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You can call the slow-roasted, hand-cut, hand-crafted, turkey or beef—lovingly raised in family-owned stockyards—slathered with homemade béchamel cheese sauce and piled into a chewy ciabatta roll along with a giant wad of hand-cut fries, a sublime gourmet experience. (Yes, the fries go inside.) Or, you can call it what it is: a Big-A** Sandwich. Big-A** Sandwiches is just one of the six-hundred food carts which are redefining Portland, Oregon’s already idiosyncratic, artisanal food scene.
Big A** makes breakfast, vegetarian, French Dip and Caesar versions, as well as The Pork Hammer—roasted ham, thick-cut bacon, sausage, cole slaw and fries. Then there’s the Gutbomb. It’s a basic Big-A** with double the meat, double the cheese and the girth of a fishbowl. Consumption is best left to those who have the highly-mobile jaws of a python and are accustomed to eating large prey. “Stop staring. Just eat it,” urged thirteen-year-old Big A** enthusiast, Zach Mooney.
The Gutbomb meets its match in the Original Cheesus from the Grilled Cheese Grill. It’s two grilled cheese sandwiches—a Colby Jack and Grilled Onion and an American with Pickles—with a one-third pound burger with lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard nestled between. Not to be outdone, the BrunchBox cart’s Redonkadonk offers egg, ham, spam, bacon and American cheese on a beef patty between two Texas toast grilled cheese sandwiches.
“It’s these over-the-top gastronomic explosions that gets the carts noticed,” say Brett Burmeister of foodcartsportland.com. But quality food gets them kudos. Many carts source from nearby bakeries and farmers as well as from local, family-owned businesses like Carlton Farms and Draper Valley that specialize in humanely- and sustainably-raised livestock. Cart owners craft seriously imaginative, high-quality, innovative food for about $6.00 per meal.
“Cart,” is a misnomer, as the eateries are usually an Airstream or hunting trailer turned into gourmet kitchen. In a down economy when there’s not a whole of lending going on, you can start a cart based business for between $10,000 to $30,000, and run it with little overhead and no staff. Portland simplified the application process and keeps licensing and rental fees low. The number of carts has doubled since 2007.
Owners are former chefs, cooks, restaurant workers and anyone else interested in food. Some use carts to introduce, develop and refine recipes. Some want to cultivate a customer base. Others just want to see if their idea will fly. All say they relish putting food directly into their customer’s hands.
A grouping of carts, called a “pod,” feels like a block party or a really exotic tailgate. Some pods line city blocks downtown, others are farther out, renting space in parking lots and setting up picnic tables. Most have off-the-wall names: Cackalack’s Hot Chicken Shack; Lebanezer Scrooge; Kim Jong Grillin’; Fifty Licks; Wet Hot Beef; Burgatroyd; The Deadliest Catch; The Frying Scotsman; Pyro Pizza; and The People’s Pig. (Lucille’s Balls closed in January). They turn out American, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, Chinese, Scandinavian, Peruvian, Middle Eastern, Bosnian, Polish, Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Serbian, Greek, vegan and raw food.
It’s not about authentic cuisine as much as it is a cart’s take on a particular cuisine, which explains Korean fusion tacos and whole smoked ducks to order. At Wolf & Bear’s, instead of traditionally deep-frying mashed chickpeas for falafel, Tanna Tenhoopen and Jeremy Garb griddle-fry sprouted garbanzos patties. They slide them into pitas with sides of cilantro sauce, olives and home-made salt-cured pickles, selling out of Tenhoopen’s grandfather’s 1950s trailer. Be Map’s mix of Asian “boba” drinks (milky tea with ice and tapioca balls—think tapioca minus the pudding) and hot, fresh, ultra-greasy, crazy-good donuts reflect no known cuisine. Savor Soup House’s Tomato Soup with Garlic, Fennel and Orange with a Tillamook Cheddar Grilled Cheese with Tomatoes, Scallions, Poblanos and Cilantro, updates the classic retro combo.
Carts can be based around an ingredient, Potato Champion, a technique, Whiffies’ fried sweet or savory hand-pies, a day-part, The Big Egg does breakfast, even a concept, like “feeding the soul of a Viking.” That’s what Megan Walhood’s Viking Soul Food does, Portland’s only Norwegian cart. It centers on lefse, a potato-based flatbread with a flexible, crepe-like texture. She fills them with tiny meatballs bathed in a velvety, caramelized Norwegian cheese sauce and tangy surkal (cooked, shredded cabbage, cream sauce, vinegar and caraway seeds). It’s not large but is so flavorful and rich that you can really only eat one.
Armed with his Sicilian grandmother’s meatball recipe, Wyckoff, New Jersey native, Kevin Sandri’s Garden State introduced true meatball heroes to the Pacific Northwest. He rolls Arancine, deep-fried saffron-risotto balls filled with vegetables and fresh mozzarella, turns chickpea batter into lighter-than-air Chickpea Fries seasoned with cumin and parsley, and offers a Cured Lemon Chicken Sandwich with ricotta. Sandri spent the last ten years as a musician but work dried-up when the economy tanked. His restaurant experience was so ancient that “no was going to hire me to work in a kitchen.” So he opened a cart hoping to land a restaurant job as a line cook. Now he’s considering opening a restaurant.
In just two years Matthew Breslow has opened two Grilled Cheese Grill compounds. You can eat a Fromage A Trois or a Jalapeno Popper in either a school bus or a double-decker bus, depending on the location. “People always say, ‘Why do a whole cart devoted only to grilled cheese? Why would I buy something I can make at home?’” Unless you have fourteen types of cheese in your fridge along with, he says, a variety of artisanal breads and incredible butter, you can’t make it at home. Besides, he says, “food made by someone else one-hundred percent of the time tastes better, one-hundred percent of the time.” Just like Mom’s home cooking. And since Mom’s usually not around, Breslow says his staff fills in for her, if you can overlook the tattoos and beards.
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