Food Carts

Meet the Food Carts at Lil’ America, Portland’s Most Exciting New Pod

Come for Korean fried chicken wings, longanisa burgers, and a sense of community and camaraderie.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton Photography by Isabel Lemus Kristensen April 18, 2023

Mike Bautista and Xrysto Castillo, chef-owners of Makulít

Portland’s most exciting new food cart pOD, which officially opened in April, isn’t the biggest or the flashiest. But Lil’ America is Portland’s only food cart pod that’s exclusively filled with LGBTQ and/or BIPOC-owned carts. Within seven carts, chefs express multiple aspects of their identity through food—as first-and-second-generation Americans, as queer people, as sex workers, and more. Options run the gamut from Filipino fast food to spicy seafood boils to Guyanese salt fish bakes.

Frybaby is a reflection of myself,” says Sunny Hatch, a former bartender whose cart serves Korean fried chicken glazed in spicy-sweet sauce or dusted with cheese, plus Southern and Korean-influenced sides like curry gravy mashed potatoes and collard greens with Korean bossam pork His mother was a Korean immigrant, but “I was like, ‘I bet doenjang tastes good in collard greens.’”

Frybaby's spicy gochujang wings

At Makulít, Xrysto Castillo and Mike Bautista, former cooks at Chinese restaurant XLB, serve up Filipino flavors reimagined into fast food dishes. The Big Bunso burger chops longanisa sausage into a beef patty, topped with your typical lettuce, tomato, cheese, plus Filipino pickled papaya slaw. Lumpia comes in boxes reminiscent of McDonald’s fries. Filipino fast food melds their American upbringing and Filipino background. But this isn’t bland fare designed to please the masses—expect zings of vinegar and pops of chile. Says Bautista, “It doesn’t compromise on the flavor palate of the Philippines, which is very loud. We didn't want to muddle anything.”

The longanisa-infused Big Bunso burger from Makulít

Mike Singh and his mother, Bibi, originally opened Bake on the Run in 2018, moving around town before arriving at Lil’ America. With no Guyanese restaurants on the entire West Coast, Singh wanted to spread awareness of his culture. “When I opened up, everyone thought we were from Ghana,” he says. He later printed a giant map of Guyana, complete with a timeline of its history and its many cultures. “We have bake, which is an Indigenous fried bread. The yellow split pea dal, the chickpea potato curry, are Indian-based. We have chow mein, which represents Chinese culture, and bacalao represents Portuguese culture.”

Bibi and Mike Singh are the mother-and-son duo behind the West Coast's only Guyanese restaurant, the Bake on the Run food cart. 

Dahlia Hanson got into stripping after she and her partner, Joseph Miller, suffered a fire that left them houseless. As a second hustle, she started the Speed-O Cappuccino cart in 2021 as she rebuilt her life, with Miller as the chef. Unlike the typical bikini barista, this is a queer coffee cart staffed by sex workers of all genders, many of them donning baseball jerseys with “Thembo” emblazoned on the back. Alongside the usual espresso drinks, they swapped typical breakfast fare for an all-vegan menu that includes plant-based shakes, smash burgers, corn dogs, and fruit tamales to represent Hanson’s Mexican heritage.

Dahlia Hanson and Joseph Miller of Speed-O Cappuccino

Though Portland is famous for the Thai-style chicken and rice at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Hawker Station owner Andy Kou specializes in chicken and rice in the Hong Kong/Singapore style rarely seen in Portland, with bright-green scallion and ginger sauce. “It’s a comfort food for a lot of people that grew up in Asia,” he says. “It’s one of the most simple, but it tastes like home.”

Andy Kou's chicken and rice with ginger scallion sauce

Hillsboro-raised cousins Eddie and Emmanuel Garcia started Los Plebes, a cart that specializes in spit-roasted al pastor and rotating Saturday specials like bistec with chile negro. They’re the first entrepreneurs in their family, and got advice on starting their own business from a family friend who owns a stall at the Hillsboro Flea Market.

Los Plebes roasts al pastor on the spit.

At the Drip’n Crab, co-owner Shermain Scott pays homage to her father’s Texas roots by adding eggs to her seafood boils, an ingredient rarely seen on this coast with the typical sausage, potatoes, and corn. Co-owner Cyril Teal represents his Portland upbringing by naming menu items after the streets he spent time on—the Dekum Boil, the Killingsworth Boil, and the Alberta Grab Bag.

A seafood boil from The Drip'n Crab

Lil’ America isn’t the only predominately LGBTQ and BIPOC pod in Portland—after all, they make up a big portion of the industry. But what really separates Lil’ America is its founders’ interest in the success of its carts. Chefs and XLB co-owners Linh Tran and Jasper Shen wanted to reform restaurant culture during the pandemic, so they started Win Win, a “restaurant resource group” that consults food businesses toward success. Lil’ America is Win Win’s first project, with financial backing from Portland restaurant supergroup ChefStable, which also invests in XLB. Their goal is to make business ownership accessible and sustainable to LGBTQ and BIPOC chefs, especially those who have never owned a business before.

Looking into the Lil' America pod

The pod has a full set of amenities: gas, electricity, running water, and real bathrooms. And since Tran and Shen are chefs themselves, they go above and beyond by providing dry goods storage and extra refrigerator space inside neighboring Fracture Brewing. It’s a far cry from many pods, which consist of a former parking lot and an absent landlord who knows nothing about the food service industry. Shen and Tran are available to act as mentors, or connect them with other local chefs. Cart owners within the pod also support each other, helping with point-of-sale systems, testing new menu items, and planning events together. Bake on the Run recently hosted a celebration of Phagwah, the Guyanese version of Holi, by throwing colored powders, hiring a DJ to play Guyana's soca chutney music, and serving oxtail stew and rum cake. Soon, Speed-O Cappuccino will host a sex worker resource fair.

“It’s a tight bond of community here,” says Kou. “You come to Lil America, you can get a taste of different countries. It’s all home.”

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