Portland Food Carts
I have been hearing about the downtown Portland Oregon food trucks and carts scene for years. While many cities will now boast of their gourmet food trucks or food carts, Portland was really the first place that got on my radar for this phenomena, way back when “food truck” in my hometown was synonymous with “roach coach”. So when we were in Portland I talked my wife into taking the Portland: 2-Hour Street Food Walking Tour on a chilly February day (see Things to do in Portland in Winter).
Table of contents: ()
- Portland Food Carts
- Portland Street Food Walking Tour
- Map of the Food Carts We Visited
- Pioneer Square Food Cart Pod
- Melty & Meaty Food Cart
- Alder Street Food Cart Pod
- Dinner Bell Barbecue Food Cart
- Go Box Program
- Bing Mi Food Cart
- Aybla Grill Food Cart
- Altengartz Food Truck
- Bao Bao Food Cart
- The Grilled Cheese Grill Food Cart
- 5th Avenue Food Cart Pod
- Korean Twist Food Cart
- El Pilón Food Cart
- American Panda Food Cart
- Where to Stay
We met our guide Herb at the office of Portland Walking Tours under Pioneer Square. In preparation for our tour, Herb gave us some basics of the Portland food cart scene.
First off, don’t call them food trucks. While some of the food carts are actually food trucks, most are not. Most of them are trailers. They are not permanent structures as the law requires them to be able to be moved within 15 minutes should the authorities require it (not that they ever have).
Most of the food carts in the city are arranged in “pods”. These are just a parking lot where the owner of the lot has agreed to rent space to the food carts around the edge of the lot. So what in other cities we would call Portland’s food truck parks here is Portland’s food cart pods. Most of these carts have no place to sit and eat so this is a stand and eat or take away scene.
We had a problem on this tour which was that 2 people didn’t show up. That meant more food for everyone. You can’t hand the extra sandwich or tacos to a homeless person as the city discourages this. You can’t hand it to another patron as you would be taking sales away from the cart owner. So Herb was going to have dinner for a week. We tried to help but we were scheduled to hit 9 carts and you have to pace yourself.
Map of the Food Carts We Visited
Pioneer Square Food Cart Pod
The food carts in Pioneer Square are all new and shiny because the city required them to be to get a spot on this location after the recent renovation of Pioneer Square. Herb said not to expect this at the other food cart pods. He seemed almost offended that these were bright and shiny new. It didn’t seem very “Portland” to him.
Some of the nicer looking trucks are in Pioneer Square which is the cities outdoor living space. Our first stop was at Melty & Meaty which is a joint venture between Oregon’s well-known Tillimook Cheese and Olympia Provisions which provides the meat. We sampled their namesake sandwich the Melty & Meaty which is sweetheart ham, white cheddar cheese and a seasonal fruit mustarda on sliced sourdough. When I was there in February the seasonal mustarda was pear with juniper and smoked with applewood. This is “just” a ham and cheese sandwich in the same way Itzhak Perlman is just a good fiddle player. This was one of our favorites from the whole tour.
Alder Street Food Cart Pod
Our next stop was the world’s largest food cart pod, the Alder Street food cart pod between SW Washington and SW Alder and between SW 9th Ave and SW 10th Ave. Get to this pod fast because it is going away.
There used to be 107 food carts in the city around 2011 and that number has grown to around 848 and 83 distinct cuisines, but that number seems to have peaked. The problem is not demand. The problem is that many of the parking lots in downtown Portland are being developed. A food cart pod across the street from the Alder Street pod is becoming a new high rise hotel and the Alder Street food cart pod is scheduled to be developed in May 2019. It is unclear where all these carts will go, although the city is debating a plan to turn some local streets into pedestrian-only streets with food carts on them.
Some of the food carts will probably move to brick and mortar restaurants. It happens. 13 carts went to brick and mortar last year, but when they do they will usually have to increase (sometimes double) the prices to cover the extra overhead costs.
Dinner Bell Barbecue Food Cart
We sampled the pulled pork sliders from Dinner Bell Barbecue which are so juicy that we literally ate them bent over so that the sauce would drip on the ground instead of us. The chef, Sam Mouzon, is from Alabama and his BBQ does credit to his heritage. I so wanted one of those extra sliders that we got for our missing tour members… but must pace myself.
For vegetarians on the tour, Herb will order the grits and one recent tour guest liked them better than the grits she had had that morning at a high-end restaurant. Welcome to the Portland food cart scene. This isn’t just affordable food. This is good food.
Go Box Program
This was the first cart that we visited that proudly had the Go Box sticker. With Go Box, you get an app that allows you to order reusable containers. When they come you can hand them to the cart owner who will fill your container with yummy stuff. You eat your lunch and return the dirty container to a nearby drop site. The more people who use a Go Box, the less trash that is generated. While this may not be as convenient for tourists, maybe you can help bring this innovative system to your hometown.
Bing Mi Food Cart
Our next stop was Bing Mi, also at the Alder Street pod. This cart has only one specialty which is Jian Bing. This is, apparently, typical Chinese street food but I was unfamiliar with it from my trips to China. The Bing Mi website says:
Jian Bing (??) is a simple, savory dish from the villages of Northern China. Made with a freshly scrambled egg, the Bing includes black bean paste, chili sauce, pickled vegetables, green onion, cilantro, and a crispy fried cracker all rolled into a perfectly grilled crepe.
