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Eating Cart to Mouth

India Chaat HousePortland’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.

India Chaat SpecialIn 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.

Mexican CartMango 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

India Chaat House on Urbanspoon

6 thoughts on “Eating Cart to Mouth

  1. Mango Mama says:

    Thanks for highlighting my favorite Portland carts. The India Chaat House deserves 4 stars!

    Recently Flav and I tried out a few good carts on the corner of Hawthorne and 12th. There was a great Mexican cart and a really cool one specializing in buffalo wings. I can’t wait to try Spella Caffe. I’m going there tomorrow for my afternoon “pick-me-up.”

    ML – your Portland fans already miss you and EB. Come back soon for more great eating!

  2. Eating Adventuress says:

    Nice to share your happiness with you last week.

    Having returned recently from a brief trip to Vienna, Austria I thoroughly enjoyed snacking on Roast Chestnuts from street carts. They may not have any nutrients, and are highly caloric, but irresistible, to me anyway.They are part of my childhood memories. I had also had them in Paris many years ago. Hot Roasted Chestnuts are a natural winter time favorite in some parts of the world. Wish we had some here in PDX.

    Rain City Resident

  3. Cuisine Bonne Femme says:

    Thanks for all the links. You know, I’ve traveled all over the world and fell in love with food cart food a long time ago when as a dirt poor backpacker realized the tastiest, most authentic, cheapest (and most of the time safest) food to eat when traveling (especially in Asia) was at food carts.

    I started the Portland Food Cart website on a whim. Little did I know there are over 170 food carts in Portland and it has become a challenge to document all of them. It’s definitely a phenomenon here, unlike many cities that prevent them through zoning or other regulatory restrictions.

    Anyway, as the economy continues to dive, I think we are going to see more food carts. I’m just really glad I live in a City that supports them (both from a consumer and government level).

  4. Mango Lassie says:

    Thank you for taking on the project of documenting the food carts for the rest of us. I grew up in Portland but haven’t lived there for more than six years. There are always more food carts to try, but it’s good to know the best ones so I can maximize my precious Portland dining opportunities. Living in Chicago— or really anywhere outside of Portland— makes me realize how great Portland’s government and residents really are.

  5. Empanada Boy says:

    While at the Fish Party with Daddy Salmon, et. al in Vancouver, WA last week, I met a women who’s daughter had started and worked a Portland food cart for 15 years, or something like that. She she she made enough $ to only have to work 6 months of the year and travel the rest. Sounds like the life to me! Maybe ML and I have a new calling…

  6. Ms. Potato Head says:

    I love cart food! There is nothing like Saturday Market to make you feel like you can take a trip around the world by going around the block.

    In Salem, where I live, there is not much variety, but the quality is fantastic. Mostly Mexican and Latin American fare are available at the many “taco trucks” in Salem and I have grown to love them as they are delicious and perfect for my student budget. One of them sells tomatillo salsa by the mason jar and it is the best I have had anywhere in the world.

    And thank you ML for introducing me to the food cart blog. What a fun way to try something new in Portland! My boyfriend has been craving a street style steak and cheese sandwhich. Maybe the food cart blog can point us in the right direction.

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