Portland’s best new food carts of 2023

double fried gluten-free chicken drumsticks

An order of double fried gluten-free chicken drumsticks topped with snow cheese from the Frybaby food cart at the Lil’ America food cart pod in Southeast Portland.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

Two new projects on opposite sides of the Willamette River offer a glimpse of the state of food carts in Portland today.

On the east side is Lil’ America, a new cart pod with real-deal bathrooms, indoor seating, access to cold storage for each of its eight carts, an attached taproom from Fracture Brewing and a raw bar, Cache Cache, from a distinguished local chef.

To the west is Flock, a food hall currently aiming for a January opening on the ground floor of the larger Ritz-Carlton development, a site previously home to a colorful, chaotic collection of carts that drew tourists to the since-demolished 10th and Alder pod.

One is a pod, the other a food hall. But both focus on small businesses owned by people of color, and each is a response to the collateral damage caused when popular pods get redeveloped.

As with Hinterland, last year’s new standout pod, Lil’ America hopes to be a permanent part of its neighborhood, not a parking-lot placeholder for a developer waiting for the real estate market to shift. Flock, meanwhile, asked several popular carts (Kim Jong Grillin’, Birrieria La Plaza) to open stalls downtown, hoping to return some of the energy destroyed when the destination 10th and Alder pod was destroyed.

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By Oregon law, food carts, like houseboats, must be mobile. Even the neighborhood fixtures with moss growing around the tires and rust around the rims are required to be capable of packing up and driving away at short notice. (That technicality caused several carts to close within the past year after the state announced new enforcement protocols related to wastewater disposal.)

But for many cart owners and their customers, pods are as much about the communities they create as they are the convenience of shared garbage pits and covered seating. Portlanders count on carts for quick, interesting and mostly inexpensive meals from cooks given the freedom to experiment with dishes or cuisines that might otherwise be hard to find in Portland.

Flame Pizza food cart in Southeast Portland

Flame Pizza is a new cart specializing in wood-fired pizza at the BIPOC and LGBTQ-focused Lil’ America cart pod.Beth Nakamura

So, as we prepare to celebrate our 13th annual guide to Portland’s best new carts, it’s worth remembering that even as other cities copy our cart culture, and the national press doesn’t stop by as often, great food carts aren’t just neighborhood amenities. They’re a part of our lives.

For this guide, we tried dozens of new food carts at more than 70 pods in nearly every Portland neighborhood — as well as Aloha, Beaverton, Hillsboro, Milwaukie, Oregon City, Troutdale, Vancouver and West Linn — to bring you our 10 favorites of 2023.

Our primary guidelines: Each cart must be around a year old or less (with a grace period given to places we missed last year). And it has to be serving something new, or preparing its menu better than the competition. We paid for our meals and tried our best to be anonymous during our visits.

Before we get to the top 10, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of our honorable mentions, the great carts that didn’t quite make our final cut. Those include a pair of roving lobster roll carts, Cousins Maine Lobster and Lobster Dogs; another itinerant cart, Doyaji, we found serving yummy boxes of Korean food at a pop-up flea market; good Mexican-style rotisserie chicken at Daddy’s Chicken, which shares space with several other strong carts at one of Aloha’s three (!) cart pods; wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas at Rose City Park’s Diavola; Multnomah Village’s Del Toro, a steakhouse on wheels; the friendly folks and good grindz at Island Style Grill in Montavilla; the good breakfast sandwiches (in a year filled with good breakfast sandwiches) at Sunrise just off Division Street; dunk-worthy curry sauce at Vancouver’s royalist Winston’s Fish & Chips; and St. Johns’ new metal-themed ice cream cart, Kumafrost. And a quick nod to Sellwood’s Maisha, an intriguing plant-based Kenyan cart that wasn’t open during our research visits.

And now, introducing Portland’s 10 best new food carts of 2023.

No. 10: Chaat Wallah

At the corner of Northeast Prescott Street and 72nd Avenue, in what was once a Cully car shop, a new neighborhood eating, drinking and gathering space is evolving. By morning, Junior’s Roasted Coffee caffeinates the community. In the afternoon, Upright Brewing’s Beer Station takes over, serving some of Portland’s best beer alongside tasty Indian-inspired snacks and sandwiches from Chaat Wallah, the latest venture from Deepak Saxena (DesiPDX, Masala Lab). For this new cart, Saxena fuses Indian flavors with American bar food to create something better, and more interesting, than you are likely to find at most bars in town. The lamb-based smash burger, a twist on Portland’s favorite burger with a lot more heat than the standard version, served with crunchy spiral chaklis on the side, is a fine choice, as is the crispy, crackling Bhel Frito Chaat, a salad of puffed rice, peanuts, herbs, onions, chutneys and masala, with the delightful addition of crushed Fritos. — Lizzy Acker

Order this: The Bhel Frito Chaat is a perfectly fresh, crunchy snack to go with a mug of Spellbinder Pils.

