The suburbs are weird. Hot take, I know. I grew up in the suburbs of Portland and Boise, but having spent my adult life in the city, I now realize the suburbs feel so strange specifically because they refuse to be weird. Weird is bad for property values, after all.
Take Beaverton’s food cart pod ban, which ended in 2015, for example. Food carts could only stay in one place for up to seven hours, and couldn’t be next to each other. A cart should be mobile, seemed to be the message: immobile food mobiles are unnatural and wrong.
The first pod to hit Beaverton since the ban was lifted, BG’s Food Cartel at The Round, is unfortunately an example of aggressively manufactured suburban sprawl, but there’s no use denying that it truly offers some great eating.
The pod is, first of all, huge. There are so many food carts that there are two E-San Thai carts right next to each other. It’s not that there are any more options here than at the cart clumps in downtown Portland—it’s the intentionality that makes it feel so simultaneously big and insular: This is no organic accrual of carts on busy city blocks, but a destination megamall—street food that faces away from the street.
The carts snake around the perimeter in an irregular shape, hemming in a concrete forum with rectangular patches of AstroTurf. One is marked “Human Area” and one “Pet Area,” yet I’ve seen nothing but children rolling around the “Pet Area,” and the “Human Area” is empty, because there’s no seating near it. More troublesome: What “pets” other than dogs are they expecting? Is Beaverton full of people who would take their cats and birds to food cart pods? What does it say about us as a society that we would turn a blind eye to this kind of behavior?
For seating, there’s a large, ludicrously high-ceilinged indoor area; a partially covered and heated patio; and the aforementioned patch of bare AstroTurf in the center of the arena. It’d be entirely tolerable, if it weren’t for the steady stream of early-2000s jams on the speakers. (So much Ben Folds and So-Cal ska... is the whole city of Beaverton a millennial forever peaking in high school?)
The beer bars (one in- and one outdoors) are what I think of as typical beer-dad bars: IPAs, lagers, cider—a kind of outlier-avoiding taplist that’s borderline offensively inoffensive. But there is likely something to adequately complement any food offering in the court.
And boy is there some food on offer. The two E-Sans aren’t even the only Thai trucks out there. There’s also Chinese, sushi, poke, German sausage, burgers, chicken wings, cemitas, a whole cart dedicated to avocados... you name it. There are also a few uniquely delicious options that may even tempt me to get off my high Portland horse and trudge back to the ’burbs.
One is Abuela Chona, an Argentinian cart peddling empanadas and choripan chorizo sandwiches. The empanadas are unique and tasty enough to stake the entire cart on. The espinaca—spinach, cheese, and veggies intricately spiced and rolled in tight circular shells—are so flavorful that even the outstanding, olivey-bright chimichurri feels like a distraction. That chimichurri is unmissable, though, so make sure to grab at least one of the other options. (The criolla is a runner-up to the espinaca, beef like the cart’s namesake Abuela Chona empanada, but studded with chopped olives.) Luckily, you can get a combo plate with two empanadas, potatoes, chimichurri, and a soft alfajor dulce de leche and coconut sandwich cookie for $10.95.
The Phil slings, of course, Philly cheesesteaks (including French dip style and a Thai pork option, all a buck an inch at $8 or $12), but don’t sleep on the loaded fries. It’s a build-your-own situation, which is always dicey, and you have plenty of cheese options (yes, including Whiz), plus peppers, onions, beef or chicken, etc. The sandwich menu offers some guidance, and thank god the cook suggested putting the Phil’s Stroganoff on our fries: beef, mushrooms, and cream cheese. Can’t choose? The small option’s only $6, so you might as well try a few setups.
So with those appetizers out of the way, where will you go for dinner? A cold, rainy day may call for ramen from Magokoro, conveniently located just off the covered seating area. The miso is rich and slightly heavy, deeply flavored with sake lees. (You might as well get the “deluxe” version, which comes with an excellent house-seasoned egg and extra chashu pork for $11.50.) On sunnier days, the Chamorro-style Mariana’s Food Cart offers plenty of can’t-miss food from Guam, like lumpia, red rice, and BBQ chicken and pork ribs. (Just get the fiesta plate—it’s only $12 and it has almost the whole menu on it.)
E-San isn’t the only new location for an existing spot, as you’ll also find Altengartz’s German sausages and a handful of other veterans of the scene. Smaaken (of waffle sandwich fame) is another, and with separate coffee (Bow Tie Baristas) and tea (Pre Tea) carts and breakfast spot Belly Bar (American fare like fried chicken sandwiches), the Food Cartel is clearly an all-day option.
If you live or work in Beaverton, BG’s would be a no-brainer even if it were just The Phil, Mariana’s, and Abuela Chona. And those three carts are good enough to make the MAX ride or a weird Beaverton parking situation worthwhile for a Portlander. Just bring earplugs unless you fucking love Reel Big Fish. And if you love Reel Big Fish, just do yourself a favor and stay in Beaverton.