PORTLAND – I honestly thought I was going to see more trucks than campers. But in researching the food cart scene here for an upcoming story, I discovered that not only do the carts here stay put for the most part, they also tend to exist in small spaces that could be described as somewhere between a spacious truck and a cramped push cart.
You don’t need to drive too far to see what I’m talking about. Whether you’re downtown, near the corner of 10th and Alder, or a 10 minute drive to the SE part of town, near Hawthorne & 12th, food cart pods co-exist with brick-and-mortar restaurants, taking up residence in parking lots, ringing the outside perimeters, which in some cases, allow cars to park in the interior, while commerce takes place on the outer edge. It’s this symbiosis that got me thinking about Chicago’s current food truck law, and how maybe everyone should go back to the drawing board, and forget about the roaming trucks, and focus on the still-portable-but-potential-for-sitting-still food cart. Many of the best ones we encountered looked like trailer campers – gutted of course – outfitted with tiny kitchens that still allowed for hand and dish washing, heating, cooking, etc. The Sugar Cube and PDX 671 come to mind. The former is a kick-ass dessert cart out near the Cartopia pod at Hawthorne/12th; the later, a gleaming steel cart in the D Street Noshery pod on SE Division (across the street from the cultish Pok Pok Thai restaurant, which started out as a cart).
Owner Ed Sablan missed the flavors from his native Guam, so he decided to open his own cart, where he now offers tastes from back home, like nengkanno gupot: boneless, marinated and grilled chicken thighs, with mounds of red rice and corn-embedded shrimp fritters. Seriously Chicago, come out here and take a look at what they’re doing, and suddenly that ridiculous 200 ft. perimeter “no truck zone” becomes moot. Most of the owners I talked with, said rents range from $600 – $800 per month, depending on your location. Some pods – like the Cartopia one – are open late, and attract night owls, while the downtown ones do a brisk lunchtime business.
I realize there aren’t nearly as many surface lots in Chicago, but there are plenty of lots just outside of the Loop. I know I’m howling at the moon at this point, since the Food Truck legislation is so far along in Chicago, but seriously, Portland has this stuff down cold.