Details: 3 to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday-Sunday, 7157 N.E. Prescott St.; chaatwallah.com

Flame Pizza food cart in Southeast Portland

Flame Pizza co-owner Dais Fernandez prepares a Fresca Blanca pizza. The cart, which Fernandez owns with partner Julie Isaacson, is part of the recently opened BIPOC and LGBTQ-focused Lil’ America pod in Southeast Portland. September 6, 2023Beth Nakamura

No. 9: Flame Pizza

Flame is a very new project from Dais Fernandez and Julie Isaacson, a pair of recent Minnesota transplants making simple Neapolitan pizzas with fresh and local ingredients that just taste good. They chop all of their salads every morning and make their own dressings and many of the pizza toppings, including some plucked from the raised beds in their own Troutdale garden. And they do it all in the cart, including proofing their flavorful dough. In a world of deep-fried cart fare, a meal at Flame Pizza is a refreshing change. And that’s not by accident. “We wanted you to feel good after eating it,” Isaacson said. The delicious Blanca Fresca, covered with lemon ricotta and garlic confit and piled high with arugula on a thin, perfectly charred crust, is a sign that, just one month in, they’re already achieving their goal. — Lizzy Acker

Order this: While it lasts, get the Blanca Fresca for the fresh summer flavors and the crunch and bite of arugula. If you’re going to order two (you should), try the Fig and Fennel, which pairs fig compote and fennel sausage.

Details: 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, 1015 S.E. Stark St.; instagram.com/flamepizzapdx.

Lomo saltado and ceviche from Mama's Peruvian Bowls in Beaverton.

Chelsea Smith, who was born in Virginia but moved back to her mother's home of Peru at age 5, opened Mama's Peruvian Bowls in part to show her young daughter Azul that single mothers and "women everywhere can achieve their goals if they have the drive and determination to do so."Michael Russell | The Oregonian

No. 8: Mama’s Peruvian Bowls

Of all the places I’ve dreamed of visiting since having two kids just in time for a global pandemic, Peru sits right at the top, a bucket-list Machu Picchu. Besides those Incan ruins, much of the draw is the food: Pristine ceviche at La Mar, a tasting menu at Maido or Central, some late-night Peruvian-Chinese fusion, the cuisine known as Chifa, eaten on the streets of Lima. Until then, we have a handful of great restaurants, and now this Peruvian American, female-owned food cart, which relocated earlier this year from its original spot at Southeast Portland’s CORE pod to Beaverton’s sprawling BG’s Food Cartel. Here, closer to owner Chelsea Smith’s home, the cart appears to have found a warm welcome. Mama’s is the place to come for good ceviche with the usual Peruvian trimmings: a thick cut of sweet potato, thin-sliced onion, large kernels of corn both blanched and toasted, all marinating in leche de tigre, the spicy citrus marinade. It’s also a solid stop for Chifa-style fried rice; stir-fried tallarines verdes (green noodles); or lomo saltado, the seared steak with French fries and roasted tomato served, like everything here, in a compostable bowl. Smith, who opened the cart after becoming a single mom to 2-year-old daughter Azul, plans to open a second cart in Oregon City next month. — Michael Russell

Order this: Lomo saltado, tallarines alla huancaina, ceviche Peruana and a neon-yellow Inka Kola.

Details: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 4250 S.W. Rose Biggi Ave., Beaverton; 971-754-0552.

Ferttie's BBQ's dark orange cart at Hillsboro's Tuesday night market.

Ferttie's BBQ spent most of the summer popping up at Hillsboro's Tuesday night market.Michael Russell | The Oregonian

No. 7: Ferttie’s BBQ

These days, being a barbecue fan in Oregon means maintaining a digital calendar, an empty stomach and a full tank of gas. Outside of Matt’s, most BBQ trucks worth their salt-and-pepper rub are only open one or two days a week, and require hour-plus drives to places like Carlton, Hood River or Bend. Ferttie’s, which spent the early part of the year pulling up at Washington County taphouses, was most often found this summer at Abbey Road Farms in wine country and the Hillsboro Night Market, where it served its oak-smoked meats on West Main Street most Tuesday nights. Though owner TJ Fertterer is churning out some serious smoked brisket, turkey, pork ribs and other Central Texas-style meats, our favorite bite from a recent visit was the supremely tender, deeply smoked pulled pork, which found its highest calling when dipped in some tangy South Carolina mustard sauce. Yum. — Michael Russell

Order this: You can splurge on a $50 platter with various meats, sides and banana pudding for dessert, or keep things simple with a pulled pork sandwich.

