It was just before closing time at Carts on Foster, and I found myself next to the food cart operators huddling in the pod’s beer shanty for their shift drinks. Halfway through a beer, I realized the guy I was talking to used to be my neighbor.
“I didn’t recognize you without your captain’s hat,” I said. He’d also cut off his signature ponytail.
Edward McGregor's Year of the Fish cart used to be right by my house, and I'd nodded hello to him more times than I could count, even when I wasn't stopping by his spot for fish and chips. That pod closed, like they all do, to make way for a shiny new apartment building. But until then, he'd been part of the fabric of my neighborhood, every bit as familiar as the Landmark patio or the guys with shopping carts working on their bikes by the bus shelter next to the 76 Station.
"I didn't want to come down here," he said of his new Foster Road pod. "But after a few weeks I realized it was perfect. I'd say 90 percent of my regulars found me."
We chatted for a half-hour about the old spot—and about what became of all the other people in the makeshift community they'd formed on the parking lot. The Turkish cart has recently landed back next to him. Burger Guild tried to make a go of it in Sellwood before switching to catering. The ladies from Run Chicken Run went back to Thailand. We didn't even know each other, but it felt like running into an old college classmate.
The Year of Months was a silly project with a grand objective. We wanted to focus intently on a dozen topics, with the idea that if we spent enough time digging deep between the cushions of life in Portland, we might come across coins we'd never otherwise find.
Sometimes, we failed. But other times we were able to tell stories we'd never otherwise be able to tell—like the time we found a lot more than we expected in the city's last adult theater on Southeast Division. It also brought us into contact with the guy who ran Sinsemilla Tips, the trade journal of the marijuana industry in the outlaw years. We went back to the heyday of the Portland jazz scene, to long-forgotten clubs like like The Dude Ranch and Paul's Paradise. We even attended a workshop where people learn to throw pies in other people's faces.
This is the last issue of the year, and the last of 57 installments in this series (August was a double month). We're dedicating it to the food carts we miss the most—all places we're nostalgic for, not counting the ones that are now restaurants.
Take heed. If you love something in this city, especially a food cart, you need to support it. Especially in these dreary winter months. MARTIN CIZMAR.
No Fish! Go Fish! (1997-2013)
An early Portland gourmet cart, No Fish! Go Fish! Opened at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Yamhill Street during the Clinton administration and survived in a changing Portland for almost two decades. The menu was based on revolving daily soups, plus unique "sandwiches" made using a pancake-type batter prepared in fish-shaped Japanese Taiyaki molds. The fish-shaped sandos were made to order, and stuffed with melty mozzarella and tomato and curried veggies. Partners John Doyle and Sean Brown gave up the business and went to work in government jobs. LIZZY CASTON.
Ziba’s Pitas (2002-2011)
Portland’s first and only Bosnian cart came from the lovely Ziba Ljucevic, an accountant in Bosnia who came to Portland with her husband during the war. Ljucevic operated at Southwest 9th and Alder for almost a decade. Flaky, melt-in-your-mouth “pitas” were made by hand with a thin, strudel-like dough and stuffed with seasoned lamb, or spinach and farmers cheese, like an ethereal spanakopita. Other offerings included kofte meatballs, and the occasional hearty bean soup in winter or cold yogurt soup in the summer months. All were served with a generous cucumber salad and side of tangy Ajvar eggplant and roasted red pepper sauce. After helping put her daughter through college with her pitas, Ziba retired. LC.
Wy’east Pizza (2009-2013)
This lone-wolf pizza cart sat in the parking lot of Ruthie's Weaving Studio on Southeast 50th Avenue, just a few blocks away from the pod where Year of the Fish was. The "WEAVE" building and its parking lot are still there, but the old camper trailer is gone. The people behind Wy'East moved back to their native Milwaukee in 2013, and have since grown into a restaurant rather than cook in an oven that could only accommodate one pie at a time. MC.
Built to Grill (2009-2013)
Eight dollars is rarely the ticket to any kind of ecstasy, but at Built to Grill—if you showed up before they sold out, which they always did—you could eat more than your fill of lovely penne alla vodka, a beautifully balanced clams and linguine, or especially heart-rending gnocchi that could teach feelings to a sociopath. In a city that struggles with pasta, this cart served an explosion of flavor in each box, at prices that meant you could always return. But after tiring of cart life, the owners moved briefly onto the patio at Star Theater before closing entirely. Chef Brooke Howes last surfaced at short-lived Black Dog on Division, which opened and closed this year in the former Sunshine Tavern location. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
“Check out Czech food” was the motto of Tabor, which came from husband and wife team Monika and Karel Vitek. During lunch hours, there was always a line for their scratch-cooked, tasty, hearty and absolutely authentic Czech food. Their Schnitzelwich was so iconic they renamed the cart for it after Bon Appetit said in 2013, “there may be no better sandwich on the planet.” But they also had specials such as a thick pork goulash heady with smoked paprika and chicken paprikash served with thick bread dumplings or tender spaetzle. Tabor closed in May, with the new occupants now making a kombucha-based hot sauce and selling pottery. LC.
Slow and Low (2010-2010)
Looking back, 2010 was the year of the pork belly. The meat landed seemingly everywhere, on every sandwich and plate. But at the Slow and Low sandwich cart, Fred Armisen’s favorite if airplane magazines are to be believed, it attained a gently caramelized perfection I rarely found elsewhere. Each tender protein, whether 12-hour-cooked pork confit or my favorite portabella in town, was balanced inventively with house-pickled roots from daikon to fennel to cabbage, a lovely kimchi mayo or beet-horseradish mustard. But in its isolated location, all alone next to Albina Press north of North Skidmore, it maybe never stood a chance. MK.
