During these strange coronavirus times, one form of dining out has survived in Portland, perhaps even thrived. In March, when Gov. Kate Brown announced that all Oregon restaurants would have to switch to a to-go model or close, the city’s famous food carts were already considered takeout, allowing some of our smallest businesses to keep going, more or less as normal, save for flipping up a cart pod picnic table or three. Along the way, some of Portland’s best-known restaurants opened new food carts, hoping to continue serving their menus, hang on to employees and stave off closing for good.
This is the 10th year that I’ve scoured the metropolitan area in search of great new carts, but in almost every way, it’s the strangest. Other than the occasional restaurant pickup or delivery order, my family and I have cooked and eaten most of our pandemic meals at home. Even with coronavirus cases declining, indoor dining — an imminent necessity for many struggling Oregon restaurants once the weather turns — feels like a far-off dream. But strapping on a mask to navigate outdoors through a cart pod, even a crowded one, felt like a reasonable level of risk.
As always, I completed this roundup the hard way, visiting cart pods from Aloha to Damascus, dozens in all, and personally trying more than 30 new carts before narrowing my list down to this top 10. Among them, we found some of the metro area’s best new barbecue (Wolf’s Head Smokehouse), pasta (L’Unico Alimentari) and Hmong food (Nam Pa). We heralded the return of a beloved Black-owned burger spot (Union Burger) and the arrival of that sizzling social media sensation known as quesabirria (Birrieria La Plaza). We waited through our first nearly two-hour cart line for tasty Hawaiian food (at Grind Wit Tryz), savored the simple pleasures of a good Italian sandwich (at Demarco’s) and found some of the city’s best fried spring rolls at a new Senegalese cart (Kabba’s Kitchen). Most of the carts here were opened before COVID-19 began its rampage across the country, but others (Farmer and the Beast and Garbonzos) opened as a direct response to it.
As wildfire smoke continues to blanket most of Oregon’s most populous areas, dining out — even outside — is a particularly unhealthy idea (this roundup was written last week for publication today). But when the smoke clears, these carts will once again represent 10 of Portland’s best new places to eat.
BIRRIERIA LA PLAZA
Quesabirria, the cheesy, red-tinted beef stuffed into a tortilla with plenty of cheese, was everywhere in Portland in 2020, from Pearl District restaurants in the Pearl District (Papi Chulo’s) to taco trucks in Aloha (Tacos El Patron) to roving pop-ups (Birria Jalisco PDX). Yet among this new class of quesabirria carts, Birrieria La Plaza was the first to specialize exclusively in what has become one of the food world’s main social media sensations of the past few years. It’s also my favorite.
That might be because owner Oracio Hernandez’ family hails from Jalisco, the birthplace of birria, a pit-roasted meat traditionally made with goat and often served in large batches at family get-togethers with a side of onion- and cilantro-stocked consome. But over the past half decade or so, birria has transformed “from a party plate into street food,” says Hernandez, who first spotted updated quesabirria tacos on a trip to Tijuana.
There, taqueros use birria de res (beef), and tacos aren’t just served with broth for sipping, but dunked in it, then laid on a flat top to melt the cheese and give the tortillas a satisfying crunch. Birrieria La Plaza’s genius lies in its simplicity. The bright red truck serves one meat — beef birria — with the only choice being how it’s served: As a taco, a burrito, a quesadilla, a crunchy vampiro or its highest form, the quesataco.
10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; 600 S.E. 146th Ave.; tacoslaplaza.com
Over the years, most Portlanders have come up with a food cart idea or three, brilliant concepts that almost always seem to involve nachos. Chefs are no different. And so when Kim Jong Grillin’ owner Han Ly Hwang had an opportunity to open a second food cart just across from his original mobile Korean outfit, both he and right-hand-man Reuben Demarco were ready.
The duo, who still mourn the end of Northeast Portland’s short-lived Bacchi’s Italian Deli, had already been dreaming of taking a run at Portland’s best Italian sandwich. And Demarco knew from his time cooking in Boston that the key to this “blue-collar sandwich” was to keep things simple, with thin-sliced meats, house-made giardiniera, lettuce, tomato, red onion and soft hoagie rolls from An Xuyen bakery on Southeast Foster Road. Elsewhere, chicken and meatball Parms keep things grounded with their melted mozzarella and easygoing marinara.
