Over the past couple years, a huge trend has emerged in Portland from something nobody gave much thought to before: food carts. Food carts, mobile trucks or stands, used to exist as quick lunch stops in central commercial areas, but in Portland especially a “food cart culture” has emerged. With this has come a rapid growth in the number of carts and cart locations in the city, including many gourmet menu items. But more than that, it is also a small-scale trend that locals take pride in, which speaks to the values and self-perception of Portland.
When my freshman year roommate and I first met for lunch, I suggested we visit a burrito cart behind our building. She was appalled. “In San Diego we don’t do that,” she said, “street food is nasty.” I’ve been seeing “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers my whole life, but it never occurred to me that this might extend to eating at food carts. Since this instance, I’ve met many of the college age people that have flocked to Portland, and encountered similar attitudes about small cultural phenomenon I never questioned, from wearing Birkenstocks to letting someone else pump your gas.
Food cart culture in Portland is exemplary of an attitude of “otherness” that seems prevalent in the city. This New York Times article comments on this, as well as the city’s “city’s obsession with provenance” when it comes to food, spoofed in the show “Portlandia”. Indeed the trend of buying local goes hand in hand with food carts. Besides being independent local businesses themselves, many food carts buy from local farms or other local suppliers. “We’re always looking for a local product as good as the Italian import,” says the owner of the artisan pizza cart Pyro Pizza in this video.
While the food cart trend, like many others, is something that can gently be made fun of by locals and cable television shows alike, it’s hard to view it as anything but good. In Portland and other cities in the US there is a movement towards a sense of local community in our increasingly global and urban world. Food carts are something simple that both help local economy and create a sense of community in neighborhoods and general pride in the city. And although the food carts could be written off as a white middle class very Portland fad, they truly extend into every part of the city, and include almost any ethnic food imaginable at extremely reasonable prices.
Food Carts Portland is an extensive review site of the city’s food carts (with 30,946 fans on Facebook!)
Portlandia clip spoofing the city’s obsession with local food: