How can I possibly run a Pacific Northwest travel blog and not include an article on the Portland food cart scene? Shame on me! Well, I have just redeemed myself. In all of my travels, I have not been in (or heard of) any other city in the world that has as many and as diverse food carts as Portland, Oregon. With well over 500 (and counting) stationary food carts (not mobile food trucks), they are usually found in clusters throughout the city, called pods. Every food cart pod contains an incredibly delicious mish-mash of different flavors. Culinary dishes from just about every corner of the world are represented. From good ol’ fashioned burgers ‘n fries, to soul food/bbq, to savory thai noodles, to Chinese and Ethiopian dishes, to….well, you get the idea.
Many food carts become so popular that they are able to transition into brick and mortar restaurants. And a great many carts are run by honest-to-gosh chefs…not lazy wanna-be short order cooks. Your typical roach coach will not last long here…too much competition. So why is the Portland food cart scene so massive and gastronomically delicious?
As with many of my posts, I like to throw in a sentence or two of history. (History was my worst subject in school, so in adulthood I try my best.) These next few paragraphs were taken from Quora with regards to why Portland is the king of food carts.
The food truck is the perfect solution. Low cost to operate, low cost to buy product from. Every truck is a different and unique offering. Portland is a very bohemian city. That same bohemian lifestyle that embraces creativity and freedom of expression tends to also eschew both homogenized chain food and also disposable income.
A few things that are true about Portland but not necessarily true about other cities:
- Downtown Portland is relatively dense and pedestrian-friendly yet has a lot of surface parking lots. One way to use these lots is to lease space to food carts. Once the first cart pod took off sometime around the year 2000, owners of parking lots were eager to expand the model to other lots. Pods eventually spread out from downtown and can now be found in many other parts of the city.
- Operating a food cart in Portland is simple and inexpensive. Oregon has provisions for carts to operate without a separate commissary kitchen and having a single location means that a cart faces significantly less regulatory overhead.
- Restaurant owners do not like the idea that a food truck could conceivably show up across the street and siphon off business. Food carts with fixed locations to not create the same kind of animosity, so there is no strong organized opposition to them. By comparison, Seattle’s newly-relaxed laws still include provisions limiting the ability of trucks to operate near restaurants.
In short, leasing space to food carts is a good deal for Portland’s landowners and operating a food cart is not ruinously expensive in Portland like it is in many other cities. Everybody likes good, cheap food, but not every city is in the position to foster a cart scene as robust as Portland’s.
So as you can imagine, providing a list of must-check-out food carts for this article was insanely difficult. But I managed to widdle it down to a baker’s dozen. I have personally been to every one of these carts and I can honestly tell you that the food at every one is mind-blowingly delicious.
As with any food establishment, some tend to come and go, but the food carts I’ve selected have managed to stand the test of time. At the end of this article is a map of every food cart pod in the city. So if you’re looking for a certain type of food, or have dietary restrictions, this is a good resource. There are also many gluten-free options (of course!) to be found.
Bon Appetit !!
UPDATE: This popular food cart has graduated to brick and mortar (opening September 2017). British Chef Chris Payne and his lovely American wife dish up authentic, meat-centric English dishes (bangers and mash, here I come!) in downtown Portland for breakfast and lunch. Weekdays only. **This food cart has closed. Go to their newly-opened restaurant!
Hands down, some of the best BBQ in the city, and certainly the best BBQ food cart. Slow-cooked, mouth-watering, finger-lickin’, fall-off-the-bone goodness. They also do catering!
I am of part Norwegian decent, so this cart holds a special place on my palette. Choose from sweet, savory and sides. Their lefse is out of this world!
Guatemalan plates, you crave? Well, look no further. This NE pdx food cart blends all of the complex flavors of the North Pacific and Asia into savory dishes that will have you coming back.
My favorite food cart for breakfast. I have traveled over 10 miles for their incredible brekkie sammiches and not batted an eyelash. They cook their eggs with a sprinkle of Magic Egg Dusk. I’m not lying. Go ask ‘em.
Serving up belly-filling, delicious home-cookin’ Haitian food. Located in the Alberta arts district, their griots and beef stew…..I just gotta say….SWOON.
The name alone drew me to this place. North Korean BBQ at it’s yum-yum finest. A succinct menu ensures that every dish is to perfection. I personally love the Bulgogi and the KJG Hot Dog.
I practically grew up on Chinese take out. It was my favorite go-to food for when Mom was out and we had to fend for ourselves for dinner. So over the years I’ve learned to judge a Chinese food place by the quality of their fried rice. Green Leaf has some of the best in the city. The menu is limited but the quality is not.
Uber yummy Czech-inspired food. Located in downtown Portland, and open weekdays for lunch. Their goulash is pretty amazing, but I recommend the Kingswich. They also do catering!
Hand-made Asian noodles, pan-fried to perfection with your choice of protein. They also serve fried rice and soups. Their signature noodle is a wheat Mein noodle, similar to an Udon noodle. My favorite dish here is the beef noodle soup with a side of pot stickers.
Time to go south of the border! Located in the Overlook neighborhood in NoPo (that’s North Portland to you) they service authentic Mexican street tacos, burritos and tortas. With a limited menu, you know each dish is made with quality and love.
This food cart is actually a school bus that you can dine in – how cool is THAT? This ain’t yo Momma’s grilled cheese….well, maybe it is, without the Momma. Choose from a cornucopia of breads and cheeses, with various add-ons. Childhood never tasted so good.
A food cart churning out authentic crispy, chewy, wood-fired crust pizzas? What will they think of next? Pair that with breadsticks and salad and you’ve got the classic pizza full meal deal. Local ingredients make for a high-quality pie!
NOW for the million dollar question: What Portland food carts have YOU been to and which are your favorite! Leave a comment below!