This was easily the biggest surprise on the tour and was great. The fried wonton cracker which adds a crunch really seems like the secret, that and the sauce. These are going to be best eaten fresh. The owner of Bing Mi discovered Jian Bing on her own trip to China.
Look into the cart and watch how they make these (or watch the video). They start with a fresh crepe covered with egg.
Our next stop was at Aybla Grill (Alder Street pod) for a taste of their fresh falafel balls. Herb tries to make some of the tastes like this smaller so that you don’t end up in pain. But these were good falafel balls that made me wish we could have ordered a Falafel Sandwich, or better yet for me a Gyro.
Aybla Grill has a new brick and mortar restaurant but still operates their food cart which helps introduce people to their food. They are one of the only halal restaurants in the city. They have kept the prices at their restaurant close to that at their food cart.
We stopped at Altengartz (Alder Street pod) for a taste of a German Bratwurst. This is the oldest food truck in the pod and one of the oldest in the city. Owner Jameson Wittkopp has been running this food truck (yes he actually has a truck) for over 18 years which has earned him the nickname the “podfather”.
Jameson’s father George could not find a good bratwurst sausage when he moved to Oregon from Wisconsin in 1977 so he started making his own. In addition to the cart, you can order their brats online or buy them in nearby grocery stores or restaurants.
His truck is a bit longer so he has rented two spots and has a small dining area. Also because he actually has a truck he usually moves it to a different location on Monday. We were there on a Monday but, fortunately, it was a holiday so the company that normally hosts him Monday was closed.
I am half German and bratwurst is my go-to meal when I am in Germany or at the ballpark so I feel like I can say with some authority, that’s a good brat.
We stopped at Bao Bao (Alder Street pod) for a handmade steamed bun. Cart owners Randy and his wife Sabrina met in China when Randy was working there. Sabrina’s mom suggested that Portland needed a Bao cart so Randy and Sabrina returned to China and offered to work at a shop for a month to learn the art. Once the shop owner was convinced that they really were opening a shop in the USA instead of down the street he agreed to the deal, although he felt for sure that they could not possibly learn the subtle art of the steamed bun in only a month. Give it a try. I think they nailed it. I tried the pork bun which is my go-to for steamed buns.
The Grilled Cheese Grill Food Cart
The Grilled Cheese Grill food cart (Alder Street pod) was not on our tasting tour but I did love their motto:
“Come by for a taste of your childhood. Unless your childhood sucked, then we’ll share a taste of ours.”
5th Avenue Food Cart Pod
The 5th Avenue food cart pod is located on 5th Ave between SW Oak Street and SW Harvey Milk Street. This is a smaller food cart pod but is the busiest pod in the city at lunchtime Herb told us. To understand why just look up and see the 42-story U.S. Bancorp Tower which is its neighbor.
This is also a historically important food cart pod. When the number of food carts in the city rose to 300, the restaurant owners started to complain because they were feeling the success of the food carts in their wallets. They made some efforts to shut down or discourage food carts. They complained to the board of health that these trucks were not inspected, which was true. Within 24 hours the board of health had a program in place to inspect food trucks. If you are impressed that a government agency could move so fast, consider that the Health Department building is just south of the 5th Avenue food cart pod. Where do you think they were getting lunch?
Our next stop was at Korean Twist at the 5th Avenue food cart pod. When I say “tacos” you say “yum”. When I say “Korean tacos” from Korean twist you say “yummmm”! If you are a fan of Korean BBQ then you will like these zingy tacos. If you are not a fan of Korean BBQ… then I am just speechless and we can no longer be friends. No seriously, if you are not a fan of Korean BBQ then Korean Twist can change your mind.
Our last food stop before dessert was at El Pilón at SW 2nd And Oak. El Pilón offers Colombian food and we stopped to try the Chicken Arepas. An arepa is a staple in the diet of Colombia and Venezuela. I know that these were my wife’s favorite because she took the extra arepas and we had them for dinner as well! Of course, after all these food carts dinner was much much later.
Our last stop was for dessert at American Panda back at the 5th Avenue food cart pod. Fortunately, as everyone knows, most people have a completely separate stomach to hold dessert… or at least that’s what my wife told me.
Herb told us that it is harder to make a living selling just desserts at a food cart so American Panda has sandwiches and snacks as well but we came for waffles with a scoop of homemade ice cream on top. The ice cream was Madagascar Bourbon vanilla. If waffles and ice cream sounds a little boring, I know what you mean, but this was great and a great way to finish our tour!
Where to Stay
Portland has options for a wide range of budgets from high-end hotels to more affordable Airbnbs.
With around 848 food carts, it would be pretty impossible to master the Portland food cart scene on your vacation, but the Portland: 2-Hour Street Food Walking Tour is a pretty great and pretty delicious way to try. If you take the tour you will no doubt discover some different food carts than we visited. Leave a comment below on what your favorite food was and from what cart.
Portions of the cost of this trip were paid for by Travel Portland for which we give them thanks, but all the opinions are mine.