Many second-tier cities have world-class dining scenes. When it comes to the epicurean experience, Santa Fe, Austin, Las Vegas, San Diego, and Atlantic City handily hobnob with the likes of New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles. But in all of my travels, I have never experienced an urban culture quite so centered around the culinary as the foodie paradise known as Portland, Oregon.
Unlike many of the country’s epicurean haunts, where paying for dining experiences often requires a second mortgage, Portland’s food is a ground-floor operation — both in physical location and monetary accessibility. Like tidy, vibrant boxes of flowers adorning brownstone windows, the city’s neighborhoods are abuzz with culinary ventures, owned and operated by spirited entrepreneurs of the culinary persuasion.
Creative takes on the standard brick-and-mortar restaurant model line the city’s avenues, while veritable shanty-towns (known as pods) of food carts have become permanent fixtures in scores of reclaimed parking lots throughout the region. In some pods, as many as 60 vendors coalesce, offering cuisine from every nook and cranny of the planet, and every fusion thereof, within the bounds of one city block.
Waiting for a bacon-maple waffle to be prepared at the Gaufre Gourmet Cart, a stand in the Alder and 10th pod, I met a Portland chef who gave me this advice:
Try as much as you can, but only eat a little bite of anything. Otherwise, you find yourself full before you had your chance to make the rounds. In Portland, bad restaurants don’t survive, so have confidence that everything you try is going to be good.
A correct assessment the whole way around. And I was glad to follow his advice, except the part about lightly nibbling my selections. I instead tore into the orders animal-style until all that remained was a pile of greasy paper plates atop a weathered picnic table.
(Not if, but…) When you visit Portland, you too should heed the advice I was given. There is no ‘best food cart’ in the city; all that matters is what tastes good to you — and in Portland, everything you order certainly will.
For the record, here is the roll call from a 48 hour visit to the city. And yes, your math would be correct; I ate at least a dozen times each day.
Rovente Pizzeria — Downtown / 4th Ave
Slices of Three-meat and Olive, Pepperoni, and Cheese.
Paper-thin pies rivaling the very best of Brooklyn, and cheap to boot. These piping hot slices were big enough to have their own zip code. One for lunch will do it (I had three).
PDX 671 — Rose City Food Park (Sandy Avenue)
PDX 671 fuses fresh ingredients from the northwest with traditional cooking recipes and techniques from Guam. Served cold and spicy, the kélaguen mannok is a savory concoction of tender chopped chicken, fresh herbs, onion, grated pepper, and lemon. The cool taste of the chilled salad is mated with a simmering afterburn that builds with each bite. The dish is served with freshly baked coconut-milk flatbread.
Taste of Lebanon — Cart Pod at 5th and Stark
Taste of Lebanon serves a standard falafel platter that is expertly prepared and bulging with epic portions of the fried chick-pea favorite. Served with fresh veggies, a generous dollop of hummus, and handmade pita wedges, the dish can easily satisfy three bellies.
Taste of Korea — Cart Pod at 5th and Stark
Flash-fryed to crispy perfection and served with a tangy oyster dunking sauce, a paper box of ten tasty, handcrafted pork and ginger potstickers set me back four bucks. Nice.
Kushariy Kushary — Cart Pod at Alder and 10th
Shawrma Chicken Sandwich
Iraqi chefs have brought their zest for middle eastern cuisine to the corner of 10th and Washington streets, where they peddle spiced mediterranean dishes to a line of hungry patrons. I downed a lemony, peppery sandwich of Shawrma chicken, served with crisp lettuce, dill pickle, and flavorful tzatziki, all served on a fat, homemade roll with crackly crust and long, pointed ends.
I Like Thai — Cart Pod at Alder and 10th
The I Like Thai chefs whip up an incomparable Thai mango stew, loaded with tender chicken, exploding with colorful vegetables, and spiked with grated ginger, chopped cilantro, and a dusting of cayenne pepper. There are no less than four Thai food vendors on the same city block, but I Like Thai is the only one with a snaking queue — and with good reason.
