Portland’s bustling street-food scene may soon be rivaling the hawker centers of Singapore in terms of quality, scope, popular appeal, and value for money. In other words, the Pacific Northwest is doing for street food today what it did for coffee in the 1990s. Picking just eight venues out of the veritable sea of stands, stalls, carts, trucks, trailers, and even bicycles was a tough job—but hey, we’re not complaining.
1. CORA Y HUICHOL TAQUERIAAt first glance, nowhere could feel farther from the ocean than this humble parking lot on an endless stretch of strip malls and motels in gritty outer Southeast Portland—but the moment you taste the Nayarit and Jalisco specialties at this little white truck, you’ll be riding the waves with the best of them. In a city brimming with quality Mexican food, items like tacos al pastor certainly hold their own, but it’s the seafood dishes—a tangy, spicy “ceviche” and tostadas de camaron—that will hook, line, and sinker you. Corner of SE Holgate St. and 82nd Ave. (503-995-6606)
2. NONG’S KHAO MAN GAIPortland was known for its Thai food long before the Pok Pok revolution, but this tiny little shack, sandwiched along a block of street food vendors catering to the downtown lunch crowd, has taken the culinary scene to new heights. Bangkok native Nong Poonsukwattana, herself ex-Pok Pok, follows in the venerable Thai tradition of the one-dish street food vendor, serving khao man gai, or chicken rice, exclusively. One bite of moist, perfectly poached chicken with hints of cilantro, garlic, and lemongrass—served with a ginger-chile sauce and a side of broth—and you’ll understand why Thais consider this dish their ultimate comfort food. The problem is, everyone else has figured it out too—which is why Nong usually sells out well before 1 pm. SW Alder St. between 9th and 10th Aves. (971-255-3480; khaomangai.com)
3. SPELLA CAFFÈNo list of Portland street food would be complete without an ode to one of the city’s outstanding coffee joints, which lead the country in attention to craft. While the smiling service at Spella Caffè’s trailer may be pure Portlandia, the espresso drinks themselves—served in brown Nuova Point china, no less—will have you feeling like you’ve been transported to your favorite Italian city. As you sip, you’ll rub elbows with caterers picking up bags of beans for upcoming events and regulars attempting unsuccessfully to settle up yesterday’s tab. Warning: It’s impossible, once you’ve tried Spella, to leave without sampling an affogato with hazelnut ice cream (made from local hazelnuts by Stella Gelato, in Eugene). Corner of SW Alder St. and 9th Ave. (503-421-9723; spellacaffe.com)
4. KOI FUSIONPerhaps it was inevitable that the Korean-taco craze would hit Portland just as it did Seattle, but it’s not merely local pride that has Koi Fusion regulars insisting that the cart’s specialties give KogiBBQ in Los Angeles a run for its money. Koi boasts an ambitious array of dishes, from quesadillas to hot dogs to sliders, all served with the requisite cabbage, scallions, bean sprouts, onion, cilantro, daikon, radish sprouts, and Korean salsa. Unfortunately, they sell out almost instantaneously, leaving even the most faithful fans grumbling. Happily, the roaming, tweeting truck does a mean night service in addition to lunch. Locations vary. (koifusionpdx.com; Twitter: @koifusionpdx)
5. NORTHWEST HOT DOGSDon’t let the name fool you: Commuting bikers and local auto-parts workers may have started to flock to North Carolina native Harry White’s grill for hot dogs (this being Portland, there’s also a veggie dog on the menu), but often as not it’s his pulled-pork sandwiches and crisp, tender, falling-off-the-bone ribs—both prepped with his secret spice rub and served with homemade barbecue sauce—that keep them coming back for more. (The second location, at Jamison Park in the hip downtown Pearl District, caters to a more upscale, artsy crowd, but the pattern is the same.) Two Locations: 1114 SE Clay Street NW; and Jamison Park, 11th Ave. and Johnson St. (503-887-7248; northwesthotdogs.com; Twitter: @natural007)
6. PERIERRA CRÊPERIELate nights at this hotspot find a motley crew of club kids and diehard foodies hanging out patiently on picnic benches, waiting for their crêpes. There’s the classic (lemon and sugar; Nutella and banana); the innovative (lemon, lingonberry, and crème fraîche); and the questionable (chocolate and prosciutto). The scene is half the fun—tattooed model types and their bearded, equally sulky male counterparts make quite a spectacle as they sweat it up in the tiny kitchenette—but the crêpes aren’t anything to sniff at, either. Unless, of course, you’re breathing in their buttery aroma. Corner of SE Hawthorne Street and 12th Ave.
7. POTATO CHAMPION!The Crêperie’s greatest frenemy lies right next door, serving huge portions of twice-fried French fries to the same eager clientele. At Potato Champion!, sauces range from pesto mayonnaise to rémoulade to rosemary truffle ketchup, but it’s the fries themselves that are the star of the show—together, that is, with the manic young staff, who dance to ’80s tunes as they fry away and emit the occasional catcall to their more sober next-door neighbors. It could take a good half hour for your order to be ready, so sit back and enjoy the show. Corner of SE Hawthorne Street and 12th Ave. (potatochampion.com)
8. FLAVOUR SPOTPortland has long been considered a waffle capital, but the gargantuan versions at Flavour Spot’s two locations—both in a part of Northeast Portland that’s rapidly becoming the city’s culinary epicenter—may well be first among equals. Breakfast will never be the same after sampling their Black Forest ham and smoked Gouda waffle; and dessert will never be complete without a strawberry, Nutella, and whipped cream concoction, the consumption of which is so awe-inspiring (not to say intimidating) to contemplate that you might just have to break local custom and request a plastic utensil to help you along. Corner of N. Fremont St. and N. Mississippi St.; N. Lombard St. btw. N. Denver St. and N. Greeley St. (503-282-9866; 503-289-9866; flavourspot.com)