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Portland Street Food

Graze your way through the West's street-food capital.

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  • Tidbit Food Farm and Garden's all-seasons dining, Portand, Ore., picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Shawn Linehan
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    Find all-seasons dining at Tidbit Food Farm and Garden.
  • Wolf and Bear’s cart at Alder pod, Portland, Ore., picture
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    Photo: Shawn Linehan
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    Wolf and Bear’s cart offers pita-wrapped delights at downtown’s Alder pod.
  • Smaaken waffles, Tidbit culinary village, Portland, Ore., picture
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    Photo: Shawn Linehan
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    At the Tidbit culinary village, Smaaken dishes up waffle sandwiches with a side of whimsy.
  • Portland Mercado’s brightly colored carts, Portland, Ore., picture
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    Photo: Shawn Linehan
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    Portland Mercado’s brightly colored carts serve favorite foods from Latin America.
  • Hapa PDX’s pork ramen in Portland, Ore., picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Shawn Linehan
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    Warm up with a bowl of Hapa PDX’s pork ramen.
  • Oaxacan tlayuda from Tierra del Sol, Portland Mercado, Portland, Ore., picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Shawn Linehan
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    Dig into a Oaxacan tlayuda from Tierra del Sol.
  • Fernando’s Alegria, Portland Mercado, Portland, Ore., picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Shawn Linehan
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    Seek burrito happiness at Fernando’s Alegria in the Portland Mercado.

Update: As of October 8, 2017, Tidbit Food Farm and Garden is no longer in operation.

As diners gaze into the wood-fired oven at Pyro Pizza, flames rise with an almost surreal intensity. The crust is thin, the mozzarella fresh, and the fennel sausage made from local pork. The beloved pizzeria sits on Portland's most prominent restaurant row, but instead of inhabiting some new architect-designed storefront, it's inside a shack-size cart festooned with corrugated metal, parked on a gravel lot.

A year ago, this corner of SE Division Street and SE 28th Place was a derelict plot of land, weedy and forlorn. Now it blossoms as Tidbit Food Farm and Garden, a boisterous culinary village where epicurean dreamers, neighborhood denizens, and frugal travelers are all well fed.

Grab a bowl of Hapa PDX's meaty tonkotsu ramen, a savory Brie-and-bacon waffle sandwich from Smaaken, or a surprisingly righteous gluten free root beer doughnut at Back to Eden. Then kick back and soak in the scene: 22 food carts and a funky but stylish vibe. You can dine at a hidden counter, under a heated tent, or gathered around a fire pit on split-log benches made from Douglas fir trunks. This being Portland, you'll find an assortment of craft brews on tap at Scout Beer Garden. The owner even concocts his own brazen suds—peanut butter porter, anyone?

Welcome to the feast streets of Portland, where visitors come to sample the city's celebrated restaurants but return home raving incessantly about the food carts. Not every street-food option in town is noteworthy, of course, but no place puts curbside dining together like Portland, with the sheer volume of its groundbreaking experimenters, artisanal approaches, start-up concepts, and lesser-known cuisines. Across the city, pavement gourmands can savor things not typical of street vendors anywhere else: crunchy Romanian chimney cakes, spicy Korean hot dogs, handmade sourdough bagels studded with seeds and schmeared with whipped cream cheese. One downtown cart, Chez Dodo, boasts Mauritius-style venison curry; another, the Dump Truck, promises "little pillows of flavor," including a bacon cheeseburger dumpling with secret sauce.

For Portland visitors, cart-hopping makes an affordable adventure, requiring only a curious mind and a good appetite. Even jaded international food writers can't resist. "It's the city's brilliant street food that blows away restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin," declared a headline in London's venerable Guardian last year.

In most cities, mobile food trucks rule, with cooks shifting locations to dodge fines and red tape. Thanks to progressive zoning laws, Portland thrives with a different model. In dedicated block-long spaces known as pods, stationary carts band together, pay rent, and foster community. Forty-plus pods now house the majority of the city's roughly 500 carts, according to Brett Burmeister, who tracks the street-food scene on his popular blog, Food Carts Portland.

Since taking off in 2009, these food hubs have hatched ideas, launched talent, and revitalized forgotten corners with urban life and conversation. Their newest ingredient is savvy hospitality. Many pods dress for the weather with covered seating, heaters, and bellywarming dishes, making Portland's food carts a year-round experience.

Downtown is a prime street-food lunch destination, with a total of almost six food-cart blocks scattered across various locations. A good starting point is SW 10th Avenue and Alder Street, where some 50 carts spread over two blocks vie for attention. At Nong's Khao Man Gai, bundles of fragrant Thai chicken and rice emerge from the window, and insiders know to add crispy chicken skin when it's available. Nearby, Ole Latte brings Portland's barista culture to the street, with fresh-roasted beans and seasonal latte syrups. Wolf and Bear's cart is the place for a serious falafel, and Bing Mi serves a rare treat, jian bing, a Chinese street-food crepe that folds eggs, hot sauce, and super-crunchy crackers into a many-splendored thing. Blogger Burmeister's current fave is La Camel, for Moroccan tagines.

Deep in the city's southeast quadrant, Portland Mercado represents a next step in pod development, serving as an incubator for Latino-owned small businesses. A year ago, the corner was a neighborhood eyesore. Now it's a bustling scene where hungry locals and visitors enjoy authentic street eats, a Mexican candy store, a chorizo maker, and indoor-outdoor seating. Eight canopied carts greet customers, each featuring a different cuisine or region. Finds include Salvadoran hot corn milk at 5 Volcanes Pupusería and a textbook Cubano sandwich from El Gato Tuerto. But the star is Tierra del Sol's Oaxacan tlayuda, a giant, crispy, paper-thin tortilla frosted with black beans, salty cheese, radishes, and avocado.

Even established pods offer up unexpected twists. At the venerable Cartopia cluster at SE 12th Avenue and SE Hawthorne Boulevard, Potato Champion serves hand-cut "PB and J" fries glazed in Thai peanut sauce and smoky chipotle-raspberry jam. Nearby, the new cart Chicken and Guns, built from reclaimed barn wood, looks like a hipster diner without walls. Its chef's counter, theatrical night lights, and intimate seating illustrate just how far cart architecture can go. And it's the perfect place to devour a flame-grilled bird massaged with Latin spices under a starry sky.

Meanwhile, back at Tidbit Food Farm and Garden, shopping has joined the mobile model. Steps away from the pod's food carts, visitors rummage for vintage clothes at Lodekka's retrofitted double-decker bus and score locally made beauty products inside an Airstream trailer turned boutique, Menagerie. Pod owners Christina Davis and Aaron Blake of Reworks Design Build imagined the 15,000-square-foot space last year, creating a festive atmosphere Blake calls "a place to discover interesting things along narrow paths, in human scale that's often lacking in typical urban settings."

It's working. Visitors who once made a beeline for Oregon's great outdoors now arrive at the airport and say, "Take me to the food carts." City planners, visiting chefs, and aspiring entrepreneurs have joined the stream of diners who come to eat, study, and remark on Portland's street cuisine. In a world hungry for steady jobs, better food, and personal connection, Portland's smart carts could be the way of the future.

For six other hopping culinary destinations, check out Curbside Cuisine: Food Trucks Galore.

This article was first published in November 2015. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.