Food carts weren’t always in the plan for the new Collective Oregon Eateries pod. Five years ago, when Mandy Kao started helping her in-laws redevelop the former Farm House restaurant on Southeast 82nd Avenue, the hope was to transform the space into the kind of sprawling Chinese banquet hall Portland hasn’t seen since Legin’s 2012 closure.

But Kao was wary. Her father-in-law, who also owns Om Seafood nearby on Southeast Powell Boulevard, was preparing to retire, and she knew a successful banquet hall would require a significant investment in time, energy and employees. Instead, she and husband, Hanry Ho, suggested something with a bit more Portland flavor: a combined food hall and food cart pod with room for two dozen small businesses, bright murals, live music and a full bar.

“Portland is a cart pod city, so we threw out an idea: ‘Why not do a food cart pod?’” Kao said. “And not just a food hall and cart pod, but a place for mural artists, musical art, along with everything else. And we wanted to provide a place for culinary artists who are passionate as well.”

Collective Oregon Eateries, or CORE for short, held its grand opening on Sunday, June 6, at 3612 S.E. 82nd Ave. with a dragon and lion dance, live music from the second-floor balcony, food from an impressive lineup of carts and an RV loaded with draft beer from one of Oregon’s best breweries.

But CORE isn’t just one of the metro area’s most impressive new collection of carts. It represents a geographical shift for new pods, one of Portland’s signature additions to the food world, though one moving farther and farther from the city’s center. After several high-profile pod closures close-in and downtown, several new cart clusters are opening on and east of 82nd Avenue. Collectively, they will bring dozens of new carts to neighborhoods with relatively few food options. Meanwhile, some of the metro area’s most dynamic pods, particularly Beaverton’s BG Food Cartel, are already found in the suburbs.

That’s a shift Kao and Ho were counting on when they first suggested opening a pod back in 2016. That year, Pine Street Market made its debut downtown with a half dozen micro restaurants, while Happy Valley Station opened with nearly 18 food carts wrapped around an indoor beer bar and dining hall in Clackamas County. The couple’s vision for CORE combined those two ideas with an alley-style layout, colorful landscape murals and more amenities for cart owners.

Five years later, CORE is humming with more than a dozen carts, including Puerto Rican-style Philly sandwiches at Papi Sal’s, crispy orange chicken at Kai’s Stir Fry, tender Hainanese chicken and rice at Jas, pretty plant-based sushi from the just-arrived Mitate and craft beers poured from Breakside Brewing’s “Winebeergo,” an RV originally earmarked for catering events. Kao and Ho, who went through three architects in planning the site, are taking a hands-on approach to picking each cart as well, including personal taste tests.

“We want to listen to food carts,” Kao said, noting that other vendors had considered joining pods where there were already five carts serving the same cuisine. “We didn’t want to put our tenants in that situation. We’re slowly moving carts in, but we have to make sure they’re the right fit.”

“We’re trying to provide a space that they can thrive in,” Ho continued. “This is not a food cart pod that can eventually be shut down. We’ve made the environment friendly, artistic space for the whole community. You can start your business here and have a layout for success.”

But the project is only half complete. As soon as they land on tenants, Kao and Ho plan to open the doors to the CORE’s newly constructed food hall, which now sits empty save for some glossy West Elm picnic tables. Indoors, CORE has room for as many as 10 micro restaurants, each with just over 200-square-feet and its own plumbing and electricity. Near the back entrance, Kao and Ho are building out a full bar. The parking lot could someday host a farmers or night market.

CORE (Collective Oregon Eateries)

CORE (Collective Oregon Eateries), a new food cart pod located at 3612 SE 82nd Ave., Portland, Ore., May 21, 2021. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

If you’ve been to CORE since it’s soft opening earlier this year, you’ve probably spotted Kai’s Stir Fry co-owner Danny Chan chatting with customers or trading free bites with fellow cart owners. Before landing at CORE, Chen owned Sumo Sushi, a sushi burrito cart at downtown Portland’s destination Alder Street pod that was displaced along with nearly 40 other small businesses two years ago to make room for a new Ritz-Carlton hotel.

“It’s so different from downtown,” Chan said, describing CORE. “There’s a bar. A place to sit indoors. And at the end of the day you want your business to last as long as possible.”

Chan, who has known the Ho family since he was a boy, originally planned to open a cart highlighting the birria made by longtime friend Jose Perez. But after learning that another Mexican cart was already headed for the pod, they switched gears to a menu of mostly Chinese-American dishes including orange chicken and drunken noodles in a cart named for Chan’s father.

The business partners have extensive experience in Chinese restaurants. Chan grew up in Chinese restaurants owned by his father and uncle in Vernonia and Tigard, respectively, with his first paid job coming as a busboy at Southeast Division Street’s 1,000-seat Legin. He later managed prominent local dim sum spots Wong’s King Seafood and HK Cafe. Perez, meanwhile, has two decades of experience cooking at Chinese restaurants in Arizona and Oregon, including Portland’s venerable Zien Hong.

