Taste Test: Salt & Straw’s Food Cart Flavors
Most ice cream just makes you happy. Salt & Straw inspires many more emotions. Four years in, with three Portland outlets, a foothold in Los Angeles, and rock-concert lines in both cities day and night, owner/cousins Kim and Tyler Malek make us laugh, think, and debate (“It’s awesome! It’s awful!). What grows here, literally and spiritually, churns through these flavors: Portland’s collaborative spirit, love of crazy tastes, and an almost parody-worthy level of local pride.
For six months last year, I dogged 26-year-old Tyler Malek to understand how and why he pulls chefs, bartenders, coffee roasters, even local school kids, into his scoops. Yes, some flavor gambles work better than others. But, in ways I’ve never seen before, Salt & Salt has transplanted the mystical notion of terroir or “taste of place” into an ice cream cone.
Last week, I caught up with Malek again to better understand his latest collaboration: a snapshot of Portland’s food cart scene in five surprising flavors, available locally through June. The series features popular carts Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Wolf & Bear’s, Potato Champion, Viking Soul Food, and Koi Fusion. As is always the case, Malek doesn’t just ask for a recipe. He hangs out, interviews, and sketches flavor maps on each subject, experiments in their kitchens, and then sets out to capture an essence or vision.
Here’s the inside scoop—and the flavors not to miss.
VIKING SOUL FOOD’S GOATS MILK AND LINGONBERRIES Malek roamed Ikea’s aisles to help him channel Viking Soul Food, a spirited SE Portland cart dispensing handmade lefse (thin, tortilla-like potato wraps) from a 1968 Streamline Duchess aluminum trailer. It’s more sorbet than ice cream: clean, piercing, and creamy. The flavor takes its character from not just goat’s milk but gjetost cheese, an intensely caramel-esque Norwegian variety and the secret to his favorite cart dish: meatballs and gravy. The whole thing is lifted with bright, tart swirls of the cart’s lingonberry jam.
Bottom Line: Like jumping into a fjord: it’s a face-slap of cool refreshment. So far, this scoop is the series best seller.
WOLF & BEAR’S TAHINI AND CARDAMOM Wolf & Bear is a go-to for quality, ingredient-driven, Israeli/Mid-East comforts. That’s the idea here: the purity of tahini ice cream ribboned with little more than Malek’s homemade sesame candy halvah paste, each swatch thick, earthy and pungent, plus happy little tingles of ground cardamom. Simple and super satisfying, just like Wolf & Bear’s cart eats.
Bottom Line: My favorite in the group, perhaps because I’m a known halvah freak.
KOI FUSION’S KIM CHI AND RICE How do you capture the heart of Korean food in an ice cream cone? For Bo Kwon, who runs a fleet of Korean taco trucks, the answer was simple: classic flavors, family recipes, and rice as the quiet, honored spirit guide. For Malek, the jumping off point was jasmine rice ice cream, delicate and understated. He tapped Kwon’s father for his bulgogi recipe, then retooled the marinade into bulgogi truffles—little asteroids of chocolate umami hurling throughout each scoop. Even the family’s kim chi got into the act, boiled down to a cabbage-scented caramel that puts some funk and tang into the proceedings. “I actually made his grandma’s recipe,” says Malek. “I’m really proud of that, there’s tradition and truth to this ice cream.”
Bottom line: A boundary pusher mixing sweet, funk and spice for the adventurous.
POTATO CHAMPION’S POUTINE The SE Portland cart’s signature order is a heap of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy, gleaned from Quebec by Portland’s stoner food aficionados. Malek borrows the house credo: double-fried fries are the only ones that matter. He soaks the spuds in milk, which is churned into delicate potato ice cream chunked with marshmellow-esque cheese curds. Bits of chocolate add a meaty attack; Malek poured the cart’s gravy, made from knuckles, bones, and marrow, over a sheet of the house chocolate, then reformed it into chocolate-gravy shards. “There’s something about it that’s so satisfying…the salt and cheese…” says Malek. “It’s everything you crave.”
Bottom line: I wish the potato flavor had more jump. In the end, it’s a bit too tame for such a bodacious idea.
NONG’S KHAO MAN GAI PEANUT BUTTER This isn’t the Thai chicken and rice scoop you might expect from owner Nong Poonsukwattana, the badass queen of Portland’s food-cart scene. Her new obsession is Thai peanut sauce, which we can only hope to see at one of her two downtown carts soon. “We just take her recipe and put it in an ice cream machine,” says Malek, who added a little sugar and coconut milk for a nutty, dairy-free treat quietly dancing with soy, Thai chilies, galangal root and tamarind. Nong’s only requirement: There must be candy! Malek kept it simple, crushing in bits of 65 percent chocolate. Like Nong’s, the more you eat, the deeper—and more addictive—it gets.
Bottom line: They may all be his children, but this is Malek’s favorite flavor.
Scoops are $3.95. But the ‘tasting menus,’ with smaller scoops served in bowls, is the best adventure: four flavors, $9; five flavors, $10.50. And note: Salt & Straw is most generous with samples.