As we bring 2015 to a close, I think back about all the amazing dishes I enjoyed and people I met. Just a year ago, as we sat around wondering what 2015 would bring, did anyone predict a 6 month summer? In talking with vendors last spring, many commented that winter never actually arrived, providing them with strong sales throughout the year. As 2015 bids farewell though, the winter Portland is famous for has arrived with a vengeance. That said, 2015 was another crazy eventful year for Portland's food cart scene. One may think of 2015 as the Year of the Pod. Here are some highlights.
Every year, I enjoy looking back at the changes that have occurred using data. Growth continued, yet we also saw some loss, mainly in the form of Pods.
Last count from Multnomah county puts the number of mobile food units - carts, trucks, trailers - at around 848. Up again from 2014.
If you're out and about seeking out food carts, you may not find all 900. By my last count, there are about 420 available in lots throughout the city. Many gather in organized pods, but there are more than a few who strike out of their own.
2015 saw an increase in the number of fully mobile food trucks. Yes, in the city famous for our street food, we have few vendors who are fully mobile. In the last few years, vendors have launched trucks to visit corporate parks, weddings, festivals and catered gigs. By our count, there are now 60-65 fully mobile trucks roaming the streets of Portland.
2015 was the year of the pod. There are now over 40 organized pods in the city and suburbs. Happy Valley and Aloha included.
Tidbit, which opened in 2014, evolved into one of the city's destination pods this summer with live music, great food, beer and non-food vendors.
The Portland Mercado
The Portland Mercado, a first for Portland opened in summer with 10 vendors serving up delights from Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Cuba and more. Truly an amazing project to showcase these vendors, but also create a micro-enterprise solution for budding entrepreneurs.
Cartlandia on 82nd now boasts almost 30 carts year around along with an onsite pub with live sports and music.
Happy Valley Station opened in November to huge crowds. If you haven't visited, get HVS on your bucket list. A pavilion built to house indoor seating, a kids play area and a beer/cider cart with 40+ taps, the roof extends over the fronts of the food carts there providing much needed cover when it rains. With 30 vendors open daily, there is a dish for everyone in the family.
Piedmont Station brought a great selection of new vendors to NE Killingsworth. Beer too.
Piknik Park in Sellwood launched later summer with 9 vendors and beer and wine. Our first Malaysian cart calls the pod home.
The Gantry in South Waterfront took over an underutilized space which use to be the main drag down that way. Six vendors sit under a monster ship gantry. Scout Beer Garden slings brews across the street.
Pollo Norte, while a restaurant, decided to open a pod on their property on NE 42nd.
The City of Milwaukie acted boldly in identifying a parcel they want to develop as a food cart pod. In my dealings with cities and street food, this may be the first city driven effort to create a designated space for carts. We'll keep you posted on the progress in 2016.
As an eater, how does one pick favorites. On any given day, I get asked about my favorite cart. Tough question with so many options to choose from and more opening on a regular basis. I usually just provide a top 5 or maybe a list of those vendors I would bring Aunt Gini to. That said, I did enjoy a couple of dishes that simply blew me away and seared flavors into my taste memory.
Tajine fro La Camel
La Camel on SW 9th and Washington served up one of my favorite dishes of the year - Moroccan Kefta Tajine. I can still remember that first bite and the burst of flavors from this vibrant dish. Moroccan seasoned kefta (seasoned beef meatballs) in a rich tomato sauce with fresh chopped white onion, olives and topped with two fried eggs, cheese crumbles and chopped parsley. So good, I've returned for a few other Tajines throughout the year. Thank you Karim.
Chicken and Guns
Chicken and Guns. Just the name brings people to the cart. A project by seasoned food cart owner Dustin Knox (Perierra Creperie) and Woodsman alum Todd Radcliffe - the goal was to present the street food the two had enjoyed on the back roads of Central American while on surfing trips. The chicken is sublime - charred to perfection, moist and tasty, almost sinful, with a rich Peruvian style sauce. Add a fried egg because you can. Roasted potatoes and fresh greens if you need veggies, but the star of the show is the Latin-inspired chickens old-fashioned grilled over mesquite and oak. Cartopia at SE 12th and Hawthorne.
Brick and Mortar
As the economy warmed, the opportunity for cart vendors to spread their wings arose. Here are just a few of the vendors who opened Brick and Mortar shops in 2015.
The Big Egg on NE Alberta and 30th
Big-Ass Sandwiches on NE Glisan
Thrive Pacific NW in Alameda
Taco Pedaler on NE Broadway
Cackalack's in Bethany
Burrasca on SE Clinton
ChickPeaDX at the Zipper in NE Portland
RUA at the Zipper
Pulehu Pizza has opened at The Lumberyard on 82nd
HOME, A Bar - a bar/restaurant by Bro-Dogs and Burgers and Brett of Food Carts Portland - SE 7th and Morrison
Gonzo took over the kitchen at Bar XV in Old Town
The Cheese Plate owners take over the kitchen at Culmination Brewing one day a week with vegan cuisine.
Koi Fusion - everywhere
News and highlights from 2015:
More than a few vendors closed this past year. Some to open restaurants, others to tackle new adventures. Here are some we'll miss - Kargi Gogo, Ugarit Mediterranean (10 years), Italian Market, Gaufre Gourmet Waffles, Brunch Box (restaurant opened), Minizo, Burrasca (restaurant opened), Delicios Romanian
Henry's Diner opened in Carlton in wine country. Such a great location for breakfast, lunch or just to rest while visiting one of Oregon's magical regions.
Churros Locos enjoyed international stardom at the World Street Food Congress in Singapore in April. With a line up of 30 vendors at the street food jamboree, Daniel and Isabel and a team of assistants cranked out almost 10,000 churros and churro sundaes to the attendees over the course of five days. A wonderful representation of Portland's street food vendors.
An early morning fire at the PSU pod in July close five carts, destroying a couple completely. Those vendors who's carts were damages have rebuilt and reopened, yet two have yet to recover.
Portland's Queen of the Carts - Nong Poonsukwattana - continued to wow us with an amazing performance on Chopped Impossible in October. While she didn't win, social media believed she should have. Keep up the great work Nong.
An interesting story broke in February about two food carts in downtown purchasing stolen meat and then reselling it to customers. Chop Chop and Ren's Bubble Tea owners were arrested in the case and the carts eventually left the lot. Chop Chop has since re-opened in SE Portland.
Smoke Buddy, a mobile marijuana cart, launched in August, rolling around and giving away joints due to a unique loophole in the law. According to the owners, they had the legal right to dispense, yet by the end of August, state authorities were looking into their practices. Maybe in 2016 we'll see a true pot cart or truck.
What a year. For the past seven years, I've enjoyed sitting down in December and rounding up the year's news. 2016 will be upon us shortly with a new crop of eager vendors showcasing their wares. Street food in Portland isn't going away due to development. It will evolve and change, but never disappear. Happy New Year and best wishes from Food Carts Portland.
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