Food trucks can be found all over the world, but the hype began in Portland, Oregon, where even gourmet chefs prefer to serve food on the street
Their love story could have been written by the city itself. Genevieve Rades and Scott Fitzsimons met ten years ago in a food cart serving Carolina barbecue. Four years later, they set up their own barbecue cart. Now they get up at dawn to prepare the ingredients before heading off to their second jobs and opening at 11 a.m. for smiling, hungry Portlandians. “We’re still crazy about each other. Thank God! I have to see him every day,” says Rades. Their pulled pork burger melts in your mouth – must be all the love that goes into it. Portland is known as the city of indie, hipster and alternative lifestyles. But it is also a kingdom of culinary delights – and where the current food truck movement started. It all began at the foot of Mount Hood against a backdrop of fall foliage in the U.S. state of Oregon.
In Portland, congregations of food carts are called “pods.” The largest one, on 10th Street between Washington and Alder, consists of more than 60 carts. Secure a spot here and you’re made – in the foodie hierarchy, at least. No wonder Rades and Fitzsimons are so cheerful. Serving food out of trucks can be traced back to the chuckwagons that accompanied the settlers traveling West along the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th century. Pods, the legitimate successors to a group of circled wagons, have been around since the 1980s, when the first gourmet cooks starting working out of carts. Since “business in the right of way” was prohibited by law, they gathered on parking lots instead of streets, and turned their counters to the sidewalk. At first there were not many, but soon their number grew and the idea became a trend, spreading throughout the city. Since then, over-eating become the norm. With so many different foods to choose from, there’s always something to tempt you, even if you’re not hungry.
Best of food trucks
Heading out of town, we spot a white 1970s Chevy by the Willamette River. We slam on the brakes and go across to see what’s cooking. Street food in this no man’s land of railroad and pylons? Really? Luis Ochoa has this culinary stage all to himself and is preparing traditional Mexican food for – wait – for whom? He considers, then grins: “For the guys who look, slam on the breaks and ask.” A buddy of Ochoa’s owns the tire company and the premises, so Ochoa can park here. The mechanics are some of his best customers, in fact. Ochoa once worked as a maître de cuisine and a sous-chef, but something was missing. “In my Chevy, I’m cook, waiter, cashier and dishwasher all in one,” he says, “and you know what? I love it!” It may sound a little delusional, and lots of people talk like that in Portland, but perhaps it’s really true. Ochoa doesn’t have a license for the city, so he plies the industrial zone with tortillas, empanadas and Mexicola instead. (A couple of weeks later he will get his license and move to the Montgomery Park office complex in town.)
The general ambition of chefs around the world is to run a restaurant kitchen. In Portland, many former chefs become food truck vendors, go from top to bottom, rather than the other way around. Top and bottom are relative, a matter of perspective; in Portland, wherever you are happy is the top.
If you work hard and know how to cook, you will always land on your feet in Portland
Rick Gencarelli is familiar with both sides. He now has three outlets for his sandwich shop, Lardo, but he used to own a food truck. You can tell by the way he still treats customers: the buddy-buddy banter you only learn on the street. The likeable, full-service caterer with 120 employees has changed since those days, but remained true to himself. A year ago, he bought back his cart and now rents it out daily as a pop-up stage for cooks who wish to test their food-cart concept. “That way, they find out whether people like their idea. And, more importantly, whether they do themselves,” he says. Gencarelli wants to be a mentor, to help launch the next generation of street kitchens. While making sandwiches years ago, he used to ask himself what he really wanted to do, and then realized that was it: making sandwiches, the best in the city. He invented dressings, remembered his Italian roots, and created massive, juicy pastrami sandwiches. The lesson he learned: “If you work hard and know how to cook, you will always land on your feet in Portland.” He would never move away. Impossible, he says; and you can understand it.
