One of the perks of researching my new book, The Best Coast: A Road Trip Atlas
, has been sampling the local flavor of each place I wrote about and illustrated. And thanks to its famous network of food trucks, nowhere on the West Coast has more local flavor than Portland. Since I live just two hours away in Tacoma, Washington, I’ve had a lot of time over the years to visit the Rose City and wander around with my sketchbook — and each time I do, I try to visit a different food cart (though sticking to this “rule” is hard when I just want to resample old favorites again and again).
For me, dining at Portland’s food trucks isn’t just about the ease of grabbing street food, or the proximity when I’m drawing outside. It’s also an easy way for me to support local, independent, and immigrant businesses, in a city where the battle lines are drawn between diverse residential enclaves, hipster culture, and slick real estate developers. With food trucks and pods (where several carts congregate in clusters) parked in nearly every neighborhood, my hope is that Portland’s street food culture will withstand developers and gentrifiers gobbling up empty lots and green parcels all over town. With that broad map in mind, here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite PDX food truck delicacies from around the city.
Kim Jong Grillin’: Bibim Box
This place wins the award for best name — I can’t help but laugh out loud whenever I think of it. The food — a handful of solid, simple Korean staples — is award-worthy, too. The Bibim Box is their signature lunch, available with bulgogi, a variety of meats, and veggie versions.
Chicken and Guns: Quarter Bird
Speaking of great names, the badass name of Chicken and Guns is a draw all on its own (no pun intended). The menu options here are few (the “guns” are the fried potato wedges), which makes ordering easy. Too hungry for a mere quarter of a chicken? There’s a half-bird option, too.
Grilled Cheese Grill: Kindergartner
This bare-bones grilled cheese sammie is an oldie but goodie on my food truck circuit, a simple classic when I need a quick bite or can’t decide among the fancier fare on NE Alberta Street. Add bacon for a richer (and more artery-clogging) lunch. The pickiest eaters can choose the Preschooler, which is a Kindergartner with the crusts cut off. Nostalgic diners will love the adjacent seating available on an old yellow school bus.
El Yucateco: Panuchos
This cart, parked way up near the Columbia River east of the PDX airport, is out of the way for most tourists and downtown denizens, but the panuchos are worth the extra effort to get here. A Yucatán Peninsula specialty somewhat similar to a tostada, panuchos are super fresh-tasting and easy to scarf down. I like to hit this place up for dinner, on my way back out of town.
Viking Soul Food: Lefse Wraps
Having lived in both Minnesota and North Dakota in the past, I’ve developed a taste for Norwegian cuisine — and Portland’s sole source for street lefse delivers in a huge way. Here, this delicate potato flatbread is the cornerstone of a variety of savory and sweet treats. I usually pick the smoked salmon wrap, with the lingonberry wrap (with cream cheese!) for dessert.
808 Grinds: Kalua Pig Plate
If you’re looking for an authentic Hawaiian plate lunch (a choice of meat served with rice and macaroni salad), this is the place. My favorite is the Kalua Pig (pulled pork served naked) — though the portion is so huge that afterwards I’d usually rather nap than stroll around with my sketchbook.
Fine Goose: Croissant Sandwich
This is where I go when I want a sandwich for breakfast. The buttery, flaky pastry is to die for, and the only problem is getting there early enough before the croissants sell out for the day!
Teppanyaki Hut: Sushi Burrito
This big, blowsy beauty turns sushi into instant, portable street food — it’s also perhaps my all-time favorite PDX food cart delicacy. These “burritos” — which are really just giant-sized maki rolls — come in a variety of flavors: my favorites are the Mt. Fuji (salmon and tuna) and the Double Dragon (eel and tempura shrimp).
Matt’s BBQ: Texas-Style Ribs
You can usually tell the quality of the ‘cue by the length of the queue, and Matt’s is worth the long wait you’ll have in line to get it. I’m more of a ribs person myself, but Texas barbecue is all about the brisket — order the Whole Shebang if you just can’t decide.
Smaaken: Waffle Sandwich
Grilled cheese too boring for you? Not in the mood for a French crois-sandwich? Then behold, the waffle sandwich! You can even choose between sweet and savory models (I like the High Tea sammie). The best part is the natural split down the middle of the waffle, making it easy to go Dutch and share it with a friend.
Frying Scotsman: Fish and Chips
I’ll confess to giving the haggis a wide berth here (or anywhere, really), but if you’re in the mood for a fry-up, these might just be the best fish and chips available in the Pacific Northwest. I’m a purist, so I go for the cod every time. For some real UK flavor, be sure to add a side of mushy peas to your order.
Bing Mi: Jian Bing
Judging by the long line that always seems to haunt this cart, the secret is out about Bing Mi. But their gigantic Chinese crepes deserve every bit of recognition they’ve had and more, and I’ll happily wait my turn for a taste.
Aybla Grill: Dolmades
Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) are among my favorite snacks, but they’re labor-intensive enough to make that I can’t always find them on the menu at other Mediterranean food trucks. Thankfully, I can reliably find good ones at the Aybla Grill cart, and pop them into my mouth as I do a bit of street sketching.
Bombay Chaat House: Veggie Samosas
My go-to food truck fare when I’m outside drawing is usually whatever I can easily eat without getting my hands too dirty (grease and watercolor don’t mix). These samosas — not fancy, but never boring — do the trick every time, even if I do have to wrangle the dipping sauces.
Potato Champion: Poutine
The cheese curds and gravy disqualify this
dish from the finger food category, but sometimes you just have to get a bit messy. Poutine is a hearty Canadian classic for a reason: try standing in line for the stuff on a raw winter day, and once it’s in your belly you’ll feel yourself warm right up.
Trap Kitchen PDX: Pineapple Boat
Okay, so this massive, beautiful dish is not remotely
portable or easy to eat in the street. I don’t care; it’s too good to pass up. Choose this tropical delight when you’ve got something to celebrate or someone to share it with — or when you want a good conversation starter. Nothing turns heads like savoring half a stuffed pineapple in public!
Fried Egg I’m in Love: Yolko Ono
I’m a sucker for eye-rolling word play; that’s what got me to stop here in the first place and order the punniest sandwich on the menu. I was delighted to find the Yolko Ono to be solid on substance, too — I like to add avocado to mine (I am a millennial, after all).
The Pie Spot: Brown Butter Pecan Pie Spot
This place is great for a bit of dessert at the end of a Portland food truck adventure. I usually find a whole slice of pecan pie to be too sweet for my taste — but in mini form it just, well, hits the spot. These tiny pies are perfect for satisfying a sweet-tooth craving, or creating a mixed-flavor sampler to share with friends.
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is an illustrator and lettering artist, and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. She is the coauthor of Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color
and the author of an illustrated travel blog called Drawn the Road Again
. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, and spends every spare moment traveling America’s winding back roads, sketchbook in hand. The Best Coast
is her most recent book.