On a cloudy day last October, Matt Vicedomini shut down his food cart for reasons you could rightly call religious. He had to take a pilgrimage to the temple of beef.
"I went down and made a decision," he says. "I'm going to focus everything on Central Texas."
The countryside around Austin is the high holy shrine of brisket, hot links and dry-rubbed ribs. Vicedomini ate at Austin's bougie Franklin Barbecue, and he ate at Tex-Mex taco joint Valentina's, and for two long days he worked the smokers at new-barbecue star Freedmen's.
When he returned to Portland, something had indeed been reborn at Matt's BBQ, the smoky ribs-and-brisket cart Vicedomini opened in June in the parking lot of H & B Jewelry and Loan on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, one of the twin stars Willamette Week is naming Cart of the Year.
Matt's was already a very good barbecue cart before Vicedomini's trip, serving up a rotating selection of meats smoked in a modified, 24-inch steel pipe cut and soldered into an offset grill by a guy in Battle Ground, Wash.
But by December 2015, Vicedomini—a slender, ball-capped Long Island native with plus-sized glasses who first honed his barbecue craft in Melbourne, Australia—was making some of the very best barbecue in Portland.
The little cart makes the finest Texas ribs in the city, white-oak smoky with a ribbon of aching pink and tenderness beneath. His chili-spiked hot links have whiplash snap, and you could die of heartbreak between bites of the succulent beef brisket, whose beautifully thick bark now comes equipped with piquant salt-and-pepper bite. When the cart first opened, that brisket had fans, but some discerning palates found it a little too pot-roasty. It's since been dialed.
"That was part of going down to Texas," Vicedomini says, "seeing how they do it, talking to guys who are better at it—coming up with a different idea of brisket, better bark, and being not so stewy. I used to be concerned with tenderness. I don't want to make it that tender anymore. I wanted to make it drier so it has better chew."
He changed his ribs to cook them the hard way, outside the foil he'd once used to keep them moist—and they tightened up into classic beauties. He hotted up his hot link. He took Freedman's techniques and remade them into his own.
But there's no need to choose which meat to get. When you walk up to Matt's cart, you drop $16 and get the whole shebang: every meat, every side.
If you're less hungry, you can get a couple of the Tex-Mex tacos ($2-$2.50) Vicedomini kick-started after trying the versions at Valentina's in Austin. Those beautiful, guac-topped brisket tacos are the flour-tortilla counterpoint to the puffy-shell brisket tacos at La Taq 20 blocks away. Vicedomini is already toying with the notion of making his own tortillas.
And he continues to come up with ballsy constructions like a sandwich made with all the meat he serves—including a rib obscenely toothpicked to the top "for the Instagram generation."
The cart has evolved every month since it opened—the same frontier mentality that led Vicedomini to build out his own cart and glue up his sign from die-cast letters found at Home Depot, and plunk his business onto a desolate pawn-shop lot. He built his estimable barbecue chops from spare parts.
"I've got no credibility in terms of where I came from," he says. "I come from New York, I learned to cook in Australia and I worked it through Portland. It's not like my grandma taught me."
Vicedomini smoked his first brisket and ribs at what's thought of as the first real barbecue pit of Australia—the Gem bar in Melbourne, whose pit master learned his skills in Texas—and his previous training had been at Michelin-starred eateries in New York, Germany and Austria.
But these days, his barbecue is less reinvention than fine-tuning, homing in on what's essential.
"I used to have a more complex rub. I would try to find out the secret ingredients," he says. "Now it's just straight salt and pepper. It's about being confident in simplicity."
Matt's BBQ, 4709 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 516-314-4739, facebook.com/mattsbbqpdx. Full menu 11 am- 7 pm Thursday-Saturday. Sandwiches, tacos and sides Wednesday 11 am-7 pm.
Special thanks to Sugar Mountain Vintage for styling this photo shoot.
See the rest of our top 5 food carts.
Check out Willamette Week's 2016 Cheap Eats guide here.