Who's cooking: Apparently the entire health care system of Pila, Colombia. Karen Castañeda is a med-school grad, while partner Andres Felipe Perez was a dentist.
What to eat: Arroz mixto, a modified take on Chinese fried rice that's become one of Colombia's most-favored foods, is salty and pungently spiced and loaded here with chicken, pork and shrimp. I didn't bond as much with the Picada Colombiana, a profusion of grilled meats and yuca that came out a bit dry.
Mixteca [WW Pick]
Who's cooking: Doña Paula Acunsión, from El Carmen Tuxtitlan in Oaxaca, who worked in fast food and farms around Portland for 20 years before starting her tamale business at the St. Johns farmers market three years ago.
What to eat: There is nothing that isn't wonderful here, and it is handily my favorite cart in the pod. The 15-spice mole negro plate, in particular, is so beautiful it caused passersby to stop and ask, oh dear Lord, what is that? But Acunsión's moles shine best on the tamales, which are perhaps the best I've had in Portland—and I have had many, many tamales in Portland. Cooked Oaxacan style, in plantain leaf, they are moist, tender, pleasantly frictional and richly redolent of corn flavor, with none of the mucoid texture endemic to far too many banana-leaf tamales. Get them with Acunsión's chileajo (red mole), a sauce fiery less with simple heat than with deep smoke and spice: the essence of flame rather than its painful effects.
Who's cooking: Fernando Rodriguez of Toluca, Mexico, who's been running food carts named Fernando's in Portland for years.
What to eat: Maybe something vegan? Fernando's is deeply adapted to the Portland environment, with a "Rip City" tofu vegan burrito, vegan and veggie wraps, and big ol' American-portioned asada and al pastor burritos filled with rice and dollops of sour cream and optional guac ($1), with the young lady in the cart window gamely fielding a couple's many, many questions about possible gluten content and grill-sharing 'twixt meat and vegetable. It is an exercise in deep familiarity.
El Gato Tuerto [WW Pick]
Who's cooking: Hans Schmidt of Rosario, Argentina, and Jose Perez-Perillo of Havana. The cart's named after a restaurant Perez-Perillo remembers fondly in Havana—it translates as "the one-eyed cat."
What to eat: You can't throw a Frisbee in Portland without hitting a Cubano, but El Gato Tuerto's version ($8.50) stands out as wildly citric and piled ridiculously high with pulled pork, in contrast to the hamminess of the many local Cubanos influenced by Mexican traditions. Schmidt and Perez-Perillo aren't running a fusion shop so much as a shared kitchen, but Argentine and Cuban have a shared focus on grilled meats, bright flavors and the occasional sandwich. Among the Argentine plates, just go for the Churrazquito ($8), a mess of beef, spice-crusted grilled chicken and chorizo all muddled together next to lightly spiced black beans. Still, the Cubano's the star.
Who's cooking: Maria Lizama and Victor Hernandez, both of whom grew up with 10-deep families in Usulután, El Salvador, and have been here for a little over 15 years.
What to eat: Pupusas, duh ($3). With loroco, a desert flower. Or especially with the blessed fat and crunch of chicharron. But my actual favorite item? The sweet plantain empanadas ($3.95), touched with cinnamon and sugar. Oh, man. Whatever else you get at the other carts, just wander by here and pick up an order. These are not the dull, pie-dough versions eaten by pasty-faced folk used to pasties: These are thin-crusted, lightly browned balls of sweetness and light, and caused a very skeptical toddler of my acquaintance to freak out a little (once they finally cooled down).
Who's cooking: Dora Reyna, from the Free and Sovereign State of San Luis Potosí in Mexico, named her cart after the female soldiers who fought in the Mexican Revolution.
What to eat: Las Adelas has relatively few items on its menu, and yet a startling diversity among them. The guy at the window was most stoked about the huaraches—soft, handmade tortillas loaded with meats or sauces—but I liked best the birria plate ($10.95), with wonderful, brightly spiced shredded beef filling out the little house tortillas served with it, or especially a rare food-cart pozole ($9.95). Among multiple options, roll with the pozole puerco rojo, thick with comfort and hominy.
Who's cooking: Mexico City's Bryan Hernandez, son of Antonio Hernandez—who owns the first (excellent) Los Alambres out on Southeast 82nd Avenue—along with partner Nancy Ivette Cruz.
What to eat: Los Alambres Dos continues the tradition of the father cart's massive football-sized tortas so stacked within with meat and cheese that they are also football-shaped. Each offers over a pound of stomach-swelling, salty, savory goodness. The trick to Los Alambres' tortas—as with all tortas, really—is always the quality of the bread, and it excels here: thick, fluffy, toasted and capable of withstanding the sheer weight of topping. But if the trick's the bread, the secret is the dish without it, the cart's titular Los Alambres plate that welds together four different meats, bell peppers and onions with a preponderance of cheese. It is the world's most decadent nacho served not over chips but with little corn tortillas.
Who's cooking: Husband and wife Juan and Amalia Vazquez have been in Portland for more than 20 years after moving here from the Oaxacan town of Santa Cruz Tacache de Mina in Mexico.
What to eat: Holy shit, the tlayuda. At $13 for veggie and $15 for meat, the tlayuda is a tostada to end all tostadas—a tostada to end all hunger—big as a pizza and eaten either by slicing it or ripping it apart like a predatory dinosaur. The baked corn tortilla is topped with a layer of spicy black beans, a pizza sauce made of protein that serves as glue for all manner of delicious things: chorizo or other meat, quesos both fresco and Oaxaca, salsa, cabbage, veggies, onions and a little bit of chicharron. It is meant to heartily serve two, but a feat of will frightening to imagine can allow a singleton to finish it off.
EAT: Portland Mercado, Southeast Foster Road and 72nd Avenue, portlandmercado.com. 10 am-9 pm daily.