In the past two years, Portland has seen an explosion of street food vendors throughout the city, from high-density downtown locales to suburban sites far afield. There's no disputing that food carts are about food first and carts second. But as they have exploded throughout the city proper, I also have come to think of how food carts are designed and built, and how they work (or don't) collectively.
With the economy struggling, these carts have offered inexpensive food and a tantalizing variety of cuisines, as well as a point of entry to the market for aspiring brick-and-mortar restaurateurs. There isn't a Polish restaurant in Portland, for example, but there is a Polish food cart downtown. No restaurant could survive by serving just one dish, but the Nong's Kao Man Gai cart has become one of the city's most acclaimed and popular by doing just that: serving an exquisitely succulent chicken-and-rice concoction bursting with flavors of cilantro and ginger. And in both these cases, and many others, you can eat very well for about seven bucks.
I could go on and on talking about my favorite food cart meals: the pork sopapilla from Nuevo Mexico at the North Mississippi food cart pod; the wood-fired-oven pizza from Pyro Pizza at "Cartopia", the 12th & Hawthorne pod; the corn dogs from the Violetta truck on Southeast Belmont; the espresso from Spella Cafe on SW Alder; burritos from the former King Burrito cart on SW Fifth; or Korean tacos from the mobile Koi Fusion truck. But for the purposes of Portland Architecture, I've sought to consider what's best about the food cart phenomenon as they relate to our sense of place, and what could be better.
Obviously you don't hire an architect and contractor to build these vehicles, although occasionally when thoughtful builders like Von Tundra get involved, the result can be an award winner.
More often than not, food carts are rough around the edges and are designed and built in a utilitarian, do-it-yourself manner. They've been stripped, hammered and nailed together in a way that provides cooking space and maybe a little shelter for customers. The fact that many of these structures were recycled from something else, like old Winnebagoes or storage trailers, seems also very much in keeping with a city passionate about reclaiming and re-using. Even the sites themselves are a nice brand of recycling: they turning the deadest kind of urban space, a parking lot, into active place for people again. Jane Jacobs would love that.
Food carts are also a testament to the power of social media. These places don't advertise, at least not in conventional print or broadcast-media ways. With the help of Twitter, Facebook and blogs like Food Carts Portland, word travels fast about which of the more than 200 Portland food carts has cuisine worth seeking out. I'm not sure food carts would have exploded in the same way 10 years ago without social media. We had food carts back then too, but the movement wasn't expanding. Now it's exploding.
Sometimes I've wondered if a food cart pod could be designed wherein a rudimentary series of uniform small structures could be created for various vendors to move into. When I visited Beijing three years ago, this setup existed in the Night Market near my hotel. Each vendor was independent and unique, and this was a place for ready-to-eat food, yet they didn't have to worry about creating a structure for themselves. They could focus on serving up tasty bugs and funny meats.
But in the end I always come back to loving the different food carts precisely for their warts and imperfection: the collective personality emanating from the chaos. One could get prissy about the anything-goes nature of food cart design and lack of any unifying aesthetic, especially given that this is a matter of careful attention for Portland through means like design review and the historic landmarks commission. Food carts aren't always pretty in the conventional sense, unless you see beauty in duct tape and overflowing garbage cans. And no food cart shows much concern for aping its neighbor. Yet it's precisely the low-tech and DIY nature of these carts that adds to their appeal. Portland may have built a lot of glassy, shiny condos in the last decade, but food carts are arguably closer to the outsider, DIY personality of this city and what's left of its hallowed seediness.
There are small bits of nice design in food carts. Visiting the Nong's Kao Man Gai cart on a rainy day, for example, I took note of their transparent plastic awning. Many are also painted in wild colors, something frowned upon with most architecture.
The question of food-cart individuality reminds me of the classic children's book by Daniel Pinkwater, The Big Orange Splot, which Wikipedia describes thusly:
The main character, Mr. Plumbean, lives on a 'neat street' where all the houses look the same. A seagull flies over his house and drops a can of bright orange paint on his roof, but instead of repainting his house to look like all the others on the street, Mr. Plumbean paints it to look like all his dreams. His neighbors send people to talk him into repainting his house to look like theirs, but everyone he talks to ends up painting their houses like their dreams also. In the end, all the neighbors say:
"Our street is us and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams."