“I was so surprised when he first started cooking,” Chan joked over the clanking sound of Perez wok frying noodles over a rush of high heat. “I didn’t think he was Chinese enough!”

Before it closed, the Alder Street pod was Portland’s oldest and largest food cart pod. Its closure followed those of several lower profile pods on the East Side, including Southeast Division Street’s Tidbit. Last month, Portland City Council set aside $269,000 in its new budget to help vendors displaced by the new downtown hotel relocate to a new North Park Blocks location. Chan hopes to reopen his Sumo Sushi at the new pod someday.

As close-in pods have closed, carts have developed symbiotic relationships with beer bars and satellite taprooms, while smaller pods have popped up everywhere from Sandy to Damascus. In Beaverton, the 3-year-old BG Food Cartel has taken on some of Alder Street’s old flavor, with a convenient walkable location close to MAX and dozens of interesting carts (including the old Frying Scotsman, which relocated from downtown Portland), only here with a small greenspace for kids and a pair of beer bars for adults. And east of 82nd Avenue, big new pods are planned for both Troutdale and Fairview, while Northeast 82nd Avenue’s upcoming Yard at Montavilla pod will add 17 new carts to a street that already has at least four pods.

CORE (Collective Oregon Eateries)

CORE (Collective Oregon Eateries), a new food cart pod located at 3612 SE 82nd Ave., Portland, Ore., May 21, 2021. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

Ten years after arriving in Portland, Abdullah Sulaiman and cart had secured spots for three of his Shawarma Express carts at the Alder Street pod. The last of those opened in 2018, in a parking spot for which Suleiman says he paid approximately $65,000 to secure a sublease, less than a year before all three were forced to leave.

Sulaiman carts landed at different pods throughout the city, one at CORE, a second at the Flipside pod nearby in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood and a third eventually joining North Portland’s new Cartside. But Sulaiman, who like Chan hopes to one day reopen a cart at downtown’s Alder-replacing Ankeny West pod, also dreamed of creating something more permanent.

“I lost a lot,” said Sulaiman, who fled Iraq in the early 2000s after his father, a translator for the United States military, was targeted by al-Qaida. “Downtown you meet people from everywhere, everyday. People from Israel, the Emirates, Japan, Korea. It was super exciting to be around all those tourists every day, making friendships with everyone. We don’t see many tourists now. But we do see neighbors, community. Bringing people together, that’s the difference. Now I want to do something for our customers and friends, and bring more of my culture through Iraqi food.”

So Sulaiman bought the lot once home to the Northeast 82nd Avenue Thai restaurant Bai Yok, then reached out to local developers Jeffrey and Kevin Dennis about building a cart pod on the property.

Before taking on their upcoming Yard at Montavilla project, the Dennis brothers built apartment buildings in Northeast Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood and in deep Southeast Portland. Even with the nearly year-old wait for permits, the Grant High School graduates say this new project represents a smart investment, and one that’s easier to accomplish outside the city’s core.

“As developers it’s a great business model,” Jeffrey Dennis said. “With our Hollywood buildings, we spent north of $4 million to build a 12-unit apartment building that is basically going to bring in the same amount of rent as here where we spent $400,000, and instead of dealing with renters who can sometimes be a challenge, business owners are easier to deal with.”

The Yard at Montavilla is shooting for a July opening at 8220 N.E. Davis St. with 13 carts already signed up including boba, beer, vegan tacos and two Thai carts, including one from Bai Yok, the restaurant that previously occupied the lot.

“Out here north of Burnside there’s a food desert with just a couple of fast food restaurants,” Jeffrey Dennis said. “Downtown has always been more of a lunch option, but you get out in the neighborhoods you’ve got businesses open for lunch and dinner too.”

And for their next project — a new style of pod with micro restaurants built into shipping containers — the Dennis brothers have been scouting real estate in Beaverton and Gresham.

BEYOND THE CORE

Here are 10 other food cart pods that either opened during the pandemic or plan to open in the near future.

Carts on Main

Hillsboro’s first food cart pod opened earlier this year, adding much-needed outdoor seating to the lot at 365 E. Main St. next to Amelia’s Mexican restaurant. Featuring Mad Greek Deli, Kama’aina and Up ‘N Smoke BBQ Pit, the new pod comes thanks to Boro Burgers owner Larry Riviera and the city itself, which chipped in $29,000 in funding from its share of the federal CARES Act, the Hillsboro News-Times reported in January.

Cartside

Originally intended as a pre-game option for Blazer games and concerts at the Moda Center (the name is a play on “courtside”), this petite pod and attached bar opened during the early days of the pandemic at 1825 N. Williams Ave. with waffle sandwiches, Korean comfort food and the excellent but sadly short-lived pasta cart L’Unico Alimentari.

Fairview Food Cart Plaza

Though the project has yet to be officially named, the City of Fairview is deep in the planning process for a new pod at the corner of Northeast Halsey Street and 223rd Avenue with up to 16 carts, an enclosed bar and dining hall, a play area, giant fork sculpture and more, the Gresham Outlook reported in March.

