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Portland dines a la cart

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Dave Hoekstra

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PORTLAND, Ore. - With more than 500 colorful food carts adorning Portland neighborhoods, the "City of Roses" continues to blossom as Food Cart capital of the world.

Earlier this summer, Budget Travel magazine ranked Portland first on its list of the world's best street food.

You'll see tricked-out custom-made food carts, bubble carts on empty parking lots and food carts that offer bicycle delivery service. The Creme de la Creme cart on Portland's east side serves escargot out of a converted 1960s school bus.

As the food cart effort picks up traction in Chicago, local foodies have planned trips around Portland's vibrant scene.

Chef Matt Maroni is the central force behind Chicago's food cart movement. He serves food from his Gaztro-Wagon, a converted postal truck. Since February, he has been working with the city to create a food cart ordinance that will put Chicago on the same grid as Portland, New York and Los Angeles. Maroni used Portland as a model for his research.

"A lot of what Portland did came out of the city's urban planning offices to bolster an outdoor scene," Maroni said.

"It's a quick lunch for people working downtown, and that's what we focus on with our truck," he added. "That's what we're trying to get to with our new [Chicago] ordinance, where it would be lunch and a late-night game. Dinner, you'd leave the restaurants alone and let them do their thing."

Maroni thinks the proposed ordinance could hit the city council later this month.

Brett Burmeister runs the website (with 25,000 fans on Facebook) and conducts 60- to 90-minute tours of the city's food carts.

"We have 30 to 40 amazing restaurants in Portland," said Burmeister, 40, a Portland native. "But if you walk down the street from your hotel, I can show you 25 food carts that are raising the bar for food. We've added 200 food carts in the last 18 months."

Burmeister explains that food carts are trailers with two wheels.

"There's seven to 10 different lots throughout the city that have between three and 20 carts on them," he said. Portland also has more than half a dozen food trucks roaming around town.

The best place for a Chicagoan to start is Big-Ass Sandwiches, SW Third and Ash streets in downtown Portland (503-803-0619; The silver food cart is a Chicago kind of place, featuring a big sandwich of roast beef (or roast turkey) slathered in french fries, grilled and piled onto a ciabatta roll.

Owners Brian Wood, 37, and Lisa Wood, 35, created an online manual on how to start your own food cart at

"We had so many questions when we opened and nobody would help us," Lisa said during a conversation in their 8-by-16-foot cart.

I spent a few weekdays in Portland and found the food carts busiest during lunch hour. In fact, driving around on a Monday evening, many carts were closed.

Big-Ass Sandwiches is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and sometimes late on Friday and Saturday nights.

"Daytime is always busy," Brian said, pointing out that he sold 80 sandwiches by 1:30 p.m. on a mid-June weekday.

Brian and Lisa came to Portland in 2006 from Seattle. Brian had been in the restaurant industry for 20 years. Lisa worked in radio broadcasting and programming. She endured a couple of buyouts before they decided to follow their dream to open their own pub. But they couldn't get the financing.

"We were devastated," Lisa said. "We ate at Portland food carts all the time. We realized as long as you have what you need kitchen-wise, you could do anything."

Brian wasn't immediately sold on the idea.

"I was putting my restaurant parameters on food carts," he explained. "We did eat a lot of food cart styles: Thai, Mexican. It wasn't anything I felt I could replicate with any quality in a trailer."

The couple contracted with Northwest Mobile Kitchen, operated by a Portland chef and architect, and discovered they could build a cart kitchen bigger than some of the ones Brian had worked in.

Their food is splendid.

"We roast our beef and turkey from scratch," Lisa said. "He makes the cheese. I'd say 80 percent of our menu is homemade. The bread is locally made.

"It's for people who don't have a lot of money," she added (sandwiches cost $5-$8). "We have a high unemployment rate here."

The Woods see the food cart trend exploding. A week after my visit, an independent filmmaker from Illinois was scheduled to drop by the city to work on his documentary on food carts.

"There's food enlightenment in the urban areas of America," Brian said.

Lisa looked around the bustling downtown and added, "The attention we're getting is overwhelming."