Portland's 10 best new food carts of 2015 – OregonLive.com
Reports of the food cart’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Five years ago, when we first set out to eat at every new cart in the Portland metro area, then pick a top 10, what stood out most was the diversity. We found carts offering savory Guamanian bowls, flour-dusted Norwegian wraps and Nashville-style spicy fried chicken (today, all three — PDX671, Viking Soul Food and Cackalacks — remain open).
This year’s survey was no different. On our first exploratory stroll through downtown Portland this year, we found new carts serving Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken (Polli-Tico), refreshing tonic from a vegan cart (Juniper), crisp carnitas cradled in fresh-made tortillas (Chicharito’s) and perhaps Portland’s only Afghani eatery (Afghan Grill). Only one of those new carts made our final list, a top 10 that just as easily could have been a top 15, 20 or 25.
In a year dominated by fear for the food cart’s future, when several prominent pods announced imminent closures, the carts themselves remained great. Even as the status of Good Food Here and Cartopia remained unknown, new pods, such as Tidbit, with its popular beer garden, Portland Mercado, with its rainbow-colored carts, and The Gantry on the South Waterfront all opened, bringing new venues with new flavors to the city.
Carts have become one of the city’s main tourist attractions. In September, Jerry Seinfeld visited Portland for his web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” eating with Fred Armisen at Wolf & Bear’s, the falafel cart. And cart culture made inroads in the suburbs as well. As Beaverton debated easing their restrictive cart rules, a seven-cart pod, The Eating Place, opened in Aloha (18687 S.W. Tualatin Valley Hwy.), while a much larger project, Happy Valley Station (13551 S.E. 145th Ave.), hopes to bring 25 carts to Clackamas County.
It was a year of change for individual food carts, as well. One previous best new food cart honoree, the falafel cart Gonzo, closed for good. And a half-dozen prominent carts, almost all featured in previous editions of this survey, made the brick-and-mortar leap, including Burrasca, ChickPeaDX, Love Belizean, The Big Egg, Big Ass Sandwiches, The People’s Pig.
As always, we set out on an exhaustive search, attempting to visit every cart that opened in the metro area in the past year and change, then determine the 10 best. Here’s the usual disclaimer: Carts change locations, close early or close entirely all the time. Check online or call before visiting.
Portland’s 10 best new food carts
The 9 Food and Drink
Roti is the name for a flat, typically round, often unleavened bread found from India to Southeast Asia and as far afield as the West Indies. The roti at The 9, a delicious new cart in a half-forgotten pod, reminds me most of roti canai, the golden, flaky, Indian-influenced flatbreads of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. This makes sense — The 9’s super friendly owners describe their cart as a mix of India and Asia — though these etymological thoughts probably won’t cross your mind as you rip off a crisp hunk and drag it through some sweet, mellow, neon-turmeric curry before snaring a piece of chicken or tofu. Each roti is made to order, and when the cart is busy, it can take 15 minutes or more to make. If you’re in a hurry, the moist chicken biryani can be boxed up in no time, though Portland’s best roti is worth the wait.
510 S.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 415-335-8475, Facebook: The-9-Food-and-Drink
If you’ve visited China or Taiwan, you’ve almost certainly tried jian bing. That’s because this popular street snack, a sort-of Chinese breakfast crepe, is found in nearly every neighborhood and night market, with each stall or stand offering their own twist (it even inspired a bonkers Super Hero parody, “Jian Bing Man.”). As far as I know, Bing Mi is the only place in Portland to get jian bing. This cart, its two crepe pans in a near-constant state of activity, started on Southwest Third Avenue, then settled in downtown’s bustling 10th and Alder pod. Unlike in China, where condiments are often DIY, Bing Mi doctors theirs in-cart, adding chile sauce and black bean paste, egg, a crisp wonton cracker and fresh herbs before folding the mass into a crunchy, double-decker wrap. In other words, it pays to make a few customizations when you order. The basic jian bing here leans a bit sweet and a touch dry for my taste — I ask for more spice, an extra egg and a bit less hoisin.
Southwest Ninth Avenue between Alder and Washington Streets, bingmiportland.com
Portland isn’t a complete stranger to takoyaki — Okinoshima offered these bite-sized balls, each filled with a piece of tako, or octopus, from its short-lived cart downtown. The ones served at Buki, a cart devoted to this staple Japanese street snack, might be even better. Inside a small cart overlooking the Tidbit pod’s overflowing beer garden, Buki’s Taiwanese owners pour batter into the kind of well-greased pans used to make aebleskiver at Broder, then drop in small, chewy pieces of octopus and deftly flip each ball so it browns on all sides. They’re served in a paper basket under criss-crossing drizzles of mayo and a Worcestershire-based takoyaki sauce, then showered with a large handful of bonito shavings that wave in the air like Swedish fish. Buki also serves good bubble tea, a gorgeously marbled tea egg and taiyaki, a small, fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste. Be forewarned: This cart is slow. If you’re pairing Buki’s takoyaki with a wood-fired pizza from Pyro and a craft beer from Scout, get your Buki order in first.
2880 S.E. Division St., 360-931-1541, Facebook: bukipdx
Chicken and Guns
With its distressed wood, hanging light bulbs and open kitchen, Chicken and Guns looks like the kind of street-side stall you might be thrilled to find anywhere from Hanoi to Lima. But this is more than just Portland’s best-looking new cart. Chicken and Guns, co-owned by Perierra Creperie’s Dustin Knox, also happens to roast some fantastic chicken, with spice-rubbed birds grilled over mesquite and white oak and drizzled with the cart’s thick, forest-green aji sauce. The cart, which boasts a “Roasted Latin Chicken” and sides that include a chimichurri-topped farmer’s market salad and crisp, perhaps over-cooked potatoes, isn’t shooting for regional specificity. But the chickens are moist, their skins nicely spiced, and on Sunday evenings, you can eat your food while watching a movie on the Cartopia pod’s projector screen.
