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Cartopia in Portlandia

On the corner of Hawthorne and 12th in Portland there’s a mess of food carts where you can choose from deep fried pies, gravied taters with rubber sprinkled over the top, real wood fired pizza, ooh la la crepes, tacos, and maybe some other places I’ve forgotten as well as the ones who might’ve parked their trailers nearby since I was there this past summer.  Oddly enough, there was nary a hot dog man, who I’m sure can be considered the Original Cartster, in sight.  Or maybe not so oddly since the Food Cart Revolution has  become a Culinary Evolution and hot dogs aren’t part of the solution.

Whenever I’m in Portland, I’m amazed at the number of food carts parked around the city.  Why  hasn’t Seattle jumped on the alternative to chain fast food joints train?   Sure, there’s the occasional new cart every now and then, but with all the legal loops and tricked out refinery that seems to be the norm for obtaining a cart in the city, it’s like Seattle is to the Food Cart Revolution what Spain was to the Industrial Revolution.   Bogged down with government mandates and superior tastes, and willing to do without if they can’t get it their way.    In Seattle, food carts can only operate on private property and the only thing sold from the sidewalk carts are coffee, popcorn, and the OC’s goods.  You can’t even get an ice cream from the Good Humor Man Van in Seattle.  Srsly.

Not the case in Portland.  Portland is so revolutionary, the French, Italian, and Mexican carts are even allowing the Canadians a spot on the corner of International Cartopia Central.   Although, if I were a Canadian, I’d be revoking their poutine license after visiting the Potato Champion.  It can’t be gravy unless it’s got pan drippings, I don’t care what the vegans tell you.

My first clue as to why carts in Seattle aren’t as plentiful as in Portlandia is the flagrant absence of froof.  From the looks of it, the folks in Portland will attach a porch to any trailer big enough to hold a stove top and call it done.   But whenever Seattle does get around to opening a food cart, it’s an event.    Sure Skillet serves hamburgers.   But you won’t be getting a greasy street burger from that sleek, silver streamlined Airstream, oh no.  That’s grass fed beef with arugula and bacon jam.   Served with a side of golden beet salad, lentils, or potato leek soup.   Compare that to the Hula Ham whiffie from Whiffies Fried Pies you get in Portland and you can see where I’m going with this.

Whiffies Fried Pies sells fried pies from 11am to 3am Tuesday-Sunday.  They offer sweet ($3) and savory ($4) pies, as well as vegan pies.   A Hula Ham Whiffie is a fried pie filled with ham, pineapple and mozzarella cheese.  I’m a big fan of deep fried cheese, and I’d even go for the ham, but where did the pineapple come from, and aren’t the people of Hawaii getting tired of the Big Food Industry plopping a pineapple on a dish and associating it with cuisine from their state?  Same goes with avocados and California.  Want some California cuisine?  Apparently all you have to do is shove a slice of avocado on top and you’ve Californicated it.   The Spanish Beef (with brisket, cheese, and no doubt some kind of paprika powder) could’ve been an option, but I wasn’t tempted by the non-sweet treats because my mind goes to oven-baked crusts for savory pies.  As it was, the choice was simple–there is no better fried pie filling than cherry, and since the closest thing to that was a marionberry, we went with that.

Really, really good stuff.   The pie crust was light and crispy, the berries were tart, and the goo wasn’t overly sweet.  James recently told me that if he could have the flavored goo that holds the fruit together just slathered all over fantastical crust, he’d order that.

“What about the fruit?”  I asked, horrified, but secretly agreeing.  Somebody’s gotta act like the adult around here.

“Fruit’s for pansies.”

“You might as well get those gas station pies, then.”

“I said goo and crust, not glue and cardboard.”

Touché, pie man.

The crust on these Whiffies is so good, I’d be willing to eat a goo pie.   But since I have to live in the real world where things like that are frowned upon, I’ll be your Huckleberry.  Of the three food carts we visited on this corner, Whiffies was by far the best and my mouth is watering right now at the thought of having one.

