A year ago, my personal search for the finest burrito in Portland ended. It was a long search, but it led me to Tehuana, an Oaxacan food cart which had just moved into the then-struggling pod at N Killingsworth and Maryland, just east of Interstate.
First impression: This burrito was huge. It was also delicious, no matter the filling. (I’m a carne asada devotee, but the chipotle pork is a complex, juicy blend of smoke and spice.) Salsas are important at a burrito cart, too, and Tehuana’s smoky morita and neon orange frita salsas set them apart from the competition. Occasional specials and seasonal extras like a summertime watermelon agua fresca seal the deal. (Burritos $8, tacos $3, worth every penny.)
Around the same time Tehuana moved into the pod, breakfast cart Hash It Out opened there as well, pumping out piles of eggs, potatoes, veggies, and marinated pork shoulder in various forms: sandwiches, wraps, and of course the namesake hash. If the women inside the cart weren’t so upbeat and nice, the portions would honestly seem aggressive if not murderous. I swear, I weighed the wrap after eating more than half of it and it still weighed 14 ounces. Forget lunch, and clear your afternoon for a nap.
In the year between then and now, a few carts have rotated in and out; some have changed over time. (Hash It Out is even launching espresso and cold brew.) A 12-year-old Polish cart, Euro Dish, moved in, providing some stability and clout, and now there’s a proper international market: La Puerta’s El Salvadorian pupusas, two different Cuban carts (Rose City Slammin’ Sandwiches and Sabor Cubano), a Bulgarian grill called Mystical Eats, and American barbecue by Bark City.
I haven’t had a disappointing bite at this pod. Mystical Eats offers two large plates: pile na gril grilled chicken with a sticky balsamic-pomegranate reduction ($10) and a mixed grill of pork ($12). Both are solid, but more importantly, they come with three salati—a daily salad and then two choices from the seven-deep list: potato, beet, eggplant, etc. The eggplant salad is especially worthwhile; served cold, it has a freshness, lightness, and tang that I do not associate with eggplant. Be sure to let them pile it high with feta cheese.
The pupusas at La Puerta (nee Rio Verde) have that impossible pupusa texture: solid, griddle-smooth, and dense, somewhere between arepa and pancake, just fluffy enough to pull apart and reveal the goodies inside. There are a number of suggestions on the menu, including loroco, a green herbal flower bud common in Central American cooking. Get the combo plate with a perfectly cooked tamale and soft, aromatic plantains ($12).
On the other side of the (covered!) seating area sits Euro Dish, stalwart purveyor of pierogis the size of a preteen pugilist’s fist (a steal at six for $4.50 and served with a considerable amount of sour cream) and sprawling plates of paprikash ($7-9 depending on sides). This is proper spirits-warming food—like, don’t buy this if you don’t want everyone you share it with to give you a hug.
The same is true of Sabor Cubano and Bark City BBQ. Bark City’s big plates of people-pleasing ribs and brisket are no brainers, but don’t sleep on the beer brat, especially with a sweet and tangy mustard sauce. Sabor Cubano, meanwhile, cranks out congris beans and rice, steak, breaded chicken, and ropa vieja, Cuba’s famous slow-cooked beef ($12), and—of course—mouth-watering tostones and mariquitas, the latter being the slightly rarer thin-sliced green plantains, crispy and delicious ($3).
Rose City Slammin’ Sandwiches is one of the more recent arrivals, peddling ham and pork Cuban and Caribbean chicken sandwiches (as well as breakfast versions) and, you guessed it: plantains. The fact that there’s some overlap among these carts is one of the best things about the pod—the other is that everyone in every cart is as excited to talk about the other chefs’ food as they are to talk about their own. The guy at the BBQ cart’s eyes rolled back in his head when he told me he got to taste a beef head broth the Tehuana crew was cooking for a catering gig. And Hash It Out, inspired by Mystical Eats’ Bulgarian owner’s nostalgia for his NYC days, has unveiled a “New York Bodega Breakfast Sandwich” of eggs, American cheese, bacon, and ketchup.
The different languages, dialects, and accents give the pod at its rowdiest a big-city feeling, but with Portland touches: More than once, I’ve gone and found live music, unadvertised and all but unsolicited. It’s the kind of place that ought to exist in every neighborhood, but for now, you can find it on N Killingsworth. Here’s to many more anniversary parties.