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.