Like any street-savvy businessman, Malachi "Spankihana" Jenkins doesn't much like competition.
"I like to be out on my own," he says from the wet parking lot outside the cart, where he'd invited us through a local emissary, the rapper Cool Nutz.
For a cart that serves recipes heavily influenced by soul food—the signature dish is Spank's pineapple bowl, the halved fruit stuffed with rice, steak, shrimp and a little hot sauce—the location has the added advantage of being central for the city's scattered black population.
"A lot of people have been displaced to Southeast," said Cool Nutz. "Nowadays, that places you down in the middle of everybody, even being out on 85th—which is crazy… it's considered central, because there's so many people coming from, as you say, the Numbers."
Spank, who has family in Portland, has been eating all over town—his favorite spot is Acropolis, the strip club-slash-steakhouse where you can get t-bones on a budget. At other pods, he sees people window-shopping the menus. He doesn't like that.
Not that Trap Kitchen has ever suffered for attention. Spank and business partner Roberto "News" Smith were in rival gangs before starting the cart, a story that's been covered everywhere from Ebony to LA Weekly to Vice. Dave Chappelle, Snoop Dogg, Kobe Bryant, Kendrick Lamar, Russell Simmons and Kanye West have all had his plates.
"It all started when I got hired to be a personal chef for local pimps while living in Las Vegas," Spank told Vice. "I started cooking for them after I dropped out of Le Cordon Bleu; they love rich pastas like shrimp and chicken Alfredo, and dishes like that."
Spank and News started posting pictures of their plates to Instagram, and people started showing up in droves. In Portland, Spank wanted something more permanent, so he hired a local chef, Anders Green, and taught him the ways of the Trap. Then he bought an old cart and styled it with a barred door and tagged up with "Lord Bless The Trap." Everything on the cart is custom—Spank even had a smoker built into the engine compartment so they can do ribs, chicken and sausages on the weekends.
The eventual plan is to build a full food court in the lot behind where Trap Kitchen currently sits. Right now, on a rainy day customers do the most reasonable thing in the world, the thing people everywhere but Portland would naturally do: They sit in their car eating the still-hot food out of their to-go containers.
The cart is open from about noon to whenever they sell out, which can often be before the end of business hours. The menu rotates on a whim. In order to see what they're serving, keep your eyes on Instagram—the Los Angeles branch of Trap Kitchen has 230,000 followers on Instagram, and the Portland location, which has been covered by no other media, already has 8,000. The wait can run 20 minutes or so, and you should bring cash.
Everything on the menu is marked with a "TK" (TK fries are french fries with a little garlic), which will cause confusion for anyone who's ever worked in publishing.
The dishes we had on two visits—Spank treated us the first time over our objections, and we paid the second—were well-made with a refreshing homespun touch.
The pineapple bowls ($20) are surprisingly simple, but also satisfying. The extra-super-crispy fried chicken is wonderful. The wing mac slider, a fried chicken wing with a scoop of mac and cheese wrapped in a soft waffle ($14) shows everything they do right. The bacon bleu cheese burger ($13 with fries) is pleasantly rich and salty. The Rich Boy ($15) is a seriously fat po'boy made with rarefied salmon along with breaded shrimp—the hoagie lightly toasted, the salmon generous in portion.
A friend who made it out to the Saturday barbecue said the ribs are some of the best he's ever had—meaty, smoky, tender and bathed in a tangy sauce.
All in all, it's one of the most refreshing food experiences in Portland right now. Spank doesn't have to fret over competition—in this town, at least, there's nothing like Trap Kitchen.