Sunday, July 31, 2011

Vive la France in Portland, Oregon

I needed to travel three thousand miles for a decent lunch.

Perhaps you’ve heard that over the past weeks, a diabolical plot has been unfolding that would erase our beloved food trucks from the streets of Manhattan. Some judge dug up a dusty law from the 1950s that says business can’t be transacted when parked at a metered spot in New York City. The lunch pickings have suddenly dried up. If you’re lucky, you might find a postal truck on 52nd Street. Word on the street is that most trucks have been banished to Staten Island to do hard labor. As if the departure of food trucking’s A Team was not injurious enough? Mon Dieu! My only course of action is to join the growing numbers of food truck expatriates.

We all find liberation in unusual places. The time is the recent past. The location is Portland, Oregon where mon frère Frédéric resides. It is Bastille Day, and Frédéric has a brilliant idea on how to celebrate. At the lunch hour we find ourselves at Portland’s hot new food cart pod, “Good Food Here” at SE 43rd and Belmont.

For the uninitiated, “pods” are clusters of food carts, where one can dine on international cuisine all day. Once upon a time, I received a personal tour of the Alder Street pod from Brett Burmeister, Portland’s Food Cart Ambassador. On this day, we are joined by ma mere and mon père. The website for the Belmont pod asks the question, “Feeling peckish?” We are indeed, having worked up an appetite strolling at the Japanese gardens across the river. The Belmont pod is a lively selection of vehicles splashed with colorful graphics, along with a collection of tidy picnic tables and even an ATM machine in case your hunger overtakes your wallet. For this food truck starved New Yorker, the pod is like a vision of Mont Saint-Michel rising out of the mist.

Frédéric leads us directly to Crème de la Crème, which is housed in a 1961 Ford B-600 school bus named Charlotte, once used to transport a ballet troupe. Charlotte sat abandoned in a Montana field for 20 years before being resurrected as a mobile dining option. A food cart vehicle with a delicious backstory? I’m already salivating!

The Crème de la Crème menu is a jolie selection of classic French bistro fare.

Frédéric and I start by splitting an order of escargot which is brought to our table (Yes! Table service, too!!) in a ceramic bowl filled with plump mollusks swimming in a rich buttery broth of chunky shallots. Can we talk for a minute about real plates and utensils from a food cart? How civilized! And, the escargot is magnifique!

Ma mere and mon père both order Croque Monsieur - broiled gruyere and béchamel atop a rustic ham sandwich. The enormous sandwich is hot, cheesy and delicious.

Frédéric and I both opt for the Onion Tart, topped with a fried egg and a beet salad on the side. The buttery pastry crust and caramelized onions melt in the mouth. The French, and Portlanders know how to live. Never have I had street food this good.

In keeping with our culinary theme for the day, Frédéric leads us on to dessert where we place our order for orange cognac crème brulee at Sweet Pea’s Brulee. Sweet Pea’s is the first food cart in Portland to focus solely on crème brulee. For a brief moment, I consider applying for a job.

The proprietor allows me to watch as he uses a torch to finish the dessert with the glassy, burnt sugar topping. I can hear the brulee crack amidst the street noise. The custard is rich and silky. It is perhaps the best crème brulee I’ve ever tasted.

My visit to the Pacific Northwest is complete. The food trucks may be retreating from Manhattan, but we’ll always have pods and Paris in Portland.

©2011 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved