Food Carts in Portland – the Story Behind the Icon

I will admit, I hesitate to write this article, because what could I possibly say about food carts in Portland that has not already been said?  Probably nothing, but it has been fun for me to travel down some rabbit holes, learning the history of how food carts have become synonymous with Portland.

Officially, the food cart scene blew up in 2008, during the Great Recession. Although that was 95 years after the first food cart set up moveable shop in Portland.  As you can imagine, the cart was pulled by a horse back then!

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Nostrana’s Famous Radicchio Salad

Before diving deep into what makes Nostrana’s famous radicchio salad so awesome, let me mention that Nostrana has been open for fifteen years in Portland, Oregon.  In terms of the life of a restaurant, fifteen years is pretty much forever.  Which means chef Cathy Whims is doing a few things right.  Cathy and her husband David West opened Nostrana in 2005, in the heart of the Buckman neighborhood, which encompasses the Central Eastside Industrial District.  With the coziness of the wood decor and pizza oven inside and the patio seating outside, it very much has a neighborhood bistro feel to it. 

For decades, Cathy has been a frequent traveler to Italy, where she has built friendships, strengthened her relationship to Italian cooking, and studied with the famous Marcela Hazan.  Lucky for her (and us), Italian cuisine adapts very well to the Pacific Northwest.  Mainly because they both draw on the natural bounty of the region, supporting local farmers, fisherman and ranchers.  Starting with the best ingredients and creating rustic, simple dishes, can result in some of the most complex and tastiest food.  I read a quote by her that really struck a chord, “at Nostrana, the farmers and the ingredients cultivate the menu”.

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Making Hard Cider is Not at All Hard

Fermenting apples and apple juice into hard cider carries an air of mystique amongst so many of us.  It seems like it is difficult and elusive and complicated.  I am happy to tell you it is none of those.  Although as a disclaimer, getting consistent fermentation results on a large-scale basis and running a business IS difficult and complicated.

But for the lay person, fermenting cider at home is basically like cooking.  Although instead of using the stove or oven to cook apples, you are using a glass container to house apple juice and yeast for a few months.

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What are Arepas? Find Out at Teote

Practically everyone has heard of a tortilla, but not everyone has heard of an arepa.  Not having traveled to South America, I wasn’t familiar with arepas until I ate at Teote, years ago in Portland.

It all starts with corn. Corn is important to Latin American cultures. So much so, that there are prayers and celebrations in honor of this life giving plant, which is maize in Spanish.

The versatile corn plant, crafted into arepas

And since there are a couple dozen Latin American countries, spread out over two continents, it only makes sense that corn is crafted into many different dishes. Tacos, tamales, tortillas, pupusas, posole, and arepas come to mind.  When I’ve traveled in Mexico, I have seen women smacking maize back and forth in their hands, until they form a flat tortilla.  When I was in El Salvador, I took a cooking class to learn how to make pupusas.  Pupusas are slightly more complicated, as they contain not only maíze, but also beans (frijoles) and cheese (queso) and possibly vegetables.

Come and sample arepas (and more) at Teote

And I am positive when I make it to South America (hopefully winter of 2021), I will see arepas sold as street food and in the markets. And with luck, take a class on making arepas. In the meantime, I will keep eating at Teote.  And I will keep bringing guests on the Bustling Buckman Food Tour to the Teote House Café, which is located in a refurbished vintage home near Ladd’s Addition.  And I will note, that since Teote opened up there in 2013, they have expanded with the Mezcaleria in the Alberta Arts district and the Outpost in Pine Street Market downtown.  So you have lots of options!

Arepas are the Columbian and Venezuelan corn dish of choice and have been, long before the Europeans colonized the New World.  In fact, it is believed that they are not much different now than they were 3,000 years ago.  Talk about endurance. 

They are thicker than a tortilla, but definitely round and flat.  Another key difference is that the arepa flour is NOT alkali treated, like so many other maize products.  The soaked kernels make for a moist batter.  Although the magic comes when they hit the grill.  Lightly fried to perfection, the outside is crispy and the inside is still moist.

Sounds so yummy! How are they served?

Grounding and nourishing, arepas can be eaten any time of day.  Traditionally, they are either an accompaniment to a meal or a snack themselves.  They are perfect for sopping up spicy and/or wetter foods, which is exactly how they are served at Teote.  Or picture them stuffed with beans or cheese, or grilled meats, fish or chicken.  The adjective versatile comes to mind. 

