people got used to eating out. Now they are still getting great choices but at food cart prices," says Whiffies owner Gregg Abbott.

In downtown Portland alone, there are 80 carts, a boon to lunchtime crowds in need of a quick grab-and-go. At the intersection of Southwest 9th and Alder avenues, 12 carts are parked side by side. As street musicians play on the corner, I order a perfect macchiato, a robust shot of espresso with a tight swirl of crema from the excellent Spella Caffè, a standout in this caffeine-obsessed city. Owner Andrea Spella uses farm-direct Brazilian beans that he micro-roasts himself.

As I look down the block, a virtual United Nations of food spreads out in front of me -- Thai, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Japanese and Greek. I settle on the cherubic face behind the counter at Ziba's Pitas. The one-woman van is run by a Bosnian immigrant who re-creates daily the tastes of her homeland, a delicious hybrid of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences. Her flaky strudel-like burek, with either meat or vegetable and cheese filling, is fresh and delicious. For $5.50 at lunch, you can get a plate with cucumber and yogurt salad and ajvar, a regional spread made from red peppers and eggplant.

The food carts have not only meant an explosion of ethnic food choices in the city, they have attracted operators who, when it comes to cuisine, are cheekily inventive.

Newly opened Addy's Sandwich Bar is a gleaming silver trailer, with a hanging disco ball, serving gourmet sandwiches such as duck confit with plum sauce and shredded cabbage on a crusty baguette for $5.50. The Brunch Box Food Cart downtown offers calorie-packed burgers, including the $6 OMG! Burger, with egg, ham, Spam, bacon and cheese and the $5 YouCANhascheeseburger, a hamburger patty between two Texas toast grilled cheese sandwiches. Go all out for the $9 Redonkadonk -- an OMG! Burger between two grilled cheese sandwiches. (It might be wise to have a cardiologist's number on hand.)

Taking the cart culture to the next level is the Mississippi Marketplace, a development tailored for food carts in a newly paved and landscaped corner lot in north Portland. There are tables, chairs, restroom facilities, shelter and heating. Ten carts will be parked permanently, and the vendors who've set up shop include a coffee cart, gourmet breakfast, pizza, sushi and vegetarian choices. Opening soon is dessert and cupcake favorite Sugar Cube.

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