For The Love of the Food Cart

by Nancy Bestor

foodcartI’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 IMG_0503fried 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?

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Deep-fried gorditas in Mexico City – YUM!

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?)

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

by Nancy Bestor

IMG_1009I am a rule follower. Much to my husband’s dismay (or annoyance?) it is very difficult for me to go against what I have learned to be the “right” way to do something. If there’s a no trespassing sign on a trail where I can see 10 people walking, I feel uncomfortable. If a movie theater says not to bring in my own food or drink, I feel guilty with a water bottle. And if there’s a line somewhere, gosh darn it, I’m going to take my place in that line, and not try and work around it or take cuts. I played Red Light, Green Light growing up, and I NEVER WENT WHEN IT WAS RED LIGHT.

Thus it came as quite shock to me when my friend Janice and I got to the customs and immigration department at the Moscow airport about 15 years ago, and there were at least six customs booths open, but not a single line. Every person just pushed and elbowed their way closer and closer to a booth. Then when my family traveled in Turkey in 2008, and we went up to the rooftop deck for breakfast at our Istanbul hotel, my poor daughters (who are more like me than any of us would like to admit) would wait and wait for “their turn” to put food from the buffet table onto their plates, but they would repeatedly be cut in front of by folks from all over the world. Most recently, in China, I noticed that if you wanted to buy food from a food cart or vendor, you really had to push your way to the front of the line, and interrupt the worker and perhaps other customers by shouting or pointing out your order.

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Can I just repeat? This all makes me uncomfortable.

I’m sure I lean a bit towards the obsessive/compulsive side, or to put it in more derogative terms, the anal retentive side, but I like the orderly lines found in the USA. When I choose a line at the grocery store, I like to know there are three people ahead of me. And when I’m waiting in customs and immigration, I don’t want to push my way to the front. I want velvet ropes telling me—and those in front of me and behind me—that we will wait our turn like civilized people.

Then I started thinking about other cultures, and how just because my culture does something one way doesn’t make it the right way, it’s just how my culture does it. Foreigners might look at the lines we form here in the US and think they are the craziest things they’ve ever seen. I know, I find this hard to believe too, but who am I to judge? Other cultures lack of structure may, in its own way, be structure. I’ll keep thinking about this while I’m standing in line, waiting to hear “green light.”

 

Strange Travelers in A Strange Land

by Nancy Bestor

China is a foreign country. No duh right? But there are foreign countries where things are a little bit different and then there are foreign countries where just about everything seems drastically different. China is the latter.

When Bob and I spent several days walking the streets and alleys of Shanghai this fall, we were more often than not the only westerners on lanes packed with people. Little boys were peeing in the gutters, women were slicing fresh baked bread with string, live chickens were getting their heads chopped off, eels were being sliced into tiny strips, and lots and lots of unrecognizable vegetables were being displayed on everything from bicycle powered carts, to wooden tables and tarps laid on the ground. Everything was for sale and I loved it.

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I can’t seem to get enough of markets where pig heads are hanging from the ceiling and the fish is so fresh their gills are still moving. So China was my kind of foreign country. Grocery stores seem to be non-existent in Shanghai—we certainly didn’t see any. Shopping for food is done the old fashioned way, at a butcher or vegetable stall, right on the street.

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I can’t imagine these businesses are regulated in any way, but when you’re in a foreign country, sometimes you have to let go of the idea that the FDA has to approve all food and drugs for sale. At some point, I stopped worrying about whether the woman running a food stall on a street corner wore plastic gloves when she handled my money, before cooking my food. I also let go of the concern of whether my chicken or pork was fresh, or cooked all the way through. And I did not get sick once.

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People in China don’t give you a lot of personal space, and when you’re shopping at food stalls in narrow alleys, that space is even smaller. Apparently you have to push your way to the front and yell if you want to buy something. I don’t think it’s rude, it is just the way things are done there. Spitting loudly, by the way, is apparently not rude either.

