Sunday, October 18, 2009

Portland’s Food Cart Ambassador

Blogger Brett Burmeister chronicles the Porland food cart culture.

This is how far my truck food obsession has gone. I’m standing on the edge of Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon – some 2,500 miles from home – about to meet up with one of the city’s leading experts on food carts for a bite of lunch.

I’ve been advised to watch for a guy who is 6’ 2” tall – with mutton chops – who goes by the moniker Dieselboi. This might make my parents slightly nervous, but I, however have plunged head first into the fast moving world of mobile food where eating a square meal, dining with strangers and scavenger hunts are all part of the adventure.

My truck food junkie friends are going to be very jealous.

Within moments, a guy fitting the description approaches me. In “real life” he is known as Brett Burmeister, he’s a native of Portland and for the past year he’s been chronicling the city’s burgeoning food cart culture at the blog Food Carts Portland. Brett knows the carts, he knows the chefs and he also knows the prime public spaces to eat if it happens to be raining, which sometimes happens in Portland. He seems to relish his role as ambassador for one of the city’s hottest culinary trends.

“I was born and raised here, so I’ve always loved Portland,” says Brett. “Whenever relatives came to visit, we would always go 24-hours-a-day showing them stuff – the mountains, the ocean, this and that. It’s in my blood. I have to show people and tell people about my city.”

After brief introductions we walk a few blocks to a “pod” on SW 9th Avenue and SW Alder, where a number of Portland food carts are clustered. Compact vehicles resembling tidy recreational trailers - with vivid signs and awnings - line the street. Business people are strolling the sidewalk and scrutinizing menus. “These didn’t exist five or six years ago, this whole block of food carts,” Brett explains.

I ask about the proper terminology. What’s the difference between a food truck and a food cart?

“Unlike the trucks, our food carts don’t have to move,” says Brett. “Most of the food carts that are downtown – they’re parked. They’re on wheels and they can go somewhere, because that’s the code. The county said if it has an axel, it’s a food cart versus a restaurant.”

More than 400 food carts are clustered throughout Portland in “pods.”

So what sparked his passion for food carts? Does he remember the first time?

“It was in Pioneer Square and it was Honkin’ Huge Burritos,” Brett recalls. “It was eighteen years ago. It was college. We were downtown protesting as you do in college. There was this line, so we stood in line, because we didn’t want to go to McDonalds or anything. It was a vegetarian burrito. The “small” could feed two people. So the Honkin' Huge, was just … huge.”

Brett gives me a quick overview of the menu options available at the pod. The choices include Bosnian, Japanese, vegetarian rice bowl, German bratwurst, Korean, Vietnamese and Polish. It’s kind of an enormous outdoor international buffet. At the risk of dusting off a tired cliché, my eyes are already bigger than my stomach.

“The first ones started out as ethnic carts, mostly,” Brett explains. “That’s America. That’s how most small businesses start. It’s a family. It’s like, I know how to do this. And, they create something. It’s only been in the past couple of years that it has branched out into what I call artisanship.”

He says food carts are a great option for entrepreneurs. “I think it’s a good foray into a restaurant – if somebody has that aspiration. It’s inexpensive, and you can try new things.”

A street location also offers a food artisan great visibility. “If you’re a restaurant on the outskirts of town or in a neighborhood, how do you get hundreds, thousands of people walking by your restaurant and literally walking by your kitchen every day?”

Brett says the food carts also mirror Portland’s famous “do-it-yourself” attitude. “We love to find something - beer, coffee, chocolate - and then take it to the nth degree. It’s kind of become, I want to have the coolest, most unique cart.”

He is both street-smart epicurean and community advocate. And, there is no doubt the food cart culture of Portland is piping hot. A casual diner can sample soup, vegetarian rice bowl, barbecue, Mediterranean, crepes, po-boys and even fried pie. The movement is supported by the city of Portland as part of a 25-year plan to develop community oriented sidewalks. At last count, there were more than 400 food carts, clustered in six different pods. There’s even a food cart on Mount Hood.

“My parents had a phrase that when you came to Oregon you were handed a set of galoshes,” says Brett. “Now, we joke that when you come to Portland, they hand you a food cart.”

Playing the field is part of the fun. “We’ll just pick a cuisine, or a pod, and say Yeah, let’s try that today,” Brett says. “I like all kinds of food. I’ll try it all.”

We step up to Ziba’s Pitas to place an order for lunch. Ziba pops her head out of the window and describes our menu options. She has silver hair, bright eyes and a warm smile.

Ziba Ljucevic serves authentic Bosnian fare at the Ziba’s Pitas food cart on SW 9th Avenue and SW Alder in Portland.

We order the Burek, a meat pita filled with lamb, onions, potatoes and spices. The full plate is served with a side of ajar, a spicy red grilled vegetable sauce and a salad of sour cream and cucumbers. We also purchase a Tikvenica, which is a pastry filled with zucchini.

“Wait till you taste it,” says Brett of the Burek. “It’s brilliant.”

We cross the street and enter the atrium of the Western Culinary Institute where there are a number of café tables. “We find places in buildings where we can go eat our food, without having to pay for the restaurant seating.”

The Burek from Ziba’s Pitas is lamb, onions, potatoes and spices, wrapped in golden phyllo dough.

I ask why he’s recommended the Burek. “It’s meat,” he laughs. “The potatoes and the lamb – it’s almost a buttery flavor. And the phyllo - it’s flakey and just makes me feel warm inside.”

Indeed, it is addictively-savory, rib-sticking food. I abandon any measure of restraint and my helping is gone within minutes.

