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Carts: Worth the Calories?


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#1 nervousxtian

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Posted 23 March 2011 - 06:58 PM

I bet less than 5% of the carts in town are worth eating at.


A little hyperbole there? There's probably a couple hundred carts around town, and you don't think you can name 15 worth eating at?

#2 ExtraMSG

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Posted 23 March 2011 - 08:22 PM

There are over 600 around town and, yes, I am willing to bet not more than 30 or so are really worth eating at. Are there more than 30 making edible food? Definitely. But more than 30 or 40 where I think, man, I really gotta get back there? Probably not. And the percentage has gone down, I would say, with the explosion of carts over the last couple years. I've been to a couple large pods where not a single place is really worth returning to. People lower their standards for carts because: 1) they think it's cool or edgy to go to a cart, 2) the perception, often false, that carts are a better value.

The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

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Formerly, Kenny & Zuke's


#3 Laksa

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Posted 23 March 2011 - 08:40 PM

I bet less than 5% of the carts in town are worth eating at.


A little hyperbole there? There's probably a couple hundred carts around town, and you don't think you can name 15 worth eating at?


They are theoretically worth eating at if they make something better than you can and they save you the hassle. But even then disposable containers and nugatory eating arrangements suck much of the pleasure from the experience.

I think eventually the better carts are going to figure out they are in the prepared food business like, say, Taste Unique. People will stop on the way home for some dishes prepared for eating at home. Once one cart pod gets a reputation for having a multiple good carts you can put together a good meal from it'll attract a following. Better yet if you can message or e-mail ahead and know your order is waiting when you show up it'll be a very workable alternative to cooking at home.

If there are even fifteen good carts to eat at it's thanks to the Mexican cart owners cooking regional food. And Nong's Khao Man Gai.

#4 Amanda

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 07:02 AM

And Tabor, I might add. That's a good one. There are a few others, but it is surprising how many carts have popped up when the economy sucks and there is so much competition. I haven't noticed them being any cheaper than some storefront spots. I am not a frequent cart goer, though, and when I do so it is usually only in the summer and to ones that are a sure bet. For me it doesn't make too much sense. I've got a tight leash now during the lunch hour so the treck to a cart and the waiting means I'm walking back to the office then and have to eat my lunch at my desk. I do admit some carts are worth going out of your way for, but others...not.

For instance, when I wrote up WyEast Pizza I said the pizza was good, but suffers from the ride home and ends up floppy. People felt that assessment was unfair, but I disagree. It's not a place, as a general rule, where you would sit down and have a whole pizza so you pretty much need to take it to go. Especially when it's pouring down rain like last night. The product might be delicious out of the oven, but the end result when you finally get to eat it someplace else is another story sometimes. A brick and mortar is much, much more desirable and inviting. There are enough great places to eat in Portland and some are from carts, but not having the advantage of shelter and beer kind of kills it as a dinner option for John and me.

To make it now in cart society I think you have to have a niche that draws people. Make one or two things and make them great and even that's no guarantee.

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#5 nate

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 01:26 PM

I can name ten nine just in the two blocks by the Gallleria (with notes as to why they're "worth eating at"):

Aybla (best gyros in town)
Wet Hot Beef (best Italian beef of places I've tried; better than Michael's anyway, though maybe not truly "Chicago-style," also great chips)
Nong's Kao Man Gai (I know it's not your thing, but a lot of us love it)
Eat This! (tasty "sandwiches" on flatbread made on the spot)
808 Grinds (best Hawaiian food I've had in town, admittedly not a super-high bar to clear)
Frying Scotsman (best fish and chips in town and offers a choice of several different varieties of fish)
El Cubo de Cuba (maybe not the best cubano in town, but damn fine, and the tostones alone are really reason enough)
Addy's (duck confit sandwich on Little T mini baguette)
Samurai (the Oyako-don, soooo good)

And there are a few others that I think might be worthy but I haven't had a chance to try:

People's Pig (one word: porchetta)
Rotissol and Greens (great-looking sandwiches)
Huong's (heard it's great Vietnamese)

Also, I'd imagine there are one or two that don't jump out at me as being potentially great, but I might love if I tried.

All that said, I don't think I'll be spending much time at this pod with the current lineup. The ones up by 50th and Division are nearby and much more promising. Plus there's always Slice, Koi Fusion, and beer at 32nd and Division (and others I haven't tried which may or may not be any good).

#6 ExtraMSG

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 02:08 PM

Split off the general cart discussion.

Even though I don't especially like Nong's, I agree it's worth eating at. They do a reasonably good version of the dish, it's one of the few places (perhaps only now that Malay Satay Hut has closed) you can get the dish, and it's reasonably priced.

I also agree on Aybla. Now that Karam has changed hands, there's a case to be made that Aybla is the best Lebanese in all of Portland, though the menu is much more limited than Karam or Ya Hala.

I don't agree on Samurai. It's fine. It's relatively cheap. But it's not especially good or unique.

btw, that 50th & Division pod was one of the ones I was talking about when I said there's nothing there worthwhile.

