Food Cart of the Year: Holy Mole

Southeast 33rd Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard, 347-4270. Hours posted weekly at facebook.com/holymoleportlandor.

"In Mexico," says Juan Fernando Otero, "we don't have recipes. We have rituals."

Otero's earthy poblano mole is a ritual 16 years in the making. Each weekend, he re-creates the flavors he grew up with in Puebla, Mexico. The mole takes him 13 hours to prepare, and involves more than 30 ingredients. He makes his own chocolate from scratch, and toasts each spice individually, each to taste. He removes the seeds from each poblano, and cuts out the dry parts of each pepper, which he presses individually to avoid any sourness.

At Otero's new Hawthorne cart Holy Mole, our Food Cart of the Year for 2015, he's finally sharing that mole with the public.

He serves it over rice, with chicken or seitan and handmade corn tortillas, for a mere $10. But it is every bit as complex, rich and flavorful as the moles you'd find at Oswaldo Bibiano's upscale Autentica—which Otero says he admires—or other lauded spots such as Nuestra Cocina or Oregon City's Loncheria Mitzil.

Otero began cooking seriously in 1998, when he arrived in Portland to find Mexican food he didn't recognize. "When I came here," he says, "I found that Mexican food is very different from where I am from. I looked for mole, but did not find the same flavor."

He says it took him four years to even try a burrito.

So he started making his own food based on the flavors of his hometown of Puebla, where at the street cart bazaar you don't order off the menu. Instead, you ask what they have today—a concept he says is foreign to many who ask for a burrito at his cart and don't find it. His only taco is taco dorado ($2 each)—served as an appetizer in Puebla—a fried tortilla filled with potato, and savory and rich in comforts.

It is a deeply personal and regional vision of food, not backed by any funder. He could have only begun as a cart, a reminder of what we still love about Portland's food-cart scene in the days when high-profile restaurateurs now pre-market their restaurants with $100 pop-up nights.

Otero's pozole—Pre-Hispanic corn soup, served both vegan and with chicken—is deeply hearty, while his enchiladas de picadillo dulce ($9.75) reveal a wealth of flavor and texture. Turkey and tortilla serve as a neutral base for the sweet fruit flavors of apple, raisin, pear and apricot, livened by the crunch of almond and cabbage and the tangy spice of guajillo salsa.

But Otero wants to make sure everyone can eat his food. And so it is peanut-free, gluten-free and vegan-safe. He can attest to this, because everything he makes is handmade, not a product of a factory. It took him years to develop a vegetable broth that could replace the chicken broth often used in mole, and he makes his own chocolate to avoid peanuts.

It all takes time to prepare, because he makes everything fresh rather than let it lose its flavor; get some fast-frying tacos dorados to eat while you wait for an entree. And you'll have to check his Facebook page (facebook.com/holymoleportlandor) for his hours each week, which change to fit his part-time job at New Seasons Market.

The wait will be worth it. In February, a Japanese couple stopped by his cart, and Otero worried he had taken too long to make their order. He was surprised when they were grateful instead.

"Thank you," they told him. "Thank you for taking the time to prepare our food." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.

2. Gastro Mania

Northwest Quimby Street and 19th Avenue (Q19 pod), 750-8451; Southwest 1st Avenue and Columbia Street, 689-3794. Lunch Monday-Friday.

The Bulgaria-born Nenchev says making food has been his dream since arriving in America in 2008, but he just didn't have the money. In Sofia, he cooked at two restaurants—Bravo and Retro—he says were voted best in Bulgaria by its restaurant association in 1999 and 2004, respectively. But it took him until 2014 to get enough money for his Gastro Mania cart, which he built and runs with his wife, Polina.

"I love Portland," he says. "This is the best thing I have done in my life; people are amazing, unbelievable."

But then, so is his food, from a moist, mustard aioli and shallot porchetta sandwich ($8); to a slow-cooked, saucy brisket ($8); to a chicken scallopini ($8) learned from a Sardinian friend; to a Mediterranean-style salad ($8) sporting a Parmesan-topped, parsley-flecked slab of swordfish, one of the ocean's most delectably fatty fishes. His insanely decadent foie gras burger ($10)—a fatty, gloopy mess with bacon, tomato and onion marmalade—is a recipe from his great-grandmother, who ran the village goose farm.

Nenchev is already expanding. From his start at Slabtown's Q19 pod, he opened a second location at Southwest 1st Avenue and Columbia Street. And he's in the process of building a third cart for his nephew, who's studying cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. "We will serve pasta," he says, "but I am deciding on names. Perhaps Gastro Mania Pastaria. Maybe Pasta Mania." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.


