Believe it or not, one of our goals on vacation was to hit some of the food carts around Portland, hopefully ones that are only open during typical work hours during the week. There are something like 400 carts around Portland, so we had do some research (really, we have spreadsheets and stuff - it's very scientific) to determine what would make the cut. I mean, after all, you can only eat so much in a couple weeks, right?
In the end we didn't get to all the ones on our list, and we hit some that weren't on the list, and we hit some that didn't qualify for the "only open during work hours" clause, but whatever. It was fun. And yummy. We still can't get over the quality of the food you get at these places, the variety of the food, and how cheap it is overall. I never really thought about how much of a restaurant price is based on rent, but it must be about 50% considering the cheapness and quality of the food at the carts.
Who needs restaurants anyway?!
So here's a hitlist of where we went (you knew I was getting back to food at some point).
Moody's: This tiny donut cart is hidden behind the Rocking Frog Cafe near 25th and Belmont. We hit it up and got a chocolate and vanilla doughnut to go with a mocha from the Cafe. The doughnuts were solid grub. They weren't greasy or oily and had nice flavor, but they weren't the best I've had or anything. Would I go back? Maybe if I was in the neighborhood and had a hankering for doughnuts, but I don't see that being very often. The mocha was just okay.
Spella Caffe: This coffee cart downtown deals in various espresso drinks as well as gelato (Italian ice cream). Plenty of people called this the best espresso in the city, so of course we had to try it. We ordered a mocha and some stracciatella gelato (vanilla with hard chocolate - an Italian standby) to see how it compared to our favorites. The mocha was solid, but I didn't think it was the best in Portland. The gelato was good and may be one of the best in Portland, but I confess to not having tried very many - yet. Would I go back? I would, I think. Next time I might just try a plain old espresso, since people who talk about this place say that's what they love. Mark Spella down as "needs more research." Hey, someone has to do it.
Maximus / Minimus (Seattle): Yep, hit up a food cart in Seattle too. This place is started by the same people who run Beecher's Cheese (Sugar Mountain) and it's pork. And the cart is designed to look like a pig. Seriously, how could anyone NOT check this out?! We hit up the cart just after the lunch rush, so it wasn't too busy. Actually, we got downtown during the lunch rush and there was a huge line, but by the time we found a parking spot (Seattle, you suck for downtown parking) and hiked our way back to the cart, no line at all. Um, yay us?
One thing jumped out immediately as we ordered our sandwich with slaw and Beecher's Flasgship cheddar added on (honestly, I think we went minimus - sweet instead of spicy - on the flavor): these people are efficient. In Portland when you order at a cart you typically wait for your food for a bit and you may pay when your order or when you get your food, just depends on the cart. Here the cart actually had what I can't really describe as anything other than a waitress with a handheld computer. You gave your order, she punched it into the machine, and then she swiped your credit card. The receipt then printed on another machine on the side of the cart, managed by another employee, who gave it to you with your order number. In short, this place was designed for high volume traffic, something none of the carts I have visited in Portland have done on par. Is that good or bad? Neither, really - just different.
Oh yeah, the food. Even though we went light on the spice with our sauce, that little sandwich still had some kick to it. And it was good, but it wasn't amazing or anything. If you go, which you should just for a picture with the pig (which I might do next time), don't bother getting the cheese. Honestly, I couldn't taste it at all. I'm not sure if that was because there was so little of it or the pork and sauce just overpowered it. The slaw was excellent - no mayo, which for me is a plus with slaw. You know, because I'm obviously concerened with calories. If I lived in Seattle and especially if I worked downtown I'd check this place out repeatedly, but coming from out of town I think it's a one-time thing - too many other places to check out.
