Photos by Alicia Kroell
By Alicia Kroell /// Staff Writer
As I left work at the bookstore for a much extended lunch break, my manager reminded me, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
I was about to embark on tour of downtown food carts with President Barry Glassner. As a man who has been cultivating food preferences and appreciation since his college days in the foodie paradise of Chicago, Glassner established himself as a respectable perspective in the food world with the publication of The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat in 2007. In his book, Glassner advocates for taste over ambiguous marketing labels with promises of quality. With food from all of the world and cooks taking pride in quality ingredients, whether local, authentic or meatless, Portland’s food carts are a haven for a food lover of any background.
As we stepped up to the Alder St. Pod at SW 9th and 10th, the stakeout closest to the Pioneer Express drop off, we started with a couple of staples at one of Glassner’s favorites.
El Cubo de Cuba
Cuban carts come and go in Portland, but after opening in November 2010, El Cuba de Cuba is one of the few able to stay put. After years of failed attempts at opening a restaurant in a declining economy, owners Emily Roskam and Milko Vigil Escalera settled in the 10th street cart serving up Havana recipes from friends and family. We ordered the Cuban Sandwich with a side of fried plantains. The hint of citrus in a mojo marinade fused well in the tender ham and pork sandwich, topped with swiss cheese and pickles, and the sweet and salty plantains rounded the dish out, leaving no sense of want. Glassner then introduced me to the one thing he cannot go without at the downtown carts—El Cubo de Cuba’s extremely sweet but addicting mango smoothie. As we finished up the sandwich, we got a second order a few carts down at E-San.
E-San Thai Food
Waiting on food at E-San brings up the issue of exactly how convenient a block of carts is, and if time is an issue you might as well hit up a grocery store deli. E-San’s lines for ordering and pickup are infamous for clogging up 10th, but that’s the price for made-to-order food. After a good fifteen minutes of munching and waiting, we were rewarded with E-San’s Pumpkin Curry, requested with medium spice. While my first bite was mostly the creamy red curry and coconut milk base, Glassner gladly pointed out a piece of fresh pumpkin to sample. As someone who has declined the delicious taste of gourd vegetables purely for the strange texture, I can assure you that the tender fresh pumpkin of E-San will melt on your tongue. As we continued through the tupperware of curry, Glassner stopped in a short series of edge-of-tearing-up coughs.
“The other thing I like about this [dish], and others, is the levels of hot are real.”
Our next stop at the pod was Euro Trash, inspired by the owner’s travels along the Mediterranean Coast. While the menu holds true to this with items such as Piri Piri Chicken and Portuguese Chorizo, there is one particular dish that makes this menu a particular anomaly among the world of quick, basic food of the carts—Foie Gras.
“The first time I just couldn’t believe it was possible, so I had to try it,” Glassner said.
I was in a state of shock that was only increased as a man handed us down a disposable serving dish filled with the cart’s signature Nah Nah Chips (thinly sliced and well oiled potato chips) and two small traces of duck liver. But damn, were they good, and so surprisingly tender considering the locale and conditions for cooking. As Glassner put it so simply, “it is exactly what they say.”
As to be expected, the Foie Gras is priced substantially higher than any other dish at the carts, and so perhaps one to be visited more for the sensationalism than anything else. Glassner himself admitted that this was only the second time he could justify indulging in cart-style Foie Gras.
Before leaving the Alder St. Pod, we finished the walk around the block and Glassner pointed out a few other notables.
The Portland Soup Co.
With finished cedar siding and trimmed windows, The Portland Soup Co.’s cart looks like an all alluring storybook home that Goldilocks certainly couldn’t resist, especially upon realizing that the soup temperatures are not only just right, but maybe the best to ever be served in compostable cups.
The Soup Co.’s menu revolves around seasonal ingredients. In a way to embrace this constantly evolving dynamic, the soups served each day are never the same. And with that, there is no option but to “just pick what looks good,” as Glassner says. Hungarian Mushroom with dill and cream was the eye catcher on our visit, and the creamy taste to follow far exceeded expectations.
Homegrown Smoker Natural Barbecue
Our final stop was one initially quantified solely by the promise of a good price: five sides for $5 to be precise. Only upon reading the side “Mac-No-Cheese” did we realize that what started as a meat lovers tasting at El Cubo de Cuba was ending without even a trace of animal product in a genre of food so regularly associated with meat dripping in a thick brown-red sauce. And both of us were pleasantly surprised by the Mac-No-Cheese’s smoky chipotle flavor, shattering any preconceptions regarding the relationship between veganism and barbecue.
This sort of revelation perfectly illustrates Glassner’s own attitude towards food and the beauty of the smorgasbord put forth by the Portland food carts. A firm believer in “eat and let eat,” Glassner respects diverse tastes and preferences in food. He makes his own decisions based on mood and food quality.
“That’s what’s so great about food carts: there is something, or actually many things, for everyone.”