food cart potato champ

Having mastered the art of Belgian-style fries and poutine, Potato Champion (see “Cartopia”) draws late-night cartgoers in search of starches to soak up the evening’s indulgences.

Indeed, hop the river from downtown, and it feels like every scrap of wasteland from SE Kelly Street and 50th Avenue (home to the acclaimed Wy’East Pizza) to N Greeley Avenue and Killingsworth Street (where Venezuelan empanadas commingle with homemade ice cream, see "The Pioneer") is sprouting with carts. A parallel subculture thrives online, where cart zealots track every new opening on websites and Twitter feeds. At its most successful, the cart diaspora creates improvised village plazas where neighbors gather (and spend), generating reams of positive online chatter about a new kind of place—usually a former vacant lot.

McInelly, for one, sees some potential in strategic cart deployment. She and her firm drafted a "best practices" menu for Portland’s transportation office that suggested using food carts to spruce up the East Side’s dour MAX stations. "It’s a way to create a ‘there’ there," she says. "You could potentially use carts at transit stations, or in the Lloyd District—anywhere you want to foster some vitality."

So perhaps advancing the cart revolution requires nothing more than matchmaking. Desperate property owner? Meet moneymaking opportunity. On N Mississippi Avenue, developer Roger Goldingay faced recessionary doom on a vacant lot he bought at the height of the real estate boom. Carts proved his salvation—today, his Mississippi Marketplace knits together 10 high-quality carts with customized water and power grids, all atop eco-friendly, rainwater-permeable asphalt (see "Pod Perfection").

"I think you can say we saved a developer—me—and a contractor, and probably two marriages," Goldingay tells me. "We started 10 small businesses and created 40 or 50 jobs."

And therein, perhaps, lies the true genius and potential of Portland’s carts. In these woozy, hungover years after our binge on fake credit and ersatz profits, food carts bring American business down to earth. On vacant lots and unloved parking strips in Portland, tiny operations demonstrate a different way for free enterprise to take root, grow, and change a city’s streets and tastes.

When Addy Bittner shows up to work every day at 7:30 a.m., she grabs two jugs and heads across the street to gather her day’s water supply from hoses she shares with other carts. When something breaks, she fixes it. And yet, in her own humble way, she’s living the entrepreneurial dream.

"I could totally go for running water," she says. "On the other hand, it’s a microbusiness, and I can do everything myself. I have to do everything myself."