“Food cart owners represent the best of the American Dream – bootstrapping their way to a better life,” said Steven Shomler, self-proclaimed food cart fan. Steven becomes a little emotional as he tells me the story of Nong – of the infamous Nong’s Khao Mon Gai food cart – and her dream to see her sauce in stores someday, which came true for her last fall. “The idea of people battling for their dream inspires me,” he said.
Steven started PortlandFoodCartAdventures.com a year ago, and blogs regularly about the Portland food cart scene. While doing so, he’s become deeply passionate about the story behind each cart – evident as he introduces me around to each cart’s owner, by first name.
Steven so graciously sent me his number after I reached out on Twitter earlier this week, asking what his favorite Portland food cart was. This is an opinion he doesn’t divulge openly on the internet, but he was eager to have a phone conversation to tell me all about his favorite Portland food carts, and offered to show me around when I arrived.
I was overwhelmed by Steven’s sheer friendliness and willingness to embrace me as a fellow street food blogger, and his wealth of information (from all the do-not-miss carts and ‘pods,’ to the difference between “food trucks” in San Francisco and “food carts” in Portland).
Steven and I agreed to meet at NE 12th & Alberta my first full day in Portland, and this is where we started our mini Portland Food Cart Adventure tour.
Here are some of the stories…
Steven and I first stopped at the Tiffin Asha food cart – a cart that opened just 10 days ago! Elizabeth Goley is chef and owner of Tiffin Asha (tiffin meaning snacks and asha meaning wish/hope to represent Elizabeth’s hope to open her own food cart).
Elizabeth has a culinary background and attributes her passion for southern Indian food to her wife, whose family is from southern India and introduced Goley to the region’s traditional cooking. Elizabeth discovered that most of the Indian restaurants in the country are focused on food from northern India, so he was inspired to bring southern Indian food to Portland.
For Elizabeth, southern Indian food means dosa (an Indian style crepe made from fermented lentil and rice), idli (steamed cakes made from fermented lentil and rice), vada (south Indian savory-style donut made from urad dal, sambar (spicy and tangy-sweet tamarind and lentil soup) and podli (a powder made up of various spices, chillies and lentils that Elizabeth calls gun powder).
I could not have been more in love with this food cart. Where street food truly captures my heart is when you introduce me to a cuisine I’ve never tried. And while I’ve had a lot of Indian food, I’ve never had vada or idli dipped in sambar, both of which were more than memorable. I’ve talked about the vada donuts all day – warm and fluffy on the inside, perfectly lightly fried on the outside, and rolled in a coconut-chili fleur de sel. Dreamy.
Next Steven and I walked a couple blocks to Stumptown Dumplings (STUMPLINGS!) – Steven’s son’s favorite food cart in Portland. The cofounder, Justin Prasad, worked in Asian restaurants his whole life and eventually decided to open his own dumpling cart. Together with his partner, Nimesh Dayal, they serve dumplings that are completely steamed from raw, with a slightly thicker consistency than traditional dumplings.
Visitors choose the “stumplings” they want from three flavors – cheeky chicken, pompous pork or sassy spinach. You can throw in a bao in roasted pork, curry veggie, red bean or coconut custard, choose from five different sauces – spicy hoison, soy ponzu, asian chipotle, creamy peanut or Thai mustard – then polish it off with a Thai ice tea (which we did, duh!)
The stumplings were steaming when Justin handed them to us, and were perfectly tender. I fell in love with the cheeky chicken stumpling (ground chicken, spicy chilies, garlic and green onions in a carrot-juice infused wheat wrapper), the Thai mustard sauce and the coconut custard bao! YUM. The addition of the unique dipping spices made these some of the best dumplings I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot in San Francisco!
Just next to Stumptown Dumplings was another (newer) food cart that opened three months ago – Garden Monsters. Originally I wasn’t planning on eating here, but the cart owner, Kyle Hulings and I started talking, and I loved his story. I was convinced I needed to try Garden Monsters when he told me all of his salads feature his own signature homemade dressings, even his MAYO in his mayo-based dressings is from scratch, and then let us sample his signature garlic-pepper almonds roasted in coconut oil that he sprinkled on his salads. Impressed I was.
Kyle used to work at Yahoo as a marketing manager making a pretty good salary, but said he thought to himself one day, “Am I going to look back in 40 years and wonder what I did with my life?” He ended up getting laid off and took it as an opportunity to start his own [very first] salad cart in Portland.
Kyle’s salads are made with organic, locally sourced ingredients that are never frozen, microwaved or deep fried. He’s passionate about making large dinner-sized salads chalked full of healthy ingredients that don’t cost a fortune (I loattthhhhe the cost of salads!), and also offers his custom-salads in a wrap.
I asked him what ONE salad I should order, to which he told me the salad he’s most proud of is the Paul Bunyan – grilled grass-fed Kobe steak, romaine & iceberg lettuce, seasoned & roasted baby red potatoes, bacon, red peppers, red onion, garlic croutons and his signature bleu cheese – because it’s completely his own creation.
This salad was bomb! It was swimming in ingredients (don’t you hate it when salads only have a tiny addition of toppings), and the prefect size. I really needed some greens after all the fried doughs, dumplings and spice. Hats off to you Kyle – and good luck! xo
For our final stop in the Portland Food Cart Adventures tour, Steven took me to a food cart pod at 23rd & Alberta, and to one of his favorite food carts – Retrolicious. Retrolicious is owned by Kimberley and her husband who lived in Phoenix and sold everything they had to move to Portland to start Retrolicious.
As we walked up to the window of the bright-pink food cart, “Happy Birthday Robert Zimmerman!” was written on the glass window, and Kimberley greeted us, shouting, “It’s Bob Dylan’s birthday! out the window of her food cart.
Kimberley grew up in Georgia and has fond memories of the types of old school diner food she ate as a child growing up (such as meatloaf sandwiches!). She loves making a modern spin on these classics and serving them up to “the kids” in the Portland neighborhood Retrolicious parks at, carrying on the recipes she loves so much.
Her food cart projects its retro theme in the most spot-on manner. Old tin lunch boxes sit on the counter, next to a lineup of “throwback” sodas made with real sugar. (Gasp!)
We ordered one of Retrolicious’ most sinful dishes – the pimento mac ‘n cheese with brûléed potato chips on top. Kimberley makes her pimento cheese from scratch, using ingredients such as cheddar cheese, Sriracha, garlic and red pepper. Her housemade pimento cheese is tossed with penne noodles and kale, and topped with potato chips that she brûlées with a blow torch. I ordered it with a throwback Pepsi, of course. The whole meal just makes me smile. Just like Kimberley’s pink food cart and kick-ass bubbly personality.
Thank you so much Steven for the mini food cart tour of Portland – and thank you Elizabeth, Justin, Kyle and Kimberley for sharing your stories with me today. Your incredible kindness and hospitality was the perfect way to spend my first food cart day in Portland. XO