Portland Food Carts @ SE 12th and Hawthorne
SE 12th and Hawthorne
With me being in Portland for some time (again, for work, not necessarily pleasure), it was certain I had to visit one or two food carts. I mean, after all the noise that has occurred in Vancouver, I had to go to set myself a baseline. After all, my concept and understanding is quite skewed compared to the ones available in North America. See, to me street food is not necessarily food sold on the street; it is beyond that. On one side, it was a matter for some families to earn extra income; in other, as a mean of living. More often than not, these were based on the concept of cheap, mysterious, risky (you never know what you are actually served) and, for the most part, tasty.
The problem I have encountered in North America is that, while some of that concept has carried over, truth is there is too much of that cover-your-ass mentality. Hence, some really wacky requirements, from location, type of food being sold, sanitary conditions (did I say “risky”?), et al have taken away some of it. While that is something that seems to be for good (in general), what is not is the attempt of some food cart operators here to make things “fancy”, as in making things “fusion” or making things complicated or, worst of all, fancy in an attempt to create an edge. Granted, it is all business at the end of the day; however, I believe that that takes away from the spirit of street food.
I know I am digressing here but, please keep in mind, it is something people ought to be aware of, as it might skew things a little bit… So, that brings us back to the corner of Hawthorne and 12th in Portland, a sort of empty lot that has been occupied by some food carts. And, in that spirit of adventure, I went there for dinner and tried to visit as many such carts as possible (based on time, $$$ and stomach volume). So, without further ado…
In this area, there are a total of six carts:
Potato Champion, known for their fries
Pyro Pizza, for pizza and similar dishes
Bubba Bernies, for cajun/creole
El Brasero, a Mexican food cart
Whiffies Fried Pies, for their sweet or savoury pies
Perierra Crêperie, which sells, well, crepes.
Out of these, the only one I knew I had to get something from was Potato Champion (more of that in a moment). From the remaining ones, I had to drop Pyro Pizza and and Bubba Bernies out of the gate. It wasn’t an easy decision but, based on practicality, I knew I had to do it. How so? Well, let’s just say that what they serve, while not necessarily “expensive” (a pizza ~ US$8; a plate of food ~$10), I wanted to try several things. One of their dishes would have been quite filling. In the end, I went for El Brasero to get tacos for comparison purposes and, in a coin toss, ended up getting crepes. Again, not an easy decision but my stomach only had that much space (after all, I am not Mijune! :P)
Starting with Potato Champion, as their name implies, they serve potatoes, specifically, fries. They seem to make emphasis on it being Belgian (particularly true with some form of sauces) but the interesting part was that of making honour to a Canadian dish. Yes, you can guess it: they have poutine in their menu!
Now, before I start, a quick recap of how I like my poutine: My fries should have a starchy texture with a slight crispy exterior; while the cheese curs ought to be squeaky. The gravy… Well, I am not that demanding, as long as it is not too salty. Basically, what I look for is contrasting texture. In the case of Potato Champion the fries were slightly crunchier than what I expected but, otherwise, it worked well (though, I would have preferred them cut slightly thicker). However, from there, things went south: the cheese curds were almost rubbery not squeaky and, worst of all, it didn’t melt! I mean, I know how most people like it, specifically, either squeaky like I or gooey but it failed to go either side. As for the gravy, it didn’t have a meat-y gravy taste; in fact, it tasted on the herby/acidic side. If I had to guess, I would have to say it was on purpose, given they make it vegan as well. So, while the fries on its own were good, for poutine, skip that and drive ~650 Km north and come to Canada instead. >_<
While I was waiting for the poutine, I walked around and ordered tacos from El Brasero. I ordered two of them: Chorizo and El Pastor. In the end, I was playing a waiting game, which order would come first? Eventually, the poutine came first and decided to sit closer to the El Brasero stand. Oddly, as soon as I sat down, my tacos order was ready:
I think uninspiring would be the best phrase here. They weren’t bad, just that it wasn’t good either. I mean, considering the Mexican population, I would have expected them to be, at least, sizzling hot or have *something* that make them special. I guess my expectations were beyond what they were about to offer. Why I didn’t think they were good. I think mainly because it felt dry, as in no fat/juices overflowing them; otherwise, the construction was fine.
After done with the poutine and taco, I wanted something to close off for the day. Again, it was between Whiffies and Perierra Crêperie. In the end, I went for the later and, after observing for quite a while, it seemed it was the correct decision at the time. Whiffies was mostly empty while there were several customers ordering crepes. Oh, well, here I go then!
I was quite surprised the one single person was attending the customer and preparing crepes at the same time. One really remarkable thing was the pace in which the crepes were prepared. He never seem hurried and the amount of customers waiting seemed to maintained in check. After a 5 or so minutes wait (though it seemed it took forever), I got my order of peanut butter, banana, honey and cinnamon crepe.
This type of crepes is not one of those things that can be made visually looking good. I mean, it is just a folded circumference! (Though, by then, the angle by which the sun was at made taking pictures somewhat challenging). The first couple of bites were meh but that was because I didn’t hit the filling yet. However, once I hit it… Think of a peanut butter and banana sandwich with a hint of cinnamon. The honey wasn’t too pronounced but otherwise, if you like that treat, you will love this one. As for me, well, what can I say, I like peanut butter and banana sandwich so that should answer the question!
Overall, as I was sort of expecting, street food can be sort of hit or miss. However, if you go to these places, your expectations ought to be low to begin with. After all, it is the experience itself, not necessarily the food the main entincement to come here. The fact the food is good is just a bonus. As for me, well, it was interesting in its own ways but not necessarily in a hurry to come back. In fact, there were a lot of other food carts to visit…