Inside Portland's Best Food Cart Pod
Late on a sunny June afternoon, Paolo Calamai chats with a regular at the window of his popular Florentine food cart, Burrasca. He helps the woman talk through choices with her young daughter, who seems a bit wary of the spinach gnudi. Calamai assures the girl that the greenery is only a supporting player—gnudi are essentially dumplings made of ravioli filling. "It's about the cheese, the ricotta, the Parmigiano," he explains, pronouncing the names with an accented flair.
The girl isn't impressed. Calamai teases: "Hey, we Italians, we eat whatever is on the table. Whatever Mom and Dad cook!"
There's some truth to the joke, as the convivial, family-friendly atmosphere of Portland's best food cart pods really can be like having a friend or relative cook for you. Nowhere is this more apparent than Pod 28, where Burrasca is parked. Named for its location on SE 28th Avenue just south of Burnside Street, this collection of carts is a neighborhood favorite and a destination for curious diners in a restaurant-heavy part Southeast Portland's Buckman neighborhood. The pod is a thriving example of success in an industry that sees plenty of turnover—even in a place like the Rose City, where it seems some people aren't happy with their meal unless it came out of a converted trailer.
Pod 28 started, like most collections of food carts, as an empty lot. Matt Breslow, the owner of the popular Alberta Street cart Grilled Cheese Grill, leased the space for his second location, never expecting to have other businesses on the property. "I never wanted to manage a food cart lot," he says. "The idea to turn that into a pod came out of necessity. I couldn't afford to keep that spot on my own after two years there." Mike Kennet, who ran a Venezuelan cart called Fuego de Lotus and managed a pod facing closure, offered to join Breslow in the SE 28th Avenue space. He would bring other carts, infrastructure, and best of all, the Captured By Porches beer bus. There are relatively few pods offering beer; it was an easy decision.
Today, Pod 28 has five carts in addition to the beer bus: Burrasca and the Grilled Cheese Grill hold down the west side of the pod with Wolf and Bear's, a Middle Eastern-inspired vegetarian cart, while the east end is occupied by Guero, slinging tortas and other Yucatan fare, and the pod's newest addition, the aptly-named Steak Frites PDX.
Despite media coverage and local adoration, food cart life is not particularly glamorous. Often the hours are long and the work is hard; business can border on untenably slow in the winter and back-breakingly unrelenting in the summer. But the people who own and operate these eateries don't seem to mind; they see something special in the food cart world that can't be found elsewhere. "It's a different relationship when you're in the back of the kitchen and just slaving away and not getting paid very well, versus when you spend some of your shift outdoors, communicating with your neighbors and getting to know them, or being thanked for the food and appreciated," says Tanna Tenhoopen, co-owner of Wolf and Bear's.
All of the carts in Pod 28 prep and cook everything on site. Most cart workers arrive an hour before opening, and some of the prep work can be done during slow periods during the day. Calamai, though, gets to Burrasca at 8 a.m. to prep until he opens at 11:30, and often runs out of food before his posted closing time of 7 p.m. While the confined quarters and limited equipment certainly create challenges, these aren't quite the improvised, MacGuyver-worthy kitchens that the idea of a food cart might conjure in someone's head. The carts all have normal, fully functional flat-tops, and I didn't see a single dorm room mini fridge. The oven inside Burrasca looks just like the one in my kitchen at home.
Prior kitchen experience of some form is a common thread among the pod owners, but there's certainly a broad spectrum. Sean McKee of Steak Frites PDX is a culinary school grad. Calamai spent his youth working in restaurants in Florence, and went to restaurant management school in Italy before taking his first restaurant job in the States in 1987. Megan Sanchez and Alec Morrison started the business that would become Guero after an inspiring trip to the Yucatan; Sanchez had worked as a cheese maker, and Morrison as a line cook. "There was one place where we were asking them questions about how they made their tortillas, and they were like, 'Oh, come back at four, and we'll show you,'" Sanchez remembers. "So we came back at four, and by six we were working in their kitchen with them putting out dinner!"
While opening a food cart presents challenges that one wouldn't encounter in other kitchens, the Pod 28 owners say that working in the restaurant industry goes a long way toward shortening the learning curve. "My experience in commercial kitchens really helped the process of figuring out wholesale and all that," Tenhoopen told me. "I feel like a lot of food cart people don't start with that." Carts still have their fair share of unexpected issues, though, from the logistical headache that is waste disposal to the murky world of greywater, the discharge from sinks and dishwashing. "Believe it or not, one of the private [greywater] companies we use is Tony and Lefty; they totally have the leather jackets and slicked back hair, and they say 'Tony, Lefty,'" she laughs, faking a Brooklyn accent.
The first few months of business are the hardest. Sanchez says that for the first summer after Guero opened, she and Morrison were working 80 hour weeks. "We've got it cut down to about 50," she says, "I've had to come up with all these ways to fill my time!" The stress of grueling hours can be compounded by financial uncertainty. "It's the same for every cart, it just kind of picks up over time," Sanchez explains. "Your first summer, it says something, but it's hard to know what you'll be doing next summer."
