Food cart clusters having their say as Portland’s new sidewalk café
by Wake Nkrumah
Movie night at the food cart courtyard?
That’s the word on the street in Sunnyside Neighborhood.
It happens in the 3400 block of Southeast Belmont.
The quaint courtyard has just enough real estate – a snug 33-foot curb front – for four in-operation carts and ample covered seating. There’s also a portable toilet and automated teller machine.
The carts’ cuisine: crepes and bubble tea, dumplings, Mexican, and Vietnamese sandwiches.
Movie showings are Friday and Saturday nights, of course.
And only in Portland, reigning food cart capital – yes, really! – of the universe.
Need further confirmation? Go to foodcartsportland.com
But really, it’s all in the street cred.
You know Portland’s standing is no joke once you realize the bento or burrito stand you patronized five years ago on a downtown corner since has joined clusters of more permanently anchored food carts sprouting citywide and giving birth to a new culinary aesthetic.
The carts’ blossoming presence especially is welcome downtown – far too long a feast (pricey fine dining) or famine (cheap fast food chains) table setting of scarce middle ground for affordable tasty options.
The ubiquitous carts, from rickety to ramshackle, dot the city like so many hipsters showing as extras for a Portlandia audition.
In fact, a short time ago, Portland officially was deemed, by whoever deems such things, as having out-food carted Singapore. Who knew?
Overthrowing Singapore – apparently long recognized as the kingpin of food cart nation – is a good thing. And not merely because it gives our city something legitimate for which to be famous; as opposed to being infamous as destination-known outpost for scenesters and slackers.
It’s a good thing because cart food is good and, in many cases, inexpensive.
The food cart scene still is a works in progress. Dessert options generally aren’t an option. Neither, for the most part, is sitting while eating, due to limited or no seating at larger clusters.
But it’s the hours of operation that most beguile. Even when posted – not a guarantee – hours can vary wildly from cart to cart, cluster to cluster.
In the case of cuisines at cart clusters, being all over the map is a good thing. But not so much with hours of operation, especially when you show midday during midweek to find shuttered your cart of choice for that day.
Sometimes, timing – and the whimsy of the cart’s operator – is everything.
“Open for lunch,‘’ the sign says on a cart in the 400 block of Southwest Stark Street. Actually, no. Not this first Friday in August. Really? It’s early afternoon.
In the haste to escape on this beautiful day, the cart’s A-board sign is even left on a street corner halfway up the block. “Closed for filming,’’ a note on the cart says.
Best to move on and set forth on your own to taste for yourself the riches of these food cart clusters:
“The Original,” Southwest Oak/Stark Streets; 5th Avenue (central Downtown) – The first cart cluster dates to late in last decade of last century. Now 26 carts strong, this cluster workhorse is the mainstay for the downtown lunch crowd. My favorite: Bro-Dogs. Thanks to the cluster’s prime location along the Green/Yellow Metropolitan Area Express light rail line, there’s convenient sidewalk bench seating under a shady tree canopy.
Alder Street, Southwest Alder/Washington streets; 9th/10th/11th avenues (west end Downtown) – The Mother of clusters, with nearly 60 carts.
A La Carts Food Pavilion, Southeast Division Street and 50th Avenue (Mt. Tabor Neighborhood) – Homework assignment: go to alacartspdx.com
Cartopia, Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and 12th Avenue (Buckman Neighborhood) – A lean cluster machine of six carts, plus amenities: two portable toilets, a sink and automated teller machine. I make my way to Potato Champion for poutine and gravy fries. Every time. It becomes a sit-down meal thanks to plentiful covered tables and benches. Still, finding sitting isn’t always a given cuz this cluster is like the Homecoming King – popular.
D-street Noshery, 3221 Southeast Division Street (Richmond Neighborhood) – To check it out before trying it out, go to dstreetnoshery.com
Good Food Here, Southeast Belmont Street and 43rd Avenue (Sunnyside Neighborhood) – Your three daily square meals-plus await: All-day breakfast (Euro Trash), lunch salad (Crème de la Crème), dinner burger (Lardo), plus dessert (Sweet Pea’s Brulee). Adequate seating, too. More at goodfoodherebelmont.com
Mississippi Marketplace, North Mississippi Avenue and Skidmore Street (Boise Neighborhood) – NoPo weighs in at thebigeggfoodcart.blogspot.com/; gardenstatecart.com; nativebowl.blogspot.com; sushitree.blogspot.com; therubydragonpdx.blogspot.com; foodcartsportland.com/2009/06/01/nuevo-mexico; foodcartsportland.com/2011/01/31/big-top-waffles; foodcartsportland.com/2009/10/25/dogfeathers-coffee-and-juice
Portland State University, Southwest College/Hall streets; 4th Avenue (south end Downtown) – University students and city workers eat and greet, mingle and mix at this cluster of 25 carts on the southeast edge of campus.
Refuel Station North, North Greeley Avenue and Killingsworth Street (Overlook Neighborhood). NoPo again. Offerings at this modest, yet fledgling, cluster include pizza, panini, Thai and more. Plus, heated indoor seating!
3rd Avenue, Southwest Stark/Washington streets; 3rd Avenue (central Downtown) – Hog Time (pork, baby!) in the 200 block of Washington is my go-back-to standard among the 22 carts. This cluster is more stop-n-go than sit-n-stay due to limited seating, though Hog Time is among a few with a bench or stools for two. Eat late into early-morning option: Sausage Shack, open til 2 a.m. six days a week.