Dustin Knox was in a bad place.
As the restaurateur prepared to launch the second failed craft-cocktail spot in a nook around the corner from Voodoo Doughnut and Shanghai Tunnel, things were falling apart.
"Depression would be too light of a term," he says. "I was suicidal. I was just so not OK. It wasn't about the business at that point—it was about my life. When it crashed, I was just crashing with it. My landlord floated my house rent for four months. I almost lost everything. My truck got impounded. It got bleak. Not to mention, guess how I tried managing the problem? I just drank constantly."
A few months later, Knox found himself at a police checkpoint on Mexico's Baja California Peninsula. He'd traveled across the Southwest sleeping in his truck on the rim of the Grand Canyon and in the mountains of Santa Fe, N.M. He ended up riding 3,500 miles by dirt bike in Mexico, "with nothing more than my riding gear, a couple hundred dollars and a backpack."
"I was kinda ready for whatever life would throw at me at that point," he says. "I really just didn't care. If my house went away, if my cat went away. I just wanted to see what was good in the world."
He discovered a good thing—chicken.
At that checkpoint, a Mexican policeman handed Knox a piece of wood-grilled chicken. They stood around the campfire, and Knox got his first piece of inspiration for Chicken and Guns, one of two carts WW has named Cart of the Year.
The birds at Chicken and Guns aren't a re-creation of that Mexican bird, prepared simply with "just salt and pepper and maybe some lard on it."
C&G's birds have more in common with the Argentine steaks at Ox, grilled so they get a little smoky, then getting a topping of deliriously good Peruvian-inspired sauce made of cilantro, jalapeños and sour cream. The moist, smoky chicken is paired with potatoes that are baked then double-fried, frites-style, and seasoned with lemon, two kinds of salt and "some other things."
It's a "mishmash of Latin styles" that "eats like crack," to borrow Knox's phrases.
Some regulars eat there three times a week. One day, I ordered C&G for lunch, and then again for dinner. Now that the cart has dialed its to-go system—you can call and expect your order to be ready in just 10 minutes—it's become a staple in Southeast Portland while also managing to impress traveling Venezuelans and Argentines.
Not bad for a comeback project on the heels of an epic failure Knox says is the hardest thing he's ever gone through.
In 2010, Knox opened a nice craft-cocktail bar in the one Portland neighborhood where that wouldn't work: Old Town. Central failed, and the space was rebranded as Harlem, with a six-deep selection of flavored Stoli and EDM DJs. The spot was then very briefly home to a food window called Uncle Dick's Deep-Fried Hot Dogs.
"There used to be a demographic of really cool people going downtown to Old Town," Knox says. "But that changed, and it changed the very year I took on my lease. People stopped crossing the river. It went from 'Downtown is kind of a pain in the butt' to 'I will never go downtown.' I basically opened a Southeast bar downtown. It was so hard to get my people there."
Knox knows his people. With his first food cart, Perierra Crêperie, he and Mike McKinnon of Potato Champion developed the concept of the patio-style cart pod now taken for granted, filled with a hip post-bar crowd.
So Knox licked his wounds and traveled. When he returned, he refocused on Cartopia, negotiating with his new landlord to make improvements to the lot. Knox, originally a craftsman by trade after moving to town in 1998, spent five months doing renovations. He did much of the work himself, laying pavers, installing fireplaces and tent warmers, adding plants. The pod that was once slated for closure—"The End of the Golden Age of Food Carts," we called it—has been reborn, helping spur a Second Golden Age of Food Carts.
Knox has been reborn, too.
After returning from Mexico, he teamed with new business partner Todd Radcliffe, formerly of the Woodsman Tavern, to perfect the chicken and potato recipes for the concept that would become Chicken and Guns. And Knox lined up a source for quality birds: a Canby poultry farmer.
They're all getting along great. During his Central years, Knox got a reputation as a bad boss, with negative comments from disgruntled employees popping up in articles about him.
"I'm just really excited to make something people respond to, and that my employees like working for me," he says. "That's a big thing, because I created a very bad name for myself based on how unhappy I was. I'm a lot happier human being now."
Chicken and Guns, 1207 SE Hawthorne Blvd. (Cartopia), 234-7236, chickenandguns.com. 11:30 am-midnight daily.
Check out Willamette Week's 2016 Cheap Eats guide here.