Hinterland

As first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive, this new pod taking over the former home of a Mount Tabor acupuncture clinic at 2216 S.E. 50th Ave. will feature a third outpost of local smash burger stalwart Burger Stevens among its half dozen carts and full bar. Target opening date: Mid-September.

Nob Hills Food Carts

After opening one month into the pandemic, this Northwest Portland cart pod across from the since-closed Ataula at 1845 N.W. 23rd Place has a solid lineup including tacos and mole from Tejuana Oaxacan, great burgers and fresh salads from Farmer & The Beast and a thoughtful craft beer lineup from the Pour House.

Scout Beer on Glisan

The latest Scout Beer location is expected to open soon with a craft beer counter and around 10 carts near Migration Brewing at Northeast 28th Avenue and Glisan Street, Eater PDX first reported. The roster is headlined by Poppyseed, a newer cart from Tim Willis (Le Pigeon) and Lissette Morales Willis (Baker & Spice) that has drawn notice for its braised brisket and its crunchy peanut butter and marionberry jelly sandwiches, the latter served on fresh-baked pain de mie.

Shady Pines

Found a block north of Pizza Jerk at 5240 N.E. 42nd Ave., this all-vegan food cart pod opened last spring with no-fish sushi from Sushi Love, Persian-influenced ramen from Safframen and almond milk-based mac and cheese from the Los Angeles pop-up Avocadamama. The pod has already launched a rising star in Dirty Lettuce, an entirely plant-based Southern restaurant that opened a brick-and-mortar location last month at 4727 N.E. Fremont St.

Troutdale Station

Few details have emerged about this new project at 151 S.W. 257th Drive near the gateway to downtown Troutdale, but if the website is any indication, the project should look a lot like its sister, Happy Valley station, which opened in 2015 with 18 carts wrapped around an indoor beer bar and dining hall.

The Yard Montavilla

The latest pod coming to 82nd Avenue comes from brothers Jeffrey and Kevin Dennis, who previously developed apartments in Northeast and Southeast Portland. The Yard, which is now shooting for a July opening at 8220 N.E. Davis St., will have around 17 carts, including two Thai options, vegan tacos from La Taquiza Vegana and craft beer from Scout Beer’s Joe St. Martin.

Zesti in Forest Grove

Though a handful of carts have sat on the lot at 2131 Yew St. for some time, Forest Grove’s new pod started to look, well, more like a pod last fall, when carts such as Los Pinchis started slinging bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dogs, The Feisty Greek & Him offered their Cypriot kebabs and breakfast burritos and a new bar opened with more than 30 taps of beer and wine.

Orange chicken from Kai's Stir Fry, a new cart at Southeast Portland's Collective Oregon Eateries pod.

Orange chicken from Kai’s Stir Fry, a new cart at Southeast Portland’s Collective Oregon Eateries pod.Michael Russell | The Oregonian

CORE FOUR

With more than a dozen carts, the Collective Oregon Eateries pod has a wealth of intriguing dishes and cuisines, from salt-and-pepper squid at Sou’s to wings at Chicken and Guns to vegan takes on Hawaiian fare at Shark’s Cove to seafood boils and creamy pastas at Drip’N Crab. Here are four dishes you shouldn’t miss.

The Jawn at Papi Sal’s

For first-timers, CORE’s must-order item is The Jawn, a $12.50 sandwich in the lineage of roast pork specialists like Tommy Dinic’s in Philadelphia, only here with crunchy chicharron, sofrito mayo and lechón in a nod to owner John Hatch’s mixed Puerto Rican heritage and Italian-American upbringing. The cart-baked sesame seed rolls are inspired by the ones served at Primo Hoagies, where Hatch used to work.

Kale chips at Summit Shack

For anyone missing the fried kale at Portland’s sorely missed Smallwares, the chickpea-battered kale chips ($5) at this easy-to-miss cart might help scratch an itch. The cart, which is better known for its sandwiches, including one with hot fried chicken and another with thin-sliced porchetta, comes from Andrew Sitnikov and Michael Paolino, two chefs with experience at Michelin-starred kitchens in New York City.

Orange Chicken at Kai’s Stir Fry

Panda Express fans, take note. Jose Perez, the wok master at Kai’s Stir Fry, is a chef with 20 years of Chinese restaurant experience. Here, he expertly cooks an array of Thai and Chinese-American dishes, including fried rice, noodles and fried chicken slicked in sweet-and-sour, honey-sriracha and orange sauces ($10-$12), that last one mixed with slices of real orange.

Soy-Sauce Chicken at Jas Kitchen

In Portland, the only name in khao man gai is Nong’s. But visit Singapore, and you’ll find a wealth of hawker stalls serving the dish, also known as Hainanese chicken rice. This cart, named for the first initials of owners Jeffrey Doung, Andy Kou and Sam Yos, serves a great version, with jasmine rice and a mellow ginger sauce. But I’ll return for the soy-braised cousin ($14), which comes with jasmine rice and meat as tender as Japanese chashu.

— Michael Russell, [email protected], @tdmrussell