Food Cart Review – 2012 Edition

Brett Burmeister

We made it another year friends and the Portland street food scene is stronger than ever. It seems like just last week I was navigating the crowds at the 10th and Alder pod on a sunny hot summer day.

Retrolicious

Retrolicious

Stats:

As with every type of stat, these numbers are my best estimates based on our tracking of the carts throughout the year. As of today, Multnomah County has 702 licensed mobile vendors on the books. That doesn’t necessarily mean there are 702 vendors in pods throughout the city. This number reflects catering company trucks, coffee carts on your daily commute and many of those vendors who only work summers or farmers markets. By my count, there are 350 vendors throughout the city available any given time. Add to that the mobile trucks who roam to corporate campuses beyond downtown and suburbs and you get that number up to 400.

At the end of 2011, we had 689 licensed vendors. Does that mean we only added 13 new vendors? No, 150 new vendors opened throughout the year, but around 60 closed. Some of those new vendors opened brand new carts, but this year we saw a large number of cart transfers where one cart throughout the year ended up being multiple vendors. This was mostly seen downtown where the turnover is greater.

PODS

Portland’s unique pod structure where the carts live saw some changes also. D-Street Noshery closed in October and the spot is being developed into mixed use housing. As for openings, we have Alberta15, Rose City Food Park, The Row, Hillsdale Food Park, 6th and Columbia and a re-opened Green Castle. Also, the Grilled Cheese Grill added vendors to their lot on SE 28th and Ankeny.

Carts to Restaurants

2012 saw the largest number of mobile vendors climb the ladder to open restaurants. Sadly for us street food eaters, they closed their carts, but now we get to enjoy their cuisine inside. There are plenty of rumblings of other carts moving to restaurants and we’ll let you know once the rumors are confirmed.

  • Lardo – 2 restaurants, SE and SW
  • Shut Up and Eat – southeast
  • The Pie Spot – NE Glisan at the Ocean
  • Koi Fusion – Bridgeport Village
  • Off The Griddle opened the AnD Cafe and are opening a restaurant in 2013
  • Eat This! is opening The Huckleberry Pub in 2013

One unique trend we saw in 2012 was a successful restaurant opening food carts. Esan Thai opened two in downtown and Bunk Sandwiches launched a food truck.

Notable Openings:

Belgian Fries from Sideshow Eatery

We saw a number of new vendors open this year, so this list could be huge. I’m narrowing it down to some vendors who created a buzz or are offering something completely new.

  • Sideshow Eatery – brought Belgian fries with poutine downtown along with artisan sandwiches.
  • Sok Sab Bai – Portland’s very own Cambodian cart
  • The Cheese Plate and Cheese & Crack – vendors serving up cheese and crackers and more.
  • Shotgun Sub Shop – the 4th cart in the Grilled Cheese Grill empire serving Jersey style subs. They even have pretzel bread.
  • The Honeypot – desserts and pies taken to a whole new level
  • Retrolicious – southern comfort food. An amazing handmade burger with pimento cheese.
  • Roadrunner BBQ – some of the best brisket I’ve found in Portland
  • Alice’s Bagels – opened right when Kettleman’s closed. Great bagels.
  • Papa Pau – Sonoran style hot dogs
  • The Cultured Caveman – Portland’s first all Paleo cart and restaurant
  • Miss Kate’s Southern Kitchen – Fried Oyster Po’boy, enough said

Notable Closures:

Its always sad to see a great vendor close as we get use to visiting them on a regular basis and fall in love with what they craft for us daily. Some notable closures included Oregon Ice Works, Home Grown Smoker’s downtown cart, Zizzo’s FC, Chilango, Awesome Cone and Pastrami on Rye. There were others, plenty of others, but these vendors offered something different that will be missed.

