Cheap Eats 2014: Top 5 Food Carts of the Year


Food Cart of the Year: Burrasca

113 SE 28th Ave., Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, lunch Sunday. Cash only.

Our 2014 Food Cart of the Year doesn't really feel like a cart so much as a fine open-air restaurant—or maybe a home windowsill one might as well be stealing from. The Tuscan fare at Burrasca offers both comfort and surprise: Pillowy housemade ravioli filled with potato that's cloudlike in its softness, made rich by hearty duck ragu ($9); a pungently earthy pepper-beef peposo soaked in acid-forward wine and tomato and tempered with soothing polenta ($8); the herby prickle of bay leaf and juniper in a slow-cooked boar ragu.

Chef-owner Paolo Calamai's four-item menu changes seasonally, but the one constant so far has been his inzimino, a simple peasant dish of wine-soaked squid and spinach that actually stuns the senses. It's acidic, umami-packed, salty, spicy, maybe a bit slimy, and almost embarrassingly addictive. You go to the window, pay your $8 in cash and get your fix.

"Inzimino comes probably from the north of Africa," Calamai says. "The dish itself is really simple, but it requires a lot of simmering. It's one of the very few seafood dishes that can really relate back to the history of Florence."

Calamai moved here from Florence last August with his wife two children, and says he that what he misses is the ubiquity of good food. "The easy reach of a good piece of cheese," he says. "A good piece of bread. Not necessarily at the restaurant, but at a small market, at a bakery."

But at Calamai's lattice-fenced cart in perhaps the best micro-pod in town, he's busy recreating the flavors of home. "There's sausage I want to make," he says. "I haven't found here the type I like best. Sausage and beans, tomato and sage. It is a traditional dish of Florence. Kale gnocchi is something that my grandmother used to do in meat sauce. Fresh tagliatelle in meat sauce. Gnocchi in butter sage sauce."

He says he intends to open a restaurant when he has the money, but in one sense he already has one: You order your food and then wander over to pick up your beer from the Captured by Porches brewery cart nearby, meanwhile warming yourself in a chair by the little parking-lot fire. And as your food is done, it finds you toasty as if at a backyard fire pit. When Portland's food-cart renaissance was breathlessly announced years ago, this is perhaps what we hoped it would be.

"What a wonderful thing that Portland has, the food carts," Calamai says. "We thought it would be very slow in winter. But people keep coming." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.

Tiffin Asha
IMAGE: Emma Browne
2. Tiffin Asha

836 N Beech St., 936-7663, Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Saturday.

The supple-yet-crunchy crepe around Tiffin Asha's Hot Chick seems simple enough. You could be excused for biting right past the thin, tangy layer of yellow-gold dough of rice and lentil and getting hung up instead on lightly fried chicken drizzled with cardamom-infused honey, pickled greens or bright yogurty cheese sauce.

But don't ignore the shell—that dosa comes only after two days of labor, using three different rices and several types of lentils. It proofs overnight with ambient yeast, developing layers of flavor and texture.

The Tiffin Asha cart, now on a North Mississippi Avenue corner, opened last May, but those dosas are 10 years in the making. They're just one of the South Indian recipes chef-owner Elizabeth Golay—who previously worked at restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco and Boston—started exploring after she met her now-wife, who is from the state of Andhra Pradesh. The menu also includes vada holes (small savory doughnuts, five for $5), and idli (fermented lentil and rice cakes, two for $5). But the dosas are the cart's trump card.

"I use very traditional methods. Some Indian restaurants—if they're not specifically South Indian—it's a very time-consuming process, so they do flour instead of whole grains," Golat says. "They might even use mixes because it takes a lot of time and a lot of space."

The fried chicken is Golay's inspired addition. Traditional dosas are often vegetarian, and, even when not, don't feature fried chicken. But it's hard to argue with the Hot Chick. "That was my idea, and I spent some time getting it right," she says. "I wanted to do some things the traditional way, but also put my own spin on South Indian food."

So enjoy that new-fangled honey-drizzled chicken—after pausing to savor that incredible dosa. MARTIN CIZMAR.

IMAGE: Evan Johnson

3. Love Belizean

Southwest 6th Avenue and Columbia Street, 421-5599. Lunch and early dinner Monday-Friday.

