Picnic Food Cart
Image: Dina Avila
Picnic’s John Dovydenas with right-hand gal Jen Cox

Picnic
SW Third Ave & Stark St; Mon–Fri 11–2

To make his masterpiece BLT, local winemaker and foodie eccentric John Dovydenas snags a fresh sourdough loaf from a Moffat oven and whacks off a couple of yeasty slabs. Each slice is a canvas for a vision that catapults the sandwich into the pantheon of “must-eats.” The bacon hails from a brined Portland pig, soaked for five days in honey and black pepper, and then smoked. The belly of the beast is cart-smoked, roasted, then trimmed into thick strips imbued with the flavor of damp bark (his secret fuel), which emits the smell of the Oregon backwoods and the taste of good whiskey.

This culinary magic happens at Picnic, a whimsical name for a small
architectural wonder parked on a patch of downtown asphalt. The structure has barnwood siding, handsome cabinetry, and a pitched attic. Dovydenas built every inch, imagining a restaurant-caliber laboratory for his baking, salad, and sandwich experiments. The refrigerator hosts organic produce, and the oven greets two daily varieties of bread to bracket changing options—perhaps a messy-good Reuben on toasty rye, or roasted garlic scapes paired with pesto, and, if you’re wise, a chocolate-chip cookie flashing Jacobsen salt crystals like bling. By Portland food-cart standards, where a cobble-it-together mentality rules, Picnic shows just how high this genre can go.

Tiffin Asha Food Cart
Image: Dina Avila

Tiffin Asha 
1313 NE Alberta St; 503-936-7663; Tue–Thu 11–6; Fri–Sat 11–8 

From its nook on NE Alberta Street, Tiffin Asha dispenses gratis “gun powders”—spicy South Indian condiment pouches cleverly packaged with TNT and toy gun decals. Steps away, a help-yourself chutney bar boasts five homemade options, among them fresh-mashed spicy mango and a terrific peanut number, super-creamy and packing coriander fumes. Unexpected flavor boosters are just the beginning for Elizabeth Golay’s adventurous remix of South Indian snacks and Portland breakfast culture.

A former pastry chef at Seattle’s Poppy, Golay is a nut for India’s Andhra Pradesh region. Her take is light and detailed, with a tiny menu built on dosas—fermented dal and rice crêpes griddled and folded into crispy-edged packets of tang. You can snag a fine, paper-thin traditional dosa, or embrace Golay’s true genius: a pancake-thick dosa-turned-sandwich-wrap bundling the likes of spicy potatoes (dunk away in the house tamarind-fueled ketchup) or fried eggs soaring with punchy mushrooms, buttery onions, and smoky blue cheese.

Pakora fried chicken, rising from a dosa like exotic McNuggets, seems destined for cult status. Each bite pops with spice, crunch, and surprise courtesy of Golay’s pickled radishes and kale, yogurt cheese, and black cardamom honey. It’s fried chicken and greens reborn, exuberantly.

Ole Latte Coffee Food Cart
Image: Dina Avila

Olé Latte Coffee
1003 SW Alder St; 971-221-6318; Mon–Fri 7–5; Sat–Sun 8–4

A year ago, Todd Edwards was a semi-broke Starbucks regular with a fantasy of translating his love of wine to the coffee world. The hometown boy sipped his way through local bean shops for inspiration, custom-crafted a coffee shop on wheels with a made-in-Oregon mission, parked it downtown, and joined Portland’s microroasting coffee revolution. Now, he pulls shots from a slick La Marzocco machine, juggles five single-origin espressos daily, and sources everything else locally, milk to honey.

At the window counter, a makeshift pastry case showcases sweet-’n’-salty cookies and mysteriously wholesome buckwheat scones coiled with port-laced fig jam from the east side’s excellent Bakeshop. Mason jars hold Townshend’s teas, each carefully brewed, and the fridge stocks seven kinds of Brew Dr. Kombucha. But the thoughtfulness is best expressed on the blackboard: a pay-it-forward “coffee suspensions” program, where anonymous benefactors can spring for a coffee or pastry for a future customer in need—a European idea Edwards brought to Portland.  

Is this Portland’s best coffee? No. Edwards is a relative novice in this town. But it’s more than decent, and arrives with Nordstrom-like service culled from Edwards’s “book of standards and procedures.” Come for a latte, an orange pecan scone with chocolate chunked into every nook and cranny; return for a jolt of unstoppable enthusiasm.

Cheese Plate PDX Food Cart
Image: Dina Avila

The Cheese Plate PDX
2231 NE Alberta St; 503-422-8707;  Thu–Sun noon–9; Mon & Wed noon–4; closed Tue

Every Portland food-cart pod is an outgrowth of its neighborhood, reflecting the cultural bent of its inhabitants, who gather in these reimagined town squares to eat, socialize, and dream up ideas for even more food carts. At NE Alberta Street and 23rd Avenue, that means craft beer flowing from a candlelit bus, diners jigging to live music, and rebels in thought, manner, and gastronomy relaxing at picnic tables.

Turn your attention to the corner wooden “house” with a mini porch. At the Cheese Plate PDX, Nick Dickison and Carina Rumrill furiously arrange a collection of local cheeses from the likes of River’s Edge Chèvre and Briar Rose Creamery alongside two kinds of homemade crackers, fresh jam, a schmear of wild mushroom pâté, and, of course, a seasonal pickle project. At any given moment, they’re making fresh arugula salads while juggling five Oregon cheeses for six grilled cheese sandwiches on three local breads, including a devilish whirl of chèvre, fontina, and Alma Chocolate’s luscious habanero caramel toasted on brioche. They are the happiest, hardest-working cheese lovers on the block.

But the real surprise may be the cheese that is not cheese: a nutty, butter-channeling powershot of spreadable flavor that defies the law of nature. Say hello to the Cheese Plate PDX’s “cashew fromage fort,” crafted for vegans but capable of bringing cheese-avores to their knees.