Circle the Wagons 

If Food Carts Are Unpredictable, BBQ Carts Are Doubly So

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BBQ CARTS may be the hardest carts of all—if not to run, simply to find and patronize. Phone numbers are like kryptonite to these people, let alone unthinkable commitments like Facebook pages and Twitter updates. Yelp addresses are often one or more behind what's current, and business hours? Man, if somebody from a BBQ cart ever posted business hours, you can bet they don't give two cross-eyed fucks about whatever they said they were. Here are the instructions I sent to our staff writers, who were assigned BBQ carts to review:

IN ALL CASES, verify the address of the cart, as it is entirely likely that several of these carts relocated or went out of business while I was typing this sentence. IN ALL CASES, call the cart first on the day you are going, to be sure they are open (if you don't, and just go, all you're going to find is a paper plate taped to the window, with "family emergency" written on it). IN ALL CASES, verify before going that they have what you are looking for that day, or they will just have Diet Coke.

It hardly mattered, of course. At best, a phone call seemed to tip them off that it was time to close up and move. But here are the carts that would not, could not elude us—they number far fewer than the ones we chased and didn't get. If you're game to try them, call first, go right away, and always, always have a fallback plan.

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Bones BBQ

5224 SE 26th

A unique and careful take on nationwide BBQ, Bones' lack of variety (four main items on their menu) reflects their ability to play to their strengths more than a lack of imagination. What the pulled pork sandwich lacks in size it more than makes up for in flavor, with impeccably tender, high-quality meat and a subtly tangy undertone owing to its pineapple brining. The St. Louis-style ribs don't quite "fall off the bone" as their menu says, but they are cooked nicely, putting up enough resistance for the sweet apple BBQ sauce to make its mark. Sides don't seem like afterthoughts, and the mac 'n' cheese counterbalances the sharp sauces well. Better still, the service is wonderful, which may have something to do with their location (right next to Gigantic Brewing's sunny patio), but is more likely a reflection of their genuine enthusiasm. Having only been open for a few weeks, they are worth looking out for. ALEX ROSS

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Pork Chop City

4926 SE Division

This might be, physically, the fanciest food cart in Portland. It's like the Knight Rider trailer made it out of the '80s, got scrubbed from intelligence work, and now makes a living as a BBQ joint. While Pork Chop City's name implies a bustling burg filled with applesauced meat parts, in actuality this is BBQ, served with a handful of sauces and a few teriyaki dashes like white rice and bento boxes. My pulled pork sandwich ($6) was tender and succulent, especially with the wide sampling of sauces (yum nods to the hot ginger and Chop City's signature sweet BBQ). My dining companion longed for more meat on his baby back ribs, but particularly liked the baked beans and coleslaw sides. Located in the À La Carts pod, this ridiculously clean and elaborate joint is a great addition to SE 50th and Division. I'm looking forward to trying their 16-deep collection of Hawaiian shaved ices and the Totally Wrong, a stomach-burster of a sandwich (pulled pork, beef brisket, cheese, bacon, coleslaw). FYI: Bring your own wet wipes, otherwise you'll be hosing down in the porta-pottie sink. COURTNEY FERGUSON

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Barbeque the Blues

5221 NE Sandy

I can't say I get the name "Barbeque the Blues" (just like I would neither "get" nor "approve" of Thai the Twee or Bibimbap the Bebop), but who cares! This new BBQ cart is in the well-appointed and delightful Rose City Food Park, and it's a bright red barbecue beacon of sunny buttermilk cornbread poofs and spicy, delicious pickles. It's a fabled place where the meat is perfectly cooked and the coleslaw is decidedly low on mayo-overload. Barbeque the Blues only smoke ribs on Friday and Saturday nights for special dinners ($30 for full rack, $18 for half, $10 for quarter—all with copious sides), so I missed the meaty boat on that, but with their everyday sandwiches ($5-10) and combo plates ($7-13) you can mix 'n' match meats and sides and sauces to create a cozy little food coma while basking in the brightly painted parking lot off NE Sandy. Bonus: They take cards, and it's by the booze barn, which serves up wine and a fine assortment of beer on Saturdays. CF

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Lisa's Lip Smackin' Kitchen

3447 N Vancouver

Lisa's is a cheerful little cart in the N. Vancouver pod that offers a short list of barbecue staples—brisket, pulled pork, ribs, and standard-issue sides—as well as a thorough menu of burgers. I'm not sure I'd order the ribs again—a thick layer of bark-encased meat that was flavorful but dry. A certain amount of gnawing was required to strip the meat from the bones, and it would've been a lost cause entirely without a slathering of barbecue sauce that was decidedly on the sweet end of the spectrum ($12 for a half slab). A tender and tangy brisket sandwich ($7) was a better bet, though if we weren't under strict instructions about what to order, I probably would've opted for a burger, which seems to be a cart specialty. And while a plastic table by a trailer on Vancouver might not be the most stimulating atmosphere, the woman working the window—Lisa herself?—couldn't have been more friendly. She even threw in an extra biscuit. ALISON HALLETT