People in Belize actually distinguish between dishes called "beans and rice" and "rice with beans." Both are best when soaked with a generous helping of the nation's beloved local hot sauce, Marie Sharp's. Add a few pieces of spicy chicken roasted until it's loose on the bone and the color of coffee, and you've got Belize's national meal.

It's simple fare, and perfect fodder for a Portland food cart. Tiffany Love—who's originally from Hawaii but has lived more than a decade in Portland—knew this from the moment she tasted Belizean food on her honeymoon. A year after opening, her cart now moves "70 pieces of chicken, eight or nine pounds of tri-tip and a big pot of beans" every day.

And it's also impressed a few notable Belizeans.

"When you type in 'Belize' and 'Portland,' I come up," Love says. "So, in July, when Belize played the U.S. in the soccer tournament in Portland, I had a lot of the Belizean team contact me before they came to Portland and ask where to stay, where to eat, how expensive it is, what the weather's like."

And they liked Love's cart: "I knew I had it nailed when they told me the food is really good."

Love attributes the success to happy customers—and the bright line of Marie Sharp's in the cart's window. "When we opened, people didn't even know what Belizean cuisine was," she says. "A few people were risky and were like, 'I'll try it,' and it spread through word of mouth."

"Plus," she says, "the hot sauces attract people. We've got nine varieties of Marie Sharp's in the window now, from sweet to prickly pear to original to all the way up to Beware, which is five-star hot—comatose quality." MARTIN CIZMAR.

Road Runner Barbecue
IMAGE: Bethlayne Hansen

4. Road Runner Barbecue

Southeast 52nd Avenue and Foster Road, 310-2837. Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday.

When Road Runner Barbecue rolled into the Carts on Foster pod in late 2012, its Chief Wiggum portrait and bright red exterior made it look from afar like either a coffee or a doughnut joint. But the telltale mesquite smoke told a different story. Barbecue in Portland can be a dubious prospect, but one bite of Texas transplant Jim Hart's tremendous brisket will make you a true believer.

This is some of PDX's best barbecue, cut with love by a retired meat carver and smoked for at least 12 hours before being served as tenderly charred slices or chopped up on a bun with its candied fat glistening. Hart serves his meats dry so you can behold them in all their glory before hitting them with a sweetly hot homemade tomato sauce. The pork butt and chicken also stand out, but it's really hard to get past that brisket, especially when it's paired with the delightfully creamy, kind of Velveeta-y mac 'n' cheese that resets your taste buds while offering its own distinct comforts.

For the lucky bastards who knew about it for a while, Road Runner is a food group all its own. And on behalf of the late bloomers…sorry about the line. We'll save you a charred end. AP KRYZA.

Maine St. Lobster Co.
IMAGE: Amaren Colosi 

5. Maine Street Lobster Co.

8145 SE 82nd Ave., 770-480-3437, Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, Lunch Sunday.

Last spring, David Beavers was hiking the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail from his home state of Georgia to Maine, and around a campfire one night everyone grabbed the proverbial conch and said how they thought the hike would make them a better person.

"I'm going to Maine," Beavers told them, "for a lobster roll."

Well, turned out he had to make that lobster roll himself, because he got injured on the trail. He's now in Oregon's Portland instead, slinging beautifully heaped-up, hot-buttered lobster and herb-mayo lobster sandwiches ($14), not to mention po'boys ($10-14), at the Maine Street Lobster Co. cart he now shares with partner Cathy Evenson at the Cartlandia pod on Southeast 82nd Avenue. The pair have lobster flown in from Maine two or three times a week.

Beavers met Evenson in Florida—where he was laying up with friends after his injury—and the pair hit it off. As it so happens, Beavers already owned a cart here that he rented out to other food businesses. When a tenant handed back the keys, he called Evenson with a proposal: Let's start a lobster cart in Portland.

"Two days later," Evenson says, "we were packed up and moving across the country. Three weeks from the decision, we were open for business." The logo for the cart, Evenson says, was based on pottery made by her sister, whom she lost to breast cancer last year.

Though Evenson says she's always been both skilled and fearless in the kitchen, it was her first time in the food business. Both she and Beavers had worked in large-scale construction and development projects, whether schools or retail.

"We've built big things," she says. "After that, a lobster roll is easy." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.

 Top 5 Food Carts of the Year | 20 Amazing Bites for $7 and Under

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