Operating a food cart is grueling work. Those low-cost sandwiches are often paid for by an owner working 80 hours a week in a box with no temperature control and no space for help. Come winter, those summer profits feel like a fantasy.
Small wonder that at least five Portland food carts came out of the cold and into brick-and-mortar spots this winter—a move that usually comes with higher overhead, higher prices and the need to acquire a whole new customer base.
We stopped in to see how they weathered the transition.
200 NE 28th Ave., 503-887-9258, gueropdx.com. 11 am-10 pm Tuesday-Sunday.
The new Kerns restaurant from ridiculously beloved torta cart Güero—decorated with pottery from Jalisco, and with so many plants and flowers the place feels like a sunroom—is pretty much a poster child for how to do this right. Helped along by good relations with Tabla's Adam Berger, who gave Güero first dibs on the space when his restaurant closed, the cart was able to move only blocks from the Southeast Ash Street pod where it had become popular.
Güero still serves those wonderful, mammoth carnitas and pollo pibil tortas ($9.50 each), which come on telera bread slathered with lime-chili mayo and laden with fresh avocado, lettuce and pink-pickled onions.
But co-owners Alec Morrison and Megan Sanchez have also thrown in beautiful add-ons like a breakfast desayuna torta in a hoagie-style bolillo bun—with eggs and a fried-cheese slice bolstering beef slow-braised to just-so salty perfection—and a simple cocktail menu featuring voluminous $8.50 margaritas and $9 palomas, alongside a tightly curated smattering of tequila and mezcal. The Rosenstadt and Pfriem pints are $5, as they should be.
The $3 esquites are bright and spicy, as is the sik'il pak pumpkin-seed dip ($7) scooped with either tortilla or jicama. Only the hamburguesa ($10) was disappointing—with a bun that fell apart and a fried-cheese chicharrón more distracting than helpful. But the bright space otherwise distills the cart's sunny essence with very little fat, and with only about a 10 percent price hike to pay for the privilege of eating indoors. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
4311 N Williams Ave., 503-719-7347, opentandoor.com. 11 am-9 pm Tuesday-Sunday.
This place started as the Portland Masala food cart downtown. In September, it opened a counter-service spot on Williams that uses a 500-degree clay tandoor oven for kebabs and breads.
Open Tandoor doesn't serve oversauced and plentiful Indian lunch-buffet fare—expect a light meal with light spicing.
The tandoori kebabs with local lamb ($17) seem to contain about a half-pound of meat, seasoned with a very subtle spice blend. That platter comes with a dollop of rice pilaf, and for 50 cents you can upgrade from forgettable regular naan to a really tasty garlic version.
I'd opt for the rich and softly spiced butter chicken ($13 with rice) over a saag paneer ($14 with rice) that's heavy on onions and ginger. MARTIN CIZMAR.
7955 N Lombard St., 503-894-9096, gabagoolpdx.com. 11 am-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-10 pm Friday- Saturday.
It's common for food carts to bump up their prices when they sign a proper lease. In the case of Reddit Portland's favorite food cart, I think that increase gets dangerously close to ruining the magic.
This counter-service spot in St. Johns upped its prices when it signed a lease—to the tune of 50 percent in the case of the pappardelle, which went from $10 in a paper tub to $15 on a square white ceramic plate. At $10, the thick, stewy and dark-red ragu with crumbles of pork and fennel sauce felt like a bargain. But at $15, the pasta was a touch underdone for al dente, and the light dusting of Grana Padano cheese felt a little too light.
I've never been a fan of Gabagool's flatbread sandwiches, called piadina, and at $10 with a side of giardiniera, the house's namesake, with capicola, salami, mozzarella and veggies, was disappointing in a town with so many great sandwiches for under $10.
The gnocchi ($16), on the other hand, was wonderful. Yes, that's the same price you'd pay for the gnocchi made by six-time Beard nominee Cathy Whims at Nostrana. But Gabagool's plate of plump, pillowy potato pasta topped by a sunny-side-up egg was truly delightful, with the fried-to-crisp dumpling dough getting a thin veneer of umami thanks to that egg, along with pancetta, mushrooms and brown butter. MARTIN CIZMAR.
1670 NE Killingsworth St., 503-936-7663, tiffinashapdx.com. 5-10 pm Thursday-Monday.
When we named Tiffin Asha one of Portland's top five food carts in 2014, it was a scrappy, wife-and-wife, South Indian-inspired food cart on North Mississippi Avenue serving up killer vada doughnut holes, terrific cilantro chutney and a brilliant fusion notion—a chickpea-and-rice-crusted fried chicken sandwich stuffed inside a papery wrap of lentil-rice dosa.
Unlike every other cart on this list, Tiffin Asha bypassed fast-casual to run a low-lit, full-service restaurant. The Killingsworth spot has been packed since it opened, serving sweet cocktails and $7 bottles of Pfriem in a tight hallway of tables leading to a busted tuk-tuk. But the new digs upped the prices considerably. That fried chicken dosa, a celiac sufferer's dreamwich at $9, is now $14.50—similar to Chennai Masala's prices in Hillsboro—alongside a raft of eccentric dosa options, including white cheddar ($9) and honey-blue cheese ($10).
If you're not eating light, expect dinner for two to hit $60 with drinks.
Among new items, the rice-coconut appam flatbread ($12) is the most welcome, a delectable layering of textures served with a small cup of delicious coconut-ginger-tinged vegetable stew. A pomegranate-molasses lamb skewer ($14), on the other hand, was overpowered by its sweet-tart fruit. Tiffin's Trilogy, the best value at $15, included two idli rice cakes, five of those wonderful sweet-savory vada holes, and a plain dosa with chutney and deep-flavored sambar. But getting the dosa plain revealed a persistent one-note tang from the ferment—a nag at the palate like needling yeast in a saison. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
1605 SE Bybee Blvd., 971-717-5271, pdxsliders.com. 11 am-9 pm Sunday-Wednesday, 11 am-11 pm Thursday-Saturday.
PDX Sliders—the tiny-burger food cart permanently lodged in Yelp's user-generated list of best restaurants in America—has gone full-sized.
That includes its new Sellwood space, a 1911 house that was the former home of Cha Cha Cha, and the burgers, which have grown from being exclusively one-handers to a two-hand option.
The restaurant, painted bright red and white, offers plenty of hidey-holes if you want to avoid kids who haven't learned spatial awareness. Go for the burger named after the neighborhood, the Sellwood ($4.50 slider, $9 full), which has beef, bacon, Beecher's aged cheddar, caramelized onions, butter lettuce and aioli on a brioche bun, and drips with grease in a good way.
If you're looking for more meat, the delicious Steel ($5.50 slider, $11 full) is a double patty with caramelized onions and an aioli that overpowers even the patty, American cheese and bacon. Don't skimp on the PDX fries ($3) with truffle salt and fresh parsley, and ask for spiced aioli.
But skip the novelty Hawthorne ($4 slider, $8 full). Smothered with strawberry preserves, bacon and goat cheese, it's a mess that leaves your hands as sticky as a kindergartner's after a PB&J, taxing the spool of brown paper towels that adorns each table. SOPHIA JUNE.