Portland’s food scene has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years, with new local-seasonal, ethnic-regional spots opening to great local and national fanfare. Every self-professed foodie I meet counts Portland among her top destinations. New York Times wine critic, Eric Asimov, even devoted an article last year to the culinary courses being charted here. Empanada Boy and I squeezed in a few restaurant visits before (and even during) Passover while we were there this past week. But it was troubling to read reports in The Oregonian (Sunday, April 20) and Willamette Week (Wednesday, March 19) that cited economic trouble ahead for Portland’s restaurants due to a combination of higher food costs, cash-strapped customers and Oregon’s $7.95 minimum wage.
The worry is that the economic downturn might nip the city’s developing food scene in the bud. The problems are serious, but I don’t think the situation is dire. Portland seems to have escaped some of the economic problems of other cities. The real estate market has softened slightly, but the city is such a desirable place to live that it’s been relatively unscathed. Similarly, worthy restaurants will survive because Portlanders and foodies from all around will keep coming. And there is one sector of Portland’s signature foodie scene that will continue to grow despite the economy: the food carts.
In nearly every urban neighborhood, there are at least a few of these vans and little portable shacks-turned gourmet kitchens. An enterprising Portland writer has even devoted a blog to them. According to The Oregonian, it costs between $200 and $500 to get the permits and equipment to start one of these operations. The lunch crowd is reliable, and the margins are good. Food carts are most numerous within a few downtown blocks where they are churning out everything from paninis, to pierogies, to tamales and bento boxes. One of my favorites is India Chaat House on the corner of 12th and Alder. It’s one of the most established carts, and I’d place it among the city’s best Indian restaurants. The meal pictured here, consisting of rice, naan, a rich cauliflower curry, delicious savory lentils and a beautifully spiced chickpea dish, is enormous enough for two, and as the daily lunch special, sold for a meager $5.50.
Mango Mama works a block away from India Chaat House and likes to go there when she hasn’t brought a lunch. She also frequents the tiny taqueria next door (pictured here), which has a great selection of fresh, homemade taco fillings. The block encompassed by 9th and Alder is perhaps the most notable food cart center. Carts with home-roasted espresso (Spella Caffe) sits next to gyros stands and yakisoba vendors. It was there at Snow White House that I first tasted crepes. I remember telling Mango Mama how much I loved them. I have since eaten crepes on the streets of Montmarte in Paris and have become pretty good at making them at home, but those food cart crepes will always be my first.
The cart scene makes Portland unique. L.A. has its taco trucks, and New York has its hot dog and gyros stands, but neither can offer the quality and variety all within walking distance of the area where most people work. Similarly, Chicago has great ethnic food, including some top-notch taquerias, but I have never seen a single food cart anywhere. Perhaps they fear the winter cold, or maybe the city has an ordinance against them. Whatever the reason, their absence is noticeable. These are great little businesses that improve everyone’s quality of life— even when the economy takes a turn for the worse.
India Chaat House
804 SW 12th Ave.
Portland, OR 97205