Tenth and Alder numbers among the 40 or so food cart pods spread across Portland, though most don’t sprawl quite as imposingly. The city’s penchant for grazing extends well beyond carts. Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok started a chain-reaction of restaurant openings on Southeast Division Street, for example, which is now lined with businesses that draw on flavors from around the world.
Diversity, not tradition, is the root of the unending hype around Portland's dining culture.
These days every thriving American city can boast strong contenders serving international foods cooked by immigrants and enthusiasts. But by my reckoning, Portland supports more variety than any other midsize U.S. metropolis. Portland’s national image may be one of revivalist, pickle-it-yourself Americana, but there’s much more to the city than pork belly served by white guys with wooly beards. Diversity, not tradition, is the root of the unending hype around its dining culture: You can eat across the globe, one far-flung recipe at a time, right in the city’s nexus.
Which is pretty much what I did during a recent, incessantly drizzly week. (El Niño is indeed in full effect.) With the exception of an occasional foray for a bowl of pho or a Yucatecan take on a taco (which were 20-minute car rides, max), I stayed within a few miles of downtown to sample an international array of memorable dishes.
These dozen dishes from carts and restaurants stood out as the finest of my recent wanderings, for their all-around deliciousness and for their cultural specificity. And when a food cart beckons, try its food immediately; who knows if it will be there when you circle back. As I was writing this story, there came word that Kargi Gogo — which turned out excellent versions of the cheesy, eggy, buttery Georgian bread called khachapuri, one of my current infatuations — closed shop as of this past Friday. The message was clear: Don’t dawdle. The time to experience Portland at the height its culinary wonder days is now.
Khao man gai at Nong’s Khao Man Gai
If you’re choosing one starting point by which to jump into the jubilant circus that is Portland’s food-truck scene, make it Nong Poonsukwattana’s chicken and rice — her version of a popular Thai staple inspired in turn by a classic Hainanese dish. Poonsukwattana began her first cart (now papered with years of media praise) near Tenth and Alder Streets; she now operates a second near Portland State University and last year launched a small restaurant in Southeast Portland. No matter where you seek out the khao man gai, ask for a combination of white and dark meat and request the crucial addition: fried chicken skins for crunch. Southwest 10th & Alder Streets, (971) 255-3480, Portland, OR, khaomangai.com
Hot Chick at Tiffin Asha
Ensconced at the back of a small food cart pod on North Mississippi Avenue, owner Elizabeth Goley and her crew have mastered dosas — the hubcap-size South Indian crepe made of fermented rice and lentil batter, here rolled into crackly cones. Among possible fillings, the must-try is the most unorthodox: chunks of chicken fried in chickpea flour, drizzled with cardamom-scented honey, and punctuated with pickled greens and thick yogurt. The Hot Chick comes with a traditional side of sambar, a brothy soup twangy with tamarind. Slather it all with finely-tuned chutneys: coconut is classic, but the finest is the peanut, a recipe from Goley’s mother-in-law who hails from Andhra Pradesh, a state of India known for its abundant groundnut crop. 3710 North Mississippi Avenue, Portland, (503) 936-7663, tiffinasha.com
Fiesta Plate at PDX671
The combo platter serves as the cart’s most thorough introduction to the cuisine of Guam, part of the Mariana Islands archipelago in the northwest Pacific Ocean. Guamanian cooking shares some similarities with coconut- and vinegar-tinged Filipino foods, including a penchant for lumpia, the thin spring rolls filled in this case with locally raised ground pork, vermicelli noodles, and vegetables. Order lumpia as another facet of the Fiesta Plate, which includes a lacquered grilled chicken thigh, shrimp fritters, rice dyed orange-red from annatto seed, and dipping sauces that give the monochromatic (but vividly flavored) dishes some acidic pop. 5221 Northeast Sandy Boulevard, Portland, (971) 570-0945, pdx671.com
Bibim Box at Kim Jong Grillin’
From the truck’s window a staffer hands you a to-go carton that tidily contains the sum of Korea’s sweet, fiery, fresh, and fermented flavors. A choice of meat (go for kalbi, thinly sliced bone-in short ribs) comes arrayed over glassy noodles, kimchi and other vegetable condiments typically served at the beginning of Korean meals, white rice, and a fried egg. Combine it all slowly using chopsticks and the egg’s liquid yolk lusciously binds the salmagundi. Note that Kim Jong Grillin’ has two locations; I visited the one on restaurant-packed Division Street, where owner Han Ly Hwang just installed an awning over the truck’s adjacent patio. 46 Southeast Division Street, (503) 929-0522, kimjonggrillin.com
Samosas at Chez Dodo
The island nation of Mauritius, which sits 660 miles east of Madagscar in the Indian Ocean, has been visited or occupied by Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, French, African, British, and Indian seafarers over the last millennium. Which helps explain why the samosa — the stuffed pouch of fried dough that leapt from continent to continent along the worldwide spice routes, adapting to local tastes at every port — became one of the signature Mauritian street snacks. Chez Dodo’s effervescent chef-owner Shyamal Ghanraj Dausoa makes gigantic specimens, two to an order, stuffed with spiced potatoes and drizzled with mint-cilantro chutney and (for a surprise turn into Southeast Asian flavors) sweet chile sauce. Share them or face certain food coma. 427 Southwest Stark Street, Portland, (503) 270-9258, chezdodopdx.net
