Food carts are Portland's proletarian answer to eating well with limited funds. Much like the city's well-regarded food scene in general, our food carts seem to be growing in numbers and locations. And why not? There are few land-use regulations limiting or regulating carts around here, so all you need to start one is a van, a few thousand bucks, a parking space and a couple of permits. Picking a few favorite carts with so many good choices around is tough—kind of like picking a favorite child—but WW tapped local anonymous blogger Cuisine Bonne Femme (the eater behind foodcartsportland.com) to taste-test some to return to time and time again:
In Hindi, "Chaat" are savory snacks, and this van with a rickety-looking but functional closed-in porch serves up Indian chow that's less greasy, fresher and more authentic than that at most Indian restaurants in town. India Chaat prepares one honkin' huge $5 combo meal daily with greatest hits of vegetarian curries and bean dishes, and loads of fragrant basmati rice. Don't forget the fresh naan breads (the garlic is a standout), mango lassi shakes and samosas. Corner of Southwest 12th Avenue and Yamhill Street, 241-7944. Lunch and dinner Monday-Friday, lunch Saturday.
This super-shiny metal trailer makes some of the best Sicilian-inspired mangiare in the city. Owner Kevin Sandri prepares classics like Italian sausage with grilled peppers on a ciabatta roll, a meatball sandwich, a wonderfully moist and smoky grilled chicken Diablo ($12 for a whole bird) big enough to serve two. The real specialty here, though, is the arancine ($6): four racquetball-sized fried orbs infused with heady saffron and stuffed with either molten mozzarella or a meat ragú that would make Nonna proud. Southeast 13th Avenue and Lexington Street, across from the Sellwood Library. 705-5273. Lunch and early dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
A little bit off the beaten food-cart path, Thai Basil sits nearly alone in a parking lot a few blocks from the busy Pod on 5th Avenue. There are plenty of Thai carts downtown, but most offer the same heavy coconut-laden curries, soggy noodles and oily stir-fries. Not so at Thai Basil. The chili-cashew fried rice, spicy asparagus stir fry ($5), and young green coconut or pineapple curries ($5) are filled with crisp veggies and come with white or brown rice or thin rice noodles. Portions are big enough to eat for lunch, dinner and maybe another lunch. What more can you ask for?
Samurai Bento is one of the grander-looking of the city's carts, but the menu is pure Japanese soul food. All dishes come with a side of rice, veggies and pickles. The yakisoba is a real steal for $5, with plump noodles stir fried with loads of veggies and chicken, tofu or beef. The katsu don (chicken or pork) is panko-crusted and fried pork or chicken served over rice with soy-seasoned soft scrambled egg and onion sauce. Vegetarians rejoice: Everything is available meatless. Southwest 9th Avenue and Alder Street, 757-8802. Lunch Monday-Friday.
Why someone didn't think of this sooner is beyond us: Take a 10-inch-round, freshly baked, old-fashioned waffle—the kind with the little holes, not the thick Belgian variety—stuff it with all sorts of goodness, fold it in half and voila! A breakfast sandwich the size of a giant burrito with enough calories to keep you going for at least the next 12 hours. And what a flavorful sandwich it is, crispy on the outside, then warm, soft and tender in the next bite. Standouts include an oozing cheese and Black Forest ham for $4 and a sausage with organic maple syrup ($4). North Fremont Street and Mississippi Avenue. North Lombard Street between Greeley and Denver avenues. 289-9866, flavourspot.com. Breakfast and lunch daily. Lunch only at Mississippi Avenue location.
Unless you're a student at Portland State University, you'll have to go a bit out of your way to try the pizza and Sicilian treats at this "purple people feeder" (their words, not ours). It's worth the trek: Owner Stephen Ferruzza makes killer hand-tossed artisan pizzas, calzones ($5) and specials ($5 with bread) like eggplant Parmesan that rival some of the best Italian restaurants in town. Ferruzza, an affable dude in his early 20s, learned the dough trade (he also bakes and sells Italian breads for about $3 per loaf) from his Sicilian kinfolk and has some pretty impressive credentials: He cooked at Lake Placid Lodge in upstate New York. Pies are made in the traditional manner, with dough left to proof and mellow overnight and baked in an 800-degree oven. A large slice is $3, a nine-inch "personal pizza" is $6, and a whole pie goes for $14. Southwest 4th Avenue and College Street, 315-523-3407. Lunch and early dinner Monday-Friday.
Taco trucks are by far the most common carts in town, gathering en masse in the cart "pods" and "rows" downtown and going it alone in scattered parking lots from St. Johns to Southeast 82nd Avenue. La Jarochita is not the biggest or flashiest of the bunch, and the small maroon-colored trailer is easy to miss among its companions on Southwest 5th Avenue, but the food here is some of the best and most authentic around. Look a little bit off the menu at the colorful handwritten signs plastered on the truck for regional specialties rarely found at other carts: sopes from Guadalajara ($1.50 each), like tacos with a thick base made from fried cornmeal "bowls" and topped with beans, meat and salsa; huaraches, a beloved Mexican street treat of thick "paddles" of grilled masa piled with a healthy dose of meats, beans and veggies and smothered with sauces; and tamales ($1.50 each) made Veracruz style, wrapped not in the typical corn husks but in banana leaves.
A newcomer to the cart scene, Asian Station is a greatest-hits medley of East-Asian street snacks from Shanghai to Singapore. Owner Cindy Margheim based the menu on favorites from her own childhood in Hong Kong. The menu's still evolving, but look for the likes of flaky Malaysian roti flatbreads served with a smooth yellow coconut curry ($6), pot stickers and shrimp shumai dumplings, and addictively sweet-and-savory caramelized chicken wings served with rice, pot stickers and green papaya salad ($6.50). The signature dish is Shanghai soup dumplings ($6.50 for six), addictive little balls of steamed dough stuffed with ground pork, cabbage and a magic burst of steaming broth. You can't get these babies anywhere else. They take a while to prepare, so call ahead. Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street, 227-5727. Lunch Monday-Friday.
You know this isn't your average greasy gyros stand when the owner comes dressed in an impeccable white chef's coat with his name embroidered on the chest. Syrian-born and professionally trained chef Saied Samaiel makes some of the best gyros, falafel and other Mediterranean treats in Portland. The super lamb gyro ($6) is stuffed with crisp veggies and garlicky lamb, dressed with tzatziki sauce. The falafel is light, tender and flavorful, and can be ordered either as a sandwich ($4) or as part of the large mixed mezza platter ($6, $8 with meat) with stuffed grape leaves, hummus and baba ghanouj. 925 SW Alder St.. 490-3387. Lunch and early dinner Monday-Friday, lunch Saturday.
Andrea Spella is Portland's Zen master of espresso. No goofy, syrupy, flavored concoctions; $20,000 robot coffee makers; or "foam art" here—Spella takes the classic approach, making his drinks with single-origin beans he roasts himself, a hand-pulled piston Rancilio machine and gentle delivery. Loyal customers have been known to walk from as far away as PSU to get their daily fix. Southwest Alder Street and 9th Avenue, 421-9723. 9 am-4 pm Monday-Friday.