Brunch Box: Brunch Box is a cart that has got a lot of love nationally for what they do - burgers and breakfast. It also made some best burgers in Portland lists and caught my eye with something called YouCANHasCheeseburger (funny for those lovers of LOL cats - one of my favorite sites). It's basically a regular burger, but instead of a hamburger bun it's stuck between two Texas toast grilled cheese sandwiches. Brilliant! Why not?! I mean, more bread and cheese with my cheeseburger? Of course! Lay it on me! When it came time to order, though, I went with something called a Redonkadonk, which is basically the same as a YouCANHasCheeseburger plus a OMG Burger - added fried egg, spam, and ham. And yes, lord, it was good. I wouldn't recommend this to precede an afternoon run, but if all you are going to do it sit on your ass, it's good stuff. Oh, and it's huge - we made it four servings I think. Oh yeah, I'll go back. I need a YouCANHasCheeseburger.
Sidecart: Right next to Brunch Box, and opened and operated by the same person, is Side Cart. In what is simply a stroke of genius Side Cart specializes in all the side dishes you'd love to have with your hamburger or breakfast sandwich that are, conveniently, made by Brunch Box right next door. We opted for tater tots and seasoned curly fries - both very good, not too greasy, good flavor - and we'll definitely go back for those mac and cheese bites or cheesy tots. We ordered a side order instead of a full order and that proved to be a good choice - it was still the size of a medium take-out Chinese food container, more than enough food. A full order is probably a meal in itself.
Grilled Cheese Grill: Grilled Cheese Grill has almost a full lot in Northeast Portland on 11th and Alberta, with eight picnic tables and a converted old school bus to sit and eat if you like, in additioin to the trailer they make the food in. Honestly, it's a nice setup. Plus, you can sit on the opposite side of the lot and still hear when your order is ready because they announce it over a PA system. Oh, and they take credit cards here - I love not having to use cash, but most carts don't take cards. The idea of this cart just blew me away, honestly. An American classic, the grilled cheese sandwich, spiced up with all sorts of flavors and ingredients. Check out the menu to see what I mean. Wifey ordered a Jalapeno Popper, which had jalapenos, cheese, cream cheese, and tortilla chips on the sandwich. Good stuff. Not too spicy, but plenty of flavor. Me? Well, when someone has something called the Cheesus Burger, you know I'm having to get that. Like the Redonkadonk at Brunch Box, the burger buns are replaced with grilled cheese sandwiches. And you know what? Just as yummy. It's actually a bit smaller (no egg or pork), but still two meals. Given the size of their menu I don't know that I would necessarily order it next time, but I wouldn't rule out getting it again. It was yummy for sure. Oh, and how the menu said you don't have to eat again for two days? They aren't kidding. But in a good way.
Ziba's Pitas: Question for you, dear readers - Have you ever had Bosnian food? Do you even know what Bosnian food is? Yeah, neither did I - so that's why we went here. Why not try something completely off our radar? We ordered a Burek, which is a meat pita. And when you read pita, don't expect anything like a Greek gyro - these are completely different. They come similar to a sandwich, but there are multiple tubes in the bread filled with meat. I'd love to see how these things are put together because I don't get it just by looking at them. We ordered the full meal, which I recommend because the sauce that comes with the cucumbers on the side as well as the ajvar (grilled vegetable sauce) make excellent dipping for the pita. Again, very, very good. I'm a fan and I'll definitely go back. However, a word of warning: Don't eat this if you are working out in the next six hours. Probably not a good idea. I don't know for sure, I'm just guessing - it's a heavy meal.