Details: Hillsboro’s night market has ended, and the October calendar is currently sparse. Keep an eye on Ferttie’s website, ferttiesbarbecue.com, for upcoming events.

Burger and lumpia on a pink table

A Big Bunso, or longanisa burger, is served alongside lumpia at Makulít, located in Lil’ America food cart pod.The Oregonian/OregonLive

No. 6: Makulit

Reports that Jollibee was close to opening a Hillsboro location last year turned out to be slightly premature — neighbors say the old Tanasbourne Village Chevy’s location has been demolished, but the beloved Filipino fried chicken chain doesn’t expect to open until 2024 at the earliest. Until then, local chefs have taken matters into their own hands, crisping chickens and topping spaghetti with sweet sauce at carts, restaurants and pop-ups around town. The latest addition to Portland’s suddenly thriving Filipino food scene is this cart from former XLB sous chef Mike Bautista and Xrysto Castillo, which fries up tasty lumpia, chicky bites and poutine-style French fries smothered in pulled adobo. From that poutine to the longanisa-beef burgers, the menu is unabashedly influenced by fast food, while the pink-and-yellow color scheme was inspired by a bag of Calbee shrimp chips. “We wanted to make it loud,” Bautista told us in April, “because Filipino food is loud.” — Michael Russell

Order this: Lumpia, pancit canton and a calamansi juice.

Details: Noon to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 1015 S.E. Stark St. (at the Lil’ America pod); makulitpdx.com.

No. 5: Hunker Down

Hunker Down isn’t your standard food cart. For one thing, it’s open every day. Another? Hunker Down owner Ryan Schenk actually co-owns the entire pod, Hinterland Bar & Carts. Schenk opened Hinterland in January of 2022, gathering a collection of the best carts in town like Burger Stevens and Matt’s BBQ Tacos to a former acupuncturist’s office reimagined as a fantastic bar. Schenk hoped Hinterland would feel almost like a restaurant, and tapped bartender Ryan Biornstad (Pyramiddd) and chef Chris Turner (Bar Diane) to create the most ambitious cart we visited this year. They have a brunch menu, fresh-shucked oysters, sandwiches, mac and cheese, fried and roasted vegetables, a delicious braised pork cheek served on polenta, soft serve and sundaes. When Hunker Down shines, it really shines. Take, for example, the near-perfect pancakes, which come with maple syrup, jam and honey butter, fluffy on the inside and crispy on the outside. When asked what his secret was, Turner wouldn’t reveal much. “It’s just a great batter recipe,” he said, and “finding the sweet spot on the griddle.” Also: Butter. — Lizzy Acker

Order this: During weekend brunch, do yourself a favor and order the pancakes. At dinner, the braised pork cheek and roasted cauliflower will make you feel like you’re doing fine dining at a picnic table.

Details: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 2216 S.E. 50th Ave.; hunkerdownpdx.com.

A fried pork sandwich

The Indiana-style fried pork sandwich at Chop Shop PDX food cart in Southeast Portland, Oregon, pictured on Monday, Aug. 29, 2023.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

No. 4: Chop Shop PDX

The breaded pork tenderloin sandwich knows no borders. Claimed equally by Indiana and Iowa (and central Illinois, and eastern Missouri), this state fair staple has even inspired a previous Portland food cart. But at Chop Shop, a black-and-chrome cart next to Southeast Gladstone Street’s Ship Ahoy Tavern, owners Cindi Rask and Austin Timme take things one step — or state — further, pairing a thin-pounded, Saltine-breaded pork in the style found in Timme’s home of Indiana with a thicker, beer-battered version inspired by the legendary version at Freeway Tavern in Butte, Montana, where Rask is from. For my money, the Midwestern classic has better balance, at least for a sandwich best known for the fried pork jutting out far from its bun. But from what I’ve tried so far, it’s seems like it’s hard to go wrong at Chop Shop, with a menu that might touch on mozzarella sticks, a meatball sub or a tavern burger paired with a stiff drink at Ship Ahoy. This is some of Portland’s most impressive bar food this side of Tulip Shop Tavern. — Michael Russell

Order this: The Indiana tenderloin, some fries and a brewski from Ship Ahoy.