2012 Trends and News

  • More fully mobile food trucks arrived on the scene in 2012 travelling from place to place and not setting down roots in traditional pods. Home Plate Sliders and Thrive Pacific NW are two examples of vendors who are bucking the tradition and relying on a different location each day. Other vendors are expanding their empires by adding food trucks so they can do catering and events.
  • The Portland Timbers embraced the food carts this summer and fall with the Portland Food Cart Alliance. Numerous vendors including Big-Ass Sandwiches, The Frying Scotsman and 808 Grinds took over the kiosk above section 95 and fed the masses.
  • Big-Ass Sandwiches garnered national attention by winning the regional competition for best sandwich on Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America.
  • 2012 saw a growth in non-food mobile vendors including a cigar cart owned and operated by Broadway Cigars.
  • The year started with controversy surrounding mobile vendors applying for and receiving annual liquor licenses. The OLCC made the decision to allow food carts to get licenses and scrapped with Portland city leaders along the way. Mayor Adams Tweeted his concern about 700 new liquor licenses. As of December, 2012, there are 3 vendors who have licenses – Cartlandia, Zenbu and Divine’s Cafe. The end of the world didn’t happen.
  • Trey Corkern of The Swamp Shack and Charles Thomas of Euro Trash represented Portland street food at The San Francisco Street Food Festival in August. Between the two vendors they sold approximately 3000 items.
  • Portland’s mobile vendors were the focus of a 16 page glowing article in Saveur magazine. Nong’s Khao Man Gai’s chicken wings graced the cover.
  • The latter half of the year saw some sad news for the carts with a spike in vandalism against some vendors. Carts on the east side have had a rash of power cord thefts and cuts to the point where some have decided to close or go fully mobile. Numerous owners recently met to discuss the issue and seek solutions.
  • Vandalism and violence came to the lot at SW 3rd and Stark with street youth attacking a few vendors there. The violence came after months if challenges with street youth congregating along SW 3rd and creating a challenging situation for everyone.
Plate lunch from Cheese & Crack

Plate lunch from Cheese & Crack

Thoughts

I’ve been writing about food carts here in Portland now going on 5 years. I have loved watching it grow, evolve and change. Every day brings something new to the end of my spork. This year saw the largest number of new carts, but also the largest number of carts closing. I don’t like to predict, but it appears that we’re moving towards a more seasonality of mobile vending with owners buying and opening only for the warmer months. Winter for many is just not profitable enough. Another change that I saw was with regional food gone wild. Instead of a Mexican taco, I can now get a Sonoran hot dog. Indian? Yep, but how does Fijian-Indian sound? What about falafel? You can travel the Middle East at the carts sampling from Syrian, Lebanese, Israeli, Iraqi, Egyptian, Palistinian – all offering their take on this regional specialty.

Portland’s street food scene is here to stay. While we continue to see change and pundits point to over-saturation or violence or closures, there will still be mobile vendors in this city once year from now and ten years from now. They are part of the city’s fabric and help keep Portland, well…Portland. As street food becomes more acceptable beyond the foodies, we’ll see expansion to areas where mobile vendors haven’t raised a flag yet like Gresham or Beaverton or Tigard.

2013 is going to be another great year for food carts and trucks in Portland. You’ll see your favorite vendor at your friends wedding or retirement party. More vendors will open restaurants or expand their empires to bring their wares to underserved areas. I’m excited about some of the new vendors I know will open in January or February – Italian Sandwiches and another bagel cart. Thank you again for all your support of Food Carts Portland and the vendors who make our meals exciting and tasty. See you in 2013.

Pendleton Pie from The Honeypot

Pendleton Pie from The Honeypot

Comments

  1. Thanks for the great list. Lots to choose from these days, and it also sounds like more to start chasing down.

  2. Italian Sandwiches, that’s us! We CAN’T WAIT to open our cart early next year!

  3. Starting on construction of my new cart in April. I’m done with what I had to do, now it’s time to do what I want to do!

  4. Thanks for all you do Brett, enjoy your last days of 2012 &
    cibum bonum edere
    (eat good food).

  5. so many food carts, so little time. Will have to make a trip back down to eat my way through a few more! It’s a tough life but some of us just have to do it ;-)

  6. so bummed about Chilango closing! it took me a while to notice because I could only get there on school days (which aren’t often) … but it was so good! any updates? would they open up shop elsewhere?

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