Falling in love with Portland is like falling in love with a wonderful woman. You fall head over heels and your love never fades because you’re constantly discovering something new. Of course, Portland is becoming gentrified. Rents are rising and big companies are crowding out small businesses. Some call it the “new Seattle.” But Monocle magazine voted Portland the USA’s most liveable city. You have to fight for true love, and those fighting the hardest here are the cooks. They venture, fail, succeed; they are the engine that keeps Portland moving.
Liz Crain has to agree. We meet her at the Tasty n Alder – fine fingerfood, high prices. Crain used to be a waitress; today she’s a blogger and author. She wrote Food Lover’s Guide to Portland, organized the Portland Fermentation Festival and is the person to ask if you want to understand the hype. On the menu: focaccia, Korean chicken and pimientos in sea salt. The secret to Portland, according to Crain: First, anyone can operate a food cart because it doesn’t cost much. Second, everything grows in the Willamette Valley, so the location is perfect. Third, quality of life and social ties are the main reasons people eat. Fourth, Porlandians tend to avoid big chains and prefer to support the hardworking man on the street. “New restaurants, bars, cafés and carts open up here evey day. It’s an explosion!” Crain says loudly, startling a couple of nerds bent over a ricotta pancake.
To fully understand Portland’s food movement, you have to follow the ingredients. Portland has 23 farmers’ markets spread out across its districts, with at least one open almost every day of the week. Freshness is paramount, and access to it is a basic right. On a rainy morning in Shemanski Park, the place is packed with people buying lunch. There are Babel-like towers of cabbages and carrots, gleaming ripe tomatoes and melons the size of medicine balls. Joshua Gulliver, standing behind the Gathering Together Farm’s stand in his checkered shirt, looks like he was born into the job. Every Wednesday, he drives in from Philomath with seven pallets and drives back home again with two. The 300 kilometers at the wheel are worth it. “We have a unique public here, lots of cooks stocking up for the evening,” he says. Following his gaze, we spot a large number of chef’s hats bobbing in the crowd. Gulliver hails from Massachusetts originally, but he moved out west to Oregon because people here farmed the way he dreamed of doing it: growing seasonal, organic produce without pesticides and with a good conscience – and because Portland is one long party without the hangover the morning after. Kinda laid-back, kinda nutty. All options open but nothing a must.
And so here we are at Tidbit, enjoying a beer at the end of the day, which means nothing because we already had one this afternoon. Tidbit is the city’s after-work village. A meeting place for carts, craft beer and folk, the holy trinity of hipsters. Orders float hither and thither on the later-summer air: pizza for Al Pacino! Thai for Britney Spears! Name games are practically a national sport. It would be fun to watch and listen and drink forever, but then suddenly I hear: “Octopus for Mick Jagger!” Gotta go, dinner’s ready.
Beer and bikes – At Christian Ettinger’s craft brewery they go together perfectly.
St. Johns bridge
The view from the bridge is divine, and Cathedral Park is nice, too.
Hipster’s dream: A centrally located hotel in industrial design with a café and bar.
Late-night shopping: More than a million new and used books. Open until 11 pm.
Our city tips are on Foursquare, too
Moritz Herrmann, travel reporter, is from the city of Hamburg, where he attended the Henri Nannen School of Journalism. He lived in India for a year without finding his center, so he moved on, traveling to Las Vegas, Cuba, Brussels and Portugal for Lufthansa Magazin. He likes to bring home beverages from each country he visits, but never shares them with anyone in the editorial office. Moritz writes long articles for other magazines, too, on society, washed-up characters and sports.
Malte Jäger is a Berlin, Germany based professional photographer. In his work, he is mainly searching for human nature. What drives people to live their life the way they do? That’s what he tries to find out, understand and share with others. He started taking photos neither for technical reasons, nor because photography was his hobby ever since: He’s been using the medium photography to get the chance to look behind curtains which wouldn’t be opened for him if he wasn’t using his camera. And of course, he loves to meet and learn to know people. Since human behavior is what he is interested in, you will certainly find faces in almost all of his images.