Details: Noon to 8 p.m. or slightly later Wednesday-Monday (closed Tuesdays), 2998 S.E. Gladstone Blvd.

man in front of food truck

Chaz O’Neill in front of his breakfast food cart, Dawnbringer, on North Vancouver Avenue.Lizzy Acker/The Oregonian

No. 3: Dawnbringer

Chaz O’Neill is a breakfast savant. When he was in his first year of culinary school in upstate New York, O’Neill submitted a recipe for French toast to a USA Pears cooking contest. His “Pomegranate Pear French Toast” won the entire competition. At Dawnbringer, a blue and orange cart on Northeast Fremont Street and Vancouver Avenue, O’Neill is still making French toast, but he’s doing a lot more, too. And, he’s doing it all alone — taking orders, pouring Proud Mary coffee and making king-sized, tasty English muffins in the cart. “I have a culinary past, but I have a baking heart,” said O’Neill, of his decision to hand-make English muffins daily. Those muffins are the base for both a breakfast sandwich and French toast good enough to travel across town for. The Twilight Tasty sandwich is generously stuffed with bacon and sausage, scrambled egg, cheddar cheese and chili mayo. It’s big enough to share with a friend, but you won’t. Unlike that earlier recipe, Dawnbringer’s French toast doesn’t feature pomegranate or pear, but it’s clear O’Neill still knows a thing or two about the dish, which arrives crisp on the edges and almost melty on the inside, with orange zest, cornflakes and a side of maple syrup from O’Neill’s hometown in Massachusetts. — Lizzy Acker

Order this: Order the Rise and Shine – English muffin French toast (there’s a joke in here about the Chunnel) with orange for flavor and cornflakes for crunch, served with a side of real maple syrup.

Details: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday-Monday, 3441 N. Vancouver Ave.; instagram.com/dawnbringerbreakfast.

The Ivy Royale burger with ham, grilled pineapple, onion, avocado, jalapeño and hot dog and a margarita from  Güero's new Paradise Hamburguesas pop-up.

The Ivy Royale from Güero's new Paradise Hamburguesas pop-up comes with ham, grilled pineapple, onion, avocado, jalapeño and hot dog.Michael Russell | The Oregonian

No. 2: Paradise Hamburguesas

Yes, it’s only a cart because building a kitchen in the old car garage behind torta shop Güero would have been cost prohibitive. But Paradise Hamburguesas, the latest seasonal pop-up from Güero owner Megan Sanchez, happens to serve some of the tastiest sandwiches we tried this year. And they happen to come from a fully loaded, all-white trailer stationed on a parking lot kept cool all summer with potted plants and overhead misters. After testing the waters with the seafood-focused Paradise Mariscos last year, Paradise returned in June with a new concept built around the popular Mexican-style hamburgers found inside, offered here with jalapeño and American cheese or as The Ivy Royale, a towering construction with grilled ham and pineapple, onion and jalapeño, avocado, hot dog, melted queso botanero, chile mayo and carrot-habanero salsa. Non-carnivores take note: two of Paradise’s best sandwiches — The Camarones, a shrimp cheeseburger with papaya and lime mayo, and the Relleno Deluxe, with a pint-sized poblano pepper oozing Oaxacan cheese — don’t have beef at all. You’ll find snacky palitos with lime and Valentina hot sauce, whole corn elote shimmering on gold foil, assertive margaritas, ice cream and sorbet cocktails. With colder weather already here, Paradise probably won’t last far beyond October. If we’re lucky, it will return next June. — Michael Russell

Order this: The Camarones or the Relleno Deluxe, avocado and melon soaked in lime juice and a margarita while they last.

Details: Noon to 10 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, 2821 N.E. Davis St. (behind Güero); guerotortas.com/paradise.

No. 1: Frybaby

Have you tried snow cheese? Even if you haven’t, you might have tried something similar. Found as a topping at a handful of fried chicken chains in Seoul, the powdered cheese blend bares a passing resemblance to the white cheddar dust coating Smartfood popcorn. At Frybaby, bartender-turned-cart entrepreneur Sunny Hatch’s ode to the fantastic fried chicken he first tried during a tipsy night hanging with new hostel friends on a trip to South Korea, tasty wings and massive drumsticks can come slicked in good variations on the usual gochujang and soy-garlic sauce. Decent sides — including smashed cucumbers, garlic butter rice and kimchi mac and cheese — help round out a meal, while the sour-and-sweet plum soda bobbing with lime is practically a must-order. But it’s the snow cheese drumstick you want, wrapped in outrageous robes of crispy skin blasted end-to-end with a powdered white cheddar and Parm blend, a veritable blizzard compared to the light snow cheese dusting more often found in Seoul. Eaten with a little scallion and chased with some of the pickled daikon provided, it’s the main reason Frybaby isn’t just the breakout star of the Lil’ America pod, it’s our 2023 Food Cart of the Year.— Michael Russell

Order this: A three-piece order of snow cheese drumsticks, a plum soda and some extra wet wipes.

Details: 11:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. (or sold out) Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday; 1015 S.E. Stark St.; 971-258-0566; instagram.com/frybaby.pdx.

— Lizzy Acker and Michael Russell

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