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


Barbara said...

I think I've mentioned food trucks are not allowed in our county at all, so I have really enjoyed your writing about them. Do you think the restaurant owners in NY have anything to do with this ban? That's what we think is going on here...that and problems with safe food preparation.

Such a cute idea in Portland. I'd be fat as a pig and there every day for at least one meal.
The creme brulee looks like custard instead of pudding. That means it was perfect. I hate when I break the crust and find pudding!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Food trucks are becoming more popular here in Providence, and as yet, the city hasn't restricted them to a single location. The food is terrific and the trucks use Twitter to announce their location each day. I know the traffic in midtown Manhattan is brutal, and I understand why the city doesn't want the trucks there, but it doesn't seem fair that they license the trucks, then limit their ability to set up shop where the customers are.

tasteofbeirut said...

I smell a conspiracy in that ban; how sad! At least, like you say, you will always have Portland. My mère would have chartered a plane there all the way from Beirut to taste that crème brûlée! Amazing! From a truck! Only in America!

Zany said...

Paris and food trucks - two of my favorite things! I'm so happy you appropriately celebrated Bastille Day. The selection looked as vast and decadent as Versailles!

~~louise~~ said...

I LOVE Charlotte!!!! What a GREAT idea. Seriously, T.W. I've been thinking of "food trucking" in PA and THAT bus is such an inspiration!!! Way cool...

It sure sounds like you and yours had a fabulous time in Portland. (really need to get there soon:) And a crème brulee food cart to boot! Oh it sounds heavenly, T.W.

Thank you so much for sharing your visit with us:) and a warm thank you for your thoughtful comment. Louise.

~~louise~~ said...

So I left here and stumbled upon this post I think you will find quite interesting. It's about a new food cart adventurer arriving in Portland; Savor Cakes, intriguing...

John Barritt said...

Formidable! Vive la types qui taper a les choses gastonomiques! (Pardon my French.)


Velva said...

Tell me it isn't so, that Manhattan's Food truck scene is drying up. No! No! I have not had a proper opportunity to fully discover this amazing food scene. Who was complaining that motivated the judge to look up what he could do to get the trucks off the Manhattan's streets? (ugh).

I have experienced Oregon's food truck scene and found it quite amazing. It's got a laid back approach and it is delightful.

Thanks for sharing your travels with us.


Mad Me-Shell said...

Leave it to T.W. to find a way to class up a food truck! Seating AND cutlery!? It's almost too much to process. Meanwhile, after seeing the picture of the onion tart with egg on it, it has taken every ounce of restraint to not buy a plane ticket and head immediately to Portland. Looks like a serious operation - definitely need to check it out!

Mad Me-Shell said...

oh, P.S. -- Chicago's food truck scene is looking pretty good now, isn't it?!?!!? :)

veron said...

ha, this makes me want to move to portland. that's sad about the food trucks in NY. :(

~I AM Love~* said...

hi TW,
Thanks so much for this. I've just moved to Portland to Paris, and have not even had the chance to explore the food carts. The ones that you mention are a must see !

Ford M said...

As a long time resident of Brooklyn, I read recently that Portland was the new Brooklyn before Brooklyn became the new Brooklyn. And now, as the post-college, localvore, used clothes wearing, tattoed, bohemian bourgois have successfully repopulated the borough, Brooklyn is now more Portland than Portland ever was--which I think makes it time for me to move.

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

I hadn't heard about the NY food trucks. Mon dieu. That judge should be sentenced to 1000 days of unsalted, soupy mashed potatoes and a hot coke that's lost it's fizz at the local greasy spoon.

What a scene in Portland. I bet you thought you had died and gone to heaven. I wonder if they need a taste tester at the creme brulee truck? If I lived there, I would have to restrain myself. As Barbara said, I would soon be fat as a pig.

Gloria Baker said...

I really love this post, really interesting and I love all about French food and love the pictures, Gloria

Julia said...

I love that the best French restaurant is a food truck!

It's funny that NY is proving to have more arcance laws than Boston. We're finally getting over ourselves here to have a bit of a food truck scene emerging.