Portland Food Carts: Beyond Burritos & Bratwurst

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Downtown Portland food carts; Ziba Lyucevic of Zita's Pitas; meat-filled borek pita

You can go home again, despite what Mr. Wolfe wrote, it's just not the same place. Cornichon grew up here in Portland, would come downtown for haircuts from Mr. Littauer at the Paris Barber Shoppe on SW Washington, visit Dr. Bodner's dental suite on SW Park and furtively glance at the nudist magazines behind the counter of Rich's Cigar stand. Today, the seedy taverns and low-rent offices have been replaced by renovated office buildings, new boutiques, and scores of brightly painted trailers parked along SW Alder, firmly tethered to water mains, propane tanks and electric lines, selling a bewildering array of exotic fare: Vietnamese pho and lemongrass tofu, Polish cabbage rolls with dumplings, Thai curries, Japanese noodles, Korean barbecue, Greek humus, mezze and kabobs, along with the usual suspects, German braturst and Mexican burritos. The most popular, judging from the length of the line, is called Whole Bowl, a dish of basic hippie food (beans & rice) garnished with sour cream and avocado, doused with a lemony-garlic cream called Tali sauce. The best, based on extensive independent research, are the Bosnian "pitas" from the cart run by Ziba Lyucevic, not Greek pocket sandwiches but exceedingly light, round pies filled with meat, spinach or zucchini.

Yes, this is low-cost street food, priced around $5, and there's almost nothing by way of stools or tables, so the food carts don't cut into the sit-down lunch crowd. More than that, the carts themselves are stationery, not mobile; they're parked overnight, a year-round Bite of Seattle.

With the exception of an increasingly gentrified Chinatown, Portland doesn't have, never did have, the traditional enclaves of immigrants (Italians, Jews, Poles, Japanese, Germans, Greeks, etc.) whose cuisine and culture would define a neighborhood. Today's population is increasingly imported from elsewhere, a "creative class" without ethnicity. But there's hope for featureless newcomers and assimilated veterans alike: according to TravelPortland.com, the city has some 400 food carts scattered among half a dozen downtown and neighborhood "pods," 150 new ones this year alone, serving predominantly ethnic foods. There's even a blog, Food Carts Portland, dedicated to them. You could say, as this NYTimes video shows, that Portland has Food Cart Culture.

Certainly the fact that most of the carts stay put gives them the advantage of a regular clientele. Seattle's half-dozen mobile trucks, on the other hand, have a once-a-week following. Marination Mobile, winner of Good Morning America's nationwide food-cart challenge, communicates its location by Twitter feed. Portland's best-known cart, Garden State, isn't even in one of the three downtown pods; it's in the resurgent Sellwood neighborhood. No need for Twitter; just google "Sicilian Street Food."

Footnote: an article about food trucks in today's online edition of Restaurants & Institutions, features the owners of Marination Mobile.

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This page contains a single entry by Cornichon published on December 18, 2009 9:09 AM.

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