Food carts have to hold themselves up to a higher standard. They lack the ambiance, presentation and drink specials that might allow a marginal restaurant to stay enonomically buoyant. No, when you are selling gyros on a street corner, you are forced to win over your clientele every single day. The exception being that woman boiling hot dogs in her shopping cart outside of the club Element in Hollywood; she knew that danced out, drugged out frenzy of rich kids will pay anything for food, even if its being sold by a homeless person. In this highly competitive world of mobile, bargain eats, who claims the crème-de-la-cart?
One such cart is parked along the bustling stretch of SW Alder Street in downtown Portland. Bike messengers, office types, culinary school kids and the unemployable (myself included) mix about as well as oil and water, yet all of these people can be found dining, smoking and lying together between Ninth and Tenth Street. The lunch rush is fierce as this eccentric group of people all jostle for ordering pole position. Bring cash, because even if cart vendors are paying all the taxes on the money they make and one is trying to wait in line for a half hour while you fumble around looking for your debit card, if they even take cards.
Now that spring is in fully swing, we conscientious Portlanders seek the vitamin D provided by sunlight and are choosing eateries that can provide outside, outdoor seating. And so like many mid-week lunches before, I peddle my way past aristocrats in top hats and homeless kids panhandling outside the library towards the heart of downtown. All the tables are spoken for yet I order my Super Lamb Gyro ($6), which includes tzatiki, onion, parsley, tomato and Greek feta in a fresh pita.
After I order and pay, two kids occupying a table decide to get up and leave. I sit and watch the shuffling and bustling groups of people whose paths have crossed on this murky, side street. My Super Lamb Gyro arrives in blanket of tinfoil and piping hot. The meat is warm, fresh and tactile, while the soft, pliable bread folds around my lips. The tomatoes were crisp and the tzatiki sauce was mildly tangy. Even after I was done eating my lunch, I enjoyed the rustling of trees, the sounds of the city and the hurridness of people busily going about their day.
Consider eating at a food cart next time you are looking for a bite on the go. Remember the food they serve has to be fresh because they can not hide behind the veil of “fine dining.” They must earn every customer anew, ever day and one gyro at a time. While I can not say with any certainty that Aybla’s Grill is the best cart in Portland, I do find myself eating there frequently. If nothing else, the sidewalk chairs provide a place to people watch Portlanders and smile as the pretty girls walk by.