Teote is Venezuelan cuisine, but not in the strictest sense.  They utilize South American grilling techniques (YUM!) and combine that with Northwest ingredients.  This translates into organic and local meats that are braised with the spices and sauces best paired with the cut of meat.  Examples include chicken with a distinctly smoky sauce or brisket with a salsa verde.  And vegetarians, we’ve got you covered with black beans accompanied by a plantain sauce.  A generous sprinkle of local veggies gives the arepas that extra pop on what is essentially a divine ethnic comfort food.

I don’t want to give too much away.  But at the end of the Bustling Buckman Hood Food Tour, guests name Teote as their favorite stop about 75% of the time.  The arepas are THAT good!

  • Teote House Cafe
  • 1615 SE 12th Ave
  • Portland, OR 97214
  • Teote Mezcaleria
  • 2700 NE Alberta St
  • Portland, OR 97211
  • Teote Outpost
  • Pine Street Market
  • 126 SW 2nd Ave
  • Portland, OR 97204
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The Teote House Cafe – as featured on our Portland food tour

So What Makes a Smaaken Waffle so Tasty Anyway?

Guess what?  There are a lot of types of waffles out there.  Because we live in a big world and people all over love waffles!  The most popular types are Dutch waffles and Belgian waffles.  But let’s not forget the American waffle, the Italian style waffle and varieties of Asian style waffles (from Hong Kong to Vietnam). 

Portland is well represented with waffles and I will admit I declared one of my favorites sometime last year.  All it took was one bite into a Smaaken Waffle and I was hooked.  When I learned that the word smaaken is Dutch for tasty, it was so obviously befitting.  In fact, Smaaken Waffle is one of my overall favorite food carts in Portland and my go to on a regular basis, even when I am not bringing people there for the Bustling Buckman Food Tour.

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Weirdest Wine Shop in Portland – Pairings Portland

Pairings Portland’s claim to fame is “Weirdest Wine Shop in Portland.”  I have not patronized enough wine shops to firmly agree, yet still, I agree!  The weirdness is undoubtedly part of its charm and so is the fact that it is totally unpretentious and uber quirky. Additionally, there is a focus on organic wines (from organic grapes) and natural wines (no added yeast).

The first time I went in was Tarot reading night.  A man in a wizard hat did a simple tarot reading to address whatever question I asked.  After that, he did a tarot reading to assess my mood.  The three cards he selected yielded states of being and I brought them up to the counter and then it was the wine expert’s task to find me a wine that fit my mood.  How fun!

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What Makes Wolf and Bear’s Falafel Epic?

Wolf and Bear’s has almost a cult like following.  I know that is claiming a lot for a humble chickpea dish.  But indeed, Portlanders just go gaga over the falafel pita wraps.  Currently, Wolf and Bear’s has two food truck locations.  One on North Mississippi (between Shaver and Failing).  And the other in Pod 28, which is on SE 28th and Ankeny, on the southern end of the renown Kerns Restaurant Row.

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A Slice of Hog Heaven – Tails and Trotters

Every time I walk into Tails and Trotters I comment (to myself), “this is a slice of hog heaven, well actually it is not heaven for a hog, but it sure is heaven for a human.”  Of course this assumes that you are not vegetarian.  And if that is the case, then keep reading!

Pork is nutrient dense and flavorful, not to mention adaptable to different cuisines.  Now imagine if those happy pigs were finished off on hazelnuts.  I bet you realize that would impart a distinctively complex and rich flavor to the meat.  Well that is exactly what you can discover for yourself at Tails and Trotters.

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Providore Fine Foods – Visit on a Portland Food Tour

Providore claims to be a purveyor of fine foods and it is indeed just that.  It is actually a mix of several businesses that each occupy space in the same building.  And the synergy of the mix is awesome.  Providore’s website lists:  Pastaworks (fresh pasta, wine, and a deli), Arrosto (rotisserie chicken), Flying Fish Company (replete with its own oyster bar and soup samples), The Meat Monger (think duck, quail, hazelnut finished pork, and pasture fed beef), Rubinette Produce Market (with unusual varieties of usual fruits and veggies), Little T Baker (artisan bread and sweet treats) and Hillary Horvath Flowers (think seasonable like eye popping peonies and wild berry flowers).

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Pambiche – a Slice of Old Havana

I discovered this gem years before I moved to Portland.  It came to me through word of mouth in one of those classic “where are the fun restaurants in Portland” conversations.  Although I did not purposely move a few blocks from it to be nearby, it’s certainly an added benefit of living in the Kerns. And how terrific that on a rainy Oregon day, I can slip into Pambiche – a slice of old Havana with Cuban hospitality.

So Pambiche, touts itself as Cuban food, which I believe you will find to be very similar to other food from the Caribbean and Central America.  Countries in those regions are geographically small, therefore the overlapping of food crops that thrive there is to be expected.  And yet, each country develops its own customs of preparing food, creating a sense of national identity.

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