And Demarco and Hwang are known to throw a curveball special or two, with the What The Buck, a sub that boasts a whole pound of pepperoni, melted provolone and basil, or the bay shrimp burger, which comes Panko-crusted and fried with katsu sauce and Japanese mayo, a sandwich inspired by a food memory of Hwang’s from a teenage trip to South Korea. As for the flagship Italian sandwich, it’s safe to say Demarco’s has hit its mark.
11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 4606 S.E. Division St., 503-573-7876
FARMER AND THE BEAST
It’s not too often I’m stopped cold by a salad, let alone one from a food cart. Yet that’s just what happened last month when I dropped by a tidy new cart pod in Northwest Portland. Yet that’s just what happened last month when I dropped by a tidy new cart pod in Northwest Portland. The salad in question, with chopped cucumbers, watermelon, avocado, nuts, seeds, herbs, parched wheat and edible flowers tossed in an arresting vinaigrette, came from Farmer and the Beast, the self-described “pandemic pivot” from chefs Jeff Larson and Schuyler Wallace.
Larson and Wallace met in 2018 at David Machado’s former Pearl District hotel restaurant Tanner Creek Tavern, a restaurant that served surprisingly creative and competent food for its Hampton Inn & Suites-adjacent location. Those adjectives could also apply to Farmer and the Beast, where Larson and Wallace rely on local farms to present an “aggressively fresh” menu that wouldn’t be out of place at a good hotel restaurant.
Beyond the salads, the cart sears a nice piece of albacore medium rare for a fish sandwich with spicy mayo and soy-dressed coleslaw on a golden brioche bun. It’s very good, as is the double-decker smash burger, with two higher-fat patties from Nicky USA crisped up and arranged under melted American cheese with iceberg lettuce, thinly shaved onion and a Thousand Island-ish secret sauce. Imagine a classic In-N-Out double-double, only with higher quality ingredients (and no three-hour wait).
11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; noon to 8 p.m. Saturday; 1845 N.W. 23rd Place; 971-319-0656; farmer-and-the-beast.square.site
The original Garbonzos, a small chain of falafel bars that — if old reviews can be trusted — introduced Portland to the joys of fried chickpea balls, closed its original and longest-running location in 2005. But owner Allen Levin didn’t disappear from Portland’s food scene completely. Instead, he turned full-time to his Century Catering, Oregon’s lone kosher catering company, which soon grew large enough to tackle the Waterfront Blues Festival, Hood to Coast relay and as many as five bar and bat mitzvahs each weekend, not to mention running the Mittleman Jewish Community Center’s in-house cafeteria, the Cafe @ the J.
But the pandemic hit America’s catering companies early and hard. With festivals and other large gatherings canceled for the foreseeable future, Levin decided to revive his old restaurant’s name for a new food cart in an attempt to keep his staff employed. And so Garbonzos reopened in August as a sky-blue Southwest Portland food cart, offering a short menu of falafel, grilled eggplant and portobello mushrooms plus a spiced vegan “kofta” made from Beyond Burger meat, all served either as a sandwich or on a plate with salad and dips.
In sandwich form, the falafel comes in a soft, round pita stuffed with cucumber, tomato, cabbage, creamy hummus, tahini and four or five fried-to-order falafel balls. The freshness shows. Though just a few weeks old, Garbonzos is already climbing my personal Portland-area falafel rankings.
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday; at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, 6651 S.W. Capitol Hwy.; 503-475-4875; oregonjcc.org
GRIND WIT TRYZ
When you finally get to the front of the line at Grind Wit Tryz, after a wait that can stretch to two hours, things start to move fairly quickly. Hopefully, you’ve scanned the daily specials before owner Tryzen Patricio or his fiancée, Candace Lacuesta, ask you to step forward from your spot six feet away from the cart, so you already know about the bright green pandan-flavored butter mochi, an occasional special, or the thin-sliced and egg-dipped Korean-inspired fried beef known as meat jun, served only on Saturday.
