In the old days, we sneered at them in derision. They were called “roach coaches” and, when they blasted their horns to announce their lunchtime arrival, we rolled our eyes. At best, we might end up with a lukewarm burrito or a sandwich that wasn’t too soggy. We certainly didn’t expect haute cuisine. And yet, these days, a full-blown revolution is under way in Portland, Oregon. The once-lowly food cart has been elevated to a lofty new culinary perch, one in which the food is varied and ethnic and inspiring and delicious, giving regular brick-and-mortar establishments a run for their money. And, you know what? I want in.
I remember my first food cart experience fondly. Wandering through the Farmer’s Market one spring afternoon, I stumbled upon a green-and-white trailer with the name Mum’s Kitchen. It billed itself as offering “Indian South African cuisine.” I’m not real familiar with either, and even less so with a fusion of both, but it sounded much more intriguing than a tired burger from a fast-food chain, so I ponied up for their special of the day – “roti rolls” filled with pork and cabbage, and chicken curry. One bite and I was hooked. They were aromatic and flavorful, wonderfully exotic and spicy. So much so that tears were streaming down my face as I munched away. Oh, baby. I like it hot. I was in heaven. My initiation into the Portland food cart scene now complete, I decided to hunt down the cart that Portland Monthly named their best last year, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, on my next free Friday.
Southwest Alder Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, is one of a growing number of food cart “pods” in the Portland area: clusters of carts set up in parking lots or vacant fields. Think of an outdoor food court, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what they are like. There are at least a dozen carts in this particular pod, probably the best-known in the city, catering to office workers and tourists alike. Food choices range from sandwiches and frozen yogurt to Vietnamese pho and Polish Hunter’s Stew. Nong’s cart, which not surprisingly had the longest line, serves one dish, and one dish only: khao man gai, a popular Thai dish that is, literally, chicken and rice. Doesn’t sound very inspiring, and yet, I was amazed by the depths of flavor. The chicken, served atop a bed of rice, is wonderfully tender, and the accompanying broth – a gingery, garlicky, sweetly spicy Asian blend – is to die for. You also get a cup of winter squash soup which is refreshingly hot and tasty, and a side of sliced cucumbers. For $6, this is a steal. Nong’s lives up to the hype.
With so many great food carts spread around town, many of them earning rave reviews, I’ve begun to think that this is something I’d like to do. I’m a pretty good cook, and watching shows like Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, and Master Chef has awakened in me dreams of running my own kitchen. Only I have no formal training and can’t exactly afford to go to culinary school. Sure, it would be great to own a restaurant, and Portland is quite the hot spot for foodies. But my chances for success in that realm are slim to none: I’m hardly a skilled chef, and it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a restaurant. You’ll have to deal with permits, zoning issues, leasing or buying a building, hiring and paying employees, etc. Even then, roughly half go out of business within a year. Not very good odds no matter how you slice and dice (and julienne) it! However, with Portland’s growing reputation as a food cart mecca (articles extolling the local scene have appeared in newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, and Budget Travel awarded Portland first-place for “World’s Best Street Food” in 2010), I figure my best shot at becoming my own boss lies right here in my own backyard. I’d love to open my own food cart. Turns out, it’s surprisingly easy – and considerably less expensive than you might think – to get started in the Rose City.
The biggest expense is going to be the cart itself. Those little umbrella-covered push-carts so ubiquitous to hot dog vendors are a thing of the past; nowadays, food carts are likelier to be renovated campers or Airstream trailers. Still, if you scout around for a good deal, you can pick one up for a few thousand dollars. Add in the cost of plumbing and electrical modifications, equipment, and a license from the city of Portland, and you could get your venture off the ground and running for less than $10,000 – dirt cheap when you consider the cost of starting up your own business in a more traditional environment.
I’m under no delusions that the work is easy, or a guaranteed way to get rich quick. Even though the majority of carts around town are open Monday-Friday from, say, 11:00 to 4:00, most vendors put in considerably longer hours. You have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty. You’ll wear many hats – chef, banker, carpenter, etc. You’ve got to enjoy dealing with people, and you can’t escape health inspections just because you’re a restaurant on wheels. But being mobile is an advantage itself; if one particular location isn’t working, you can simply move on to a new one tomorrow! If you’re part of a pod, then your fellow food cart vendors become almost like a second family, offering encouragement, advice, and help when needed. It’s hard work indeed, but at the end of the day, the person in charge is you, and that’s a pretty big draw in this era of downsizing. I’ve been a part of corporate America ever since graduating from college nearly two decades ago. Maybe it’s time I became an independent nation of one instead?
I’ve already decided on the cart. I’ll cook, and serve, Hawaiian food. I was born in Honolulu and pretty much grew up there, so I’m familiar with some of their more popular dishes, and adept at making them. I figure I’ll do kalua pork, chicken long rice, a loco moco plate, macaroni/potato salad, and saimin. I’ll have rotating specials periodically. Oh, and hot malasadas for dessert. I even have the perfect name: Ohana Nui, which is Hawaiian for “extended family” and also happens to be the name of the street we lived on from 1974-1977.
It’ll be a little taste of paradise in downtown Portland. The perfect pick-me-up on a dreary winter’s day.
All I need now is ca$h! Anybody want to invest in this little venture with me?