PORTLAND, Ore. -- Selling homemade food on the street is a natural, and so it is all over the world. New York has its hotdogs. San Diego, fish tacos. Austin, barbecue. Singapore, hawker stalls. Tokyo, ramen noodles. Puerto Rico, suckling pig. I love it all, but been there, done that.
For years, Portland, Ore., has topped my must-hit list for street food. It is the absolute epicenter of the food cart phenomenon. There are more than 500 different food carts, offering a variety of fare not found in any other city in the United States. We're talking portable, affordable food.
Following a recent family wedding in Eugene, I set off for Portland with my son Ted, his wife, Catherine, and four grandkids. Our goal, sample street food. The teens -- Julius, 18, Oscar, 16, Jaali, 16, and Nate, 14 -- with their unquenchable appetites, would do the, um, heavy lifting. Each teen was armed with a cell phone equipped with GPS and a camera, cash and the street smarts to do the job. They, so to speak, "ate up" their task: Hit the carts for breakfast and lunch, team up and spread out, order whatever you like, take photos and report back.
While they worked the streets, I worked the back story. Here are some of the things we learned.
What's a "food cart"? Food carts are not restaurants. They are actually trucks, or trailers pulled by trucks, that have been fitted with kitchens. The carts complement rather than compete with full-service restaurants. Serving hours are limited, menus are small and food is most often served in disposable containers. Carts lack indoor -- or any --seating. A few chairs and a wobbly card table may or may not be available around to the side, but don't count on it.
Where are they? Everywhere, really. Most often, they are parked in clusters, or "pods," around the edges of parking lots. But they also are in parks or stretched along sidewalks anywhere in the city. Food carts are mobile, and while some may move around, the most successful venders stay in one place. Many are open for breakfast, all for lunch and fewer for dinner. In hipster neighborhoods, the rush hour is late at night, after the clubs close. Think too much beer followed by Canadian poutine. (Or maybe it's better not to.)
Who's cooking? While many operators are professionally trained chefs with enviable backgrounds from respected restaurants, most vendors are family-trained home cooks.
What's the food like? This is street food, not fast food. Most food carts make every dish to order. Your food make take a little time. So? Role model those laid-back Portlanders and chill a little. In an culturally diverse city, you'll find real-deal ethnic specialties. A cart might serve only tamales; another will specialize in Middle Eastern kebabs; someone else, Thai dishes; another, bento boxes. Where there are immigrants, there will be ethnic specialties.
Examples of other offerings? Here's a random spot check: grilled cheese sandwiches, Baja fish tacos, porchetta sandwiches (out of this world), fried sardines, freshly made pasta, tamales, pad thai, and vegan burgers cooked on a solar-powered heat source. (This is Oregon, after all.) Look around and find Northwest specialties: Dungeness crab, local mushrooms, hazelnuts and all kinds of berries, including native marionberries.
Are the carts clean? They do get inspected, just like full-sized restaurants, but these small cooking spaces do not get scores. To see for myself, I got permission to step inside and hang out in a stand-alone breakfast cart named Streets. The layout was beyond efficient, with (really) stainless steel counters, fixtures, and all KitchenAid equipment. Neat, clean, orderly. The vendor specializes in sourdough cinnamon rolls (OMG) made with a starter from "SourDough Pete," whose family, the story goes, has been fermenting for more than 70 years. The owner-vendor of Streets is an ex-con, he told me, who learned to bake in prison and found his passion. Every cart has a story to go along with its food.
How do you find the best food? Word of mouth is always the best advertisement. But when trolling for a snack, look for a line or cluster of customers waiting to order. Not every cart has good food, but with so much competition among the carts, vendors knock themselves out trying to make the best food possible. Use your eyes, your nose and your intuition. If time is limited, use your trusty smart phone to find a review. Depending on your tolerance for high-tech playthings, tons of info is available via Twitter feeds, websites and smart phone apps, such as Yelp.
Who eats at food carts? Everybody and anybody who wants a quick, cheap breakfast or lunch, or a dish to take home for supper. But think office workers looking for sunshine (or, since this is Oregon, a fine mist) on their lunch breaks, students, tourists, food mavens. The food is mostly high quality. Many serve artisan specialty foods, and they are often locally sourced. Breakfasts go for about $3 to $4. Lunch might cost around $6 or less. Did I mention that eating at food carts is way fun?
What's the secret to Portland's success with carts? Excellent public transportation networks connect the neighborhoods. Licensing fees are affordable, and start-up costs are low compared to opening a traditional restaurant. Maybe most importantly, the vibe is right. Check TV listings to watch the show " Portlandia," which explains a lot.
So why not Pittsburgh? Listen up, city government. Out-of-date red tape keeps food trucks off the streets or struggling to stay there. Portland offers proof that food carts have a positive impact on street vitality and neighborhood life. The carts empower people who would never have the funds or know-how to operate a brick and mortar business. Food carts support -- and feed -- small, locally owned businesses and start-ups. They attract spenders, and retail outlets and brick and mortar restaurants and cafes will follow. You want more positive PR for our city?
C'mon, City Council and Mr. Mayor. What's not to love? Let's do food carts.
Epilogue: Reporting back, all the teens agreed that the challenge was "totally awesome." Each had a favorite. Oscar loved the "Wake and Bake Special" (eggs, bacon, cheese, chorizo and waffle sandwich served in a paper wrapper) from the Pink and Black Waffle Shack. With Ted and Catherine joining him, Julius was happy to eat as much Tex-Mex food as he could handle. Jaali, while preferring to browse at gigantic Powell's Books, did manage to favor a Margarita pizza or two. And even though Nate frequently wandered off-message to pop into Kenny and Zuke's deli, he loved the Chunky Monkey, a mess of bananas and Nutella drenched with caramel sauce and pecans. And yours truly?
You'd be surprised how many Willamette wine bars are adjacent to pods of food carts.
Marlene Parrish: 412-481-1620 or firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published October 4, 2012 4:00 AM