Croquetas at Ataula
Moving now from food carts to brick-and-mortar restaurants, and around the horn of Africa to Europe, Ataula delivers true-minded tastes of Spain (made with impeccable Pacific Northwest ingredients) thanks to virtuoso chef Jose Chesa, a native of Barcelona. Before larger tapas like tortilla de patatas and a righteous seafood and saffron paella simmered in lobster fumet, start the meal by crunching into the scene-setting fritters, a favorite Spanish bar snack, sometimes stuffed with ham or (the classic) salt cod. 1818 Northwest 23rd Place, Portland, (503) 894-8904, ataulapdx.com
Rabbit in a clay pot at Kachka
During an epiphany of a meal last year at Kachka, the whirl of cured fish, caviar, rich dumplings, shimmery pickles, and vodka flights woke me up to how appealing the cuisines of the former Soviet Union could be to an American audience. If anything, this year the kitchen now pulls off even more confidently prepared dishes inspired by the heritage of chef and co-owner Bonnie Morales. (Her maiden name is Frumkin.) The rabbit had rotated onto the menu since my last visit, a hindquarter braised in a cloudy broth of smetana (delicate sour cream) with porcini, garlic, and sour cherries for sweet complexity. Potato pancakes smartly appear alongside to help sop up the sauce, which I could otherwise drink straight from the clay vessel. 720 Southeast Grand Avenue, Portland, (503) 235-0059, kachkapdx.com
Mixed dolmas at Dar Salam Lazurdi
On restaurant menus in America, "dolma" tends to refer to grape leaves stuffed with spiced rice, perhaps seasoned with meat. But the word translates as "filling" or "to be filled" from Turkish and can refer to any number of similarly prepared vegetable dishes. Downtown’s Dar Salam Lazurdi, the second Portland restaurant from Ghaith Sahib and his wife, Tiffany, opened in August serving three Iraqi versions of dolma — zucchini, the familiar grape leaves, and an especially delicate variation made with onion. Tomato, pomegranate molasses, and lemony sumac add sweet-sour piquancy to the vegetarian rice stuffing. 320 Southwest Alder Street, Portland, (503) 444-7813, darsalamportland.com
Goan shrimp thali at Bollywood Theater
Come to Troy MacLarty’s paean to his love of Indian food and culture with a group and order a flurry of snacks and small plates: pav bhaji (a vegetable mash, thrumming with spice, spooned over buttered rolls), feathery fried okra strips, potatoes painted with chutneys. But make the centerpiece of the meal a thali (essentially India’s combo plate) filled with creamy dal and yogurt, fragrant flatbread, punchy sambar, saffron rice, and a choice of curry. I’m partial to shrimp bathing in sweet, sultry coconut milk scented with citrusy curry leaves. Its intricate sweetness complements every other element on the plate. 3010 South Division Street, (503) 477-6699, bollywoodtheaterpdx.com
Asado Argentino at Ox
Owners Greg and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton bill their signature array of meats as serving two. But after starters like clam chowder with smoked marrow bone or grilled lamb heart flatbread, and in anticipation of vanilla bean tres leches cake for dessert, it can easily stretch to feed three or four. It’s the city’s most transporting taste of South America, a fresh-off-the-fire-breathing-hearth feast of short rib, skirt steak, chorizo, sweetbreads, and a version of blood sausage offset with ground walnuts and scented with and nutmeg and cumin. 2225 Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Portland, (503) 284-3366, oxpdx.com
Salbutes and panuchos at Angel Food & Fun
Fans of the puffy taco beloved in Texas and California should trek to the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland to try the two Yucatecan progenitors of the genre: salbutes (small fried tortillas, almost a cross between a taco and a tortilla) and panuchos (a variation filled with pureed black beans). At Angel Food & Fun — the "Fun" referring to a connecting, often vacant billiard room — the tortilla cradling pulled chicken comes topped with avocado and pickled red onions and the steak version comes with a simple garnish of chopped onion and cilantro. If the salbutes and panuchos intrigue, keep exploring the menu with saucy Yucatecan riffs on chile rellenos stuffed with turkey. 5135 Northeast 60th Avenue, Portland, (503) 287-7909
Red eye ham at Muscadine
It seems right that Portland’s global-minded restaurant community would eventually dip into the American South, with its rich traditions of far-flung influences. Mississippian Laura Rhoman sidestep the pancakes and waffles route for more savory pleasures at their breakfast and lunch charmer: country captain (a curried chicken dish likely born from spice trading at Southern ports), okra cakes (the crop arrived with slaves from Africa), fried chicken, salmon croquettes, and an omelet stuffed with Cajun-style andouille. As a Southerner, I vouch for the Appalachian favorite of smoked ham served with red-eye gravy (a.k.a. boiled-down coffee), filled out with grits and sauteed greens and eggs, which I asked to be softly scrambled and which arrived exactly that way. 1465 Northeast Prescott Street, Portland, (503) 841-5576, muscadinepdx.com