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I’m not a competitive person, and my assertiveness skills are sometimes lacking. But I’ll bet if I lived in Shanghai and was shopping for food for my family, I’d quickly learn to shout and push along with the rest of them. For when in Rome…

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

PDX Stands for Pretty Darn Excellent!

by Nancy Bestor

IMG_0269My husband Bob and I come from the San Francisco Bay Area. When we moved to Ashland, Oregon in our late 20’s, we had already spent many of our adult years eating and drinking at hip locations throughout the Bay. Moving to little Ashland was something of a culture shock in the food and drink department. Yes, there are plenty of very good restaurants in Ashland, but not the big city ethnic and urban spots we were used to. Thus, we’re always looking for an excuse to drive to the city, whether Portland or San Francisco, and eat and drink our way around town.

Last month we slipped away from our teenage daughters and spent three delicious days in Portland. We booked a hotel on priceline.com, and were lucky to get the Waterfront Marriott, for $115 a night. Parking downtown can be tricky, but we usually find nearby street parking and only have to pay a hour or so here or there and that’s much cheaper than downtown Portland garage prices.

IMG_0970On our first day, we met dear friends Do and Ray for lunch at my new favorite Portland eatery, Boke Bowl. This “casual ramen spot” started like so many other Portland spots as a pop-up food cart, and serves homemade ramen noodles, and my favorite, steamed filled buns. Another absolutely delicious dish was their warm brussel sprout and cauliflower salad. I would never have tried it if it weren’t for my vegetarian friend Do, and it was oh so delicious. The fried chicken steamed bun was also my favorite, and the grilled eggplant pork bun was my favorite too. As you can tell, everything was my favorite, and I must head back soon to try more dishes. Wait times can be long at Boke Bowl. We arrived just after they opened, at 11:30, and were seated immediately. But by the time we left an hour later, the line was out the door.

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We met Ashland friends Dale and Kim for drinks late that afternoon at another great spot, Departure Restaurant and Lounge. Departure features a stunning outdoor patio bar, 15 floors up above the Nines Hotel, right smack in downtown Portland. The panoramic views alone are worth a visit, and sitting in the late afternoon sun with our young and hip Ashland friends amid the even younger and more hip Portlanders made for a lovely afternoon.

We ate dinner that night at Little Bird, the sister restaurant to the popular French restaurant Le Pigeon. The more casual Little Bird was very good, although on the spendy side compared to other Portland spots we have frequented.

IMG_0984The next day we met Ray for lunch again, this time at Bollywood Theater on North East Alberta, for delicious Indian street food. Very different from the heavier sauced Indian food I have loved in the past, Bollywood’s offerings included roasted beets, kati rolls – chicken, egg and chutney rolled in Indian flat bread, dahi papri chat – housemade crackers topped with chutney and chickpeas, and more. Everything is served on steel plates, just like street food in India, says owner Troy MacLarty. I recommend it!

Our eating tales are not over, because believe me, Bob and I can squeeze a lot of meals into two-and-a-half days. That night we met our friend and former co-worker Sammy and her beautiful new daughter Vivienne for dinner at Por que no? on North Mississippi Avenue. It was a very busy night at this popular taqueria, but the long line moved almost as quickly as my Pomegranate Margarita disappeared.

Finally our Portland food odyssey had almost come to and end. But, before we drove home on Sunday morning, we stopped for a delicious breakfast at Pine State Biscuits. With its fabulous take on American diner style food, Yelp reviews continually mention waits up to two hours on weekend mornings. But again we beat the crowds by arriving just after they opened at 7:15. We ordered, snared a table and soon dug in. I had the Reggie, which is fried chicken, bacon and cheese served on a fresh baked biscuit and smothered in gravy. Bob, always trying to show me up, had the Reggie Deluxe, with an added fried egg. They were fantastic, and we drove home happy and eight pounds heavier.