THESE ARE the unkindest months for our brothers in the food carts. Their herd is culled, their pods empty out. The desperate winter tweakers who steal gas lines and furniture cost them weeks of summer savings. We, for whom they toil, more often make do with lesser food for the sake of eating at places where our ears don't get cold.
This week's column showcases six carts who deserve your support—run by cooks who are defining the upper limits of what's possible when you work on wheels. I spent a week trying out their signature items, and got more genuinely excited about Portland food than I have in months of sitting in dining rooms.
SE 28th & Ankeny pod, burrascapdx.com
Recommended: pappardelle al cinghiale ($8)
Early on a gray weekday evening, I sat down alone to a dinner of Burrasca's deeply flavored, wonderfully textured ribollita soup ($5) and truly al dente handmade pappardelle with wild boar ragu, served in actual bowls and plates, with real silverware. Warmth and gentle smoke came from the pod's fire pit, and a few carts over, the first patrons queued for draft beer. Lifelong chef Paolo Calamai, a native of Florence, Italy, checked his simmering pots and organized his immaculate kitchen. It was a stirring moment, and the perfect place to kick off a week of looking for the best in Portland carts.
2. Maine Street Lobster Company
Cartlandia, 8145 SE 82nd, mainestreetlobstercompany.weebly.com
Recommended: cold lobster roll ($14)
I once spent a week traveling up the Eastern Seaboard, and notched about a dozen lobster rolls. If you've been missing this legendary American delicacy, you'll find dead-on versions here, in both warm-and-buttery and cold-and-creamy varieties. The traditional flat-sided, griddled rolls are generously stuffed with tender and seriously sweet tail and claw meat, and served with slaw and chips. I chose the cold version, the meat delicately mixed with an understated, tarragon-flecked mayonnaise dressing that let the freshness of the never-frozen meat shine through. A $5 cup of their light-bodied but rich New England-style clam chowder filled out the experience perfectly.
3. La Sangucheria
SW 3rd & Ash, facebook.com/peruvianstylesandwiches
Recommended: Chicharron ($8)
If Maine Street Lobster Company's rolls are examples of delicacy and refinement, La Sangucheria's Peruvian sandwiches are big, raucous, and unapologetically flavorful... events. The foot-long Chicharron—a crisp roll, stuffed to the gills with fresh sweet potato fries, deep-fried pork (meat, not skin), cilantro, and honey and onion sarza criolla—bangs away on all cylinders. It's sweet, spicy, salty, fatty, crispy, and tender all at once. And there's so much, it's an achievement to make it to the end. The Saltado ($8; beef tenderloin, grilled onions, cilantro, and french fries) is a worthy alternative, or complement.
4. Steak Your Claim
SW 9th & Washington pod, steakyourclaim.com
Recommended: the Purist ($8.50), Broad Street Bully ($9.50)
Two guys who look like they'd be just as comfortable riveting I-beams cure their own pastrami and grill deeply satisfying, smartly built cheesesteaks in this busy downtown cart. The pastrami is pull-apart tender, sliced a respectable 1/8-inch thick, and piled food-stylist high on Pearl Bakery marbled rye. The tender ribeye is seared on a flat-top before they load it into a soft roll that easily holds a generous payload of meat, proper Cheez Whiz, and grilled onions. Numerous gussied-up options—as well as a drinker's paradise of inventive cheese-fry combos—will satisfy your next deep hunger.
SW 10th & Alder
Recommended: mici ($8)
Portland doesn't even have a Romanian restaurant, yet we have a Transylvanian food cart. They keep the Vlad the Impaler imagery to a minimum, but they do keep some. It hardly represents the warmth and cheer of the mother and son who turn out foot-long chimney cakes, cabbage rolls, jaw-dropping chicken schnitzel sandwiches, and their destination item: mici. Lumi, the mother, wouldn't divulge the technique that produces the impossibly bouncy, juicy texture of these deeply grilled caseless sausages, no matter how I pried. Served on a pile of french fries that absorb their fragrant juices, they're a trade secret I've seen nowhere else.
6550 N Interstate, chickpeadx.com
Recommended: pita ($6)
This gleaming, lonesome cart sits just off N Interstate and Rosa Parks, in the parking lot of the Homebrew Exchange. There are many falafel carts, but freshness, eye-popping color, and meticulous attention to detail put ChickPeaDX well ahead of the rest. The falafel itself is deep green and creamy in the center, well seasoned, with a perfect, crunchy crust. Julienned cabbage and ribbons of pickled carrot give tang and texture, along with a finely diced, herb-flecked salad of tomatoes, onions, and cucumber. Sauces of amba (spicy pickled mango) and zhug (fresh-toasted spices and peppers) add to the cart's unmistakable fingerprint. It's beautifully composed and delicious food.
I'd like to thank the authoritative Brett Burmeister, of foodcartsportland.com, for his help getting this search started.