SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS POUTINE? Have a seat in one of Potato Champion’s rainbow-colored plastic lawn chairs, and that’s a question you’ll hear repeated again and again, though at times it’s drowned out by the sounds of ’70s classic rock, the sizzle of deep-frying spuds, and the antics of the occasional street performer (including, on at least one recent night, a fire-breather). But it’s not the circus-like ambiance surrounding Potato Champion, one of six food carts clustered on the corner of SE 12th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard, that draws hundreds of hungry diners to this formerly empty lot into the wee hours.
The lure is the unique food. In this case, poutine, which, for the record, is French Canadian drinking fare: thick, hand-cut, English-style pub chips par-cooked, fried in the Québécois style, then layered with cheese curds and smothered in gravy. A common dish in Montreal, poutine was virtually unheard-of in Portland until Potato Champion opened up shop and, along with a growing legion of food-cart peers, helped usher in a grand new era of palate-pushing street food.
In the past year, Portland has become the mobile-cuisine capital of America, its sidewalks punctuated with hundreds of temporary structures serving up such delights as savory waffles, authentic French crêpes, Bosnian pitas, and the fried Sicilian risotto balls known as arancini. In some cities, food carts are illegal, and in others they’re relegated to serving the downtown lunch crowd from the perimeter stalls of parking lots. But in Portland, carts have become the latest vehicle for the city’s national notoriety as a foodie utopia, appearing in articles in Details and the New York Times, and even garnering a segment on National Public Radio’s The Splendid Table. April’s food-cart festival and the Eat Mobile festival, organized by Willamette Week, attracted more than 1,300 attendees.
The significance of this phenomenon, however, reaches far beyond food. Like the giant El Rastro flea market in Madrid, or the renowned vegetable markets of Bangkok, food carts in Portland represent the urban entrepreneurial spirit at its most elemental level. With low barriers to entry and funding sometimes available from entities such as Mercy Corps Northwest’s microloan program, these mobile eateries are transforming unloved, vacant lots and surface parking into vibrant public spaces.
On the corner of NE 11th Avenue and Alberta Street, for instance, is one of Northeast Portland’s most popular new hangouts: Matt Breslow’s freshly minted Grilled Cheese Grill. The epitome of down-market chic, it consists of two trailers, picnic-table seating for forty-eight, and an old yellow school bus offering weatherproof seating for another twenty-six. Only three months old, Breslow’s operation already employs eight people and marks the corner as boldly as any restaurant would—the look is that of an urban trailer park.
“Food carts are an anomaly of planning,” says Lizzy Caston, a local urban planner and food writer who has documented the rise of Portland’s food-cart culture since late 2007, when she debuted foodcartsportland.com. “They meet city planning goals, but the Portland Development Commission didn’t create maps or guidelines. They’ve activated the streetscape like nothing else has.”
As for the food? Food-cart dishes (not to mention profits) often exist in the thinnest of margins between blue plate and gourmet. Just steps from three neighborhood bars, Breslow’s cart is a temple to the ultimate comfort food: the humble grilled cheese sandwich, of which he serves sixteen varieties. From classic cheddar on white bread to such concoctions as the Cheesus Burger, a third of a pound of ground beef pressed between two grilled cheese sandwiches, there’s something to captivate nearly any palate, whether a member of the white-napkin set or the wipe-the-pant-leg set.
Some chefs choose an even simpler path. At Nong’s, near SW 10th Avenue and Alder Street, a former Pok Pok cook serves a single dish: khao man gai. It’s steamed skinless chicken served atop seasoned white rice with a ginger-spiked sauce and a cup of aromatic broth. Others rely on mouthwatering culinary eccentricities to draw a crowd. At the intersection of N Albina Avenue and Blandena Street in North Portland, Junior Ambassador’s serves up the Maple Bacon Strip Tease, ice cream studded with bacon bits and made with real maple syrup. And the cart’s savory smoked-salmon ice cream so puzzled and delighted judges at the Eat Mobile festival that they awarded Junior Ambassador’s the Top Food Cart prize.
The city may not have planned for food carts, but with hungry citizens devouring their offerings, publications devoting spreads and food festivals to them, and bloggers creating websites in their honor, it’s clear that Portland’s food carts are here to stay. And given the number of vacant lots and stalled building projects, there’s still plenty of room for more.
Read more about Portland’s food culture at PoMo’s interactive journal of Portland’s edible environment, Portland Plated.