I think this experience explains, to some degree, my general burnout on carts. Prices are in the same range as Bunk, MCB, Eastmoreland Market, Laurelhurst Cafe, Sandwichworks, et al. I'd gone there twice before at seemingly normal times and they were closed. The food is pretty good, but I feel like I'd do better at any of the places mentioned above, plus get to sit indoors and be able to count on consistent hours and consistent availability of product. I just don't care enough about being part of a hip scene to go to food carts if I can't get cheaper food or better food.
That's the issue I see going forward. When you eat on the street in a developing country, you might be spending 1/2, 1/3, or as much as 1/10 what you would pay for pretty similar food at a b&m spot. In Portland, at least at the eastside pods, you're usually spending 10% less maybe. And you're spending a lot more than you would at fast food, which means that the traditional role of street food, as a cheap and quick alternative, isn't really the case in the eastside pods. Downtown there is a lot more competition on price, I think. And most of the taco trucks still serve that traditional role. But in both cases, they're there to feed people on the go, generally workers for lunch. Very different customer base. (And one that is probably more sustainable.)
The other problem, of course, is that sometime in the next 5 or 10 years, the property value or development value of the pod locations will go up and be worth more than the rent of the carts. The savvy cart owners will, imo, use the current windfall (as much as there is one) and notoriety to move on to something that will be better in the long term.
You bring up some interesting points about cart-going in general. If this ends up spinning off thread from the Good Food Here
pod, then I trust you'll move this to where it belongs.
I agree completely about the inconsistency of cart hours/days of operation, and also agree that there are some top-tier sandwich shops in town that provide stiff competition and quite compelling alternatives to the carts (in addition to any number of equally excellent "non-sandwich" restaurants). Price (maybe value is a better word) is certainly also an important part of the equation.
The question, then, comes down to "why do people go to carts?". I gave that some thought. Carts are (to me at least) generally
pretty quick, generally
pretty easy, and generally
less expensive than an actual restaurant. Some of them (which are the ones I favor) also do something unique, and they do it very well. Most of my restaurant eating is takeout (except for Asian places), and I typically eat alone. I usually just get a sandwich, torta, or some other single item/salad (hell, I even like burritos), and it's often to go. In light of that, carts are well suited for me. I often ride my bike to those locations, and I like that I can keep an eye on my bike while I'm eating or waiting for my order. I had a bicycle stolen from me once, and I have not (and will not) get over it. I could give a damn about whether a scene is hip or not. I would almost argue that the lines to get into breakfast restaurants or the most popular dinner spots represent a "hipper" scene than carts.
Oh, I also enjoy the opportunity to interact directly with the people (often the owners of the business) that prepare my order. I (mostly) eat alone, you know, so it's nice to chat with someone along the way, right? That's just me though, and you folks here must surely have realized by now that I'm not into the fine dinning aspect of eating out.
I guess the main motivation for many cart customers is price, convenience, and "ambiance" (the cart/pod experience, being outside when the weather is nice, the uniqueness of the experience and/or the crowds). With the folks on this forum, I'd assume that the quality and individuality of the food plays into it pretty heavily, but I've also seen plenty of posts referencing a particular cart's proximity to work (or vet, apparently!). Visiting out-of-town tourists may get a kick out of the "hipness" of the local food cart scene if they don't have food carts where they live. All of that is just an assumption on my part though. Why do folks go to food carts?
I think Portland will always have food carts, and there will always be a role for food carts. I agree that the pod madness (which actually seems to have simmered down some this year compared to last) is likely unsustainable. The closures, cart sales, and movement from pod to pod (Clackalack's started at SE 52nd+Foster, moved to ~NE 20th+Sandy, and then back to SE at 43rd+Belmont in less than a year, por ejemplo) all seem to point towards market saturation and unsustainabilty. However, with all of the failed, sold, migratory carts...what about Pok Pok? That started as a cart, and is moving towards an empire. Los Gorditos started as a cart and now has a restaurant (although, sadly, I must say the food quality at their cart has declined without the family there doing the cooking). Wasn't there some buzz awhile back about Nong's looking to get into a restaurant? Violetta started (and still maintains) a cart. I'm sure there are other examples of successful carts that transitioned into restaurants, whether or not they still maintain their carts. Maybe that only lends support to your idea of "getting out while the getting is good" in light of impending property values and shifting attitudes towards carts. I wonder if the future of carts (other than the downtown ones based in parking lots) is true mobility. A vehicle that changes locations every day (or at least goes home at night).
I'm not ready to completely write off carts (even the East side ones) though...but I'm not in the restaurant business! My last food service job was in 1993, and it didn't pay well or entail much in the way of responsibility (although I did enjoy it and the people I worked with). Time will tell, to be sure.
In your particular case, though, I have one cart to recommend (in spite of your cart fatigue). "Noodle House"
in the SW 9th/10th downtown megapod. Try out their "spicy seafood noodle" dish. The sauce isn't quite as spicy as I'd like it, but that one gets everything else right. It's an immaculately clean cart, run by very nice (and extremely efficient) folks, with handmade fresh noodles and perfectly cooked squid with a couple of shrimp and the perfect amount of vegetables. The noodles take the center stage, but they're well supported by the rest. If you don't like it, I'll buy it for you. That might restore your faith in carts (although doubtfully completely). If nothing else, you at least get a lunch out of it.