Sorry to the 4,000-square-foot restaurant space downtown: the big story of 2021, much like 2020, is the resurgence of food carts. Some are creative, while other play to nostalgia or modern twists on tradition. Together, they've secured Portland's crown as the country’s best food cart city with the likes of wild mushroom sisig, old-school smashburgers, wood-fired pork chops, and chickpea al pastor tacos. What’s more, some cart owners are using their platforms in bigger ways—Baon Kainan repping underappreciated Filipino cuisine and Erica’s Soul Food offering vaccinations on site.
Cart of the Year: Baon Kainan
Baon Kainan has everything you could want in a destination-worthy cart. The food is Filipino, a rising cuisine here and elsewhere in America. Home-cooking is the bone and marrow of the brunch and dinner menus from Portland newcomers Ethan and Geri Leung. And yet, as their tagline says, “This is not your Tita’s cooking.” No disrespect to the aunties intended.
Here, hip-hop booms out of a silver trailer that takes breakdance philosophy as a key influence. Inside, in what operates like a chef-driven short-order kitchen, a sustainable “deploy every scrap and peel” ethos is in play— even banana peels, left behind from homemade banana ketchup, get a second life, subtly flavoring Fillipino spaghetti water. Brunch brings biscuits and gravy, a dish that Portland eats like communion—made from scratch, natch, down to the irresistible nubs of sweet, smoked paprika-laced longanisa sausage lounging in a lake of cream and butter.
The setting? Proto-DIY Portland. Baon Kainan, opened last summer steps away from the acclaimed cart Matta, is parked at Metalwood Salvage, a furniture shop-cum-scrapyard that erected a Mad Max-ian eating hut out front. It all adds up to the kind of delightful experience that makes Portland’s food cart scene the envy of the country.
Everyone comes for the chicken adobo, a solid rendition. But to find the quiet art of Baon, look to kare kare. Instead of the traditional oxtails stewed in peanut sauce, Ethan, named a rising young Seattle chef in 2019, conjures a new-world Filipino poutine, heaping peanut-sauced braised short ribs over french fries that somehow recall the ecstatic exterior of salt-and-pepper squid. On top: pickled Fresno chiles and a live-wire wallop of bagoong (shrimp paste). Filipino spaghetti, popularized at the multinational Filipino chain Jollibee, gets a few upgrades here—homemade banana ketchup and hard-seared hot dog chunks, which doubles their pleasure. Meanwhile, mushroom sisig, a rethinking of sizzling Filipino pork, subs maitake mushrooms and shredded jackfruit for pig ears and cheeks. “I took the meatiness thing in Filipino cuisine and made it vegetarian,” says Geri, laughing. “I’m rebellious that way.” Girl, bring it on. 4133 NE Prescott St —Karen Brooks
Originally hailing from Atlanta, Erica Montgomery, with help from her sons, serves some of Portland’s best “extra-wet” ATL-style wings with lemon pepper and buffalo sauce, plus down-home meatloaf and salmon croquettes with sides of black-eyed peas, collard greens, mac ‘n’ cheese, and light-as-a-cloud cornbread. Don’t miss the tender, juicy boiled peanuts or her family recipe pound cake. Plus, what other cart owner can say they’ve partnered with local clinics to offer COVID-19 vaccines right on site? 803 SE 82nd Ave —KCH
“Smashy bois,” as owner Mike Aldridge refers to them, might be trendy, but they rarely live up to the hype. MCSB is the exception: two thin patties with juicy middles and crisp edges, pickle-laden burger sauce, and gooey American on a fluffy Franz bun, served with the haste of a fast-food joint while Outkast blares in the background. Crisp fries and Oregon cherry Tillamook shakes are just the icing on top. 1015 SE Stark St —KCH
What started as a pop-up is now a cart at the CORE pod, serving signature vegan and gluten-free sushi rolls like the Oasis (artichoke hearts, cauliflower, cucumber, apple, avocado, chimichurri) and avocado toast nigiri with whiskey barrel-aged pepper, black truffle salt, and arbequina olive oil. We’d put it up against any fish-forward sushi restaurant when it comes to artful presentation and creative combos. 3612 SE 82nd Ave —KCH
This newcomer to the Portland Mercado serves solid versions of some of the Yucatan’s most well-known specialties: cochinita pibil, panuchos, and salbutes. But where it really shines is in the harder-to-find dishes: Lebanese-influenced kibis (bulgur wheat with mint and ground beef deep-fried and stuffed with habanero onion), a pumpkin seed and egg tamal called brazo de reina, and relleno negro, an inky black turkey stew. 7328 SE Foster Rd —KCH
Tucked away off Division on the patio of the mural-adorned wine oasis that is wine bar and cafe Someday, this highly seasonal cart from childhood friends Collin Mohr and Aaron Kiss mashes up influences from Mohr’s grandmother Ruthie in Utah and their experience cooking with Oregon’s bounty. A wood fire oven is their only source of heat, which they use for the popped sorghum and cornbread crumble atop a tomato, corn, and sheep cheese salad; cooking the bread using Grandma Ruthie’s roll recipe for rockfish sliders; and roasting a main dish of succulent pork coppa, melt-in-your mouth Oregon peaches, and padron peppers. 3634 SE Division St —KCH
Mother-and-son team Anna and Leo Mendoza serve tacos on handmade corn tortillas, made from a combination of nixtamal and masa harina. They’re shockingly fluffy, with a crisp exterior that lends bite. Top them with crispy carnitas, housemade chorizo, or with carne asada that tastes almost buttery. Look out for specials like chile relleno burritos, choriqueso gringas, and birria tacos. 2623 SE Belmont St —KCH
We’re always in search of tacos in this town—and Tito’s Taquitos was one of our standout finds of this year. Owner Anthony La Pietra is a newcomer to Portland by way of Los Angeles, where he grew up cooking with his Mexican-born grandmother, combining influences from his part-Cuban and Italian heritage, and adding French techniques that he learned in culinary school.
The osso bucco-style braised beef birria melts on the tongue; the grilled shrimp is juicy and artfully charred; the chickpeas al pastor, one of several rotating veggie options, have a bit of bite and heat to them, with bright notes of pineapple. Get them atop crisp potato-stuffed taquitos or handmade corn tortillas, made with freshly nixtamalized corn from local vendor Three Sisters Nixtamal and from Los Angeles-based Kernel of Truth. Try them with all three housemade salsas, each a standout: smoky chile de arbol, tangy habanero, and citrusy tomatillo. Tito’s Taquitos is temporarily closed while the cart finalizes its new location. New address coming soon. —KCH