Portland has one of the most dynamic street-food scenes in the world. It’s landed on lists by Thrillist and others, notable for the fact that food carts are just a way of life here. From Hawaiian to Indian cuisine, German, Mexican and everything in between, the city’s sizzling array of food carts have been a calling card for visitors and locals alike since the early 2000s. There are at least 500 food carts open on any given day, at more than two dozen “pods,” or clusters, stationed throughout the city (versus other cities’ food trucks, which tend to be mobile). An incubator for Portland’s restaurants of the future, chef vendors pride themselves on their artisan, scratch-made dishes, for mostly under 10 bucks. Nosh on comfort food — The Grilled Cheese Grill and Burger Stevens, both in Pioneer Courthouse Square — alongside nourishing fare — The Whole Bowl (several locations) and plant-based Dinger’s Deli (on Southeast Belmont). Travel around the world with authentic falafel at Wolf and Bear’s (in North and Southeast Portland), Norwegian lefse at Viking Soul Food at Prost Marketplace, fiery bulgogi at Kim Jong Grillin’ (on Southeast Division) and what’s grown to be internationally famous chicken and rice at Nong’s Khao Man Gai (several locations).
Portlander Brett Burmeister has followed the evolving scene — tasting the food and sharing stories about the vendors — through his blog, Food Carts Portland, since the beginning. Here’s what he has to say about the food craze and more. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.)
There are so many choices of food carts. Any tips for visitors and locals who may want to branch out and try the “best” but not knowing where to start? (Also avoiding long lines?)
Burmeister: I get this question a lot. I have a few answers: You’re on vacation, so enjoy. Try something new. Try something that may seem odd. You just may enjoy it. Lines aren’t a bad thing. It usually means the vendor has impressed the right people. I always just ask people to try something new, instead of what they would normally have at home.
Food carts have had many, many successes over the years as small chefs/entrepreneurs grow into brick-and-mortar. What have been just a few of your personal favorite carts and pods to watch grow?
Burmeister:I’ve loved watching the evolution of the Prost Marketplace pod. Opened in 2009, it was the first truly designed and curated pod on the east side with a bar. It hosted some of the rock stars of the second generation of vendors from 2009 to 2014. [Since 2018 the site] has gone through a wholly new evolution with new vendors and this fresh [community-based] approach to destination street-food lots.
Most food carts are located on surface parking lots that could be displaced by development. What do you hope will happen?
Burmeister: We are still in the early conversations with the city; I believe 2019 will be the year we move forward with the proposal about the Culinary Corridor plan. [The plan would create a corridor of food carts along the Midtown Park Blocks, between Director Park and O’Bryant Square, by relocating parking spaces. City leaders are looking into the proposal.]
Why in your view is it important that Portland continue to support its food cart culture?
Burmeister: Food carts are unique and a vehicle for small business owners to create a viable business at a low cost. Food carts have also been a way for immigrant communities to start something new and become a part of the broader community and city. While Portland does have a diverse food scene, there are plenty of dishes and cultures not represented in restaurants which are available at food carts.
Food halls are also a thing now. Are they impacting business at traditional food carts? What are a few of your favorite spots in Portland’s food halls?
Burmeister: I don’t believe the food halls affect the food carts. They are similar to fast food or fast casual. Street food and food carts are simply different. It’s one thing to choose to go inside a location and sit down and eat. It’s totally different to throw on your coat or parka and venture to the gyro cart and enjoy your lunch while walking in the sprinkle. I’m a fan of what Guerilla Development has done on the east side with The Ocean and The Zipper [both micro-restaurant pods with shared dining space in Northeast Portland]. I believe both have offered food cart vendors opportunity to move to brick-and-mortar at a reasonable price point. Being a restaurant owner myself, I know the hidden costs and how it can be overwhelming, so offering a community space creates opportunity for all.
If you go:
When you’re hungry, find food pod maps and vendor lists to plot out your next visit. On Portland’s east side, don’t miss Cartlandia, with 32 carts, indoor seating and a full-service bar; Portland Mercado, with more than 40 Latin American carts and an abundance of seating; Killingsworth Station Food Cart Pod in Northeast Portland, with a half-dozen carts, beer, covered seating and heaters. On the west side, look for food cart pods all over downtown, including the carts clustered around Portland State University. Further north, locals love Johns Marketplace & Food Pod, with seven vendors, beer and an outdoor seating area that hosts concerts in the summer.
Several local guides also offer food cart tours, which are a good way to explore the breadth of food carts with minimal navigation and research. Check out Eat Adventures, Portland Walking Tours, Forktown Food Tours or Lost Plate Food Tours.