Portland’s culinary scene exists in a unique space. It’s where scrappy meets gourmand. It's where food carts meet fine dining. Here, history meets innovation. None are mutually exclusive from each other, and this melting pot of influences simmers a perfect cauldron from which the next gen of Portland culinary talent rises.
While the pandemic caused immeasurable loss, it also created space—in terms of time, venues, and creativity—for people to finally and fully step into their passions. Whether it be food carts, coffee roasteries or family-inspired enterprises, the next gen of Portland culinary talent has arrived.
Next Wave of Food Carts
Portland’s food cart scene has been beloved by locals and visitors alike over the years, helping to define the city’s culinary identity with a diverse array of stationary food carts in groups called “pods.” Well-suited for pandemic dining, food cart pods allow for social distancing and take out, which create opportunity for new pods and carts to open amidst the pandemic.
New pods are popping up all over the city with diverse offerings, including CORE, a 36,000 square foot pod on 82nd Ave in Southeast Portland home to a food hall and 11 food carts including Breakside Brewery, Mitate serving vegan sushi, the Puerto Rican LeChon, and more. Just down 82nd Ave, The Yard opened in Montavilla, a new pod featuring a diverse mix of culinary fare including Taquiza Vegana serving vegan Mexican street food and Vietnamese street food cart Little Bear, to name a few. On North Williams, the new Cartside Pod is home to seven of Portland’s newest food carts, with offerings ranging from Korean soul food at Ko Sisters to local cult favorite burgers at Mid-City Smash Burgers and classic Thai dishes from PP Thai Food Cart.
The Cinderella story of food carts opening brick and mortars is still alive and well. Portland's newest food hall creation comes from couple Anthony and Stephanie Brown, the team behind the "Mexicajun" food-cart-turned-brick-and-morter, Nacheaux. Their Unicorn Creationz food hall brings two new concepts to their flagship restaurant: Karnival Korner (bakery) and Bourbon St. Bar (speakeasy-style bar). While Deepak Saxina, owner/ founder of Desi PDX, a popular food cart within the Prost pod on N Mississippi, is set to open Chaat Wallah serving fun fusion representations of Indian street food, as well as Masala Market and Masala Lab in 2022, where he’ll be experimenting with Indian cuisine.
Coffee Shops that Pay Homage to Culturally-Rooted Practices
Portland paved the way for craft coffee roasting and continues to be a leader in the scene. Now, it’s not just about third wave coffee—which describes the artisanal and often fair-trade approach to roasting—but also sourcing, roasting, and preparing coffee that pays homage to culturally-rooted practices.
Revolución Coffee House specializes in café de olla, which was a popular drink during the Mexican Revolution. The traditional coffee included cinnamon brought to Mexico by the Spaniards and was prepared by “Adelitas” (women in the military). Today, Revolución makes café de olla with beans from Café Mam’s fair-trade cooperative of native Mayan farmers.
Portland Cà Phê specializes in single-origin coffee from Vietnam’s Central Highlands. If you’re looking for extra pep in your step, Vietnam specializes in Robusta beans—which has about twice as much caffeine as Arabica beans—and tastes great as a cappuccino or mocha latte (made from the locally made Holy Kakow Agave Mocha).
Super Joy Coffee's owner Joe Yang won the 2020 US Coffee Championship. Taste his award-winning roasting skills on imports of limited supply beans from the Yunnan region of China. Super Joy serves up its coffee at its coffee shop on the well-caffeinated Portland State University Campus. The red date latte, Chinese pepper mocha, and lychee ice coffee are just a few of the coffee concoctions with even more Chinese influences.
Reforma Roasters opened in 2020 with a laser focus on a roastery model that was mutually beneficial for farmers, producers and the environment. The roastery’s Abuelita Blend is nostalgic and comforting. Knowing that beans are changing and unique, the Smalltime Blend is a light roast that changes by the whims of the roasters and beans on hand. 2022 plans include a second coffee shop.
Portland Chefs Inspired by their Roots
Portland strives to welcome everyone with open arms. This is a city that aims to make space for everyone to express their culture, beliefs, and perspectives. We’ve often found one of the greatest expressions of culture to be through food, and here are just a few of the chefs in Portland’s robust culinary scene who have expanded our palates with food inspired by their roots.
