By Michael C Jordan
Over the last decade Portland has been undergoing a rather quiet revolution. Or, quiet to non-food-nerds at least. Food carts have been breeding in the streets like delicious little rabbits. No open space in the city is safe from the trailers, trucks, shacks, caravans and huts that serve the city’s hungry, hungry hippos. Within four blocks on North Mississippi Avenue, there are at least fifteen food carts, serving Jamaican food, coffee, desserts, vegan bento, Mexican… just about anything you can think of. The former parking lot of Prost! (a local German bar) hosts eight or nine carts. Groupings of carts (called “pods”) have sprung up throughout the city, providing ginormous variety and optimal convenience.
The food cart was once relegated to construction sites and industrial areas, but has now been appropriated by the powerful alternative movement in Portland. One can ride their fixed-gear bike down to the local pod, grab a snack and head home to relax with a Tall Boy of Pabst and some Animal Collective while they eat. It is the working class connotations of the food cart that nudged the trend into being. The quality and variety of food made possible by food carts is what maintained the frenzy, but the promise of blue collar authenticity associated with a “good old food cart” is what drew people in at first. The same appeal that inspires so many DIY, urban farm, flannel work-shirted boho hipsters is rife within the food cart genre. Today’s urban, college educated white kids have almost no specific heritage of their own, so they are reinventing what little they have to fit the modern world. Sure it’s an affectation, but who cares?
One result of the appropriation of food carts has been a sanitization of the form. The image of the roach-trap trailer is gone, replaced with an image more welcoming to the middle class.
Garden State (a personal favorite) has the clean, stainless steel appearance one would associate with a well equipped professional kitchen. The connotations of high-risk e coli and botulism sandwiches are gone, replaced with family friendly convenience.
The line between high and low culture has been blurred almost out of recognition as these tiny mobile kitchens perfect the few items on their small menus, conquering the cultural territory that used to belong solely to sit-down restaurants. The small menus necessitated by such small kitchens have lead to intense specialization, which, when paired with the increased social standing of food carts, have led to some really amazing high end dishes. The burger with pancetta at Garden State, for example, costs nine dollars and is one of the most amazing things I have ever put in my mouth. Compare that to the burger at Slow Bar, which cost’s only fifty cents more, isn’t quite as good, and is served at an upscale lounge. The price alone would have been prohibitive for Garden State only a few years ago. Who wanted to spend fifteen dollars at a food cart? What was previously the purview of the gastropub is now available on a street corner.
I’m going to admit that this last picture is just a shameless plug for the cart next door to my apartment building, Moxie Rx. The woman who runs the place is really nice, and the cheddar biscuits they serve in the summer are totally amazing.