Portland Essentials: 10 Must-Visit Food Carts

Going to Portland? Be sure to eat at these stellar food carts. [Photos: Nathan Tucker]

I'd argue that the best way to eat in Portland, Oregon is by visiting the city's many food carts. For chef-owners, carts offer freedom from the headaches of a traditional restaurant—like staffing and restrictive overhead—breaking down the whole idea of food service to its essential elements: hungry patrons, talented cooks, and a source of heat. You can often see the owners' untethered joy in the dishes that emerge, whether it's a lower-stress opportunity for experimentation or the realized vision that follows. For customers, cart dining means exciting, delicious food at a fraction of the price it might be served in a sit-down restaurant, and in some cases, a peek at the city's cooking talent before up-and-coming chefs commit to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

The cart economy of Portland has grown immensely in the last five years, and it's now so thriving that it can be pretty overwhelming for an unprepared visitor. One way to manage the deluge of options is to focus on pods—collections of carts parked together, sometimes gathered around shared seating—which will allow you to try multiple carts when you can only visit a single location. The downtown pod at SW 10th and Alder Streets and the newly opened Tidbit at SE 28th Place and Division Street are probably your best bets for variety, and Pod 28 on SE 28th Avenue just south of Ankeny Street is a small pod with excellent quality throughout. Bring a date and share a progressive multicourse meal from several different chefs (without having to find parking between courses.)

But if you have a little more time and you're eager to taste the best that Portland's carts have to offer, I recommend a visit to each of these 10 Portland essentials. If you've ever doubted that street food could be serious food, these carts will convince you otherwise. These standouts include a mix of veterans whose enduringly delicious dishes have kept business strong and newcomers whose big flavors have catapulted them to the top of a still-growing mob of carts. If you want to fully experience one of America's great food cities, these carts are simply not to be missed.

For Pitch-Perfect Neapolitan Pies: Pyro Pizza

The fine people who operate this cart in SE Hawthorne's Cartopia pod (and their recent expansion on Division Street) appear to have little regard for their personal safety: they spend their entire shifts maintaining an 700 to 800-degree wood burning oven inside a tiny trailer, the outside of which is lined with wood. But I'm not complaining. Their bravery results in beautifully charred 12-inch Neapolitan-style pies that are not only among Portland's best—from a cart or otherwise—they're the single best pizza value anywhere in town.

The first sign that you're making a good decision is that your friendly cart-bound pizzaiolo won't be able to look you in the eye as he makes change for your Hamilton: he's too busy keeping an eye on pizzas that take only between one and three minutes to cook. That's all the time it takes for the crust to develop a wonderful char, crispy on the outside while tender and steaming on the inside, sturdy on the edges and ever-so-slightly slightly soupy in the center. The margherita ($7) is a solid bet, with a bright, slightly sweet sauce topped judiciously with creamy mozz and fresh basil. But don't be afraid to branch out. The perfectly balanced sausage pie ($9) sports healthy crumbles of fatty, fennel-imbued house made sausage and sharp red onion. The funky, intensely savory white pie with raw onion, hazelnuts, rosemary, and gorgonzola ($9) is a case study in cooperation between strong flavors you might assume would compete.

For Stellar Czech Comfort Food: Tabor

See the smears of red and white peeking out from beneath that ciabatta roll? Those are ajvar and horseradish cream, respectively, and they are the key to the deliciousness of Tabor's rightfully famous Schnitzelwich ($8). Now, sure, the snarky amongst you might be thinking to yourselves, "I don't know, it sure seems like the giant breaded and deep fried pork cutlet might be pretty important," to which I would respond that of course you're right: it's an expertly fried, nearly inch-thick slice of pork that boasts impressive juiciness, and the panko coating offers a thoroughly pleasant crunch.

But it's the two condiments that make this sandwich something more than just fried meat between bread. The slightly smoky paprika and sweet roasted peppers of the ajvar and the creamy, nasal-clearing spice of the horseradish cream play together like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, ensuring this downtown Czech cart has a true champion on their hands (I realize this simile somewhat confusingly makes Dennis Rodman the pork cutlet, but I'm okay with that). It sure helps that the Grand Central ciabatta roll's malleable crumb and chewy crust holds these big personalities together with ease.

