Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine.
At noon on a sunny day in Portland, Ore., in what not long ago was a vacant lot, customers roam past brightly painted food carts perusing menus for vegan barbeque, Southern food, Korean-Mexican fusion, and freshly squeezed juice.
The smell of fried food and the tent-covered seating bring to mind a carnival, but a number of Portland's food carts take a healthy approach to street food. The Big Egg, for instance, serves sandwiches and wraps made with organic farm-fresh eggs, balsamic caramelized onions, and arugula. Their to-go containers are compostable, and next to the order window is a list of local farms where they source their ingredients.
Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine
"We don't have a can opener. We make everything ourselves, so it's very time-consuming. And that's the way we want it," says Gail Buchanan, who runs The Big Egg with her partner, Emily D. Morehead.
The Big Egg usually sells out, says Buchanan as she hands a customer the last sandwich of the day, one made with savory portobello mushrooms. And on weekends, customers form a line down the block, willing to wait up to 45 minutes for their food.
Buchanan and Morehead dreamed of opening a restaurant for years. They had food service experience, saved money, and spent their free time developing menu items. "Then 2008 happened," says Buchanan. Difficulty getting business loans after the recession convinced them to downsize their dream to a custom-designed food cart. When a developer announced he was opening a new food cart lot, Buchanan and Morehead jumped in.
Portland's permissive land-use regulations allow vendors to open on private lots—food cart "pods"—like the one that hosts The Big Egg. Local newspaper.
Willamette Week estimates there are about 440 food carts in the metro area.
The food cart scene has taken off in Portland in a way it hasn't in other cities—transforming vacant lots into community spaces and making neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly and livable.
Recent features in Sunset, Bon Appétit, Saveur, and on the Food Network have pointed to Portland's food cart pods as tourist destinations. There are even food cart walking tours.
Despite their success, Buchanan and Morehead have found that running a food cart isn't easy money. They both work 70 hours a week, most of it prepping menu items—their fire-roasted poblano salsa alone takes three hours to prepare. But they're grateful for the experience. They plan on opening a restaurant soon, like a growing number of he city's most popular vendors.
Many of those vendors are first-generation immigrants who've found a way to make a living by sharing food traditions.
A few blocks from The Big Egg, Wolf and Bear's serves Israeli cuisine from Jeremy Garb's homeland. But it's Israeli cuisine with a Portland influence, says his co-owner, Tanna TenHoopen Dolinsky. "It's inspired by food in Israel, but we sprout our chickpeas and grill everything and don't use a deep fryer."
Wolf and Bear's has grown to two locations and employs 12 people, and Garb and Dolinsky are considering opening a restaurant. "There's a feeling of opportunity in Portland, and I think the rise of cart culture is representative of that," says Dolinsky.
Nong Poonsukwattana has made the most of that opportunity with her food cart, Nong's Khao Man Gai, famous for her signature rice and chicken dish. She describes hers as the best kind of fast food: "Fast service but not fast cooked. It's fresh. I serve happiness."
Poonsukwattana arrived from Bangkok, Thailand, in 2003 with $70. She waitressed at five different restaurants, working every day and night of the week, before buying her own downtown food cart in 2009.
Now she has two carts and a brick-and-mortar commercial kitchen and employs 10 people. Recently she started bottling and selling her own sauce.
Poonsukwattana likes the sense of community in the food cart pods, "even though competition is fierce," but especially the cultural exchange with customers, many of whom she knows by name.
"I think it's always good to support local business, mom-and-pop shops, or small businesses with different ideas. It's beautiful to see people fight for a better future for themselves."
Abby Quillen wrote this article for How To Live Like Our Lives Depend On It, the Winter 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Abby is a freelance writer in Eugene, Ore. She blogs at newurbanhabitat.com.