1207 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-395-8899, chickenandguns.com
In Mexico, mole is a blanket term for whole family of sauces, a delicious, matte-colored rainbow that, here in Portland, is usually found in the kind of mid-scale restaurants where you’re likely to drop $50 a head. Holy Mole’s Pueblan mole, dark and surprisingly complex, is as good as those and maybe better, drizzled here over chunks of white chicken breast. We checked out a brand-new Holy Mole for last year’s survey, but the cart’s then-mushy rice pushed us away. When we revisited this year, the rice had improved, the mole was still excellent, and the tacos dorados were crisp and stuffed with soft potato. Along with ramen cart Umai and bagel spot Bundy’s, this out-of-the-way pod has become one of the best in town.
Down the alley at Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and 33rd Avenue, Facebook: Holy Mole
The Hot Box BBQ
This new-to-Portland barbecue sandwich cart started life in far Northern California, transplanted their cart to Sellwood then, last week, made a shorter move to the South Waterfront. Its new home, The Gantry, opened last week, making it Portland’s newest food cart pod. Here, you can sit at picnic tables, watch the aerial tram pass overhead on its way to OHSU and bite into The Hot Box’s excellent pulled pork sandwich. This unassuming cart offers the occasional rib special, plus a couple of over-the-top sandwiches topped with pineapple (the Maui Wowie) or jalapeno pepper jelly (The Volcano). Start with The Original, its golden-toasted brioche bun piled from floor to ceiling with smoky pulled pork, creamy cole slaw and a tasty, cart-made peach barbecue sauce. With apologies to Podnah’s — this might be the best pulled pork sandwich in PDX. All that, and you can check your bike with the valet under the tram.
3121 S.W. Moody Ave., 707-223-2511, thehotboxbbq.com
Kim Jong Grillin’
You might already know the story. Han Ly Hwang, the pun-loving Korean food cart owner, takes top prize at the Eat Mobile food cart competition, then learns that night his cart has gone up in flames, burnt blacker than hard-grilled kalbi. Four years and one ill-fated flirtation with a brick-and-mortar later, Hwang has returned with two new food carts. Start in Northeast Portland, where you can order a mango-topped hot dog with a beer from neighbor Pollo Norte and eat it on a sunny shared patio. Or head to Southeast, saving room for the cart’s signature dish — the bi bim box — with a choice of tasty, thick-cut meats (my go-to is the kalbi, or short ribs) over rice, crisp japchae (glass noodles), and an egg so runny you have to treat it like a condiment. Tucked all around are the kind of spicy, fermented vegetables you’re used to seeing as panchan, the free sides offered at Korean restaurants. The presentation isn’t traditional, but this might be the best Korean food east of Beaverton.
4606 S.E. Division St. and 5427 N.E. 42nd Ave., 503-929-0522, Facebook: KJGPDX
Is there an attractive way to pack a full English breakfast to go? If there, is, Kingsland Kitchen hasn’t found it. Open the box, and find what looks like a dog’s dinner — fried eggs over a mass of brown. But don’t be afraid. The cart offers good sandwiches with Guinness-braised beef and Mumbai-spiced chicken, each appealingly presented on a large roll, though you should probably skip those. Trust me when I say that full English breakfast, which is served all day, is the best in Portland, with a dozen strips of streaky bacon, a half-dozen delicious bangers, tomatoes sliced instead of quartered, sautéed mushrooms and what appeared to be crumbled black pudding under fried eggs and a healthy pour of HP sauce. There’s a roll hidden somewhere underneath the whole mess, and if you pull it out without dropping a morsel, you’re immediately promoted to King of England (we think).
Southwest Oak Street between Fourth and Fifth, 971-300-3118, kingslandkitchen.com
What if you could get Peruvian-style chicken, spice-rubbed and cooked dark and juicy on an imported charcoal rotisserie, without traveling all the way to Gresham’s El Inka? Polli-Tico, a new downtown Portland food cart, is the real deal, rolling birds in cart that heats up to cruel-and-unusual temperatures when the sun is blazing. There are sandwiches and bowls, but focus your attention instead on the platters. Here, ¼, ½, and whole birds served with a choice of sides (you want the yuca, golden fried and perfect for dipping in Polli-Tico’s mayo-based aji amarillo sauce). The cart offers a handy online ordering system on its website, though downtown lunchers should act fast — word on the street is Polli-Tico has plans to move to Sellwood by the end of summer.
Southwest Third Avenue between Oak and Pine Streets, 971-258-2845, polliticoportland.com
Pyro’s Wicked Wiches
It’s not exactly a surprise that Portland’s best wood-fired pizza cart would open a tasty sandwich cart. And here we are. Pyro’s Wicked Wiches, which sits just a few carts over from the second Pyro’s Pizza location, builds tasty sandwiches using top-quality Oregon ingredients and good Grand Central Bakery bread. Our favorite is the classic Cubano, stuffed with roast pork, smoked ham, swiss cheese, dill pickles mustard and mayo, then pressed hot on a plancha. Order it with a cup of good cart-made soda, which on our most recent visit included basil-lime, a natural cola, ginger ale, cream soda and a cherry phosphate. Any soda can be turned into a float for a few dollars more, not a bad idea while summer’s dog days linger.
Southeast Division Street and 28th Place, 503-706-6344, pyropizzacart.com
— Michael Russell