Nong's Khao Man Gai: To be truthful, I had never heard of this Thai cart until a friend from Seattle came into town and said this was a place she absolutely had to go to. We were like - um, what? Don't you hate it when someone from out of town comes to your city with something like that, a place they have to eat or something they have to do that you have never even heard of? For me, that was Nong's. After our friend went there and then proceeded to rave about it, calling it one of the best places she ate in Portland - and she was here for four days expressly for food - we had to hit it up. Actually, I think Wifey knew about the place and she probably told me, but it probably slipped my mind because the menu didn't really jump out at me. Why? Because Nong does only Khao Man Gai, which is basically chicken and rice. And honestly, who doesn't like chicken and rice? Especially perfectly cooked chicken and wonderfully flavored rice, with a soy bean sauce (a delightful kick for mixing), and a Chinese winter squash soup. For $6! $6! A deal! And honestly, this was the best chicken and rice I've ever eaten. Wifey wanted to go back the next day despite our list of places to go back to, it was that good - and I can't disagree. I shrug at the soup, but it did provide some balance to the spicy sauce. When we go back we'll opt to spend $2 for extra rice. So good though... And neither of us had any idea we liked Thai food. Apparently we do. And Bosnian.
El Masry: And, apparently, Egyptian. As I think I mentioned, one of the things we wanted to do was step outside our comfort zones a bit, hence the forays into things like Bosnian, Thai, and Egyptian cuisines. El Masry has a huge menu, but we ordered the chicken schwarma (that might be spelled wrong, I've seen multiple spellings) and it came with seasoned fries. The schwarma was wrapped in a pita with a myriad of vegetables and a sauce, not overly dissimilar from a gyro in presentation but a decidedly different flavor. And excellent. We'll definitely go back at some point because there were about 20 other things on the menu that looked good as well. Thumbs up.
Funny story. When we hit El Masry it was on 9/11, just before the lunch rush. We placed our order - didn't pay yet - and were waiting for it to be made. Wifey and I were the only ones there that early so we were talking when this other pair comes up to us, man and woman, dressed in business clothes (we were on vacation, so probably looking like we were going on a hike or to the gym, I can't recall which). I paid them no mind until I realized they were talking to us. Here's my inexact but generally legitimate rendition of the conversation:
Woman: Have you paid for your lunch yet?
Me: Um, what?
Woman: Have you paid for your lunch yet?
Me: (Silence...just looking at this lady trying to figure out why the hell she would be asking that. I mean, that is weird, right?)
Woman: We're doing a sort of pay it forward thing in rememberance of 9/11 and we want to buy your lunch.
Woman: We don't want anything in return, no strings attached. We'll buy your lunch.
Me: (looking at this lady like she is a bit weird, perhaps with three heads) That's okay.
Woman: It's just something our ad agency is doing, a pay it forward thing, to say thank you and do something nice.
Me: (shaking head no)
Woman: (looking suprised)
Me: No thanks.
Woman: Are you sure? I mean, no strings attached, we just want to buy you lunch.
Me: I appreciate that, but it's not necessary.
Woman: (clearly surprised) Well, okay then. Have a good day!
Me: You too.
Was that weird I turned them down? That I said no, I'll pay for my own food? I agree on the surface it probably seems silly on my part, but it just felt wrong, you know? I mean, we don't break the bank or anything but we do okay - it's not like we NEED anyone buying our food for us. And an ad agency? That part is probably what got me more than anything, though I probably would have turned it down even it was just some random person.
Here's the deal though. If they really wanted to do a good deed, we were in downtown Portland. There are plenty of homeless people trolling the streets - there were probably some nearby in that part of downtown - so why not by THEM lunch? Why the middle class couple who can obviously afford their own food? Buy food for the homeless guy, give him a nice Egyptian meal, and have that be their special 9/11 remembrance good deed. Why rely on some theory of pay it forward, when you can help someone who is literally right there in front of you?
That's not something I'm going to do. I'm not a big believer in the goodness of humanity - Wifey jokes I'd be the one to end this kind of chain (and she's probably right) - but if I was some company who is doing this for a reason, shouldn't you at least find people that need the help?
I just didn't get it. And I didn't need it. So I turned it down. Wifey laughed when they left, saying they'll go back to their office at the end of the afternoon and tell people they made the offer to 200 people and only one person turned them down. I'm sure I'm some kind of weird story in that office. Oh well.
Fun times at the Portland Food Carts!