by Nancy Bestor
I’m a huge fan of the food cart. No matter the city or country I am in, if I have the choice between a food cart and a brick and mortar restaurant, the food cart wins most every time. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe my brain sees the food cart as more authentic, maybe cheaper, or maybe the truth is, I just believe food that comes from a food cart tastes better.
Portland, Oregon seems to be ahead of the curve with its plethora of food trucks, and its blogs and books devoted to the food cart scene. Every time I visit the City of Roses, I’m sure to hit the downtown cart pod on Alder and 9th, for chicken and rice at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, or a pork sandwich at The People’s Pig, or maybe even Pad Kee Mao noodles at I Like Thai. I have also sampled cart cuisine in cities throughout the US, and based on my experiences, Washington D.C., San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles all have their share of delicious roaming restaurants too.
Our food cart passion also kicks in when we’re abroad. Bob and I drank phenomenal fresh squeezed pomegranate juice in Shanghai, and ate the best stir-fry noodle dish ever on a random street corner at another random cart. In Mexico City, we ate succulently rich deep fried gorditas at a food cart on yet another street corner. The atmosphere certainly isn’t fancy, napkins might be hanging from a cord, and the seating (if there is any) might be plastic kiddie chairs or short wooden stools, but for me, that just makes it better. I’ll never forget on our trip to Thailand more than 12 years ago, we ate every day at a local woman’s food stall on the island of Koh Phi Phi. This was our first experience eating at a food cart in a foreign country. We pointed to the ingredients we wanted her to include, and had to let go of the fact that she had no refrigeration, and her chicken was just sitting in a cupboard under her cook stove.
In the US, within the food services industry, food carts have a bit of a bad rap. Restaurants don’t necessarily like them, as they can take away their business, yet the carts don’t have the overhead that a restaurant has. Although I see their point, I’d like to think food carts and restaurants can find a middle ground, as I believe there are enough customers to go around. And not every diner is willing to stand in line outside and then find somewhere to eat, often also out in the elements.
That can be one of the food cart downsides, especially here in the US. There is rarely a set eating area, so you often have to find a bench, or a patch of ground, or in some cases sit in your car and eat. But how bad can it be to have the wonderful aroma of say, Tom Yum Soup, filling your car for a short while?
Food carts are often the first place budding restaurateurs try out new menu ideas. Los Angeles chef Roy Choi put his toe in the water with his Kogi Barbecue Taco trucks before going brick and mortar. The Grilled Cheese Grill in Portland might do the same, with inventive specialty sandwiches like Grilled Jalapeños, Colby Jack, Cream Cheese, and Corn Tortilla Chips on Sourdough. (I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely feeling a bit peckish right now.)
Maybe in the end, the truth is that I love food carts because I think they are hip. And I’m always looking for an excuse to convince myself that I am as “with it” as my college and high school aged daughters are, and eating at cool food trucks helps me feel like I am on the cutting edge of the food scene. (I am right?)