Geri and Ethan Leung of Baon Kainan

Image: Karen Brooks

Sorry to that 4000-square-foot restaurant space downtown: 2021, much like 2020, is all about the resurgence of the food cart. Some carts are cheffy, some are nostalgic, some are straight-up homestyle comfort food. What do they have in common? These newcomers are not only pushing the limits of what a food cart can do, but they're also some of the biggest changemakers in Portland’s constantly evolving food scene. 

Baon Kainan

 

Baon Kainan's kare kare fries

No offense to the aunties out there, but Baon Kainan, as their tagline states, is “not your tita’s cooking.” At newlywed couple Ethan and Geri Leung’s new cart at Metalwood Salvage next door to Vietnamese American star Matta, they give Filipino favorites modern, playful, and cheffy twists. Kare kare, normally starring oxtail, features braised beef instead and subs rice for fries. Think of it as a Filipino poutine, complete with funky shrimp paste bagoong, tangy pickled chiles, and toasty peanuts. The Filipino spaghetti is top-tier comfort food, its sweet-tomatoey sauce enriched by ground beef and hot dog chunks. There’s even a veggie option: mushroom and jackfruit sisig gulay, tart with calamansi. Get it with garlic rice for best results. And there’s no arguing with the chewy, pudding-like bibingka cake for dessert, topped with buttery coconut crumble. Soon to come after the cart’s brief hiatus: pandesal breakfast sandwiches, biscuits with longanisa gravy, and champurado, a chocolatey rice pudding. We’re so glad these former Seattleites chose to decamp for our fair city. The cart reopens September 23 after the Leungs return from their belated wedding celebration. 4311 NE Prescott St

Chayo 

The Ay Chihuahua, top, and the Hot Oli from Chayo

At this Division newcomer boasting a private patio, start with the gringa: carne asada with avocado salsa, pico de gallo, and fire-roasted tomato salsa, all cradled in a blanket of crisp cheese and wrapped in a chewy flour tortilla. Also look for original creations like the Ay Chihuahua, a bacon-wrapped hot dog that adds carne asada on top, and the Hot Oli, a sandwich stacking roast pork, ham, pineapple, cheese, grilled onions, and Mama Lils. 3601 SE Division St

Erica’s Soul Food

Erica Montgomery outside of her cart

Image: Michael Novak 

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

Tito’s Taquitos

Anthony La Pietra at his cart, Tito's Taquitos

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.

Clockwise from top left: chickpea al pastor tacos, beef birria taquitos, and shrimp tacos

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.

Principe Maya

Panuchos and kibis

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 

Mid City Smash Burger

Mid City Smash Burger's colorful cart

 

“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

Mitate

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

Ruthie’s

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

Taco Gang

Taco Gang's tacos are served on handmade tortillas

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

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