Serious Eats

Mobile Chowdown 3: Seattle vs. Portland Street Food

Portland's got the goods, but Seattle's gaining momentum.

20100313chowdownsign.jpgSomewhat sunny skies and serious street food brought out throngs of Seattleites to Mobile Chowdown 3 this past weekend, hosted next to Safeco Field (home of the Mariners). The event was free, but you had to pay for bites from each of the carts.

As opposed to the first two Chowdown installments, this one had a throwdown element to it—three food trucks drove up from Portland to Seattle to participate. The lines were especially long for these visiting Portland participants, as Seattleites wanted to see what was special down south in this street food mecca.

The Seattle Vendors

The Portland Vendors

Notes From the Chowdown Scene

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Here and There truck.

There was food and fun for everyone at the Chowdown. What works is that food I might not like, other people simply love. At that Here and There truck, I enjoyed the white bean and toasted tomato soup (it might have been sunny in Seattle, but it was brutally cold at the start of the day, so hot soup hit the spot), while others selected one of the meaty sandwiches.

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Dante's Inferno Dogs and Hallava Falafel.

Speaking of meaty, Dante's Inferno Dogs was delivering despite losing one of its carts in an accident, creating condiment carnage en route to the event. Now that's dedication—and many of Dante's followers are dedicated to dogs with cream cheese and many more condiments. Meanwhile, more meaty goodness could be found at Hallava Falafel, where I favor the schwarma over the falafel, though both are great.

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El Camion truck.

Folks were eating foil-wrapped burritos under the watchful eyes of the lizard at El Camion, normally found in front of a Home Depot. (I like snacking on their tripe and tongue tacos before tackling my shopping list.)

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Kaosamai Thai truck.

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"Phad Thai."

The Kaosamai Thai truck served up "Phad Thai" (tasting very ketchupy) and other dishes.

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Veraci's oven.

But perhaps my favorite model of a food truck—Veraci's mobile wood-fired oven—heated up to nearly 1,000 degrees to send pizza pies a-flying (rather appropriate on this day before National Pi Day).

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Top Pot Doughnuts. Mmm, doughnuts.

Sweet tooth after all that? Kids and grown-ups alike peered into the Top Pot Doughnuts truck.

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Anita's Crepes.

Also in the dessert category, Anita and her "amies" at Anita's Crepes (which does more than sweet desserts, as I documented in Dish-Off, a feature on my blog where I challenge chefs to create dishes based on song titles) put on a show making her ever-popular lemon-sugar crepes.

The most memorable moment of the Chowdown happened in line at the Here and There truck. The vendor motioned to me, but I motioned down to a five year-old girl in front of me. With no friends or family in sight, she reached up as high as possible, thrust a five dollar bill to the worker, and politely and confidently said, "One fruit smoothie, please." A minute later, drink in hand, she studied it a bit, took a sip from the straw, nodded approvingly, and then walked off happily.

While there was no formal "Battle in Seattle," I took the liberty of creating a few comparisons between the remaining six vendors.

Burgers: Burgerville (Portland) vs. Gert's BBQ (Seattle)

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Burgerville Nomad truck.

There's been considerable clamor for the Burgerville chain to expand north to Seattle, as this Vancouver-based (just across the river from Portland) company's emphasis on local products and sustainability earned it kudos as Eric Schlosser's favorite fast-food. As I talked up the Walla Walla sweet onion rings and seasonal berry shakes with others in line at the Burgerville Nomad truck, I bit into my Tillamook Burger and had a "where's the beef?" moment.

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Burgerville Nomad's Tillamook cheeseburger.

A different vendor, also disappointed, shared my opinion: Love the mission, but Burgerville's burger, at least on this day, was bland.

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Gert's BBQ truck.

I decided to pit the Portland-based burger against the "Soul Burger" from Gert's BBQ in Seattle. At the Gert's truck, some southerners scoffed upon trying their pulled pork sandwiches, though I did hear better reports about the ribs. When I reached the ordering window and saw the "Flavor for your soul" slogan, I couldn't help but try the Soul Burger—but when I asked what it was, I got elusive answers that mentioned: meat, special sauce, and a secret cooking process.

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You call that soul?

Sadly, this burger was soulless, with little flavor in the patty, though I did like the spicy corn that accompanied it (a welcomed vegetable amidst a very heavy-eating day).

Poutine: Potato Champion (Portland) vs. Skillet Street Food (Seattle)

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Potato Champion!

Potato Champion, arriving a little late in their sci-fi-inspired Spudnik truck, was doling out lots of paper cones filled with French-fried potatoes and various dipping sauces (the rosemary truffle ketchup was particularly captivating), but I wanted to try the poutine.

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Potato Champion's poutine. Hel-lo.

