Recently we spent a few days in Portland, Oregon, a city loaded with incredible and unique restaurants.
But we didn't always eat in these establishments. That's because there's a colorful cadre of street carts clustered in several downtown locations.
Several hundred food carts offer international dishes, as well as American favorites.
The largest collection seems to be grouped along SW Washington Street, and they line a vacant city block. Whoever came up with the idea of using dead urban space in such a creative way deserves a lot of credit.
Nearly every type of food is found at these miniature eateries, including Argentinian, Czech and Peruvian and Paleo Diet. We also saw a number of Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican stalls, as well as East Indian, Greek, Egyptian and American soul food.
The soul food cart looked cute, as it was about half the size of the others. But I wasn't in the mood for grits, okra or black-eyed peas.
One very interesting enterprise is called Eurotrash Food. It stands out among the others, both because of its mysterious name and the fact that the cart is decorated in bold pink and azure.
The menu is eclectic. For instance, you can order a grilled curried prawn baquette, topped with curried cole slaw. Another entree is Jessica Albacore, which is a grilled tuna, horseradish and cole slaw sandwhich. Or, you can sample chorizo & chips.
The Eurotrash website says the cart is owned by a Portland native who was inspired by his travels through Europe. He opened the cart because he needed to work, and, at the time, he was unemployed.
Eurotrash looked interesting, but I was more in the mood for Asian or Mexican food.
My husband and I circled the food stands to see what each offered. Our children did the same. One big advantages of this type of dining is that every person in the party can select a different menu.
It was a tough choice, but I settled on a Southeast Asian Pad Thai noodle dish. Unfortunately, it was way too hot, despite the fact I requested something moderately spicy. It was also way too sweet, even though I had asked for the cook, if possible, to reduce or eliminate the sugar.
My husband, however, picked a winner at Aybla Grille, a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cart. He ordered a Super Falafel lamb wrap drizzled with hummus and tahini sauce and stuffed with lettuce, tomato and feta cheese.
One of my children got some East Indian lamb curry with yogurt and yellow rice and she said it was delicious.
I regretted not ordering from the first Thai cart I had passed, as I had a gut feeling the food would be good. My final choice left a lot to be desired.
Our Return Visit
I wasn't exactly anxious to return to the food stalls a second time. My husband insisted we go back because he was so taken up with the carts. This would be his third trip, because he had already eaten an oversized hamburger on his own.
This time we both ordered Pad Thai from the same vendor, the cart I almost chose on our first trip.
It was run by a husband/wife team and the owner was more than happy to accommodate special dietary requests, although he warned us the food wouldn't taste as intended. It was obvious he and his wife take their cooking seriously.
I also appreciated his honesty because I try to avoid MSG. He said none was added to the prepared food, but he couldn't guarantee the pre-made spice mixes didn't contain any. This is an ingredient that hides under a lot of different names, such as "natural flavorings."
The Pad Thai from this stall was cooked to perfection. It was perfect. The chicken was moist and flavorful and it didn't have the cloying sweetness that can ruin this dish. This time we both picked a winner.
My nephew was with us on the second visit. He was worried he wouldn't find vegan food, but this was a groundless fear. The beauty of a food cart is that everything is cooked to order. You can ask the chef to leave out meat and/or meat sauce.
Settling on a Choice
Food carts can be found throughout the city. They are literally everywhere. The difficulty lies in deciding which one to try. One thing that may help is to go online and read some of the reviews.
Many carts also have their own webites, and you can learn more about the owner and the cart's history. Longevity is a very good sign because there's so much competition.
What struck me most about these carts is that each one is a miniature restaurant. Some owners even provide little sitting areas outside of the cart, limited to customers.
Some of the carts are stand alone, but many are clustered in groups known as pods, which is a plus if you have multiple people in your party. We particularly liked the SW Washington Street location because it was the largest assembly of stalls that we found and it is located across the street from a public park, so we could sit down and dig in.