Over the past five years, few stories have encapsulated the tension over rampant development in Portland more dramatically than the fate of our food cart pods.
Once an effective way to make use of unglamorous plots of land in post-recession Portland, pods like Southeast Hawthorne's Cartopia, Southeast Division's Tidbit and the iconic Alder Street Pod downtown imbued their neighborhoods with a cool factor too valuable for hotel and mixed-use magnates to ignore. Cartopia was graciously spared, but Tidbit was axed a year ago, and Alder Street is slated for demolition some time in the near future.
So it was a bit of a surprise when news broke earlier this year that an ambitious new pod would be opening in inner Southeast, just two blocks from Cartopia. Hawthorne Asylum is a 23-cart pod surrounded by brick walls and a wrought-iron gate. Named after a 19th-century hospital for the mentally ill, the pod looks like what might happen if Tim Burton were commissioned to design a Portland-themed section of Disneyland.
Though it suffers from many of the same issues as other cart pods—the hand-washing sink with no way to dry your hands, the lack of a water station, and unpredictable hours—there may not be a more crowd-pleasing al fresco dining option this summer, when temperatures approach the 90s and indecision runs high.
The selection of carts is a staggering mixture of every soul food staple under the sun. We encountered more than a few clunkers in our exploratory eating, but a handful of gems make it easy to piece together a world-class meal from every corner of the globe. Should the paradox of choice become paralyzing, we whittled down our picks to a 10-item list of suggestions that can guide your next visit.
Bulgogi and spicy pork tacos at Korean Twist (three for $9)
A throwback to the early aughts Korean barbecue explosion, the trio of Asian-fusion tacos offered at Korean Twist are a perfect low-commitment foodstuff exemplifying what makes food carts great. The teriyaki chicken was overly sweet and ultimately forgettable, but the bulgogi and spicy pork contained just the right blend of spice and sweetness to deliver an incredible punch of flavor.
Shan kauk-swal thoke (shan noodle salad) at Burmese Delight ($10)
Along with the new Burmese takeout spot Top Burmese in Slabtown, expect Burmese Delight to help usher in an era when the noodle salads of Myanmar take a place at the table alongside more ubiquitous Southeast Asian dishes like curry and pad thai. The main attraction here is the five-spice blend that crowns this classic comfort dish, and the curry chicken and rice noodles are complemented perfectly by its subtly abrasive spice and the crispy texture of the peanuts scattered throughout.
Cerdo dorado at Mestizaje ($9.99)
Mestizaje was open only once during our visits, but its take on Spanish tapas and grilled Latin American meats was by far the most intriguing blend of flavors in the pod. You can't go wrong with any of the "tapas" on the top left of the menu, but the cerdo dorado is the standout. The simplicity of the dish belies a stunning depth of flavors, with the grilled peppers and seasoning really making the spicy charred flavor of the pork loin pop. At around $10, it's the kind of dish you can get that cheap only at a cart.
Koshari bowl at Peri Koshari ($7.50 small, $8.50 large)
Koshari is a quick and popular dish from Egypt, with a base of macaroni, lentils and a rich red sauce. You wouldn't be wrong in thinking of it as a far more interesting spin on the vegan-friendly food pile Whole Bowl. Ask for an extra sprinkling of crispy caramelized onions on top, and be sure to douse the bottom half of the bowl in the white garlic sauce you're given on the side.
Lamb cheesesteak with wiz at Dr. Philly Cheesesteak ($10.99)
Dr. Philly is more of a spiritual cousin of the downtown Middle Eastern street-meat carts than proper hoagie shops like Grant's or Monk's, but the upgrade you get choosing lamb over beef in your Philly cheesesteak makes it a slam dunk either way. You never knew you wanted a richer, more heavily seasoned spin on a Philly, yet here we are, cheese wiz and all. Be warned about it's size, though—and the nap you'll probably need after tackling it alone.
Fried chicken and pulled pork po’boy at South ($12 plus $3 for hush puppies)
It seems no proper cart pod is complete without a husband-and-wife duo cranking out delicious heaps of fried food. The South African-born matriarch of South was kind enough to stay open an extra 15 minutes to fire up a po'boy that offered a split of the cart's two main proteins—tender, flaky fried chicken and an impossibly rich and juicy heap of pulled pork—with the convenience of just one bun. Ask for an extra side of the tangy remoulade that graces the sandwich so you can dunk the hush puppies in it.
En Fuego burrito at Rollin’ Fresh ($11)
Serving sashimi-grade fish out of a sweltering food cart seems precarious, but Rollin' Fresh manages to churn out combinations of poke bowls, salads and burritos that are just as fresh and vibrant as those at most nearby brick-and-mortars. The En Fuego is the perfect mashup of sweet, spicy and crunchy, courtesy of spicy tuna and salmon, ginger guacamole and crispy bites of tempura crumbs and snappy jalapeños.
Chicken pelmeni at Pelmeni ($8-$9.50)
As with Mestizaje, we had a hell of a time catching Pelmeni during business hours, but its fantastically doughy chicken dumplings—which come doused in sour cream, fresh dill and what tastes like a curry-infused ketchup—are worth repeat visits, with hopes the Russian comfort food cart is actually open.
Sliced brisket sandwich at Bark City BBQ ($11 with side of mac ’n’ cheese)
If we had to anoint one superstar of Hawthorne Aslyum, it'd be this ascendant barbecue cart. Hailed by true believers as the heir apparent to the Texas barbecue throne currently held by Matt's BBQ, Barks gets by with a wonderfully tender and smoky brisket that should be everyone's excuse for playing hooky from work and showing up right when it opens. Load up on one of the many house sauces at the pickup window, and cap it all off with a rich and creamy banana pudding milkshake ($7), which features crumbled Nilla Wafers and a hunk of caramelized sugar poking out the top.
Sangria at Black Dagger ($8)
Every cart pod needs at least one a booze cart. Though Black Dagger dabbles only in the world of beer and wine, the latter is served frosty cold and loaded with frozen fruit chunks if you pony up the $8 for a pint of the housemade sangria blend. I had a hard time forgiving the cart for blasting nothing but Pink Floyd on three consecutive visits, but the combo of the sangria and the beer curation—which serves up $6 pints of Delirium Tremens alongside $5 pints of summertime staples like pFriemd IPA and Modern Times Fruitlands Sour—deserves high praise.
EAT: Hawthorne Asylum, 1080 SE Madison St.