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Trolleys and Buses and Food Carts, Oh My!

Thursday 8 September 2011

Another year, another Labor Day Weekend in Portland.

Last year, at the start of our first trip to Portland that extended outside the airport (love PDX!), we took a cab into town. We are ex-urbanites; if one lives in a large city, One Takes A Cab To (/From) the Airport. That’s just The Way It’s Done.

But not in Portland. Portland has a clean, fast, well-lit (big windows and bright interior lights) light rail system (they call it Max; aw, so cute!) that actually seems to run on time, not be covered in litter or graffiti, and runs mostly above ground (so much more pleasant than a subway). So having taken Max from the city to the airport last time (i.e., it was no longer some scary new thing),  this time we took Max from the airport to the city. It was a very easy trip, definitely longer than a cab (about 40 minutes, vs. 20 for driving), but also much, much cheaper. Since we knew we would be traveling by bus/trolley/foot all weekend (no cabs!), we got 7 day all-zone passes for the TriMet system. But that gave us 7 days (our whole trip) of unlimited transit use for the cost of the one cab ride from the airport. Score!

This time we arrived in Portland in time for lunch, on a (working) weekday. That means food carts!

Now, to explain to our East Coast brethren: “food carts” in Portland are not the same as the classic “food carts” in NYC, which are often small, one-man affairs that serve a very, very limited menu (hot dogs, frozen lemonade, whatever). Nor are they the same as “taco trucks” or “roach coaches”, self-propelled kitchens on wheels that roam from place to place during the day. Food carts, in Portland, are small trailers, anywhere from about 6′ x 8′ up to about 12′ x 20′ and all tall enough to stand in. They are grouped in “pods” (just like dolphins, so Portland!), and remain parked full-time in their chosen spot (at least for a while). Their menus are those of a small restaurant–lots of Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, BBQ, Greek, burgers-and-fries, a few vegan/vegetarian options. The main downtown pod is at Alder and 10th SW, within easy walking distance of Pioneer Courthouse Square and all the shops and hotels downtown. It’s about 30 or 40 carts, arranged around the perimeter of two parking lots (most of the pods are located at parking lots, like lampreys on sharks). There are lots of other pods spread around town, anywhere where there are enough businesses to support them. We chose two based on recommendations and a quick scoping-out of the options: Wicked Wings (Washington, between 9th and 10th) and Nong’s Khao Man Gai (Alder, between 10th and 11th).

Wicked Wings does fried chicken wings, plus sandwiches (fried chicken) and fried pies. Sauces for the wings range from “Sticky Sweet” (very mild, all sweet) to “Hotter than Hell” (what do you expect?). We missed the fried pies, but the wings, with the “Black Berry Bomb” sauce, were just right: succulent on the inside, crispy on the outside, just right for catching the sauce but without getting soaked through.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a different kettle of fish. Khao Man Gai is street food from Thailand; it’s very similar to Hainanese Chicken. Whole chicken is poached, then the broth used to boil rice with Thai herbs, then all served with a strong fermented soy bean pureed with garlic, ginger, chilies, vinegar, and sugar. It’s served with a traditional light broth as a palate cleanser. I am not usually one to enjoy poached chicken (too bland, phah!), and rice is not my favorite starch.


This stuff is incredibly good. The flavor of the chicken and the herbs and the (very mild) spices it is cooked in permeate everything. The sauce is the complete opposite side of the spectrum, an ideal counter to the mildness of the chicken: earthy, spicy, sweet, tangy, all at once. It’s a great combination.

Both of these are highly recommended. Since carts are occasionally moved around, it’s worth checking the Food Carts of Portland site for their latest locations.

So after lunch and before dinner, we have a couple of hours to kill. Time to break out the passes and head into the wilds of South East Portland, to the Perfume House. Yes, this really is a house that has been converted to a shrine of fragrance. I can’t tell you how many there are, but Herself was suitably impressed in ways that normal perfume counters don’t impress her. If you get excited about the impact of synthetic replacements for oak moss, this is the shop for you. Here’s a photo of the lobby:

See their site for more photos of the interior. If you’re into perfume and on the West Coast, this is definitely worth a stop.

By the time we were done at Perfume House, it was just about time to catch the bus to our next stop, dinner at Cabezon. This was one of the longer trips, and reveals the hub-and-spoke nature of the Portland transit system–it’s great for downtown-to-anywhere or reverse, but crosstown can get complicated. In this case, we transferred twice, from one spoke bus to a crosstown and then to another spoke. Travel time, with waiting, about 30 minutes.

What was interesting about the trip was the extent to which the Portland bus routes go right through residential neighborhoods, and really nice ones, not just along the major arterial streets. It’s not that there aren’t larger streets very close by; this must have been a deliberate decision by who ever planned the routes.

After a bit of looking around at the end (reminder to self: more use of Google street view for these trips!), we found the restaurant, on the edge of the Hollywood-Rose Quarter in North East. We had requested an outside table; it turns out that “outside” means “sidewalk” in this case, and as the adjoining street (NE Sandy) is a busy road, we opted for inside (which was cooler anyway).

Cabezon has something to do with a Pacific coastal fish that looks ugly but tastes great. The restaurant Cabezon is kind of like that; it’s attractive in a rough way, but you’re there for the food, not the decor.

The food was definitely worth the trip.

We started with the chive blinis and the basil-wrapped shrimp. The blinis were those tiny, pillowy soft pancakes, topped with trout (red) caviar and crème fraiche. So tender, so rich, so good. We could have eaten another pile or two of them.

The basil-wrapped shrimp had us at first–we saw the shrimp, but not the basil. Then we noticed that the basil had become translucent, and baked (fried?) itself onto the shrimp, like a second shell. Very nice.

For mains, I had a special of local sturgeon, and  Herself had the chicken pâté plate. She’s been eating liver left and right; neither of us can figure it out. But here’s a photo of her dinner:

A huge slab of pâté, crostini, cherries, and something pickled (celery? onions?). This is a dinner plate, so the portion is huge, and filling; it’s really designed as a big appetizer to be shared.

The sturgeon was also excellent. Correctly grilled, nicely moist inside. It was served on a corn soufflé, which didn’t float my boat, but that was a personal preference not a problem with execution. Photo:

We split a marionberry crisp with ice cream and an oat crust. Very nice.

Cabezon is medium-priced for a nice dinner out restaurant; mains run $20-$25 and appetizers $5-$10. A decent wine list, with lots of Oregon and Washington wines and enough European wines to cover any gaps. I’d definitely go back if I were in the neighborhood, or if I were downtown and had a more straight shot to and from on transit, but I might not do two transfers again to get there. Solid four stars out of five, and nothing to be ashamed of in that.

That about wraps it up for day one. Not bad: fly in, hotel, two meals, wander around a bit.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. bamasteve permalink
    Friday 9 September 2011 4:19 PM

    You have an amazing, readable writing style. Being completely selfish, please up the frequency and volume (both engineering terms that you can relate with) of your posts.


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