But regulars know the way to make a line that long worth your while is to order two meals when you get to the front. With that in mind, the Hawaiian combo — with its kalua and laulau pork, spicy poke, chicken long rice (aka ginger-infused shredded chicken and rice noodles in a nearly aspic-thick chicken broth), furikake-topped rice and creamy mac salad — seems like a value-conscious option.
But no matter what, you’re getting the fried ono chicken, a dish that makes up some 60% of the cart’s sales and is ready shortly after you order, piled so high you’ll have to eat a few sweet, crunchy morsels before the clamshell lid will fully close. Don’t worry. No one will even notice them missing when you get home.
Noon to 6 p.m. (or until sold out) Tuesday-Saturday, 7339 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 808-348-2734, check instagram.com/grindwittryz for menu updates
Would you be surprised that some of Portland’s tastiest fried spring rolls come from a Senegalese food cart? Then you don’t know nems. Brought to West Africa by the new Vietnamese wives of Senegalese soldiers conscripted to fight in the Indochina War, nems — the French word for spring rolls — are now one of Dakar’s most popular street snacks.
At Kabba’s Kitchen, one of just a tiny handful of West African restaurants in Portland, chef-owner Kabba Saidikhan wraps chicken, beef and glass noodles in Chinese-style egg roll wrappers (the see-through rice paper used in Senegal is a bit too sticky for the cart, she says), then deep fries each roll to a golden crunch. As it so happens, Kabba’s Kitchen sits on the same block as Akadi, Portland’s best-known and only sit-down West African restaurant (Black Star Grill, a Ghanaian cart near Portland State University, is on hiatus and looking for a new home).
Saidikhan says she had heard of Akadi, but didn’t know how close her pod was until after signing the lease on Kabba’s cart. There’s some menu overlap between the two, including whole fried fish (a signature at Akadi) and mafé, a creamy peanut sauce tossed with meat (Kabba’s is nice). But plenty of different items as well. As for those nems, Saidikhan says she hopes customers focus instead on her fataya, a fried meat pie with ground beef and chicken, potatoes, onion, herbs and spices that has deeper Senegalese roots.
11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 3625 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; 503-438-6770; kabbas-kitchen.business.site
Fried Brussels sprouts aren’t a traditional Hmong dish. But the Hmong people are nothing if not adaptable, incorporating elements of the culture and cuisines of Laos, Vietnam, China, Thailand and other countries where they live into their own. So it makes perfect sense that Teng Xiong, a Minnesota-born Hmong chef who bought Sellwood’s old Straits Kitchen last year, would respond to customer requests for that cart’s beloved soy-lime Brussels sprouts by offering up a fish-sauce seasoned version of his own.
Beyond the Brussels sprouts, the cart’s menu leans toward more familiar Hmong fare, with purple sticky rice, mellow coconut milk curries, a papaya salad served over rice noodles for a pleasing textural contrast, and the boneless chicken wings stuffed with glass noodles and ground pork you might have tried at the Aloha Hmong food cart @La’s. The grilled barbecue pork is served with spicy kua txob, a ubiquitous green pepper dip floating with herbs and menacing minced chiles.
And Xiong has a way with the cart’s fryer, using it not just on Brussels sprouts, but for crunchy spring rolls and the cart’s early signature dish, platter-sized rice crackers seasoned with Sriracha and fish sauce powder. For $3, you get six huge crackers, enough to keep the kids busy for a spell, or the perfect accompaniment for a beer bought from the cart at the back of the pod.
Noon to 8 p.m. Thursday-Monday, 1122 S.E. Tacoma St., 503-896-6388, check facebook.com/NamPaPDX for menu updates
Caitlyn Hamel-Spencer is no stranger to operating a business outdoors in Oregon. Growing up, her entire family would take turns helping out at Crispin’s Imports, her mother’s gallery at the Portland Saturday Market. So, after living in New York City, where she fell in love with Italian-born chef Lanfranco Paliotti at the Brooklyn trattoria Evalina, the decision to return to Portland and open a food cart just made sense.
