September 30th, 2010 | by RUTH BROWN Food & Drink |

A Visit to A La Carts: The Best New Carts You've Never Heard Of

logoWith the hype around Portland's food carts still running at fever pitch, I don't blame land-owners and wanna-be cooks for rushing to set up new pods and carts as quickly as possible. I do blame them for neglecting to do some basic marketing in the rush.

Case in point: I'd heard word of a new pod at Southeast 50th Avenue and Division Street, called A La Carts. Brownie points for the cheesy pun name, but it was difficult to find out much more about the lot. The website only has information for prospective carts, the Twitter account has precisely three tweets and hasn't been updated since August, and the Facebook page lists five of the carts, but also hasn't been updated for a month.

Thus it's up to the individual carts to promote themselves, but—Catch 22—if you don't know what carts are there in the first place, you can't exactly Google them (or Bing them, though few of them are on Bing's much-hyped new “Food Cart Finder,” either).

Fortunately, I am a freelance journalist with far too much time on my hands, so I actually cycled over to check out what's on offer. But most people have jobs, families, appointments and responsibilities. With the cart market now so crowded, most people aren't going to make an effort to visit mysterious new cart lots if they don't know what's on offer.

For those people, I offer this overview of the A La Carts pod (the actual food you'll have to sample for yourselves).

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A La Carts is located in a big former parking lot on 50th, near the corner of Division. It's surrounded by a high chain-link fence, with carts spaced out around the edges, facing in towards a covered seating area.

A big space is useful when things get crowded, but it also felt very empty on a quiet Monday lunchtime. I've happily sat alone at cozier pods like Cartopia (12th and Hawthorne) and Mississippi Marketplace (N Mississippi and N Skidmore) during quiet periods, but in such a huge empty space, I felt a bit conspicuous as one of only two people eating in the whole place (it didn't help that one of the cart owners sat a few tables away and stared at me for the entire meal). The atmosphere was a bit livelier on a subsequent visit during dinner hours—a mix of families and hip young things sharing a smorgasbord of offerings from each cart—but it still felt a lot like an empty parking lot.

Amenities were patchy. There were port-a-potties, but no visible bike rack—nor any that the cart owners I asked knew of. There was an empty wooden booth labeled “ATM” which will, presumably, at some point contain an ATM, but until then, you'll have to visit the Plaid Pantry over the intersection for cash. There was a small, slightly-raised, covered “stage” area next to the seating, which would make a nice spot for some live music, but the only entertainment during my visits was a crackly radio from one of the carts.

But the important bit is the food. Here's what's on offer:

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Van Schnitzels: This truck has been serving in various locations around the city for a while, but has now pulled up stumps here, and is one of the few carts really using Twitter and Facebook to promote itself and the cart lot. The menu is German fare, including schnitzels, currywursts, bratwursts and spatzle, running $3.50-$8.00, plus brownies, soft-serve and variations thereof between $1-$2.50.

Off the Griddle: Veggie burgers and potato chips served out of a small solar-powered cart. Burger toppings include fried eggs, vegan and dairy cheese and vegan bacon, and prices run from $5.50–$8. This is the only other cart really using social media for promotion.

Bayou Fixin's: This cart opened earlier this year in a lonely parking lot at PSU. Cajun cuisine, including gumbo, jambalaya, mac and cheese and etouffee, ranging $3-$6.

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Azul Tequila Mexican Taqueria: The requisite taco truck with all the usual suspects—burritos, tacos, enchiladas, tortas, and quesadillas, though quite a few less common fillings, including chicken tinga, chile Colorado and several vegetarian and vegan options. Starting at $1.50 for tacos to $6 for tortas.

We Be Weiners: An unglamorous little cart that was apparently previously a for-hire mobile service, selling all things sausage, including Hebrew National hotdogs, polish sausage, brats and a few other comforting favourites, like meatball subs, chili and biscuits and gravy. Mains range $1.50-$4.

Jazzy's Old Fashioned Barbeque: Continuing the recent phenomenon of bricks-and-mortar restaurants branching out into the cart world, this appears to be a mobile outlet of Jazzy's Barbeque in Gresham (182nd and Powell), offering a small menu of smoky spareribs for $9 or pulled-pork sandwiches for $6, plus standard BBQ sides.

Southwestern Pizza Company: This cart used to be at Mississippi Marketplace, and I swear I saw them very recently at Dreamer's Marketplace (2737 NE MLK), so they have either moved again or have a second van. Southwestern's schtick is pizza using tortillas as a base and toppings that heavily feature sausage, pepperoni and bell peppers. $4.50-$7.

The Deadliest Catch Fisherman's Seafood Gallery: A big old bus serving Mexican and Spanish-style fish dishes (plus a few vegan options), including crab, tacos, ceviche, fish estofado and tomatillos, ranging from $1.50-$10. There was seating inside the bus for those wanting to avoid rest of the cart lot riff-raff.

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Over the Top Wild Game Burgers: Burgers made with game meat, including rabbit, elk, boar and bison, ranging $6-$8, plus various deep-fried (the signs says “tempura”, but let's call it what it is) sides, including beets, pickles, potato and bacon for $3.

Coffee Can Cafe: No-frills coffee cart serving “organic locally roasted” coffee, including espresso, French Press and some flavoured and iced drinks. Prices range from $1.50 for a small espresso to $3.75 for a 20oz cup.

Chicken Run: Thai food with a small menu of chicken and tofu dishes, including kao mok kai (spicy chicken with rice), satay, and something called “crazy peanut” (presumably the legumes in the satay are far more mentally stable), all $6.

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There was also a mysterious maroon cart that was closed and had no signs. A flyer for an upcoming event at the pod indicated three other carts will soon be opening up: Shut Up & Eat and Vagabond Café, about which I can find no information, and Fon-due-it, which is a fondue cart currently on 43rd and Woodstock.

It's a good selection of carts, with a little something for everyone (where else can you get both a blue-cheese Bison burger and a gluten-free vegan bacon cheeseburger?), and enough unique offerings to draw in people from across the city. The lot could take a few décor cues from places like Cartopia (merry-go-round, gumball machines), Good Food Here (trees, pot-plants) and East Burnside and 7th Ave. (ping pong) to make it feel like more of a destination than just a bunch of carts in a parking lot.

For the consumer, perhaps half the “fun” in food carts is discovering new spots for yourself. But from a business perspective, I'm continually surprised at how many of these new carts and pods aren't bothering to do any marketing at all. It isn't rocket science, and the Internet has made it cheaper and easier than ever before (really, if my mom can set up a Twitter and Facebook account, so can you).

A La Carts already has some stiff competition on Division St, with the well-established and more visible Los Gorditos across the street, another new (and also more visible) lot at 48th (including Cuban cart Havana Café, Korean food at Kim Jong Grillin' and Leroy's Familiar Vittles BBQ) and another pod, D-Street Noshery, set to open near Pok Pok at 32nd in October (slated to feature several well-established names including Namu Korean, Fuego de Lotus, PIE Spot, as well as a doughnut cart (!) and a beer cart (!!!)).

There has to be a saturation point for the local food cart phenomenon. Once we reach it, I suspect we're going to see quite a few businesses go under. My prediction? The first to go will be ones you've never heard of.

Incidentally, A La Carts is having an Oktoberfest celebration this weekend, Friday 6 pm -10 pm, and Saturday and Sunday 12 pm-10 pm. Van Schnitzels will be serving brats and pretzels and is offering free dessert if you wear a dirndl or lederhosen. Oh, and there will be beer.
 
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