Did you know that many of Portland’s most famous food carts also have brick-and-mortar restaurants — and vice versa? Read on to discover the stories behind the city’s most celebrated cart-café chains.
When native Portlander Bo Kwon began selling bulgogi beef tacos out of a truck back in 2009, he had no idea it would evolve into one of the city’s largest foodie empires. Today, the Koi Fusion family includes two food carts and three brick-and-mortar locations. The menu features Korean flavors with Mexican flair, including kimchi quesadillas and short rib burritos.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai
As the legend goes, Nong Poonsukwattana moved to Portland from Bangkok in 2003 with $70 and two suitcases to her name. The young entrepreneur opened a food cart with only one item on the menu: a classic Thai chicken and rice dish known as khao man gai. The recipe won rave reviews, and led Nong to close her cart and open brick and mortar locations in Southeast and Southwest Portland.
Most high school students don’t use a class assignment as a chance to open a restaurant — but Alicia Cruz isn’t like most high school students. In 2006, Cruz and her family launched the Los Gorditos taqueria, one of the city’s first food carts and one of its first vegan-friendly eateries. Stop by the original cart on Southeast 50th and Powell or one of its three brick-and-mortar locations across Portland for soyrizo-stuffed burritos and cabeza chimichangas.
Cultured Caveman made waves in 2012 as the first paleo-friendly food cart on the West Coast, cooking up carnivorous dishes like grass-fed bone broth and all-meat chili. The gluten- and dairy-free eatery has since expanded to include three food carts (including one downtown on Southwest Harvey Milk Street) and a North Portland café, where paleo devotees sip buttered mochas and munch on lamb liver pate.
Like Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Whole Bowl takes its moniker from the only item on the menu: a nutrient-dense bowl layered with rice, beans, avocado, salsa, avocado, sour cream, Tillamook cheddar, cilantro and the cart’s signature Tali sauce. Voted “Best Lunch Cart in Portland” by locals and praised by the New York Times, Whole Bowl has expanded to seven fantastic locations. (If it’s raining, head to their indoor café on North Vancouver Avenue.)
Going vegan doesn’t need to mean giving up meaty, smoky, barbecue flavors — just ask Jeff Ridabock, founder of Homegrown Smoker Vegan BBQ. Located on North Mississippi Avenue, the food cart has attracted a cult following among herbivores, thanks to its plant-based pulled pork sandwiches and juicy seitan burgers, slow-smoked to perfection over applewood chips. For an expanded menu of faux-ham and pastrami subs, not to mention a roaring fireplace, visit Homegrown Smokehouse & Deli, the cart’s brick-and-mortar outpost, which doubles as a commissary kitchen.
Farmers’ market favorites
The Portland Farmers Market has served as an incubator and launch pad for many of the city’s most successful foodie brands, including Dave’s Killer Bread, Ruby Jewel and Heidi Ho. It’s also the birthplace of four of our favorite eateries: farm-fresh Mexican restaurant Verde Cocina, deep-dish pizza joint Via Chicago, breakfast sandwich haven Pine State Biscuits and gluten-free vegan bakery Petunia’s Pies and Pastries. Try them all at the PSU farmers market on Saturday mornings, or visit their brick-and-mortar locations throughout the city.