Wild North is the latest Portland food cart to create thoughtful food with astonishing expertise at an extreme value. It opened this spring in the massive Cartlandia pod on Southeast 82nd Avenue, and it is shaping up to be one of the best new food carts of 2018.
Many of its seasonal dishes wouldn't be out of place in a fancier setting, like chilled cucumber gazpacho ($6, $10), barbecue-pork roulade ($10), mussels in tomato broth ($15, $25) and porchetta ($13). But at Wild North, there's a concentrated, fire-roasted twist—almost everything on the menu is prepared in its brick pizza oven and inspired by "the outdoors and rustic cooking methods."
Constructed out of raw lumber, with firewood piled along the front, the Wild North food cart looks like a snack shack in the woods. On a recent, boiling-hot day, I asked owners Brandon and Amelia Hughes what I should cook on my next camping trip.
"You can make flatbread by freezing the dough in advance," said chef Brandon Hughes. "Throw it in your pack, and it'll have thawed and proofed by the time you're ready for dinner." He went on to explain best practices for freezing a thermos of ice cream and why tweezer tongs are a vital campfire-cooking tool.
At Wild North, little is saved from the flame. Bulbs of nutty bread, made with a 50-year-old sourdough starter, have charred rumps, adding a fearsome sweetness. Meats—and even the excellently yolky eggs during Sunday brunch—are slowly wood-fire roasted, awakening primordial senses.
Wild North has four seats at its counter, and you can also have your food brought to you inside Cartlandia's air-conditioned Blue Room Bar. To beat the heat, the first dish I tried was the chilled cucumber gazpacho. The small version of the soup punched far above its price, arriving in a hefty bread bowl. It was refreshingly green, topped with dill and studded with chunks of cooling cucumber and sweet halved grapes.
But the bread actually stole the show. The bread bowl slowly softened as it absorbed the gazpacho. Its hollowed out core was served alongside a cloud of salted butter, and the wood smoke had added meatiness, as though the bread had been prepared with lard. Bizarrely, the hand-churned butter from Washington's Jacobs Creamery sometimes added an essence of Cheetos, something I hope to have explained to me in the near future by some culinary scientist—because, really, finding a way to get Cheetos flavor with locally milled whole wheat flour impresses me more than landing on the Moon.
Next up was a deceptively simple sunflower salad ($8). Warm bacon-shallot vinaigrette wilted a bed of sunflower sprouts and nasturtium leaves and flowers. Topped with shaved Parmesan and crunchy sunflower seeds in soy sauce, it embodied the holy trinity of freshly harvested ingredients, bold technique and personal style that makes Portland such a great food city.
This would probably be the time to bring up Brandon Hughes' obsession with popcorn, which he uses like a seasoning. With the buttered popcorn on the cob ($8), a roasted ear of corn topped with "popcorn hollandaise" and popcorn, he simmers popcorn in butter to imbue its toastiness. Order this dish before corn season ends. The fire roasting condenses the hollandaise so it forms a thick coat around the entire cob, adding subtle heat and lemon. The condensed hollandaise also covers the accompanying popcorn—it's like movie-theater popcorn on bath salts.
Wild North offers only two to four entrees, and recent visits revealed mussels with smoked pork belly in a tomato broth and porchetta over panzanella. I ordered the small mussels, which arrived in another massive bread bowl, featuring six large mussels, endless pork belly and thick, clinging broth—the acidity from the base of wood-fire-roasted tomatoes cleansing the palate with each bite. The porchetta showed the true power of cooking with raw flame: the incredible sweet-crunchy texture, from charred to silky, of long-roasted meat.
Sunday is the one day a week Wild North serves brunch. Dishes include breakfast bread bowls ($7, $11), one killer hash brown ($6) and eggs Benedict over wood-fired brioche ($13).
The mission behind Wild North also warms my insides. "The whole idea behind the food is to waste nothing," Amelia Hughes told me. "We try to use every part of an ingredient, such as working with whole lambs this spring."
With so many worlds colliding at Wild North, the deeply charred barbecue pork roulade may sum up the dining experience best. Sweet pork is rolled up in a savory pastry and then topped with melted Gruyere, mustard-drenched pickled onions and cooked red onion. On one hand, it tastes like a rustic French pastry. On the other, it's the fanciest pig in a blanket you'll ever eat.