Image: Jenny Souza

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.