Bread & Brew: Blogger dishes on current cart culture
It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.
Brett Burmeister has spent the past 10 years logging serious time at Portland's food carts.
The blogger at Food Carts Portland remembers when, in 2009, "a food cart lot started on a sketchy street called Mississippi," he says. "Ten years later, look at what (North) Mississippi is. That lot is still there. Food carts and street food are just another part of urban planning — getting people out and about, walking."
Even with recent closures (mostly due to city development), food carts in the Rose City have seen a steady rise, having tripled in the past 12 years.
There were 904 food cart licenses in Multnomah County as of 2017, compared to just 314 in 2005.
All that points to one thing: People in Portland are sure hungry.
While street food is a mainstay for tourists and locals around the world, Portland's unique model — permanent food carts, rather than mobile trucks — lends itself to more stability for the entrepreneur, a perfect way to attract a following or test the viability for opening a brick-and-mortar location, which happens frequently.
For instance, the grass-roots Portland Mercado, 7238 S.E. Foster Blvd., has thrived as a communitywide destination since its launch in spring 2015.
With several vendors, live music, covered seating and a winter market, you can find everything from Puerto Rican plantain soup to Haitian curried goat to Mexican beer and fresh, organic produce.
Burmeister has made it his job to sample and photograph his way through these delicacies — from tacos and fried chicken to Korean and North African cuisine — so we, as hungry readers, can be properly informed and inspired.
But he not only writes about the food and the people making the food, he keeps track of the comings and goings, the trends, and the world of Portland's food carts in the global context.
In an interview with the Tribune, he shared his thoughts on the state of Portland food carts. Here's what he thinks about what has worked and hasn't worked, and what the future might hold:
Tribune: What's the biggest trend you've seen with the food carts lately?
Burmeister: Even with all the closures, there's still a ton of stuff and a ton of good stuff showed up in the core downtown and out in other lands. And it continues to change.
We have to acknowledge that what's occurred downtown with development will close approximately 100 food carts. Or displace — that's a more positive way to put it.
Tribune: When you say displace, where do you think these close-in food carts will go?
Burmeister: The same way with the restaurant and beer scene, they're venturing out farther than what our norm has been. We're going out to (Southeast) 82nd, 52nd and Montavilla in order to find and discover the next food cart star.
In 2013, it used to be the line was at 52nd — there was nothing east, nothing north of Alberta, nothing south of Powell. Now those lines are blurred. More and more, those communities are embracing walkability. Instead of walking to the local bar or new fancy restaurant, now there's an opportunity to walk to a food cart.
Tribune: How do Portland's food carts compare to street food anywhere else in the world?
Burmeister: I've had other dishes from food trucks all around the nation and world that just don't match up to the flavor, quality and freshness that Portland vendors have done. Stationary food carts allow us to do some things others can't — preheating, preserving food versus fresh, made to order. Having these carts sit there — someone can go in at 9 or 10 in the morning and work on preparation for a few hours — it's just like walking up to a restaurant. I think the execution of food in the carts is a notch better.
Tribune: What can the city leaders do to help food carts flourish?
Burmeister: Fellow vendors and I are actively working on an initiative to modify city regulations that would allow food trucks to park in downtown, which is currently not legal. If and when the food carts are forced out due to development, we need to work as a community to preserve the street food that made Portland famous in the past decade. Other cities do this, so why not Portland?
Tribune: What kind of flavors/cuisines have proven popular with Portland's carts?
Burmeister: I still think we're on a trend where we're embracing Middle Eastern cuisine and flavors, also Mediterranean. A lot of people are drawn to that. We just don't know those flavors that well.
At the (Portland) Mercado, how they've supported the Mexican/Central and South American cuisines, I think that's shown entrepreneurs what opportunities there are in the city. (Also), unique fusion cuisines show up. Barbecue grew last year. I'd even argue there's some gourmet food. If you want to sit down and enjoy a brilliant meal, go to Artigiano.
Tribune: How have chefs changed the game for the better?
Burmeister: There's this idea of raising the bar — not just with the cuisine or doing something that's special, but it's a chef-driven preparation. There's new North African cuisine I'm excited about. A West African cart, Black Star Grill by Portland State University, has brilliant food, and opens eyes to other entreprenurs who don't know if Portland would eat that.
We're not stagnant anymore. I used to think we didn't embrace many regional cuisines. Weve tackled a lot of those over the years.
Tribune: What's worked and not worked for food carts over the years?
Burmeister: I do think there have been trends over the years that haven't worked. Like the baked potato bar. I do think the cafe model, with too much on the menu, doesn't work. Italian pasta dishes — it's worked in one or two places but in others it hasn't.
Things will come and go. The people who have really been there for four to six years have worked really hard and lucked out with positive press early on, so they built a following and they do good, simple food, food everybody eats. They just execute it well and they've never faltered, like Nong's Khao Man Gai or Whole Bowl.
There's a very small subset of people who try different things every day. I think we all want to consider ourselves the foodie, but more and more, on Tuesday night, we make ourselves a grilled cheese sandwich. We want good, solid, homecooked food — memory food, the food we grew up with.
Tribune: What are some of your current favorites?
Burmeister: There's a Oaxacan cart called Tehuana at the Killingsworth Station Food Carts (North Killngsworth Avenue and 13th Street), with Oaxacan pizza, like a giant tortilla on the grill, topped with black beans, veggies and meat.
Another favorite is Cartopia (Southeast 12th Avenue and Hawthone Boulvard); Chicken and Guns' chicken and potato plates are epic. They have a sustainability goal and source everything from local farms; it just adds to that flavor of brilliant rotisserie chicken.
Everyone is freaking out about their favorite food cart closing, but chances are, there's something great opening next door.
For more: www.foodcartsportland.com