At L’unico Alimentari (roughly, “unique eats”), Hamel-Spencer and Paliotti have joined the tradition of great Portland pasta carts Artigiano and the restaurant-bound Gumba, serving gorgeous Italian food informed by Paliotti’s childhood in Ascoli Piceno northeast of Rome, as well as his experience cooking at some of the top restaurants in London, New York and San Francisco. Early on, the cart specialized in arancini, fritto misto, mozzarella balls and dabbled with panzerotti, the fried mini calzones you might have tried at Bari, the Southeast Portland panzerotti specialists. But after scaling back on those prep-intensive fried starters, which occasionally appear as specials, the menu is now divided into beautifully fresh and seasonal salads (including a typically gorgeous tomato panzanella), interesting (if not always essential) sandwiches and pastas that could hold their own against all but a handful of Portland’s best restaurants.
Outside of the ever popular meatball Parm, L’Unico Alimentari’s signature dish is probably the Dungeness crab bucatini, which — like a recent tornado-shaped torchio pasta with wild mushrooms, or a vibrant pesto under loose burrata and de-skinned tomatoes — shows off Paliotti’s skill at letting disparate ingredients shine, the hollow noodles slicked in Pecorino Romano and emulsified pasta water, the pasta serving as a pedestal for barely adorned lumps of crab.
Noon to 7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; 11 to 3 p.m. Mondays; 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays; 1825 N. Williams Ave.; 415-430-5472; lunicopdx.com
You had to scan the menu pretty carefully at Stoopid Burger, the beloved Black-owned burger joint that closed its doors this winter, to find the simple cheeseburger. But there it was, tucked below the restaurant’s more better-known creations loaded up with everything from hot links to fried eggs to grilled steak. The Boring Burger, as the simple cheeseburger was known, had nothing to be ashamed about.
Still, after winning The Oregonian’s people’s choice award for best burger in the metro area, the food cart turned restaurant closed at the end of January. Less than two months later, and just before the coronavirus landed, co-owner John Hunt popped up with a new burger cart with a streamlined menu and similarly tasty burgers. “I took 30 days off to regroup, then I looked at everything that I would have done different at the beginning,” Hunt says.
At Union Burger, named for the pre-1986 name of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where the cart resides, customers have to opt in to go dumb. A basic cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion and Union’s take on secret sauce starts at $7.50. From there, you can pile on bacon, hot links, a fried egg, extra patties or another slice of American cheese to your heart’s desire (or dismay, as the case may be). As at Stoopid Burger, the onion rings are better than the fries. And if you go overboard with your burger order, there’s a pineapple-based Union Drink to help things on their way.
Noon to 8:46 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7339 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-744-9745, unionburgerpdx.com
WOLF’S HEAD SMOKEHOUSE
Wolf’s Head Smokehouse, a newer food cart addition to Beaverton’s sprawling BG’s Food Cartel pod, has the best Texas-style, salt-and-pepper rubbed brisket west of Portland. And brisket might not even be the cart’s best smoked meat. Chef-owner Jason Wittek spent more than a decade cooking at fine-dining restaurants in California, where he met business partner Roy Doty. After initially considering Portland, Wittek and Doty opened Wolf’s Head Smokehouse at Beaverton’s sprawling BG’s Food Cartel last year, enticed by the pod’s outdoor bar and proximity to Nike and Intel.
Like most Portland barbecue spots, Wolf’s Head Smokehouse draws inspiration from across America, from Austin’s smoked brisket to Kansas City’s burnt ends, an approach inspired by Wittek’s barbecue-fueled cross-country road trips taken with his grandparents as a boy. Beyond the meats smoked with Oregon white oak and cherry woods in a 500-gallon converted propane tank, the cart serves Instagram-friendly smash and Ruffled-topped mac-and-cheese.
The brisket holds its own against Matt’s BBQ and Holy Trinity, but it’s the chopped pork that really stands out, with bone-in picnic hams smoked skin-on, locking moisture and flavor into the meat. Once the skin achieves a near-chicharron crisp, it’s salted, chopped and folded in with the rest of the meat. Pork is often the least interesting meat at Portland smokehouses. At Beaverton’s best new barbecue joint, it’s the highlight.
11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday; 4250 S.W. Rose Biggi Ave.; 503-380-8055; wolfsheadbbq.com
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