The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

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Formerly, Kenny & Zuke's


#7 concreteoatmeal

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 02:50 PM

Garden State
PDX 671
Pyro Pizza
Whiffies
Nong's
Frying Scotsman
Burgatroyd
Addy's
Big Egg
50 licks
Flavour Spot
Slice
Pizza Contadino
Pizza Depokos
Wet Hot Beef
La Catrina
Ely's
PB&J's
Lucy's Original
Violetta
Brunch Box
Wy'East
Tabor
Schnitzelwich
CBP(beer...duh! winning!)
sugar cube(when it's operating of course)


There's 26 right off the top of my head. took about 10 min. and I am sure there are some glaring omissions. Anyways, I am sure the % of worthy Carts is higher than the % of worthy B&M's...start adding up all the McD's, Chili's, Chatchky's, Billy Bob's Barfwagon, etc....
If 20% are good-great, I think that is far superior to the 2-3% of restaurants that are good(and the >1% that are truly great!)

oh, and I am by far a champion of carts.
"If you were expecting a kick in the groin, and you get a slap in the face.......thats a win where I come from"

#8 Jill-O

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 02:53 PM

I had a thin sliced pork sandwich at the Shut Up and Eat cart at A La Carts (SE 50th and Ivon) that was definitely worth eating. It had thin sliced roasted pork, roasted peppers, bitter greens, provolone and a spicy jus to dip it in...very tasty.

I like Lardo and have had some tasty stuff there, but I don't like their roast pork sandwich anywhere near as much. But it is in a pod (SE Belmont and 43rd, Good Food Here) that has several good options: Eurotrash, Lardo, Rollin' 'Etta (Violetta's cart), Aybla...I have had some tasty food at this pod.
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#9 ExtraMSG

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 03:12 PM

There's 26 right off the top of my head. took about 10 min. and I am sure there are some glaring omissions. Anyways, I am sure the % of worthy Carts is higher than the % of worthy B&M's...start adding up all the McD's, Chili's, Chatchky's, Billy Bob's Barfwagon, etc....
If 20% are good-great, I think that is far superior to the 2-3% of restaurants that are good(and the >1% that are truly great!)


How many carts would be in the top 5 of what they do in Portland? Think about the Samurai cart. It's well-liked. It gets a lot of recommendations from people. I like it fine and have been there several times. But you'd probably get a meal that wouldn't cost much more and would be every bit as good or better at Hakatamon. Yet few of us would rate Hakatamon better than a B -- if even that.

I think standards drop when a cart is involved. A gimmick, one clever or cheap item, or some cool factor is enough for people to start exaggerating the quality of the food.

The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

Nick Zukin, Mi Mero Mole

Co-Author, Artisan Jewish Deli at Home

Formerly, Kenny & Zuke's


#10 concreteoatmeal

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 03:21 PM

A gimmick, one clever or cheap item, or some cool factor is enough for people to start exaggerating the quality of the food.

wait, so that doesn't happen with restaurants? Voodoo Donuts would be way too easy of an example, but what about such items/places like 7 Estrellas(sp?) and their Tortas Abogados? it's a very average Taqueria other than that admittedly delicious item.

Also, aren't you a proponent of restaurants doing one thing and one thing well? laser focused sub-sects of cuisines?
"If you were expecting a kick in the groin, and you get a slap in the face.......thats a win where I come from"

#11 nervousxtian

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 03:37 PM

You said "worth eating at"..

Something doesn't have to be the "best" at whatever cuisine to be "worth eating at".

I don't get the cart hate. I know you think they are a bad investment now, I know you think there's over-saturation, but now you want to say that only 1 out of every 20 is worth a shit? I mean you seemed to not mind when it was just downtown carts and taco trucks in the 'burbs.

#12 ExtraMSG

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 03:45 PM


A gimmick, one clever or cheap item, or some cool factor is enough for people to start exaggerating the quality of the food.

wait, so that doesn't happen with restaurants? Voodoo Donuts would be way too easy of an example, but what about such items/places like 7 Estrellas(sp?) and their Tortas Abogados? it's a very average Taqueria other than that admittedly delicious item.

Also, aren't you a proponent of restaurants doing one thing and one thing well? laser focused sub-sects of cuisines?


I said gimmicky item, not really, really good item. eg, I applaud what Nong's is doing or what Potato Champion does (except the gravy and some of the sauces). Also, 7 Estrellas does have more than that one good item, but I agree, other than that there's nothing that really separates them from the herd. And I never go out of my way to eat there. If I lived in Tigard, I'm sure I'd eat there every couple weeks. (But no fair being Flynn's sock puppet, either, Fisty McFisterson.)

It'd be interesting to put up a table based on cuisine and relative price point of places that are B&M vs carts and start at the top and see how many were among the best places of their type, even focusing on the cheap side of things. The median might be better on cheap eats because of fast food joints and the like. But the top 100 carts vs the top 100 cheap eats B&M? I would guess B&M would stomp carts on that comparison.

The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

Nick Zukin, Mi Mero Mole

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Formerly, Kenny & Zuke's


#13 ExtraMSG

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 03:48 PM

You said "worth eating at"..

Something doesn't have to be the "best" at whatever cuisine to be "worth eating at".