Whiffies Fried Pies (Food Cart) on Urbanspoon

The reason the peanut butter and chocolate pie didn’t tempt me is because I’d just eaten a nutella and banana crêpe ($5) at Perierra Crêperie.

This cart looks like something that belongs at the Puyallup State Fair, which leads to my theory as to why cart food is so popular.  Folks no longer have to wait for the state fair or  drag their kids to mall parking lot carnivals risking life and limb on loosely configured rides to get amusement food.    Especially if it’s got nutritional values greater than circus peanuts.

Perierra definitely has the most extensive menu of any cart I’ve seen.  I’ve read some complaints about the food taking longer at this cart, but this is what happens when joints up the options ante.  I don’t remember our order taking too long, but I was busy watching the crêpe mistress (and oh la la, was she worth watching) use a tinker toy to smooth the batter over a steaming hot wheel of death to make a savory smoked salmon, cream cheese, arrugula and lemon crêpe ($8), so the time passed pretty quickly.

Judging from the way these women handle the cakes, any chances of identifying them via fingerprints is gone because  they’ll have burned their tips to smooth nubs by the time they’re done with this job.

They’re much prettier as they’re being made than they are once they’re folded and smooshed into a paper cone.

Typical french experience–more fun to watch than to actually eat.  To be fair,  I don’t like crêpes but this one was tasty and the people who served it to me were very nice.  It’s not their fault crêpes are pitiful substitutes for pancakes.

Perierra Crêperie (Food Cart) on Urbanspoon

The third cart (actually the first cart we visited) was Potato Champion.

What is the melting point of cheese curd, anyway?  Even with the brown liquid poured over the hot fries, the white blobs were not the least bit soft.  I was hesitant to try this because, well, look at it.  And it smelled just like it looked.   Before I became completely intimidated by it, James told me to stop being a baby and try it, because how could I call myself a woman if I let a box of potatoes win?   Reminding myself that ugly food needs love too, I took a bite and immediately began to reconsider my personal rule of ordering the most popular item on the menu the first time I visit a place.    I would’ve chased it down with a cup of coffee, but even my coffee wasn’t strong enough to kill the taste.   The culprit wasn’t really the unmeltable curd, and it definitely wasn’t the fries.  Like Agent Smith says.  It’s the gravy.   It was only after we’d ordered the poutine that we read a sign that said something like “vegan gravy only.”  Really?  Vegan gravy?   There ought to be a law against veganizing some dishes and gravy’s at the top, right below barbecue ribs.  The fries were good, so maybe the secret is trying the sauces.

Potato Champion (Food Cart) on Urbanspoon

I’m loving this mobile food thing and hope Seattle will help increase the cart population by having their regulations spayed or neutered.  In just one hour we tried three different places in Portland and only had to find one parking spot.   All of them were fairly tasty, but don’t miss the pies, man.  Mmmmm, pie.


  1. kari

    So glad you stopped in for the carts! Just one note about the Poutine…they do have three different gravies and maybe they were just out on the day you were there. You will need to try the regular kind then next time you are in town. Poutine btw, is a traditional Canadian dish and many places serve if differently. Being Canadian myself, I have been on a quest to find the best out there.

  2. Natasha

    Thanks for stopping by and for the tip, Kari. PC did have a sign that they only had vegan gravy that day, so maybe next time I’ll get to try the meatier goods. I do like to roll my fries around in the meat juices when I get steak frites, I think I just expected it to taste like that. Let us know when you find the best poutine out there so we can give it a try.

  3. When I was in Portland, interestingly, I ended up in that corner as well!

    At Perierra Crêperie, on that day, it wasn’t operated by the ladies but a man. Regardless, the crepe was good. Agree with Kari about the poutine. If you are willing to give it another chance, rather than driving 250Km south, driver 250Km north! (Hint: Vancouver!!! :D )

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