Recently, Brett’s been engaged in a friendly rivalry over which city has the best food carts – Portland or New York? NBC News filmed a segment on the controversy, and the New York-based blog Midtown Lunch and the mayors of Portland and New York City have all joined the debate.

“We’ve been playing that up for the whole media factor,” says Brett. “It’s awesome!”

The topic prompted some intense discussion in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Bloggers commented that – while the diversity of New York food options is impressive – you can’t try it all at lunch, while in Portland, hundreds of choices are within walking distance downtown.

“The hope was that NBC would have their news story up around that time, and we could just kind of feed on the buzz,” say Brett. “I guess there were other important things going on in the world. I don’t know – the G20 Summit?”

We finish our lunch, and walk several blocks to check out another pod. We pass a food cart serving hot dogs. The cart is called Bro-Dogs and they specialize in a jalapeño and cheddar dog. Brett gives a nod to the proprietor, Scott. “Hey Bro-Dogs!” he calls. “What’s going on? I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve been missing you,” says Scott.

“I’ll swing by tomorrow,” replies Brett. “Will it be brolicious?”

“It will be the most brolicious!” promises Scott.

It’s just one of the many connections Brett Burmeister has made in his hometown, while eating lunch on the go.

According to Brett, the people of Portland like to brainstorm new concepts for food carts and pods. “I’m really looking forward to when we have the Happy Hour Pod,” he says. “You’d go down and grab some sliders, and then you’d sit down and get a martini. Maybe a beer.” One night he proposed the idea to a cart owner who promptly said, “No, I’ve already asked.” Apparently, Portland blue laws might stand in the way.

Can Brett imagine a day when he might tire of food cart cuisine? Can he foresee a morning when he wakes up and decides he’s had his last food cart meal?

“Only if the doctor says my cholesterol is too high.”

I sampled the food, wine and spirits of the Portland, Oregon region September 27 through October 2, 2009.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


My Carolina Kitchen said...

How fun - from food trucks in NY to food carts in Portland. I bet Mad Me-Shell wishes she was along to help you sample the goodies. Enjoy your weekend and if you can't resist one more bite, just say it's for me.

Kalyn said...

How fun! Salt Lake has a few food carts in the downtown area, but nothing like this. It reminds me of Austin, where there is an area with a whole collection of food carts in one part of town (kind of like a food cart "mall").

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Food cart pods -- what a brilliant idea! I love the notion of a city developing a sidewalk culture, too. In the cities where I've lived (including New York), the regulations seem to put up so many barriers to a sidewalk culture. Maybe when Portland next hosts the Conference of Mayors, they can eat at the food carts....

Julia said...

Sounds like great fun! It sounds like Portland's food cart scene is more organized than NYC, but variety and quality could be a toss-up.

I'm a little jealous... we don't have much here in Boston. Maybe I should open one?

veron said...

I wish we had more food carts here in richmond. I love them!

CamiKaos said...

great write up on our food carts, and on Brett. :)

Bernard and Eva said...

We love you Deiselboi! Keep up the good work, and soon we can have a wine cart.

John McCann said...

I lived in Portland for a number of years and the Food Carts downtown were a godsend. With the idea of "processed" fast food everywhere, this offers quick lunches with real ingredients.

Kathy said...

I love this! Thanks for sharing it with us T.W.

Fresh Local and Best said...

This quite fun post. I had no idea that there were so many food carts in Portland!

Michelle @ Find Your Balance said...

I love food carts! At one point as a kid I told my mom I wanted to be a hotdog vendor - the kind with a cart on a bicycle.

Cosmic Girl said...

Some of the best food fare can be found at food carts! So glad to have Brett do all the footwork to find the best in town!

~~louise~~ said...

I'm gobbling up this post T.W. The concept brings a new meaning to the phrase Street Food (a book I once read by Rose Grant some years ago)

I do wish they didn't have so many restrictions here in New York but hey, I'll be in PA soon...Good thing you had a guide, I'd be in quite a tither if I had to choose where to begin.

Thanks for sharing, T.W. love these journeys.

P.S. did you get to sample any of these Mac & Cheese places while in Portland?

Barbara said...

Such fun to read about the "pods". I don't think I live in a big enough city for this to even happen here, but I see them in NYC- scattered here and there. I guess those aren't pods, but just street food. And while I would love Portland's food, doubt I trust NYC's entirely- without good advice!

Mad Me-Shell said...

Indeed, I am jealous! Ziba had me at lamb and potatoes -- it looks absolutely fantastic. Did you get a chance to try any of the other cuisines? I hope you sampled wares from at least a few more of the 400!! I clearly need to come along next time to help taste them all!

dieselboi said...

That was a fun lunch with T.W. We had a great conversation about food and Portland. Today's find - Reindeer sausage from Alaska - the main pull for a local new sausage cart. Oh,and they'll add cream cheese and bacon for the special. Come on out, I'll show you around.

Mary said...

Nice post! Charming and informative view of foodie "street" culture.

Velva said...

I have personally experienced food Cart heaven in Portland. I love it! The food is fabulous and the diversity of the food is endless.
Love this blog post!

Bren said...

food carts and stands sometimes offer some of the best food! we have great festivals here in GA and I go just to taste all there is.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Food carts are so hip right now! And Portland seems the perfect place for them. Cool people who love good food and good times. We sampled some food trucks when we were in Austin a few months ago and loved them. Now Portland's on the list!

Jann said...

Leave it to the good people in Portland to promote such wonderful food cart culture.....we need more!

Homegrown Smoker said...

Brett is the best and Portland Food Carts Rule!