Poutine production was slow (made up for by the server's humorous call-outs, like "Henry...I've got something to show you") but it was worth the wait. The fries stayed crisp in the sauce, which had a rather compelling, tangy taste. And, oh, those big, cloud-like curds of cheese. The Canadians, responsible for poutine creation, sure know that fat is fantastic, eh?

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Skillet Street Food.

Skillet Street Food (whose slider with arugula and cult-creating bacon jam would have trounced both of the aforementioned burgers) takes its Airstream around Seattle, and with burger-grilling in full force at Chowdown, this aluminum can of a trailer was sending out beefy smoke signals all day long.

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Skillet Street Food's poutine.

Skilleteers swear by the ever-changing specials, and today Skillet's poutine was a Southwest-inspired version with chile-braised pork, cheese sauce, and cilantro. Tasty, for sure, but just a little too much meat overwhelming too few fries, at least in my box. While the cheesy sauce certainly fit the concept, I missed the big curds of fat. And as much as I love cilantro, it needed to be chopped up more for better distribution. Still, a fun twist on traditional poutine, and typical of Skillet's creative ways.

Kimchi Quesadillas: KOi Fusion (Portland) vs. Marination Mobile (Seattle)

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KOi Fusion truck.

With Kogi and Korean fusion food being big in the food truck world, I knew this would be the battle royal at this Mobile Chowdown. Situated at opposite ends of the venue, the long lines were testimony to the popularity of these two vendors, with people waiting upwards of 90 minutes while watching menu options fade away. (Groans filled the air when anyone walked out of a truck with the dreaded magic marker of death.)

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Portland is hot on KOi, and I can see why. With Bob Marley blasting through the speakers, the vibe was positive and the workers were friendly. The kimchi quesadilla was hearty, especially with the addition of meat (beef bulgogi in mine). Sesame cabbage, pico de gallo, bean sprouts, cucumber and cilantro added additional taste and texture.

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KOi's quesadilla.

Unlike other places which shred their kimchi, KOi's quesadilla had larger pieces to satisfy fermented food lovers like me. It was pungent, with the garlic, ginger and chili all punching through the tortilla.

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Marination Mobile.

Marination Mobile did Seattle proud in winning the title of best food truck in the country on Good Morning America in November, and they were part of my top ten list of food experiences in Seattle and beyond last year. Like KOi, Marination does Mexican-Korean fusion, but with Hawaiian influence. How popular is Marination? It's likely that more people were in line for spam musubi than for Seattle Mariners tickets across the street. (Not a knock on the Mariners; in fact, the franchise was a co-sponsor of the Chowdown.) So with Marination operating through the winter, why were so many Seattleites waiting for food from their local truck?

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Marination Mobile's quesadilla.

Some were seeing the truck for the first time, but others said, "It's simply that good." No need to convince me.

While I do think there can be more oomph in Marination's offerings (I'd like them to up the spice level), there was nice balance in the quesadilla's flavors. The kimchi played nicely with the Kalua pork, and the cheese was more prominent than in KOi's. A smattering of slaw and jalapeno slices on top added crunch and zing. And the nonya—as in "none (of) ya business"—helped finish the dish in fine fashion.

And the Winner..?

20100313potatochampioncone250.jpgIt was a close call between Portland and Seattle. Sorely missed, and what might have really tilted the outcome Portland's way, was Whiffies, which canceled late because of insurance issues. Whiffies serves fried pies, both savory (as crazy as rabbit) and sweet (sometimes as exotic as durian).

Portland still kicks Seattle's butt in terms of street food, with their pods of carts stationed throughout the city, some (including KOi Fusion, Potato Champion, and Whiffies) staying open until two or three in the morning certain days. (This is when Chowdowning should take place!)

Seattle's got momentum, with the carts and trucks expanding, but the city also has a lot to learn from Portland. Take, for example, Potato Champion: They do one thing (fries) and do them right. Specialize, and both a vendor and customer can be happy.

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I'll gladly exchange ketchupy Phad Thai for Nong's Khao Man Gai any day. (Word is that the next Chowdown is slated for July under the Space Needle at the Seattle Center, and I'm hoping Nong will enlighten our Thai-loving community with her chicken dish.)

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The food lover in me celebrated the Mobile Chowdown in bringing food lovers together. It was surprisingly fun to spend some time waiting in line, sharing experiences and expectations—and sometimes even food—with friends or complete strangers who share a passion in culinary discovery.

The restaurant reviewer in me felt a bit bloated after bingeing on so much street food. (All in the name of research for you, dear reader!) Such are the perils of the profession. Like many in the food industry, despite being around food for many hours, I managed to make it to my next food event just two hours later.

Sushi dinner seemed appropriate; after all, the fish on rice we know today originated as street food in Japan.

About the author: Jay Friedman is a freelance food writer in Seattle and a full-time sex educator. Watch for him to explore the connections between sex and food at his Gastrolust blog.

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