Much like beer, coffee, political correctness and sleeve tattoos, Portland's food trucks are an integral part of the city's identity. They are not in any way the ‘little sibling’ to restaurants, nor a second-rate alternative to eating out. They are beloved. As cart-goers, we're attracted to their simplicity; we get an open look into the flurry of the kitchen, and a selection of just a few dishes that have been crafted to near-perfection. The owner and creator of the menu is mere feet away, tempting the start of curious conversation.
That’s the thing about food carts— it’s more a story of the owner than it is about the food. It’s hard to distinguish one from the other, but the personal story is just as compelling as the flavor profiles of their food. They often come from scattered cooking backgrounds, unfulfilling jobs and soul-searching treks around the world, and had to scrap together the time and money to put in the grueling hours because of one thing: they believed they could cook a dish well enough that people would pay to eat it.
A food cart is small. You can turn and pivot but you can’t really move. And they’re freaking hot — you’re surrounded by hot pans and burning ovens, after all. Days last an average of ten hours, plus more for prepping and cleaning. The reward, of course, is the real joy that stems from the personal connection you build with your clientele, along with being able to experiment with ingredients as you please. You're free to change the menu as often as you wish, or to chip away for as long as it takes to get that one dish just right. One cart owner has a sauce that he's been making for 18 years that has been buzzed about by plenty of publications, and yet, he says, it's not even close to perfection. Such is the art of this creative craft.
The following food carts are listed because they're doing something special. These owners have a goal, and a story that stems back from it. Some are as young as two months, while others have been open for over a decade. They are featured here because they have a deep love for what they do, and that energy translates into the food quality, keeping people coming back time and time again. Without further ado, here are the top seven.
“There’s no such thing as Mexican food”, says Fernando Otero, owner of Holy Mole. “Only food you get that’s particular to each region”. Thus, Fernando’s “Mole Pueblano”, considered by many to be the best mole in town, is a true representation of the cooking he had in Puebla, Mexico, where he was raised. Many carts and restaurants offer a “distorted” version of ethnic foods, to please the public’s palette. By the time the food reaches Americans plates, it’s lost a lot of what made it so special to it’s hometown. Otero wants none of that. As he says, “my cooking is not to impress, but to express.” He has been making his mole for 18 years, and his craft is based purely on “palette and memory”. He makes a fresh batch each week, a process that takes about 17 hours. His cart has won Food Cart of the Year from multiple publications, and he’s gotten plenty of press. Still, he says, his mole has yet to reach “that sacred level”. It will happen soon. And when it does, it will be a Holy day.
Fine Goose is appropriately located directly in front of Holy Mole, and it makes too much sense. Like Otero, co-owners Jean Broquere and Sebastien Guarderas are dedicated to sharing the food they loved as children with the people of Portland. Born and raised in France, the owners are professional chefs with years of kitchen experience, and have modeled their menu on their grandmothers’ recipes. Their intention, as Guarderas says, is that “we wanted to show people that you can eat authentic, fine French food and not have to pay $60.” And they followed through. Duck Confit is our recommendation - the duck, initially cooked over five hours, is so juicy and tender that you’ll savor each bite. It’s served over crispy, confit potatoes with an arugula salad. At just $12, it’s absurdly good value.
Soft ribbon noodles, tender short rib ragu, crunchy pecorino…this is one of the best pasta dishes around, and it costs $11. Jesus Martinez is co-owner, and the former sous chef at Bar Mingo, one of Portland’s top Italian restaurants. Martinez has flourished in the freedom of cooking what he wants, something he didn’t get to experience in a restaurant. Gumba is an Italian cart, but they’ll offer specials that go outside the cuisine, such as Curry and Cinnamon Coconut Cream French Toast, which they just put out a few weekends ago. All ingredients, from the hand-rolled noodles to the burrata cheese (which is rarely made from scratch), are done right inside the cart. It’s all a true labor of love.
PDX Sliders has the #4 spot for “Best Burger in America” in a recent piece by National Geographic. They’ve also won back-to-back “Best Bite” awards at “Bite of Oregon”, which is the state’s largest culinary event. We’ll take a minute to let that settle. All of this from two brothers cooking sliders (miniature burgers) on the side of the road in Sellwood, a small neighborhood outside main Portland. Ryan Rollins is the owner here. Years ago, he was in a corporate grind that had him moping at home on the weekends and eating through his sorrows. Sliders, specifically. He saw the opportunity to start a cart, so he enlisted his brother, Josh Levus, a professional chef of ten years, to spend the summer experimenting with recipes. Fast forward through hundreds of combinations of buns, cheeses, sauces and condiments, and they have created a true neighborhood institution. Sliders are ordered en masse by families, regulars, and those who make the 20-minute drive from Portland just to taste what everyone’s been raving about. The Tillikum (buttermilk fried chicken with homemade BBQ sauce, slaw and aioli on ciabatta) and Hawthorne (beef, bacon, goat cheese and strawberry preserves) are the winners here, though every slider on the menu is worth trying.
Take 30 seconds and look at the Yelp reviews for Matt’s BBQ. We’ve never seen such adulation for a food vendor, ever. Such is deserved for Matt’s BBQ, owned and operated by Matt Vicedomini. From day one, he’s put out possibly the best brisket in Portland, and things have only improved since. Months ago, he bought an 8-ft smoker, which allows him to triple the volume of his barbecue. This was such a big deal that The Oregonian wrote an article to make the announcement. This still doesn’t keep his items from selling out. The demand here is smokin’ hot - people often order double so they can take some home. After all, Matt’s only open from Wednesday to Saturday.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai
Put simply, you cannot have a list of Portland’s best food carts and leave out Nong’s. You just can’t. Nong Poonsukwattana came to the U.S. in 2003, from Thailand, with $70 and two suitcases, as she told in an endearing TEDx talk. She waitressed in dozens of Thai restaurants, then joined the kitchen at Pok Pok at the behest of her friend. Eventually, she put together the cash to buy an 8’x8’ food cart, and started making the one dish she knew best: Khao Man Gai. In Zen-like fashion, she has taken a simple dish and absolutely mastered it. For those unfamiliar, Khao Man Gai is a lunch staple for Thais. It’s poached chicken, rice cooked in broth, a bowl of broth to ‘cleanse the throat’, and a side of pungeon sauce (fermented soy bean puree with ginger, garlic, chilies, vinegar and sugar). Nong hand-selects all ingredients, and her cart presents a perfect recreation of what you’d find on the streets of Bangkok. She now has three locations - two food carts and a restaurant. Her sauce caught on so strongly that she now bottles it and sells wholesale, in markets both in Portland and around the US.
Owner Karel Vitek escaped communist Czechoslovakia and swam to Austria. He eventually ended up in Portland, and then spent 12 years at Portland State University getting a philosophy degree. The result? The Original Schnitzelwich, one of the best sandwiches in the city. Or, as the cart’s poster puts it, “One Pound of Pure Joy”. Such is the signature item at Tábor (“TAH-bor”, not to be confused with Mt. Tabor), a Czechoslovakian food cart owned by Vitek and his wife, Monika. The Schnitzelwich is a beast of a meal - a hearty cut of breaded pork loin, chicken breast or eggplant, topped with lettuce, sautéed onions and ajvar, a paprika-based relish. You can eat half and still be fine for the afternoon.
With so many delicious food carts in the city, we’re curious to know which ones you'd put on the list… let us know in the comments!