While it is rapidly becoming fashionable to question whether food carts (especially in Portland) have jumped the shark — ie, shed their hip, underground status and gone mainstream –, it’s hard to deny the energy, passion, and optimism of the food cart vendors and their hardcore patrons. Willamette Week’s Eat Mobile 2010 festival, packing 30 carts, a beer garden, and a stage into a two block stretch of Belmont under the Morrison Bridge concentrated that energy into one place on one night creating an effective counter-argument to the cynics who believe trends are only good insofar as they don’t become trendy or that something is only worth patronizing as long as it doesn’t become popular.
The event coincided with the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) conference held in Portland this year. Conference attendees were able to pay extra and arrive an hour before the masses, avoiding the lines. Judges for the event were drawn from IACP’s elite, including its president and several high-profile chefs and writers. The selection of Garden State as judges’ choice with its cod and arugula dish made sense given their sophisticated palates. It was subtle, light, and fresh tasting. I talked to several foodie friends who also thought it was the best of the night. Personally, I was looking forward to trying their meatballs for the first time, but after the fourth or fifth fried item in a row, the cod was a welcome respite. The people’s choice, Whiffies Fried Pies, was quite the opposite in style, but every bit as good. And nothing’s more essentially street food than fried stuff. I like the plain coconut pie better than the coconut-chocolate pie they had on hand at the event, but the peanut butter-chocolate is definitely a crowd-pleaser. Oregon Ice Works, which will have a stand in Sellwood this summer, was handing out Italian ice from inside Whiffies as well. It’s basically granita. But unlike many of the Italian ices that have tried to make a go in Portland, this wasn’t sickly sweet, tasting more of candy syrups than actual fruit. The lemon was quite good with real chunks of lemon in it, just like my favorite place in Chicago, Mario’s.
I’d been to well over half the carts already. Popular spots like Potato Champion with its mobile unit, Spudnik, dealing out Belgian frites and poutine, Pyro Pizza with its wood-burning oven pizzas, Flavorspot with its sweet and savory waffles, delicious goo dripping from between the crusty cakes, and Ziba’s Pitas with its filo-wrapped sausages drenched in ajvar and sour cream are places I’ve happily visited dozens of times.What I was most interested in, though, were the places I hadn’t visited yet, like Addy’s Sandwiches. Even though I love sandwiches, I also own part of two restaurants that sell little more. I’ll go out of my way for Meat Cheese Bread’s bacon-lettuce-beet sandwich or to Eastmoreland Market for their merguez or to Best Baguette for their Saigon bacon, but to a sandwich cart? How many carts, though, have duck confit with cranberry relish or chicken salad with spinach pesto or line-caught tuna with capers, red onion, cornichons, and a house-made mayo? The confit was one of my favorite bites of the night.
Another cart that I hadn’t even heard of, but really enjoyed, was Mono Malo, a food cart specializing in Spanish tapas. They started with finger-foods like grilled portobello with romesco, another favorite bite of the night, and ended with an intense lamb and chickpea stew.Some items, such as The People’s Pig’s pork tacos with pickled red onions sounded better than they tasted, the commercial tortillas and slightly bitter, dry pork just not living up to similar dishes from Yucatecan trucks around town. Likewise, Savor’s grilled turkey and chevre sandwich with truffle oil might have worked better just as plain cheese and something more subtle, like cheddar, mozzarella, or brie, perhaps with a vegetable instead of a meat. Neither were bad, just disappointing.
Once 5:30 rolled around and the lines, extending more than a block, started filing in, Eat Mobile turned from foodie indulgence to full-on party. Since I had largely taken my photos and eaten my fill, that meant meeting like-minded street food lovers and catching up with friends from food and online circles. I saw @Vrunka with husband and friends, dressed in matching outfits like they were part of some reality show team, sprinting from line to line. I saw @Dieselboi snapping pictures only slightly more conspicuously than myself. And of course there was @Eaterpdx. You have to admire a girl so ravenous more food ends up around her face and on her clothes than actually in her belly. Perhaps it’s how she stays trim. I got to meet Peter Reinhart, too, who, though a superstar in the food world, was as excited as any 25 year old to try all the street eats.The lines for the most popular vendors got long quick. Spudnik’s went from one side of the street to the other and then wrapped along the wall another quarter block. At one point Pyro Pizza’s made a giant “V”, traversing the street diagonally, like a sailboat tacking against the wind. Towards the end of the night, when the throngs were ready for something sweet, Flavor Spot’s line made a giant rainbow across Belmont, golden waffles at its end. The more clever of my friends would stake out two lines at once, each person taking enough from their prey for the other, doubling their efficiency. Once my appetite returned, I just went to the stands that had no lines, and didn’t suffer at all. I was able to get banh mi and tamales within 60 seconds of each other. I must have gone back to Micro Mercantes for their moist, light tamales four or five times.
I have to admit, I’ve been a little reticent to get too excited about food carts this year. There are a lot of them. There is a lot of competition. I hate to invest myself personally in a place that may disappear just as I grow to love it. But Eat Mobile has me excited. There’s too much good food out there, too many new things still for me to try, not to be excited. The energy and passion of the food cart vendors and those that have made them so popular is addictive. And I’m happy to be a food cart junkie.