THE REIGNING OLD-TIMER of Pioneer Courthouse Square, Honkin’ Huge Burritos, has been cranking out pug-sized burritos since 1992. Another old-timer, No Fish Go Fish, served soup and little sandwiches grilled in taiyaki pans for more than 15 years before closing up shop in 2013. But having been in operation since the mid-’70s—nearly twice as long as Honkin’ Huge—many of Portland Saturday Market’s food carts are the oldest still operating in Portland.
For longtime Portlanders, Saturday Market may evoke Peruvian pan flutists playing “El Condor Pasa” and the cloying aroma of nag champa, but back in the mid-’90s, when I was a plucky, petition-wielding idealist, I used to come to Saturday Market for the easy signatures, cute drum circle boys, and cheap, delicious food. Some of that food is still there, ready to tickle you in your nostalgia-hole. Here are some of the seasoned elders of Portland’s food cart scene.
Jalisco’s Natural Food (1974)Although the current owners have been running it for “only” 25 years, the cart has been a Saturday Market veteran since the beginning. Long before El Nutri Taco, there weren’t a ton of options for hungry vegans and vegetarians craving Mexican fare. Jalisco’s is a solid choice for tofu burritos and vegetarian chili, but omnivores can opt to add chicken to any item. Deviating somewhat from Taco Bell’s item of the same name, Jalisco’s quesarito takes the menu slightly outside the “healthy” zone, but any time I have a chance to eat a burrito encased in a quesadilla instead of a plain tortilla, my arteries will rise to the challenge.
PDX Original Elephant Ears (1975)Elephant ears: sugar-coated fried dough that doesn’t come in a pink box. Between PDX Original Elephant Ears’ fresh lemonade and funnel cakes, it can be county fair time all year round! But the trademark is the elephant ear—a sweet frybread made with Northwest flour, topped with a variety of goodies including cinnamon and sugar, chocolate and powdered sugar, and, perhaps as a nod to their more famous neighbors over at Voodoo Doughnut, maple-bacon. During cooler weather, elephant ears also function as edible hand warmers. As evidenced by their Facebook page, the owner is finicky about the weather, so don’t be surprised if they don’t show up on days with extreme high or low temperatures.
Yakisoba Lady (1975)What’s not to love about Hawaiian food? It contains the holy trinity of foods: salt, sugar, and noodles. Never has this been more evident than in the Yakisoba Lady’s namesake item. It comes with your choice of toppings (including lemon chicken and various crucifers), but the kalúa pork is a Hawaiian standard. It comes with bean sprouts and little shreds of carrot, so it’s “healthy.”
Spring Roll Mobile Kitchen (1977)I have to respect a business that just cuts the shit and names itself after their main item. Sure, they have hum bao, bento, and crab puffs, but why wouldn’t you just do the right thing and get the “giant spring roll”? I mean, why are you even here if not for a cylinder of crispy fried wonton filled with shredded, savory goodness?
Tim’s Thai Foods (early 1980s)No joke, this is the first pad thai I ever ate. Back in my starving college student days, if I had $4 in my pocket, I’d hit up Tim’s for a huge plate of those sweet-savory noodles. Tim purchased the cart from the original owner back in the early 1980s (details are fuzzy), and when she passed away six years ago, her son Charles, who’d grown up helping out at the cart, took over. He runs it with his wife now, and that same pad thai—a groaning plate of stir-fried rice noodles, carrots, and green onions, tossed with peanut sauce and topped with bean sprouts—is still a steal at only $6.
Even some of the newer carts, like Angelina’s Greek Cuizina, Taste of Poland, Beirut, and Kathmandu have been there for decades—long enough to have witnessed the turning tides in our local food scene. Increasing tourism in the off-seasons has been good for business, but Beirut cart owner Mohamad Matar wishes weather reporters would “keep their opinion to themselves” instead of advising people to stay indoors during inclement weather. An opinionated food cart owner who isn’t afraid of the rain? Sounds like a Portland OG to me.