At the same time, carts are also also a heartwarming sort of entrepreneurship. In many cases the man or woman selling you food was also the person transforming an old Prowler trailer or cargo container into a food service facility. Any architect who is a sole practitioner, any PR person working out of their extra bedroom, or any graphic designer flying so can sympathize with the labor, imagination and energy necessary to be both boss and rank & file.
These carts are, for the most part, not subject to health inspections and laws that other restaurants face. Occasionally that has brought protest from traditional brick-and-mortar restaurateurs such as former Greek Cusina owner Ted Pappas. But they are a point of entry into owning a more substantial real restaurant with a roof and seats and ADA access. That's good for the city's long-term economic vitality.
Corporate earnings get all of Wall Street's attention, but small businesses comprise a vast majority of the companies out there. And these aren't just small businesses; they're a new class of micro-retail, tiny but mobile and full of personality.
When I visit food cart pods, I'm often reminded of the street festival that occurred every year in my hometown of McMinnville when I was growing up: Turkey Rama. Or I think of state and county fairs. That's the DNA from which today's food carts were born. There is something inherently fun about ordering food outdoors from a tiny vendor. In the past that has meant mostly just hot dogs and burgers, and only in summer. That this notion of communal, entrepreneurial places for food is now happening year-round and with exponentially more types of cuisine is even better. Given Oregon and Portland's devotion to high-quality and local, organic, sustainable ingredients, these carts are also offering something much better (or at least wholesome) than a Turkey Rama pronto pup.
And the variety of these carts, how they are created in most cases by the food purveyors and each decorated with its own personality, is also part of the fun. One wouldn't want to trample the youthful, festive, entrepreneurial spirit of these carts by enforcing lots of restrictions.
Food cart pods also make me think of food courts existing in places shopping malls. The foundational idea is the same: several small food vendors gathering together with common seating to attract diners with a variety of choices. But on those exceedingly rare times when I happen upon a food court like the one in the basement of Pioneer Place mall, it's a frustratingly antiseptic environment with mediocre food at not very good prices. The localness of food carts trumps these places, and although vastly more money was spent on food court environments versus food cart pods, the pods have a more compelling environment even as they exist in banal parking lots. Portland food carts are the antithesis of corporate mall food courts, and the latter ought to take a lesson from the former in the value of local food made and sold by passionate locals.
At the same time, traditional food courts (be they in malls or elsewhere) have one advantage over some Portland food cart pods: a commons. This is something food cart conglomerations have a spotty record on at best. Go to some pods such as that on North Mississippi and there is one shared and covered seating area for all diners. There's even a bar next door that allows food cart patrons to use its outdoor seating area.
But at other pods, such as at Cartopia at 12th and Hawthorne, there is a mess of awnings from most of the different vendors and no completely shared common area. What's more, there is the issue of keeping the commons presentable and clean. If you and a few other roommates share an apartment, who is responsible for cleaning the living room? It's often the same here. From outhouses to winding cords and cables, trash cans to trash on the ground, at some pods no one seems too concerned with the collective sense of place.
At the same time, forcing food carts to pony up dollars for a lot of collective infrastructure defeats the purpose. The whole notion of these carts is they’re relatively inexpensive to manage as a business. The higher the cost of shared infrastructure, the higher the cost of rent and doing business.
Whatever criticism I have of the makeshift mismatch of materials and design in food carts, or their occasional lack of a commons, it is greatly outweighed by a desire to celebrate the positive and quintessentially Portland vibe happening here: one of low budget ingenuity and creativity that meets the most basic of hungers and desires, and a movement that is born of the past even as it reinvents it for today's values and passions. Carts aren't a new phenomenon, but Portland's carts of today have their own identity. They speak to the sustainable, organic, locally oriented food we prefer today, and to the diverse array of creative people who have enlivened this once sleepy city with youthful energy. Going to food carts is about getting food, but it's also a kind of meet and greet for the younger, more diverse city we are destined to become.
Now if you'll excuse me, there's a crepe (or an order of Belgian fries, or an arancini rice ball, or a Venezuelan arepa, or a pork sandwich, or a plate of pierogies) with my name on it.