Like pitas in a pod
It's not difficult to spot Brett Burmeister in the outdoor lunchtime crowd. The co-owner and managing editor of the Food Carts Portland website looks as if he's a character from Portlandia - mutton-chop sideburns, thick-framed glasses, plaid jacket, messenger bag slung across one shoulder.
"I hope you're hungry," he says, shaking my hand.
I am, although I'm not just here to eat, but to learn more about Portland's thriving food cart culture.
This north-west US city of fewer than 600,000 people has more than 500 carts, most of them clustered in 25 pods around town. We meet at the largest pod, on Alder Street and SW 10th Avenue, where about 60 carts permanently sit.
Burmeister, who runs food cart tours, says this is one of the main reasons for their success.
The majority of the carts in Portland do not have to move around. Thanks to the city's relaxed regulations, they can remain in the same spot and build up a regular clientele.
This part of the city was a dodgy wasteland as recently as the early 1990s. Nearby O'Bryant Square was known as "crack park" and the only viable businesses were drug deals.
Today, the park is full of people enjoying the food they've bought from the carts, which have not only transformed the city's eating habits (many fast-food chains have closed their downtown outlets) but helped revitalise the area.
"The city has been really proactive," Burmesiter says. "It costs around $600 or $700 a month to rent a space for your cart and around $500 a year for licensing, which is low compared to other US cities. It makes it a much cheaper alternative to starting a bricks-and-mortar restaurant."
It's fair to say that until about five years ago, US food carts did not have a stellar reputation in culinary circles. They didn't earn the nickname "roach coach" for nothing.
They also used to be about convenience and the emphasis was not on quality but about filling drunken stomachs with a substandard taco or hot dog in the early hours of the morning after the bars closed.
Although some carts have been in Portland since the early '90s, Burmeister feels things really started to transform about 2008 as cart numbers mushroomed and chef-driven foods and dishes from many different cultures took over.
Now, walking around the Alder pod is a bit like wandering through a food fair representing all the nations of the world as you pass Cuban, Thai, Polish, Korean, Japanese and more.
At EuroTrash, Charles Thomas is the go-to guy for deep-fried anchovies. The tattooed, bearded Thomas spent time travelling Spain and Portugal learning about fish and how to cook it.
The Dump Truck is owned by Julia Filip and Reid Barrett, who lived in Beijing in the late 2000s and learnt how to cook dumplings from a couple who ran their neighbourhood shop. On returning to the US, they started making their own for a friend's karaoke bar, then opened The Dump Truck in mid-2010.
"I'd say there are four main reasons that the Portland food cart scene is so big," Barrett says. "Firstly, the culture of stationary carts has allowed pods to form and they become a landmark. Secondly, Portlanders are gonzo about food carts and trust the sanitation level and the quality of the food. Thirdly, the carts here have a long history, so as the number of food carts grew, the supporting economy grew with it. And lastly, I think most nice restaurants in Portland get that we're not really competing with them, we're competing with fast food."
He's too modest to say it, but making a killer dumpling also helps.
Rather than being all things to all people, most of these kitchens on wheels specialise in one thing and do it really well. The Gaufre Gourmet makes Belgian waffles, The Whole Bowl is all about beans and rice, The Frying Scotsman has a long line for fish and chips.
At Grilled Cheese Grill, which has a double-decker bus and a school bus set up across the river in east Portland as well as a cart at the Alder pod, Matt Breslow serves up that most iconic of American comfort foods, the grilled cheese sandwich. He echoes some of Barrett's sentiments about why Portland's scene is so successful, but adds another.
"I grew up in New Jersey, and I could never have done this over there," says Breslow, who opened for business in 2009. "There's a culture in Portland that's uniquely conducive and supportive of creativity and the development of new ideas. The city motto here could easily be 'Hey, that sounds kind of cool'."
Breslow's sandwiches are golden, crispy and delicious. When I ask him for the secret to a great grilled cheese sandwich, he grins and replies, "Getting someone else to make it for you."
Whenever I ask people for a list of their favourite carts, one name keeps coming up: Nong's Khao Man Gai. I finally find it and five minutes later, I'm savouring the signature dish of 30-year-old Nong Poonsukwattana: poached chicken on a bed of rice cooked in chicken stock, with her special sauce on the side.
Nong arrived in Portland more than a decade ago from her native Thailand with two suitcases and US$70 ($86.6) to her name. She waitressed for seven years, saved enough money to open for business four years ago, and her cart has become one of the most popular in the city.
"I will always be grateful for the opportunity this tiny food cart gave me," she says. "It has changed my life. My cart is small but I want to make the best khao man gai in the USA. In Thailand, I was taught that size doesn't matter. It's like bird's eye chilli, which is small but very spicy. I want to kick ass with good food and good service."
The writer flew courtesy of Virgin Australia and was a guest of Hotel deLuxe and Travel Portland.
STAYING THERE Hotel deLuxe, at 729 SW 15th Avenue, is a downtown hotel whose design is inspired by the golden years of Hollywood. Rooms start from US$129 ($159.5), plus tax. hoteldeluxeportland.com.
TOURING THERE Food Carts Portland runs 90-minute tours from Monday to Saturday. They start at noon, cost $US37.50 (children free) and include free samples. See foodcartsportland.com.
MORE INFORMATION travelportland.com
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