PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The many accolades earned by chefs in this city are rooted in what the land offers. They succeed by adaptation to their environment.
That's especially true with the city's bustling food cart scene, which has become an incubator for great restaurants. Whether inspired by Norwegian comfort food, Peace Corps missions to the Republic of Georgia, or Thai "chaos in a bowl," the menus reinvigorate and challenge both customer and chef to think harder and dream bigger.
The culture of Portland food carts — cheaper than restaurants and meriting just a couple-dollars tip (and sales-tax free, to boot) — allows diners to assemble their own multicourse tasting menu, provided they don't mind a moderate walk or a quick bike ride. Luckily, most food trucks are assembled in pods scattered across the city, making it easy to visit multiple trucks at each stop.
Start in southeast Portland, where Viking Soul Food does one thing and does it well. The simple, steel-bodied trailer is adorned only with a red umbrella. A sign promises "marvelous handcrafted edibles," and the menu is as stripped down as the cart itself.
Here you will find lefse, and not much else.
Like crepes without the milk and eggs, these Norwegian potato-flatbread wraps serve as a versatile bed for sweet and savory entrees that co-owner Megan Walhood's great-grandmother put on the Christmas table every year. The fillings can include heavy-duty pork-and-beef meatballs or a local grab of mushrooms and Oregon-grown hazelnut patties.
The seasonal winter lefse presented a well-balanced mix of goat cheese, pears and walnuts under sherry-sugar reduction — fresh, elegant and simple. Another lefse of house- (er, cart)-cured salmon with pickled shallots and crunchy watercress presented a slightly lighter take.
The real star, though, may be the $3 appetizer of pickled herring and onions, meaty fillets that manage to be bright and salty without overbearing fishiness.
As a bonus, pop by the Brazilian House cart next door for the coxinha, a ball of shredded chicken and spices fried in dough into the shape of a drumstick.
Then walk (or hop on a rental bike) to a rising star of the culinary scene, Carte Blanche, where "Supreme Dictator for Life" Jessie Aron is willing admit to Thai influences from her days in the kitchen at the bicoastal sensation Pok Pok, but says her chief culinary driver is avoiding repetition.
"Usually when I explain the cart, the looks I get back are confusion," Aron said. "We've gotten used to confusing the customer. Until they try the food. Then they're just happy."
Here you'll get mysteriously-named bowls like "Mischief" and "Rum Tum Tugger." Layered in a way that makes each bite genuinely different from the last are a fruit salad with diced pineapples, snap peas and corn in a sesame-miso crema, and a small heap of prawns.
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