Portland Food Carts, Moonshine, and Restaurant Closings in L.A.

Portland's Fantastic Food Carts
Portland's Fantastic Food Carts

By Trevor Felch | The Student Life

Over New Year’s I had the opportunity to finally visit Portland for the first ever time. It is truly amazing how passionate Portlanders are for everything they eat and drink, reminding me of Paris with microbreweries replacing wine bars, casual barista focused coffee shops in place of the corner cafe, and innovative food carts instead of crepe stands. While many American cities have recently gone through spectacular restaurant renaissances with the country now focusing more than ever on what it eats, I don’t see any way that Portland doesn’t win the prize for the most food-centric city in the United States. Everyone you talk to- students, lawyers, doctors, hipsters- they all know who Greg Higgins is, can name of the top of their heads at least 20 of the 30 or so microbreweries in the city (and then a bunch more throughout the state of Oregon), and everybody has their favorite food carts.

There must be something in all that rainwater that not only producers beautiful roses in the summer, but also an enviable fervent passion for everything the city drinks and eats.

Coming from Los Angeles, I was particularly intrigued by the food cart movement in Portland that has certainly spawned off many imitators across the country. L.A. is in the midst of a food truck revolution but Portland’s mobile food pods came long before any food truck in L.A. aside from the various taco trucks parked across the L.A. basin and the Valley.

L.A. is a driving culture, so it’s not surprising that food trucks thrive there. Portland has more of an alternative, almost European culture where everybody either walks or bikes or…shocking to L.A. residents, takes public transportation. Portland’s food carts represent this culture well, each little trailer unique in its own way with decorations, its menu, and most importantly, its name.

In L.A., food trucks move around obviously and rarely congregate together. In Portland, the food carts almost work together as teams and reside in various pods, often empty parking areas. They have wheels but never move. You don’t need a twitter to find out where to find the food cart, though most of them have embraced the social media world to mention opening hours or what’s on the day’s menu.

Portland’s food carts share the same challenges of L.A.’s food trucks in that many lawmakers and actual restaurants are hoping to puncture their success by giving them a constant stream of parking tickets and sanitation issues to eventually bring them down. Portland has around 600 licensed food carts presently, most of them scraping out a living serving food to customers who must be willing to brave the city’s almost constant rain.

The food carts wouldn’t be such a distinct part of Portland if it were not for the incredible diversity of cuisines represented by them. Ethiopian carts reside next to Singapore chicken and rice carts next to bbq carts next to Scottish fish and chips carts. Instead of driving all around L.A. freeways to sample  various cuisines, I could just go to one or two pods in feel like I’ve eaten around the world.

The food cart pod at SW 9th and Alder is a daily foods of the world fest for the nearby businessmen in Downtown. It is the largest food cart area of the city, those businessmen I’m sure never, ever pack their own lunches. I could eat a “Whole Bowl” from the Whole Bowl each week, a filling, comforting mix of brown rice, beans, Tillamook cheddar (the only kind they seem to have in Oregon), avocado, olives, and the knockout lemon-garlic Tali sauce that transforms what could be an ordinary chili into an innovative treat. The fun doesn’t stop at the Whole Bowl though. Across the street resides Nong’s Khao Man Gai, serving chicken and rice in an addiciting ginger sauce from Northern Thailand. The only problem is that it’s impossible to eat standing up…a real issue since there are no tables nearby and you won’t survive a minute before trying to eat like a horse.

In the same pod, porchetta sandwiches are very in demand from the People’s Pig and fish and chips come at a caliber far higher than standard pub grub at the Frying Scotsman. A few blocks east resides the fabled schnitzelwich at Tabor, a Czech food cart that makes Czech food sound a lot more enticing than it did in Prague. Sadly it was closed over New Year’s, as was the PBJ Cart, that takes my favorite sandwich combination to extraordinary new heights.

While the carts in the SW area of Portland (Portland’s planner were brilliant in dividing the city into four, easy to navigate quadrants) are more for the lunch time worker crowd, the carts in the SE come alive later at night. Claremont could use Pyro’s Pizza, a cart with a wood fired oven for its pies that seems like a major fire hazard. My friends raved about its neighbor Potato Champion. The fries themselves weren’t particularly special and could have been crispier, but I can’t think of a better post TNC food than their excellent poutine. The various dipping sauces are unique and range from o.k. (banana ketchup that could use more banana) to sublime (rosemary truffle ketchup as elegant as a shaved white truffle). The revelation dish was the PB and J fries, served like poutine, but the gravy and cheese curds get replaced by homemade jam and a Thai satay peanut sauce. It’s incredibly innovative and even more tasty.

If I only had the time and stomach space to visit 15 of those 600 carts…

Meanwhile, here’s an intriguing new trend in bars across L.A. Moonshine. Yes, moonshine, the Appalachia cabin whiskey that makes you think of the film “Deliverance”.

Also some unfortunate restaurant closing news to start 2011 in L.A. The Michelin starred Ortolan, arguably the closest thing L.A. had to a formal haute classic French cuisine restaurant, and the excellent Beacon in Culver City, are both closing this week. I never had the chance to visit Ortolan but very much enjoyed Beacon. Beacon’s pan asian-American style cuisine was bold and exciting when it opened seven years ago and somehow has remained so throughout its time despite many other food trends coming and going. It may have been a very 2002 restaurant with its ahi tuna pizza and Kaki fry oysters in lettuce cups, but I will dearly miss arguably the best steak in L.A., Beacon’s hangar steak with wasabi relish.

We wish the best of luck to Beacon’s Kazuto Matsuzaka and Vicki Fan in their upcoming catering business and Ortolan’s Christopher Emé in his search for a new partner to open a new restaurant.

I’ll be taking a break this weekend and then when the new semester is under way next week, continue re-capping Portland with its sensational microbreweries and restaurants.