When was the last time you ate at a food cart downtown—and with coworkers at that? As someone who’s only lived in Portland for a year, I’d actually only had the honor of doing so once. That was at Mama Chow’s, where video producer Rose Lee and I ordered fall-off-the-bone fried lollipop chicken wings and garlic noodles at Mama Chow’s Kitchen, and brought our goods down to the waterfront to enjoy.
I’d only heard of the legend that was the Alder Street cart pod, which used to be right across from PoMo’s offices until it was cleared out to make way for the still-in-progress Ritz Carlton Hotel. I heard wistful stories of the days when my coworkers would all go down to places including Bing Mi, Jook Joint, Caspian Kabob, Kargi Gogo, and Nong’s. The Cart Blocks at W Burnside and SW Park was anticipated as a replacement for that pod downtown. Let’s just say it’s a lot smaller than Alder Street, and without the star power of the famous carts—but so far, it’s got some solid offerings for a pod of its size.
So when deputy editor Julia Silverman, associate editor Gabriel Granillo, and I all found ourselves simultaneously in the office one day (big news in today’s mostly work from home world), we all decided to journey out for lunch. I’d bookmarked Shanghai’s Best a while back because they were one of the only places in Portland I’ve found so far that offers sheng jian bao (aka SJBs)—a cousin of the frequently acronymed xiao long bao (XLB), aka soup dumplings. The key difference: sheng jian bao are pan-fried on the bottom, lending them a crispy texture and toasty flavor with a still-juicy interior.
The menu at Shanghai’s Best consists almost entirely of pan-fried dumplings with your choice of pork, chicken, vegetarian, or vegan fillings. Julia and I both opted for pork, coming in at $8 for five dumplings. Meanwhile, Gabriel and I were simultaneously craving both burritos and dumplings, so he headed to the Fernando’s Alegría cart, where he ordered a hearty steak and guacamole burrito to share alongside our dumplings.
'Five dumplings?' I thought. 'I can knock those out like nothing. Why not add on a lightly sweetened, egg custard-filled, housemade snow skin mooncake?' (Snow skin moon cakes, named because of their white rice flour skins rather than the typical golden brown wheat flour skins, are a big deal to make, by the way—and the fact that they’re being sold at this cart is seriously impressive.) Within a couple minutes, the dumplings were ready, each nearly the size of a slider. I gawked at the dumplings, then at the half burrito Gabriel handed to me. There was nothing for it but to grab a table and tuck in.
The dumplings were a delight—meaty, juicy but not greasy, with crackly bottoms and pillowy tops, and generously sprinkled with sesame seeds. We ate them with our hands and poured chili oil and vinegar-soy sauce straight inside the dumplings. Julia’s were so juicy that one bite sent hot porky broth squirting across the table and onto my lap. There were screams which immediately turned to laughter. The whole experience was convivial—something that's often missing from Slack conversations and Zoom meetings—and we returned to the office hands greasy and smelling like burritos and pork-flavored dough, replete and a little giggly. The Cart Blocks might not be anything like what came before, but some of that spirit is slowly returning. 770 W Burnside St, @shanghais_best