On a crisp November day, paradise descends, somewhat unexpectedly, onto a Portland park bench.

It’s near to 3 p.m, and the Willamette Valley skies are dried into a blank eggshell slate. Underneath the metal lip of a cluttered red-and-yellow food truck, a Thai woman hauls a portable heater from her kitchen shelves.

“For your hands!” she says, smile breaking wider than the Columbia River.  “It’s so cold.”

This little Canadian doesn’t break it to her that the 10 C weather feels balmy.

But this is what really warms my heart: there are but a handful of surface parking lots in Portland, and most that exist are ringed ’round by carts like hers, portable (but mostly permanent) cubes of metal and wood cooking up a cornucopia of global fare.

Food cart paradise at 5th Avenue and Stark Street.

In this block alone: three Thai carts, a Czech comfort food vendor, not one but two Korean-Mexican fusion joints (?), some Chinese, a Hawaiian BBQ, a Lebanese eatery, the requisite taco bar and a couple of boffo burger hawkers. Some carts have cute little open-air seating areas; others unceremoniously brown-bag it.

Sitting, eating and talking is a far more fun use of surface parking space than parking.

For most purveyors, it’s a lunch business — and business is booming.

There are almost no fast-food restaurants in Portland. Correction: these are the fast-food restaurants in Portland. With over 400 carts dotting the downtown area, street food is one of Portland’s most beloved cottage industries.

Oregon newspapers and magazines devote regular time to reviewing the colourful carts. A whole website helps hungry residents navigate the food-cart scene. Wikipedia’s entry on “food carts” is dedicated to Portland — and you policy-types may find it worth a read for a look at the relaxed inspection and tax regime that allows the cart culture to flourish.

The beauty of this wee economic engine is that it extends beyond the carts themselves. As I understand it, the dominance of food carts over fast-food chains has propped up local produce suppliers; one Portland bicycle courier specializes in food-cart food delivery.

Delivery from a food cart?

Perish the images of limp and greasy fries that dot the Winnipeg food-cart scene — though you can find those here too, if they tickle your fancy. For the most part, like the rest of the food culture in Portland, freshness is the key word here.

Freshness, and affordability.

Eight bucks bought me my paradise on that crisp Portland afternoon. That was enough for two giant salad rolls stuffed with crisp veggies and slathered with peanut sauce (which I promptly spilled all over the bench), a cute box of sticky rice, a bottle of water and a steaming bucket of the most tantalizing tom kha soup I have ever tasted.

There were more vegetables in this pail of soup than in the entire menu at McDonald's.

This is heaven.*

My next question: how do we bring this heaven to Winnipeg?

It’s no secret to my friends and Twitter followers that Portland is my favourite place on this continent. Often overlooked, the town is a literal shining city on the hill: beautiful, fresh, exploding with good ways to live.

But my love is more than that.

I love Portland, because I love Winnipeg. And in Portland, I see shades of my prairie birthplace, I see visions of what Winnipeg could become.

Because we can’t really compare ourselves to Toronto, or Vancouver. We are a far cry from New York, or Montreal. But if we had the vision, and if we had the will, we could be like Portland.

And in the next few blog entries, I will endeavor to convince you why we should, and why — as I maintain — Portland is the best blueprint for what a modern, mid-sized North American city could be.

To be continued.

*And if your heaven requires a post-meal cigar, Portland has you covered there too: even tobacco gets sold in trucks in Portland:

This is the most un-Canadian thing you'll see in all my Portland posts.

  • http://twitter.com/sengsuriya Sophia

    Love this post and completely agree with Winnipeg’s potential.

    I spent a short weekend in Portland and miss the free transit, books, coffee, and food already. 

  • http://www.nothinginwinnipeg.com Melissa Martin

    I know right, it’s like WHY IS PORTLAND SO PERFECT OMG every time I leave.

  • Pingback: The Portland Diaries, Part II: Shining City On The Hill » nothing in winnipeg