I don't get the cart hate. I know you think they are a bad investment now, I know you think there's over-saturation, but now you want to say that only 1 out of every 20 is worth a shit? I mean you seemed to not mind when it was just downtown carts and taco trucks in the 'burbs.


Yeah, I know. When I was responding to people, though, in my head it was "really worth eating at" and that's how I restated it later.

I don't hate carts. I just think they tend to get overrated and that the quality by percentage was a lot better before the explosion in numbers and that it's hard to get too attached to them because it's questionable whether they'll be there 6 mos from now.

The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

Nick Zukin, Mi Mero Mole

Co-Author, Artisan Jewish Deli at Home

Formerly, Kenny & Zuke's


#14 concreteoatmeal

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 04:10 PM

I don't hate carts. I just think they tend to get overrated and that the quality by percentage was a lot better before the explosion in numbers and that it's hard to get too attached to them because it's questionable whether they'll be there 6 mos from now.

I can only assume you could say the same thing about B&M's as well. I know everyone wants to believe that if you triple the number of something, like restaurants in a given area, that it should stand to reason that the relative percentage of quality ones would remain the same. The only problem with that is, well, reality. There is a finite amount of dining public and more importantly a finite amount of cooking talent. The latter being what is important here. So to say that pre-Cambrian Cart Explosion, the ratio of good/bad was X and now it is Y, is a no brainer. I think we all know that. Also, since you haven't bothered to address my claim that said ratio is even lower in B&M's than it is in carts, I will assume you agree?

to try and denigrate a cart because they only have "one gimmicky or good item" is really unfair(much like your accusation of sock puppetry...but I digress). I don't know how many thousands of times you yourself have reviewed a place, mentioned a couple good/great dishes, then a handful of MEH or bad ones, then recommended people go for the good ones? double standard? Kinda looks like one honestly.
"If you were expecting a kick in the groin, and you get a slap in the face.......thats a win where I come from"

#15 nervousxtian

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 05:00 PM

I just think they tend to get overrated and that the quality by percentage was a lot better before the explosion in numbers and that it's hard to get too attached to them because it's questionable whether they'll be there 6 mos from now.


Wholeheartedly agree with that statement.

#16 nagrom

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 05:32 PM

I think there may need to be a whole other thread just to address the "gimmick" factor in Portland food right now. Are other cities suffering from this same thing?

#17 ExtraMSG

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 06:22 PM

Other cities are generally much worse about gimmicks. Its actually one of the nice things about Portland.

The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

Nick Zukin, Mi Mero Mole

Co-Author, Artisan Jewish Deli at Home

Formerly, Kenny & Zuke's


#18 Laksa

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 08:06 PM

everybody is concentrating on the quality of the food but the cart "experience" also includes eating off disposable containers with disposable implements inside a plastic mostly drafty tent on an asphalt surface if you are lucky. And as far as I can determine anyone wanting to 'freshen up' is basically SOL. WTF?

Carts are the transitional businesses but when the concept is fully developed it'll be like the food courts of SE Asia, a critical mass of small specialized vendors on the perimeter of a common eating area in a building designed to accommodate both vendors and customers. Or so I fervently hope.

#19 ExtraMSG

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Posted 24 March 2011 - 08:27 PM

Well, that depends on where in SE Asia. There are certainly plenty of carts with even fewer amenities than the ones here in SE Asia. Except Singapore.

Personally, I don't think we'll go the way of the food courts because then you have all the things that restaurants have to deal with, like city system development fees, fire marshals (and sprinklers, fire exits, safety doors, firewalls, etc), ADA bathrooms, seismic upgrades, occupancy limits, etc, etc. At that point, might as well develop a restaurant. And who's going to put up the money to develop these food courts? What's a pod lot owner have to do now? Make a blacktop, run some electricity, maybe set up some port-o-potties? Easy peasy. And instead of $70/mo per parking spot, they get $800 for a couple.

Of course, the question is what's going to happen to these cart owners when real estate prices return and the lot owner can sell the spot to someone who can build a four story building with condos and retail? Think any of these cart owners have 5 year leases with options?

There's a lot of long-term downside to the cart business few are considering because it's more fun to put a bird on it and call it a business. Portlandia.

The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

Nick Zukin, Mi Mero Mole

Co-Author, Artisan Jewish Deli at Home

Formerly, Kenny & Zuke's


#20 Laksa

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Posted 25 March 2011 - 09:00 AM

Agreed that the SE equivalent of cart pods is sometimes little more than a convenient stretch of the sidewalk near a bus stop. But there are also the more upmarket ones which provide a model. And I heard there's a court--possibly multi-storied-- just south of Vancouver BC full of small vendors. Also one across the Hudson from Manhattan you get to via water shuttle.

And what if a theoretical food court did have to comply with all the city regs? Violetta's prices are in line with the surrounding pods' and they had to jump through all the hoops.

I always suspected that the lure of easy riches is what inspires lot owners to podify--thanks for confirming that particular hunch. In particular the one on SE 50th near Division strikes me somehow as a particularly cynical enterprise. I wish it would just pod off. Anyway, downside is considerable for all parties as you point out.