Low overhead can ease the burden of irregular business or a slow start. Rent at Pod 28 averages between $600 and $650, significantly less than a brick and mortar restaurant in even the least desirable neighborhood. A good weekend can pay rent for the whole month; a good summer can easily offset the dark, rainy winter. The food cart scene in Portland can at times be a bit of a revolving door, but the businesses in Pod 28 are comfortably successful. The three longest-running carts—Grilled Cheese Grill, Wolf and Bear's, and Guero—have opened new locations downtown in the past year. All three have employees working at the Pod 28 locations, and the owners of Grilled Cheese Grill and Wolf and Bear's rarely work inside the carts these days.
The carts in Pod 28 don't see themselves as competitors, but rather as allies. "I could care less if somebody comes to me on Monday and comes back on Wednesday and gets some steak frites," says Breslow.
In fact, the availability of different cuisines is part of the draw at a food cart pod. "That's why it's great being here," says Paolo. "People are pleased with the selection they can get." It's good for families with picky eaters, as the parents can nosh on falafel or gnocchi while the kids gleefully gobble up grilled cheese—throw in a beer or two for the grown-ups and everyone is happy. But it's important for the carts, too, as this flexibility leads people to try things they might not otherwise. "It benefits everybody," says Breslow. "Nobody is out trying to poach customers from someone else's line."
That's not to say that there isn't a limit to the number of carts that can coexist on the same lot. Breslow acts as gatekeeper and curator, both in terms of quantity and quality. "I could pack in another four carts on that lot, but at some point it's just too much," he explains. "You don't need that many to be successful if you have a few really good ones." Breslow would rather have a few carts that all drive up the pod's business and reputation, rather than have anyone not pulling their weight. "One bad apple can bring everybody down."
He wasn't shy about turning potential businesses away if they didn't seem focused or promising enough. "I know the look, when someone says, 'Well, I kind of want to do hot dogs and burgers...' No, I'm sorry. Do you really love hot dogs? Do you live for a burger? Because I can tell you don't." Breslow's high standards are evident: Pod 28 is the only pod in the city without an obvious weak link or two.
The carts at Pod 28 all share a certain simplicity and focus. "I've always felt that people do a little too much with their menus," says McKee, whose concept—serving variations on just one dish, steak with fries—personifies the idea. "I feel like it's best to do one thing and to do it well." It's a philosophy that all these carts embody in one way or another, whether or not they originally intended to. Wolf and Bear's menu consists of five pita wraps and two salads; Guero started out serving tacos as well as tortas before they decided to focus solely on the Mexican sandwiches. The name of the Grilled Cheese Grill says everything it needs to about its menu.
Burrasca is perhaps the slight outlier in this regard, as Calamai's menu changes seasonally. But while offerings change, the total menu is pared down. "People ask me every day, 'Don't you have any more of the pappardelle with wild boar, don't you have any more of the ravioli with the duck ragu?' The only menu I can offer is this, and it is very limited," he says.
Calamai's slight dissatisfaction with the limitations of a food cart is the most evident of all the proprietors of Pod 28. Everyone else seems at peace with trading more flexible kitchen space for low overhead and the satisfaction of customer interaction; when pressed about any expansion dreams they tend not to claim brick and mortar ambitions. Not Calamai: "What I do, it really shows best in a sit-down restaurant." Many customers already take food from Burrasca next door the neighboring wine bar; a place of his own with real wine service seems like a logical step.
The style of food Calamai serves might not be the only reason he's looking to go brick and mortar, though. Even as a place like Pod 28 thrives, Portland's food intelligentsia have been warning of the demise of food carts since at least 2010, and announcements of pod closures in past few months have lent some credence to their claims: SE Belmont's Good Food Here, N Killingsworth's North Station, and even the iconic SE Hawthorne Cartopia pod will all be getting the axe as early as the end of the summer, as the lots have been sold to developers.
When I asked the other tenants at Pod 28 if they felt increasingly insecure in their location, Sanchez replied, "I've attempted to remain unattached to this the way it is. I don't know, they could sell this lot in two months and I wouldn't be surprised really."
McKee puts it slightly differently: "No sense in stressing over something I can't control."
The slow march of modern multi-story condo developments has been creeping its way east through Portland for a number of years now, but nothing has quite prompted the wave of soul searching—not to mention plenty of rather privileged folks arguing with one another about gentrification—than this threat to the food cart pods. The pods stand as a relatively unique Portland cultural institution in the minds of people who fear the city is abandoning that culture for a bright, shiny, white-washed future.
But the fact of that matter is that many pods in town are oversaturated with mediocre carts that come and go as the seasons and hype cycles shift, and you can't really blame a landlord for taking a major pay day from some eager developer instead of supporting a seemingly unreliable industry whose bubble has likely already popped.
Or can you? To be fair, the real estate market has had a pretty high-profile bubble-popping of its own in the last decade, and a place like Pod 28, comparatively, seems like a model of stability: a local (and media) favorite that attracts families and young people and certainly raises the intangible value of the neighborhood by its presence. "Is it just inevitable growth, or can the city see that [the pods are] an important enough feature of our city that they'd want to preserve certain lots?" asks Tenhoopen.
The city may well not need to do anything. Only a few weeks after the Cartopia closure announcement, a new pod—to be filled with refugees from the closures—announced its imminent arrival in the middle of heavily developed SE Division Street. There have been as many as 10 carts announced as future tenants, with rumors of more. Perhaps they should take a cue from Pod 28, and only take five.