Cake on a Hot Tin Roof (2011-2013)
Why aren’t there more dessert carts? The model makes almost as much sense as a beer cart, and yet they are few and far between. Jennie Goodrich’s garishly decorated camper van at Cartlandia solved the problem. Goodrich baked a little of everything, from cinnamon rolls to chocolate mousse, and most of it had a homespun character. We miss the pavlova most of all. MC.
Sok Sab Bai (2011-2013)
Chef Nyno Thol’s Cambodian cart seemed like a success story when they opened a restaurant in an old house off Southeast Clinton Street. Unfortunately, the restaurant closed after a short run and the promised return to a cart never materialized. There are a few other spots with Cambodian dishes on their menu, but with the loss of Sok Sab Bai we lost a dedicated one in the middle of the city, along with a wonderful banana blossom salad and hearty pork stew. MC.
Sushi PDX (2011-2015)
Portland sushi is rarely cheap and wonderful at the same time, but the hand rolls and spicy tuna maki at Sushi PDX put most of the city to shame for a full-meal price tag of $10 or $15. Out of his humble cart at the Belmont Good Food Here pod, Japan-trained chef Toshiki “Toshi” Yokoo masterfully prepped always-fresh fish and delicately vinegared rice in beautiful proportion. In a certain regard, it was some of the best sushi in the city, because it was the best I could afford to enjoy regularly. But less than a year after I fell in love with the cart, its pod closed down and Yokoo was boxed out of the new one across the street. MK.
It's common to find people wrapping a hot dog in bacon and call it a Sonoran dog. That's not a Sonoran dog, and this cart's brief, beautiful run showed us. I discovered this cart out in the wilds of deep Southeast and was blown away by their mastery of the details, including steamed buns, grilled veggies and salty and smooth guacamole sauce. They even included a tiny bit of chorizo and a sprinkle of powdery cotija cheese. Sadly, some idiots (read: including me) convinced them to move onto inner Southeast Hawthorne, away from the Mexican community, and they promptly shuttered. They said they would return with a mobile cart, but it never happened. MC.
Prickly Ash (2012-2014)
This Chinese sandwich cart, named for the trees that give the world Sichuan peppercorns, was at the pod on Mississippi. They made fresh flatbread inside the cart, which resembled a gordita, then topped it with herbs, oils and fatty meat. The flavors were loud and the form managed to be both familiar and fresh at once. The owners took a hiatus in December 2014 and then never reopened the cart, instead doing a few pop-ups before fading into memory. MC.
El Amanecer (2012?-2017)
Behind a Stark Street flea market at the edge of Gresham, El Amanecer made the most beautiful tacos de barbacoa, birria and carnitas I have known in Portland—served up with unparalleled consistency on handmade corn tortillas and accompanied by consome of commensurate depth. At least one weekend a month I’d gather friends and dine like a prince under the shade of a giant tree, washing down bites that tasted like miracles with vanilla horchata. And then one horrible day in June it was gone. The cart remained in place but didn’t open, and its owners ceased answering their phone. To get flat-top tacos almost as good, I now have to drive to Salem. I miss this cart so much. MK.
Maine Street Lobster (2013-2015)
The mood doesn’t always strike. But when it does, there is nothing else: A lobster roll is a mountain of hot buttered lobster on a hoagie, a New England dockside treat made with shellfish this Cartlandia cart flew in cross-country three times a week. A move to Bethany Village in Beaverton didn’t pan, and now the old website from Maine Street Lobster now sells Alaskan fishing trips. If you want a Maine lobster roll now, you have to wait for an occasional special at Lardo on Hawthorne—coming up next on New Year’s Day. MK.
Holy Mole (2014-2016)
The food at our 2015 Food Cart of the Year Holy Mole, as at many of my favorite carts, never seemed like it should be found in a cart. Puebla-born Fernando Otero’s meals were scratch-made with meticulous care, including a warming pozole, home-spun enchiladas de picadillo dulce and 30-ingredient mole with scratch-made chocolate that took 13 hours to prepare. But the grueling schedule, coupled with his job at New Seasons, took its toll on Otero’s health, and he had to close the cart. Since then, luckily, he’s cooked a few pop-up meals. To get in on the next one, January 27, email firstname.lastname@example.org for details. MK.
Steak Frites PDX (2014-2015)
This Franco-Belgian cart on Southeast 28th did one thing, and it did it perfectly. The cart offered three cuts of steak—tri-tip, hanger and teres major—plus starchy fries to be dipped in five aioli options. It was decadent and perfect and given that the perfectly cooked prime steak cost $8.50, maybe it's not surprising that it disappeared. MC.
Botto BBQ (2016-2016)
There are those who bear ill will toward Darren Botto Bottinelli. "Botto," whose cart was in an empty lot next to the Sherwin Williams paint store on the industrial fringe of Northwest, burst onto the scene making the best ribs Portland has ever known. Unfortunately, prior to running the cart he'd stolen about $3 million from poor and disabled, which they set aside for tax-free health—and which he subsequently spent on a lavish lifestyle including dinner at the French Laundry, stays at Chateau Marmont and cocaine. I can't defend Botto's theft, but I do wish they'd been able to spare him prison time so he could repay his victims by making me brisket—the man had a true and precious gift to share with the world. When he gets out for his third act, I'll be there with cash in hand. MC.