3. Buki

2880 SE Division St., 360-931-1541. Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday.

   "I tried ordering [it] online," says the chef on a recent Sunday afternoon of the contraption, painstakingly turning and coddling each ball in its individual divot, "but you can't see the quality. I had to actually go to Japan to pick this one out."

All this for takoyaki, a popular Japanese street food the Taiwanese-born co-owners became enamored with while working in Osaka. It's a fishy treat that remains virtually unseen among the evergreen presence of pizza and burritos at even the most intentionally upmarket and culinarily diverse cart pods. While octopus is the traditional filling, Buki (whose name is an amalgam of the words bubble tea, takoyaki and taiyaki) also offers a spicy version filled with kimchee, as well as a smattering of classic Taiwanese favorites like bubble tea (with perfectly springy tapioca balls made fresh daily) and boiled "marble" tea eggs, which come out cradled in their boats like boho-chic Fabergé treasures.

Dessert brings another Japanese street-food staple: Taiyaki, soft, almost crepelike pockets shaped like koi fish and filled with either red bean paste, chocolate or Nutella. You likely won't have room after the generous portion of eight takoyaki, but they're awfully lovely to look at. KAT MERCK.


4. Stoopid Burger

3441 N Vancouver Ave., 971-801-4180. Lunch, dinner and late night Tuesday-Saturday, lunch and dinner Sunday.

 "We plan to—what's that word? Copyright that image, it's so popular," says Stoopid Burger co-owner John Hunt of the hamburger, with an unflagging enthusiasm that stands out among neighboring businesses known for pricey pizzas and bacon-wrapped dates. Lifelong Portland residents who've seen their once predominantly black neighborhood turn into an upper-middle-class playground of reiki studios and expensive salami, Hunt and his Le Cordon Bleu-trained childhood friend Danny Moore opened the cart after growing disenchanted with the social and occupational options available to them in the area, which, in spite of recent gentrification, is still plagued by poverty and gang violence. "A lot of people see…African-American males just trying to rap, play basketball…we're trying to do something positive and give back," Hunt says. "We had no loans—we did this all ourselves from the ground up."

Stoopid Burger offers sandwiches fashioned after burgers Hunt and Moore have enjoyed at Burgerville and In-N-Out, but so overloaded with salty goodies and fried doodads they're almost…well…you know. "It started as a joke," says Hunt of the name, "but it ended up being so catchy we had to run with it."

The cart's marquee "Stupid Burger" ($9.75) consists of an almost unmanageable amount of sustenance, and even the ostensibly virtuous black-bean-and-corn Smart Burger ($7.50), imported from New Seasons—along with the majority of the cart's ingredients—somehow manages to feel as if it weighs 3 pounds. It's real food, for people who are real something—stoned, drunk, hung-over, or just really, really hungry. And we love it. KAT MERCK.


Kim Jong Grillin'

4606 SE Division St., 929-0522. Lunch and dinner daily.

In 2011, Han Ly Hwang was the dear leader of Portland’s exploding food-cart obsession, thanks to his banh mi hot dogs and glorious Korean barbecue staples like bibimbap that were good enough to stand among Koreatown’s best. But just as he celebrated a win at WW’s Eat Mobile cart fest, the cart burned down. Later, his planned restaurant, Bhap Sang, dissolved. Han hung up his apron and became a delivery driver to support his family.

Last year, seemingly out of the blue, Han resurfaced on cooking show Chopped. He was bested by Nong Poonsukwattana, but not before getting an important demand from notorious hardass host Scott Conant: "Get your ass back in the kitchen."

"Off the camera, he was like, 'Dude, you have really good food. I wouldn't just say that,'" Han says. The show was shot last April. It aired in August. And by the time it did, Kim Jong Grillin' had risen from the ashes.

Nostalgia, they say, is the psyche's MSG, so the first bite of that KJG Dog ($6) is an explosion of sensory stimuli: The crunch of the Binh Minh Bakery baguette is a prelude to the snap of the footlong grilled Sabrett dog, the subdued sweetness of the pickled mango slices and the spice of the kimchee. And the bibim box ($10)—served with a choice of short ribs, bulgogi, pork or chicken, loaded with rice and potato noodles and topped with a  fried egg—is still one of the best damned cart dishes in Portland. Three years is a lifetime in food-truck time, but when Han rolled back into the scene, his loyal followers were waiting for him, as if no time had passed.

"The greatest compliment to me isn't money," he says. "They remembered me, and they came back." AP KRYZA.