When news came that someone in Portland was raising money to open a cheese-and-cracker food cart, Willamette Week dedicated a whole paragraph of print space to mocking it as "artisan Lunchables," dubbing the idea "spectacularly bad."
I'll come clean: I was the one who penned those words. So when the proprietor did successfully raise $2,500 through Kickstarter to build his cart, Cheese and Crack, I felt the least I could do was put my money (by which I mean the paper's money) where my mouth is. Then came word that a second cheese-and-cracker food cart, the Cheese Plate, was opening. I briefly considered moving far away to watch the entire city implode in its own absurdity. Instead, I'm reviewing both, head-to-head.
Cheese and Crack is a small cart parked behind Mag-Big on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. The menu is minimalist: For $8, you pick one type of cracker, two types of cheese or charcuterie and one "accoutrement"—olives, dried fruit, pickles and so forth. Or, the man in the cart offered to just put together a "sampling" of his choice. You should absolutely do this: $8 scored me a little pizza box with all three types of housemade crackers (savory oatmeal cookies made with Parmesan and herbs; a flat, crispy, seedy thing; and butter cookies), three cheeses (a tub of fromage blanc, three slices of white cheddar and a generous hunk of blue), olives, a handful of dried cranberries, a very good sweet-and-spicy housemade pickle relish, and a small square of mint chocolate. There are also sodas ($2), made to order with Fee Brothers bitters and some simple syrup in a sizable cup. It was a metric ass-ton of food, and would have been perfect for a picnic for two or a very large workday lunch. If only Cheese and Crack were downtown or near a park. Instead, it's hidden in an alley with no shade. I ate my meal awkwardly on the curb.
The Cheese Plate is a grander establishment, as cheese-and-cracker food carts go. Housed in a handsome wooden cart with in-built seating at a pod on Northeast Alberta Street, it offers not just its namesake dish, but sandwiches, fried cheese sticks and a large selection of sides. Here, my $8 cheese plate came on an actual wooden cheese board, and I was able to dine at shaded picnic tables. A cucumber mint limeade ($2) was sweet and refreshing and every bit as good as its Southeast counterpart. Advantage, Cheese Plate. But Cheese and Crack wins the food battle decisively. The board came with two types of thin housemade crackers (one, a grainy, hippie number, was probably the best out of both carts, but the other had a staggeringly unpleasant soapy aftertaste), three much smaller servings of cheese (two pieces of white cheddar, a little wedge of brie and a slice of blue), three "chevre truffles" (tiny balls of chevre rolled in herbs), two unremarkable crostini spread with fromage fort and a small tub of nice housemade apple jam. Apart from the soap cracker, it's a perfectly good snack, just not on par with the meal you'll get at Cheese and Crack.
Just artisan Lunchables? Yes, of course. But I'm willing to eat my words: Maybe artisan Lunchables isn't such a bad idea after all.