PORTLAND, Ore. — In the City of Roses, locals prefer to dine on their feet.
Along Oregon’s alternative-living metropolis, the scent of Mauritian specialties and Thai soups waft through bike-friendly streets. Throw a rock in any direction and you’re destined to hit a pop-up stove. Windows of Subaru-size shacks hide tiny kitchens, whose walls are covered with reviews from local papers. No trip to Portland is complete without midnight falafel or morning breakfast sandwiches.
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In downtown Portland, where most hotels and tourism thrive, there are two spots to find trucks: the block contained within Alder and Washington streets between SW 9th and 10th streets, and in the parking lot on 5th Street between Oak and Stark streets. A 10-minute walk away is the Portland State University neighborhood, where trucks are clustered on 4th and Hall streets.
On SW 10th and Alder, you’ll find an infinite loop of grilled cheese vendors and stir-fry stands. Chop Chop serves Chinese and generic Asian cuisine with classic fare like garlic chicken and pepper steak. Garlic chicken ($6.50) is a vegetable garden tossed with tender chicken breast. Ginger stews in a light garlic sauce that barely weighs down the stir fry, far from the typical gooey blanket of hoisin at Sichuan joints. Nevertheless, Chop Chop’s chicken is missing punchier flavors to stand up to its Vietnamese and Korean neighbors.
Heat junkies can find their fix in a surprising spot: The Grilled Cheese Grill’s jalapeno popper sandwich ($6.50) burns the right way, with a mound of fresh grilled chile cooled with a few smears of cream cheese. Tortilla chips inside add a crunch to mimic the buttery grilled sourdough (how on earth do they stay so crisp?), and a judicious sprinkle of Colby Jack stands up to the peppers without making the sandwich too rich. For what sounds like a heavy-duty dish, the jalapeno popper is almost too easy to eat.
Too bad the banh mi at Rua doesn’t follow suit. The Vietnamese sandwich with pork meatballs ($7), cucumber, pickled daikon and carrots, sriracha mayo, and cilantro, burrowed into a fluffy Pearl Bakery baguette, is almost all bread with flavorless fillings, even with the spicy mayo.
The city’s carts often host a handful of halal and falafel stands. Washington Street’s Wolf & Bear’s, two carts down from Rua, surpasses them all in flair and flavor. A mustachioed server griddles rather than deep-fries his house falafel ($7 and worth the price). Inside pita, these nutty, soft morsels join roasted bell pepper (a brilliant addition), grilled eggplant, tahini, hummus, mesclun, caramelized onions, and garbanzos, with a spicy jalapeno-sesame chutney on the side.
In the second section of street food on 5th Street, sandwiches continue to shine. The burger cart Brunch Box’s inventive flavor combinations draw diners. Thai bacon burger, with a slab of pineapple, bacon, chiles, and peanut sauce, manages to balance spice, textures, acids, and fats, though the meat itself falls short. A higher quality beef would make this burger extraordinary; instead, the greasy, flavorless patty distracts from the clever toppings.
Around the corner down Stark, Tabor serves an array of Czech specialties and its Schnitzelwich ($8, or $5 for half) draws accolades. A crispy slab of breaded and fried pork or chicken rests on a saucy bed of horseradish (which should be stronger) and ajvar, a relish of paprika, eggplant, and red peppers.
The Portland State University trucks are the ones where locals go. Nong’s Khao Man Gai may be the most sought after truck, with a number of locations around the city and only one real menu item. “Chicken and rice. That’s all we do,” announces Nong’s website. The white or dark meat in chicken and rice ($8) is poached and served with a fragrant, gingery soy sauce, the rice, and a bland cup of chicken broth. (Is this the poaching liquid? If so, why isn’t it more aromatic?)
Portland Soup Company lords over the block. Bowls change with the seasons ($4 for a cup and $6 for a bowl), and in the chill of a Pacific winter, a silky tomato Reggiano soup delights the university-goers and locals. A Spanish chorizo stew is creamy with yellow split peas, and the robustness of the sausage goes well with the hearty kale. Red yam curry is comfortably spicy and sweet.
Students and businessmen perch on benches, concrete partitions, bike stands, and trash cans. Hunched over dripping boxes and wrapped snacks, Portlanders settle into urban spaces. They eat standing up. But no one seems to mind.
900-936 SW Washington St.; 503-998-0407
The Grilled Cheese Grill
SW 10th & Alder; 503-206-8959; grilledcheesegrill.com
902 SW Washington St.; 971-258-2975; www.ruapdx.com
Wolf & Bear’s
SW 10th Street & Alder Street; 503-810-0671; www.eatwolfandbears.com
SW 5th Street & Stark Street; 503-477-3286; www.brunchboxpdx.com
SW 5th Street & Stark Street; 503-997-5467 schnitzelwich.com
Nong’s Khao Man Gai
411 SW College St.; 503-432-3286; khaomangai.com
Portland Soup Company
1941 SW 4th Ave.; 503-987-0217; www.portlandsoup.com
Brooke Jackson-Glidden can be reached at [email protected]