Local chef Vince Nguyen has a robust culinary resume including stints at Michelin-star restaurants before settling in Portland and delving into his Vietnamese roots. At Berlu on SE Belmont, Nguyen operates a take-out Vietnamese bakery while also offering Vietnamese street foods and noodle soups in the evening. Offering a modern take on classic Filipino dishes, Magna Kusina chef Carlo Lamagna plays with the cuisine of his childhood, incorporating techniques and tricks he picked up in Chicago farm-to-table favorites. At Taste Tickler, a beloved Korean-influenced sub and bento shop in Northeast Portland, chef Andy Kim has expanded the menu to include a tofu-kimchi rice plate, japchae and banchan like pickled garlic and cucumbers, though the Philly cheesesteak, where the beef is marinated in bulgogi, has been a staple for many years.
Perhaps family has had the biggest imprint on the culinary scene in Portland, with many of the chefs behind local favorites citing the mother figure in their life as inspiration. At Oma’s Hideaway, chef Thomas Pisha-Duffly’s finds inspiration by his Oma, Kiong Tien Vandenberg. Inspired by her ability to adapt and stay creative, Oma’s serves bright, funky and playful food influenced by the cuisine of Southeast Asia. Inspired by her mother, chef Thuy Pham of Mama Dút, serves vegan versions of the Vietnamese dishes her mother cooked for her growing up. According to an interview with Portland Monthly, “Her favorite treat her mother would make on weekends, birthdays, and holidays is bánh xèo, a turmeric–coconut milk Vietnamese crêpe typically stuffed with pork belly and shrimp and loaded with fresh herbs and bean sprouts.”
Vegan Fare Takes Hold in Portland
Ranked the best city for vegans and vegetarians in 2021 by WalletHub, Portland offers a wealth of plant-based dining options whether it’s at the neighborhood food cart pod, local dive bar, convenience store, or hotel restaurant.
Opened July 2021 at Sentinel Hotel, renowned chef Jewan Manuel – aka Portland’s Plant Based Papi – teamed up with founders Karen and Eric Bowler to create an inventive vegan menu right down to the cocktails at Fortune. Next door to Plant Based Papi’s original spot on SE Morrison, Mama Dut, a Vietnamese pop-up turned brick-and-mortar in November 2020, serves dishes centered around owner Thuy Pham’s house-made vegan pork belly. Visit early as dishes often sell out. The SE Asian take on vegan cuisine doesn’t stop there. Opened October 2020, Mirisata serves flavorful Sri Lanken dishes like cashew curry or oyster mushroom curry, and from farmer’s market stall to full blown restaurant, Obon Shokudo serves feel-good Japanese comfort food.
Northeast Alberta has become a hot spot for vegan hangouts. The food cart Ditto serves plant-based brunch sammies (vegan grilled cheese, anyone?) out of a decked out 1971 GMC school bus. Nearby, Wild Thing – the restaurant from Arden’s Kelsey Glasser and former Tusk chef de cuisine Sam Smith, goes all in on vegetables, serving them in creative thought-provoking dishes with a small carbon footprint. Opened October 2021, the 100% vegan Jewish Deli, Ben & Esther’s, serves bagels and schmears, traditional Jewish deli sandwiches like Reubens and brisket with a vegan twist and more, in their second location on NE Alberta.
Portland’s vegan markets and shops have something to satisfy every craving. Cultured Kindness specializes in plant-based, dairy free vegan cheeses in North Portland. Cutie Buys, a self-proclaimed “very cute vegan convenience store,” specializes in thought-fully designed vegan goodies ranging from sweets, dips and more. Sweet tooths can rejoice at Ice Queen Ice Cream Shop, the first and only vegan ice cream shop in town which recently went viral on Tiktok for its unusual (and craveworthy) tamale flavored ice cream bar. While the women-owned Doe Donuts, Portland’s only vegan-dedicated doughnut shop, serves unique flavors like early-grey and mango sticky rice in donut form.