Street food can just mean hot dogs or shawarma in many cities, but in Portland, Oregon, sidewalk chefs are reinventing this formerly humble food genre as we speak (or eat, as the case may be). Name a food and it's probably being hawked from a cart, truck, trailer, or even bike. While other cities have onerous laws preventing vendors from securing a permit and setting up at a specific location on a regular basis, Portland is all about the street food culture. There are "pods" all over the city, essentially food courts in parking lots and other open spaces, just devoted to street food. Many of them stay there for regular hours, just like restaurants, so you don't have to chase them around the city.
While I've experienced plenty of delicious fine dining in Portland (like Le Pigeon) I can't help but get excited about the bustling street food scene. There are far too many to pick from, but here are five that really caught my eye. The food is inspired, cheap, and just fun. Obviously there are many more worth noting—chime in with your favorites.
Where and when: SW 5th Street Stark Street. Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
This bohemian-looking bright red cart with green trim sells Czech comfort food like goulash, dumplings, and chicken paprikash, but as the sign makes clear, this is the Home of the Original Schnitzelwich. Breaded pork is sandwiched between a ciabatta roll with lettuce, horseradish, and mayo. People don't usually come back from Prague raving about the food—at least the Czech food. It's a lot of meat and fried cheese (not that I'm opposed to either of those two), but this could change your mind. Also czech out (sorry, had to do it) the daily specials, like spinach spaetzle with sausage, kraut, herbs, and sour cream.
Where and when: SW 3rd and Washington (Sonny Bowl cart) on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.
"A whole cart devoted to oatmeal. Finally, oatmeal gets the attention it deserves!" Our oatmeal (and street food) correspondent Erin Zimmer is especially obsessed with this concept. "I'm not sure what the technical definition of bloop is, but it seems like the appropriate name for this." The oats are cooked in almond milk (so the oatmeal is actually vegan) and mixed with toppings that go way beyond the dehydrated fruit flecks in the just-add-hot-water pouches. Peanut Butter Banana Dreams includes the obvious two ingredients, in addition to an agave drizzle and cinnamon mix. Wouldn't a day just be better if it started with this?
3. Big A** Sandwiches
Where and when: SW 3rd and Ash Street. Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and late night hours on Friday and Saturday.
Anytime you pair "big ass" and "sandwiches" (er, excuse me, a**—this is a kid-friendly site), you've got our attention. If you don't like your sandwiches huge and bursting with innards, don't come here. This cart is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Brian and Lisa Wood—Brian comes from a Seattle restaurant background, and Lisa from the music biz. But they switched gears when they realized they were onto something big: french fries in sandwiches. Maybe they didn't invent the beautiful marriage of carb-on-carb, but not enough places do it, right?
The sandwiches are piled with homemade fries (hashbrowns in the case of the Big-A** Breakfast Sandwich) along with home-roasted meats, homemade bechamel sauce, all on a locally baked ciabatta roll from Fleur De Lis Bakery. And if you're doubly hungry, the Gutbomb comes with twice as much meat and cheese.
4. The Frying Scotsman
Where and when: The trailer is parked in the garage of an established gallery and frame shop in the industrial area of NW Portland on 22nd and Raleigh called Katayama Framing. Look for him on Monday through Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., sometimes later on Saturdays.
James King was a chef for over two decades in the UK before he started this chippy-on-wheels business in Portland. "I have always dreamed of opening my own chippy. I don't know if it would have been possible in Scotland," he says. King makes his own batter (from a recipe handed down from his Scottish mum), hand-peels and cuts the chips (he'll easily go through 70 pounds of chips per four-hour lunch shift) and even makes his own tartar sauce and British coleslaw. What to wash it down with? Tetley tea, but of course. "You can't find really good British fish and chips in Portland for around $7. I hear this day in and day out, mostly from British ex-pats" says King, who is thankfully changing that.
5. Wy'east Pizza
Where and when: 3131 SE 50th Avenue (SE Tibbets/Kelly, parking lot of Ruthie's Weaving Studio). Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 8 p.m.
Pizza on its own might not sound that interesting, but from a camper? C'mon! Those are some pretty good digs* for a pizza oven. Husband-and-wife owners "Squish and Red" only make 22 balls of dough a night, so you have to get here early. Slice's Adam Kuban was lucky enough to snag the last dough ball when he went last November. He had this to say:
* Note: this is one of many street food campers in Portland. It seems to be the mobile kitchen of choice among the young DIY street food set in the City of Roses. While campers aren't that difficult to find, converting them to a working kitchen takes time and meticulous planning.
I was surprised to find it was more a larger, sort of thin-crust New York-style rather than a small Neapolitan-style pie. That surprise was mostly for the fact that the oven in the trailer is REALLY small. In fact, it can only do one pie at a time, which is a factor in some of the hold-up you might experience if you've got people in line in front of you.
All dough is made by hand in the Wy'east camper. The preferment starts the night before and goes 12 hours, then the final dough is mixed and ferments for another six, for a total of 18 hours.
I know, five is not a big enough number when we're talking Portland street food. Please chime in with your other favorites.