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These Guys Brooklyn

3400 SE Milwaukie

There's a reason most chefs don't make barbecue—there's alchemy involved. The right cut of meat, the right smoke, the right bark, the right sauce... not to mention the right sides. It's a lot to deal with. That's why These Guys Brooklyn are definitely doing God's work—even if it's not entirely successful. Operating out of a cart on the patio of the Brooklyn Park Pub, These Guys forego ribs to hyper-focus on sandwiches, wings, and barbecue-packed tacos (!). Their brisket sandwich ($9.75, $11.25 with side) features high-quality Piedmontese beef, and arrives bare on the bun, beautifully smoked, with just the right bark... and yet? Too tough. The Carlton Farms pork shoulder sandwich ($9.25, $10.75 with side) provides flavor aplenty topped with peach bourbon sauce and slaw... and yet? Too fatty. (The taco versions fare much better, and their sauces? SPOT ON.) Meanwhile, the sides (potato salad, greens, slaw) arrive looking delicious... but are either too heavy on one ingredient or too light on another. All that being said, These Guys Brooklyn are so close to making great barbecue—so let's understand alchemy is never easy, and support their quest. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY

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Touch Down's

SW 10th & Washington

With roots in Arkansas and Texas, Touch Down's doesn't bother with any sacred regional BBQ guidelines—it's a simple, terrific soul food joint that just happens to have BBQ as the focus of the menu. Coming forth from a small smoker in the SW Alder food cart pod, the meat is sturdily satisfying without being over the top. The pulled pork sandwich ($7.95-10.95, depending on the number of sides) is good if unadventurous, so dump the side of sharp, tart slaw into the bun and wait for the sparks to fly—it's a decent sandwich without the slaw, an exceptional one with. And their ribs ($8.95 with garlic bread, $10.95 with garlic bread and two sides), smoky and not too decadent for lunchtime eating, are similarly unfussy, with meat that's easy to get off the bone. It's the incredible sides ($3 separately) that are Touch Down's unmistakable highlight—like their moist and fluffy cornbread, spectacularly sweet yams, note-perfect mac and cheese (not too creamy), and perhaps the best collard greens I've ever tasted. This is what will draw you to Touch Down's, with their BBQ being a fine foundation to build a meal around. NED LANNAMANN

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Road Runner BBQ

5205 SE Foster

The painting of The Simpsons' Chief Wiggum on the side of the truck is a good sign—Wiggum would definitely know good 'cue if he came across it. And Road Runner is cartoonishly good, offering Texas-style mesquite-smoked meat, which is sent into the stratosphere by two terrific sauces. Brisket comes both sliced ($10 with two sides, $14/pound) and chopped ($9 with two sides, $12/pound)—the sliced is dry but flavorful, with an appealingly thin bark and pink smoke ring, and it lends itself well to both the mild and hot sauce; chopped is a bit juicier and fattier. There's also good pork butt ($9 with two sides, $12/pound), but it, too, cries out to be drenched in sauce. And oh, those sauces! Both mild and hot are terrific, so pick your skill level and go to town. Sides include slick, tasty mac 'n' cheese and very delish baked beans (yep, there's meat in 'em). While no lone element of Road Runner's menu is an exceptional standout, the overall impact of eating a full meal there leads to an elevated mood, and an overall improved sense of well being. NL

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Homegrown Smoker

4233 N Mississippi

It would hardly be sporting to dismiss "vegan BBQ" out of hand, so one $12 Homegrown Smoker BBQ platter later, I am here to weigh in on the issue with some firsthand observations on this counterintuitive beast. I think it is fair to say that vegan food—particularly when billing itself as BBQ—does best when it is true to its own identity, and not trying to emulate meat; barbecuing, as a method, was created to break down meat's tough connective tissues and collagen, none of which soy protein products have. The Chronic Tempeh Ribs were smoke-darkened, bland, custardy planks that served as little more than a vehicle for a surprisingly complex, better-than-average sweet sauce, as were the chewy and off-putting smoked soy curls. It is in BBQ-appropriate side dishes that vegan ingenuity offers genuine contributions to the world of slow-and-low. The Totally Baked Beans taste as though they have been cleverly thickened with sweet potato, and STFU Puppies are beautiful falafel-like balls, crisp and light and tender, served with a rich, creamy remoulade that is difficult to spot as vegan. CHRIS ONSTAD

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MEET

4233 N Mississippi

I first met MEET BBQ chef/owner John Wysong last summer, after which I wrote a brief appreciation of his cart for Blogtown. Wysong was a long-ago cook at some of Portland's top pre-Paley restaurants, and now he's putting a lifetime of knowledge into a cart menu where every item is a demonstration of expertise. His dry-smoked Kansas City-style crispy-tipped pork ribs boast extraordinary bark, bright apple-wood smoke, rewarding chew, and plenty of juicy meat. His thin-sliced brisket is light-bodied, complex, and remarkably flavorful right to dead center, with a deep smoke ring and a bark so delicious it's like beef bacon. On the side is a complex, competition-worthy sauce he's been tweaking over the years, but this meat doesn't need it. Reverently cooked greens, beans, light vinegary slaws, and dark, crisp cornbread are just a few of his home-style accompaniments. Let him put together a plate for you—just getting a sandwich and ignoring the rest would be a shame, and he does artfully plate like a chef—and walk it across the lot to Prost, to enjoy with the driest beer they serve. CO

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