Should schnitzel not strike your fancy, you'll find plenty else to win you over at Tabor: rich, velvety spaetzle, deeply flavored and comforting goulash, and the warm welcome of husband and wife owners Karel and Monika Vitek, the Czech transplants responsible for some of Portland's best Eastern European food.

For Rustic Florentine Home Cooking: Burrasca

Paolo Calamai, who learned to cook from family in Italy before traveling the world and eventually settling in Portland, has conjured one of the greatest testaments to the broad appeal and unassailable quality possible in a cart. The regularly rotating Florentine-inspired menu might give lovers of routine little to hold on to as the seasons change, but the one constant is the time and care involved in preparing this food.

Summer saw a fantastic spinach gnudi, pillowy-soft dumplings of spinach, parmesan, ricotta, and herbs—essentially lightly poached ravioli filling without the surrounding pasta, swimming in a aromatic sage butter sauce. Fall heralds the return of slow-cooked wild boar ragu with pappardelle, a crowd favorite thanks to the magical melding of silky, just-tender handmade noodles and the heady, earthy meatiness of the sauce. Paolo's inzimino, a fragrant and comforting stew of squid, tomato, spinach, and red wine, makes the perfect cozy lunch on a rainy autumn day.

For the Best Porchetta in Town: The People's Pig

20141010-peoples-pig-nathan-tucker-final.jpg

I've yet to have a sandwich at this downtown ode to all things animal-based that didn't blow me away. Be sure to order the pork burger if it's on the menu: it's a porcine blast of ground shoulder and belly that's poached and then seared, loaded with velvety melted cheese and brightened with tangy mustard and pickled onions. But the signature porchetta sandwich (pictured at top) is the mainstay, and for good reason. Slow-roasted pork, stuffed amply with garlic and fennel, is paired with a handful of dressed arugula to cut the meat's mouth-coating richness, and served on a sturdy, toasted ciabatta bun. And the bun needs to be sturdy: this could easily be a supremely drippy sandwich, and you wouldn't want to lose even a drip of those deeply porky, garlicky juices. Here, they're mercifully soaked up, and every bite showcases that beautiful contrast between the crispy, salty edges and tender, fatty succulence that makes porchetta such an amazing roast. This is some of the most thoroughly flavored porchetta you'll find anywhere, and the simple sandwich at People's Pig puts it front and center.

For Fantastic Falafel: ChickPeaDX

You know how sometimes you get to the end of a falafel sandwich and all that's left is soggy pita and some scraps of tomato? Yair Maiden doesn't. This Israeli-born falafel slinger packs true marvels of engineering into pitas and baguettes, each element precisely seasoned and painstakingly layered. In fact, it's some of the best falafel in the city.

Bright, citrusy tahini anchors a row of impressively moist falafel balls, packed with Washington chickpeas and fresh herbs, and fried crisp to order in the cart. They're stacked with eggplant that's fried until velvety and caramelized, plus sharp pickled carrot strips and a spicy tomato and cucumber relish. Even the condiments showcase Maiden's commendable attention to detail: amba, a fiery orange sauce of pickled mango, pairs perfectly with zhug, a bright green hot sauce with cilantro and garlic. Both come on the side, but be sure to ask for extra. If you're moderately hungry, go for the smaller falafel pita ($6), the fillings wrapped around a flavorful and pliant grilled flatbread. Starving? Choose the larger sandwich ($8.50), served on a banh mi-like baguette. A filling salad ($7) topped with a refreshingly floral basil-mint tahini, rounds out the menu—with food this good, three choices are all you need.

For Perfectly Fried Fish: The Frying Scotsman

All too often, fish and chips means dense batter, overcooked fish, a grease-logged crust, and under-salted everything. But lunch crowds gather at The Frying Scotsman, where the fish and chips are reliably excellent. James King, a transplant from Ayrshire, Scotland, fries cod, haddock, halibut, and red snapper in a light, crisp, and well seasoned batter made from his mother's secret recipe. The crust retains very little grease, allowing you to focus on the sweet flavor of fresh fish and get through the whole portion without feeling like you've eaten a heavy meal. King serves the fish alongside equally ungreasy and well-salted hand cut chips, crisp but giving way to a fluffy interior, with coleslaw and a tart and pickley homemade tartar for dipping. Prices vary based on fish and market availability, but a regular order is around $9, a steal compared to pub menus in the area.