The Gaufre Gourmet — Cart Pod at Alder and 10th
Bacon Maple Waffle
Prepared with carefully selected, local ingredients, this wafflery is a family venture that packs loads of flavor — both sweet and savory — into their decadent creations. The strips of bacon donning my waffle were less ‘slice’ and more ‘slab’, not unlike a nice, juicy porterhouse. And the maple sauce squiggled atop the festival of calories was a thick, gooey concoction with a deep, amber color and a smoky aftertaste. Just wow.
Voodoo Doughnuts — Downtown / 3rd Ave
Bacon Maple Doughnut, Godzilla Doughnut
A stalwart of the Portland calorie orgy is the big, bad Voodoo Doughnuts, serving scores of masterful flavors to scads of hungover Portlandians, chasing away the aftermath of last night’s poor-decision fest. I adored their best-seller, the Bacon Maple dougnut, and couldn’t take a pass on the Godzilla, a veritable mountain of a doughnut slathered with chocolate bits, peanut butter, caramel, and cinnamon swirl. I proudly joined the throngs of pink-box-carrying doughnut lovers, carting my leftovers around the city for tasty bites the whole morning long.
Potter’s Kolaches and Coffee — Downtown / 3rd Ave
One whiff of the fresh-baked Kolaches (soft, doughy breakfast treats stuffed with smoky sausages) at Potter’s, and I wondered if filling my belly with famous doughnuts was a mistake. Stuffed to the neck, I tragically had to take a pass, only purchasing a steamy cup of coffee from the humble cart caddy-cornered from Voodoo Doughnuts. There was a litany of righteousness attached to the roast I purchased: fair-trade, organic, locally-roasted, cage-free, free-range… something like that. All I know is that a buck fifty buys one fine cup of Potter’s drip coffee — a steal of a deal in this region, where the culture of coffee was arguably invented.
Pok Pok Noi — East Portland / Prescott Street
Papaya Pok Pok, Muu Sateh, Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings, Thai Basil Drinking Vinegar, Pok Pok Peanuts
The praises of Pok Pok have been heralded on every cooking show, restaurant column, and food network in current American media, and with good reason. The chef has taken staples of Thai street food and spiked them with a dash of Portland panache. I joined the rest of America in adoring the peppery, zippy, crispy, sticky, ooey-gooey fish-sauce chicken wings most of all, agreeing with Food and Wine Magazine’s assessment that the concoction deserved a spot on their list of ten best restaurant dishes — in the entire world.
Pine State Biscuits — East Portland / Alberta Street
Reggie Deluxe, Hash-up with Ham, Drip Coffee
The breakfast concoctions at Pine State Biscuits take the time-honored recipes of North Carolina and turn the volume up to 11. My order had a chunky hunk of crusty, breaded and deep-fried chicken, an over-medium egg, a slab of cheddar, a pile of thick-cut peppered bacon, and a ladle of thick sausage gravy, all between two fluffy halves of a tender, steamy handcrafted biscuit. That is more calories on one plate than I usually consume in a week. You may wonder why I also ordered a hash-up of grated potato, ham, cheddar, mushroom, and chives, all pan-fried in a bath of butter and large enough to serve 20. I wonder the same.
Pyro Pizza — Cart Pod at Hawthorne and 12th
Pizza Margherita, Caprese Salad
Somehow, the magic chefs of Pyro Pizza have managed to shove an entire rustic, brick, wood-burning oven into the back of a food truck, and they serve legitimate pies in the New York tradition to throngs of Portland patrons. I have scoured the planet in search of my favorite Margherita pizza, and the shining specimen from the Pyro Pizza cart is right up there with the best of them.
Salt and Straw — East Portland / Alberta Street
Blue Cheese and Pear Ice Cream (in a Handmade Waffle Cone)
Because I didn’t cram enough calories down my gullet in the course of 48 hours, I had to try a cone of off-the-wall something or other from Portland’s favorite creamery. I selected a double-scoop of their pear and blue cheese ice cream, and was delighted to finish off every last sweet-savory skosh.
My family is currently traveling around the USA in a 10 foot Shasta Compact travel trailer from 1969. We are currently camped in Portland, Oregon and headed toward Seattle. Keep it right here for tales from the journey, and please also join us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Nothing keeps us motivated more than the encouragement of hearing from our readers, so please keep in touch by commenting below. Thanks!