The All-American Food Issue
In late May, a Portland real estate company announced it would be replacing the decades-old downtown Alder Street food cart pod with a glitzy, 35-story skyscraper. The company gave food cart owners housed at Southeast Alder and 10th a month’s notice to vacate. To top it off, Portlanders learned on June 20 that a Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel will move into a portion of the new tower, offering 251 guest rooms, 130 condos, and eight penthouses.
It’s almost too easy of a metaphor for those perpetually shaking their fists at the so-called “New Portland” aesthetic, one that pairs a mutual dislike of new development with nostalgia for Portland’s less-hip past.
But the food carts this proposal has displaced represent a piece of New Portland not often mentioned by disgruntled locals’ rants: the immigrant community. While the number of immigrants and refugees flowing into Oregon has slowed under the Trump Administration, the state has seen a swell in international newcomers over the past decade.
According to 2015 US Census data, Oregon is home to roughly 398,000 foreign-born residents, making up nearly 10 percent of the state’s overall population. And in 2017, an estimated 14 percent of the city’s population were born in a different country.
That growing population was easily reflected in the Alder Street pod. Huong’s Vietnamese Food, Baghdad Iraqi Grill, the Kafta House, Bang Sean, Shanghai’s Best Street Food—the number of immigrant-owned or -staffed restaurants that popped up at the bustling food cart hub in the past few years is long.
Like many in the food cart business, these small shops were their first foray into commercial restaurant work. But, unlike native-born Americans, cultural and language barriers often add an extra hurdle to the process.
After the new lot owners gave the Alder Street food carts an eviction notice in May, many carts owned by non-immigrants immediately closed up shop and relocated. It’s taken a little longer for the immigrant-run businesses to make similar moves.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen at the end of the month,” said Ihab Krudheer, who owns Shish Kabab, a cart serving traditional Mediterranean food at the Alder Street pod. “All of my customers are asking me where I’m going, and I tell them, ‘I don’t know.’”
Krudheer, who moved to the US from Iraq, opened his cart three years ago after working on an assembly line.
“It was my first experience in a kitchen, but I learn fast,” he said. “And I got help from my mom, she taught me how to cook.”
Krudheer and his brother are the cart’s sole employees. They’re currently trying to find a place nearby to relocate their cart but haven’t found a spot in their price range. Krudheer fears a big move will cost them their faithful customers.
He said it’s been difficult to navigate the city’s rules around food carts, and that other cart owners have told him to just sell the cart and move on. That’s not something he’s ready to do.
“It would be very, very hard to sell it,” he said. “I love making falafels.”
Anna, who ran Anna Thai Basil out of the Alder Street cart for four years, is also unsure about what’s going to happen to her restaurant. “We still have to figure it out. I kind of worry about it,” said Anna, who declined to give her last name. “Maybe Beaverton, maybe Southeast Portland. But we have no idea. It’s kind of like a puzzle.”
Anna, who was born in Thailand, says she has enough money to close for at least two months, but then she’ll have to reopen.
Others have been more fortunate in tracking down a new location. Khalid Saad, who owns Baghdad Iraqi Grill, says he’ll be reopening his shop at Southeast Everett and 8th on July 5. But, he adds, “it’s been challenging.”
The City of Portland hasn’t written off food carts in downtown. City Council is still considering a proposal raised by several cart owners last November that suggests replacing some downtown curbside parking spots with food carts. And Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office is working with neighborhood organizations in hopes of relocating the carts to the North Park blocks. But it’s still unclear when—or if—either of these plans will come to fruition.
With rising property rates and a shrinking number of empty, privately-owned lots in downtown Portland, the closure of Alder Street is just one in a wave of food cart hubs being edged out of the city’s core. Some have successfully moved into a brick-and-mortar shop, while others have reopened in other immigrant-majority food cart hubs, like at Southeast Foster’s popular Portland Mercado.
But a big move could uproot the community that many of these small carts rely on. Anna said she’ll be sad to leave her loyal customers behind when she closes.
“I am going to miss them,” she said. “They know us. They are family to us.”