For an Infamous Gut-Bomb That's Actually Great: Big Ass Sandwiches

Like many of the most successful carts in town, Brian and Lisa Wood's cart does basically one thing and does it well. Unlike other carts, though, their "one thing" just happens to be a head-turning cardiovascular wrecking ball: massive sandwiches stuffed with french fries and smothered in a sharp cheddar cheese sauce. And, though it smacks of needless extremism, the classic Big Ass Sandwich ($8.50) is actually a simple, well-constructed, and delicious meal. Beautifully pink and juicy roast beef, sliced thin and piled high, is a perfect match for the luscious cheese sauce, and the fries soak everything up while leaving the airy ciabatta from Fleur De Lis Bakery relatively intact.

There's really only one problem with this sandwich: it's simply too enormous to consume in one sitting, and by combining medium rare beef, fresh fries, and sauce-soaked ciabatta, the folks at Big Ass Sandwiches have created possibly the least reheatable meal ever. Fortunately, I can't imagine a more appropriate date food, so feel to bring that special someone and split this monstrosity.

For Crave-Worthy Tortas: Guero

Co-owners Megan Sanchez and Alec Morrison serve truly outstanding sandwiches and bowls inspired by their travels and cooking experiences in the Yucatan peninsula, but they don't claim to be faithful to tradition. The business began as a biked-based taco delivery service, after all; it's clear they're catering to Portland's younger and hipper crowds. It makes sense, then, that perhaps their best dish is a vegetable-based one, the Refrito Torta. The sandwich begins with a wide and sturdy yet soft-crumbed telera roll from Vancouver, Washington's Veracruz Bakery, which is toasted, slathered with refried pintos that I'm still not sure I believe are lard-free, and filled with crunchy cabbage, vinegary pickled onions, salty cotija, and a fantastic roasted serrano and poblano crema with a mellow heat and smoky charred flavor. The crunchy vegetables contrast the creamy dairy and the soft, creamy beans, producing a rich and intensely savory sandwich with complex layers of flavor. The customer favorite carnitas torta is a great choice too, full of juicy and tender pulled pork shoulder that doesn't hold back on the garlic or cumin.

For Rightly Famous Thai Chicken and Rice: Nong's Khao Man Gai

Nong Poonsukwattana arrived in Portland with just two suitcases and $70 to her name. Now she's the owner of one of the city's most beloved carts, thanks to an exuberant personality that makes you feel like you're right in her home kitchen and a deceptively simple Thai dish called Khao Man Gai ($8). Nong poaches chickens whole and lays slices over rice simmered in chicken broth and Thai herbs, garnished with cucumber, cilantro, and thai chiles, and served with a comforting chicken soup and a intensely flavored sauce of fermented soybeans, chilies, garlic, and ginger.

Even dark meat purists will find little to dislike in the breast meat here: it's some of the juiciest and most flavorful you'll have anywhere. The aromatic rice cuts the spice and fat, and the umami kick of the sauce ties the dish together. Slightly more adventurous eaters can augment their meal with earthy chicken liver and crunchy fried chicken skin when available, and you'd be a fool not to get at least one of the two. What's pictured above is really only two thirds of the skin portion—I'm an irredeemable glutton and started nibbling before I could even get my camera out, and these savory little nuggets were so I good I couldn't stop.

For the Best Cart Breakfast: Big Egg

This proudly farm-to-table breakfast cart near the top of Mississippi Avenue has a dedicated following for their inventive and colorful morning dishes, bursting with veggies and fresh cage-free organic eggs sourced from western Washington's Stiebrs Farms. They rock the 'seasonal Northwest' sort of menu you see all over town now, but the seasonality never seems forced. Ingredients work together with a calculated ease, and their gloriously messy breakfast sandwiches never takes themselves too seriously. A recent winner: juicy housemade Carlton Farms pork sausage, mildly spicy and laced with sage, topped with a runny over-easy egg and paired with a slightly sweet cinnamon and cumin-spiced squash and carrot purée, sauteed rainbow chard, and caramelized onions. The whole mess is layered onto a soft Grand Central Bakery ciabatta roll, making for a well-conceived sandwich in which no ingredient out-muscles another.

Few things beat a breakfast in the sunshine when it comes to getting your day started off right, though in the colder months, taking your morning repast inside Prost next door for a breakfast beer might not be a bad idea, either.