People's Pig Flies High

After disappearing last summer, the celebrated downtown food cart quietly resurfaces with fresh ideas and wood-fired meats stacked in artful sandwiches.

By Karen Brooks December 6, 2012 Published in the December 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

The People's Pig's wood-fired porchetta sandwich, with fennel pollen and whole roasted garlic

Image: Karen Brooks

It was the euphoric expressions, the drip of good juices, the irresistible aroma of smoke and fire and careful cooking that tipped me off. On a recent afternoon, I encountered two young dudes tearing ecstatically into a pork burger that could only come from one place: the People’s Pig, an iconic, meat-loving food cart that closed abruptly last summer. “I can’t tell you how good this is,” wailed one bespeckled follower. Cliff is back.”

Cliff Allen, who brought in-cart butchery and whole roasted pigs to Portland’s food-cart scene, resurfaced recently on SW Washington Street, just off 10th Avenue, in downtown’s central food-cart blocks.  

The new People’s Pig operates quietly and off the radar, as Allen shifts into gear with fresh ideas and more culinary range. The new cart houses little more than a long, wood-fired flattop, a guts-exposed ancient cash register, and an arsenal of fresh lemons, garlic, fennel pollen, finishing salt, and custom-made Kaiser buns—plus whatever meats Allen is obsessing over, sliced to order on a wooden cutting board.

Delicious surprises surface in a trio of daily sandwiches grilled over mesquite wood, around $9. One day you’re staring at blistered Snake River Farms kobe beef dogs heaped with homemade chili. On another, it’s a rare taste of lampredotto, a peasant classic from Florence starring the fourth stomach of a cow and Allen’s love of Italy’s stripped-down, honest flavors. Or maybe just a wild ride of beef tongue slathered with Allen’s sweet and sour onions.

If you’re lucky, the grilled steak sandwich is in the house. Think bastard child of Ox and Nostrana born as a food-cart sandwich. It begins with a thick pad of caramelized onions, reduced to a golden glory in a cast-iron skillet. Next come slices upon slices of crusty-edged meat, seared to juice-running medium rare. The top layer gets a big dab of homemade chimichurri, a garlicky Argentinian condiment packed with parsley leaves, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Finally, a mountain of arugula greens, and everything squished on a good, toothy bun. 

The real find just might be that pork burger—supremely moist and delicate, with a deep flavor surge. Allen grinds his own pork shoulder and belly, then gently poaches it like a fine sausage. Once grilled to order, the patty is boosted by sweet-hot mustard, Allen’s pickled red onions, and shreds of just-grated cheese that melt slowly on impact. 

Little about the cart’s scruffy appearance suggests the talent or the ambitions within.  Allen is just ramping up. A rotisserie is coming to match a growing repertoire of ideas. “You’re going to find everything here, like bone-in prime rib,” he says while carefully outfitting a sandwich with whole roasted garlic cloves, cooked to the perfect edge of sweet and soft.

The People’s Pig is back, indeed. 

The People’s Pig
SW Washington Street at 10th Avenue
Open daily, 11 a.m.– 3 p.m.

Twitter: @PeoplesPig
Facebook: The People’s Pig

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