Circling an entire city block at Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street in downtown Portland is an outdoor food court like none other. About 60 tiny restaurants are scrunched together, offering diners four styles of falafel, Thai street food, fried Scottish fish, pierogi and dumplings.
That all that food is churned out of mobile kitchens is remarkable — and it’s even more remarkable that similar groupings of mobile carts are scattered throughout the city. In downtown Portland alone, six lots host 200 miniature restaurants.
If you haven’t heard about Portland’s burgeoning food cart scene, you haven’t been paying attention. While the country is now seeing a mobile restaurant movement, Portland is the epicenter with around 500 mobile kitchens total.
What makes the cart community a real destination is the structure surrounding Portland carts. While most food cart communities, like Tacoma’s and Olympia’s, are spread out over multiple locations, Portland’s mini restaurants group themselves into large cart clusters. The so-called pods of Portland can host anywhere from a dozen to 50 or more carts. Each enclave comes with its own culture and sensibilities. Visit just one grouping and you can spend hours nibbling your way through a food carnival unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Five years ago, it was simpler touring Portland food carts — that was back when 100 existed. Now with 500, where does one even start?
Enter Brett Burmeister. He’s a former corporate IT guy turned independent website operator who runs foodcartsportland.com, an online guide to Portland’s cart scene. Any first-time visitor should scroll through Burmeister’s site. He’s been writing short reviews of mobile restaurants since 2004, first as a blogger before joining Food Carts Portland in 2008 at the invitation of founder Lizzy Caston.
Now, he’s probably the city’s best cart ambassador and an international food cart advocate. He advises government bodies on establishing rules for food carts and speaks at symposiums on the topic.
Burmeister explains why Portland’s food cart culture has persisted for more than five years: It’s a combination of economics, a public hungry for affordable food, Portland’s entrepreneurial spirit, and relaxed regulations that make operating mobile restaurants in clusters an easier endeavor than in other parts of the country, including South Sound.
Burmeister’s got plenty of advice for first-time visitors. His navigation tips:
When to visit: The best time is spring and summer, although Portland food carts are immune to rain and they operate all year. “Most of the vendors have some sort of awning,” said Burmeister. “We’ve cultivated this mob structure. These food carts have congregated in food lots and they have shelter.”
Days to visit: Most downtown carts operate Monday through Saturday. Sunday’s probably the worst day to visit. If heading to the Eastside of Portland, cart groupings have different hours. Cartopia in the Hawthorne neighborhood, for instance, only opens in the evening.
Finding information: Burmeister’s site foodcartsportland.com is a resource to find cart names and locations. Search deeper for information through Facebook pages or Twitter accounts hosted by the food carts. You can find current hours, menus, etc.
Cost: Street food here is not expensive. Expect a meal to cost about $10. Bring cash. Many carts don’t take plastic.
Tours: Burmeister offers a 90-minute tour that comes with lunch. The $37.50 tour takes visitors by 100 food carts. He centers his tours around downtown Portland pods, but can custom design a tour. Visit foodcartsportland.com/tours.
Burmeister’s recommendations for best choices:
Best daytime destination: Southwest 10th and Alder. This downtown Portland lot has 60 vendors crammed into an easily navigated block. “The diversity is dynamic, obviously there are so many choices,” said Burmeister. He recommends the Flying Scotsman, Euro Trash and Thai carts.
Best nighttime destination: Cartopia at Southeast 12th and Hawthorne in Southeast Portland. It opens late afternoon or early evening and shuts down at 4 a.m. This cart enclave hosts a burgeoning late-night scene and is home to Whiffies Pies, a creperie, and a mini Mexican restaurant. Picnic tables invite communal eating and the space is lit at night.
Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270