One of the hard things about being a tourist in a larger city is narrowing down where to spend your time and your tourist dollars. With so many fantastic tours, museums and other attractions, it is a hard task indeed. But, when I found a Portland food tour, I knew I had to sign up.
In Walla Walla last winter, I discovered a walking food tour on one of my last days there. I’d never even heard of them before that. It sounded interesting and unique. I even put it on my list for the next time I’m in Walla Walla. But, once I discovered them, I kept an eye out for other food tour opportunities in my travels. And when I was researching the Portland area—viola—I found many.
The difficult part? Choosing one. Truly, there is a food tour for everyone. If you like micro beer, there’s one for that. You want to visit a beautiful waterfall and drink wine? There’s one for that. Love chocolate. Yep, guaranteed to leave you in a sugar coma.
But the one that caught my eye was a food tour of food trucks. For all intents and purposes, I haven’t had the food truck experience.
The Tour Company and its Owners
Before I tell you about the tour itself, let me share the cool story of how Portland’s Eat Adventures Food Tours started. Angie moved to Seattle after graduating college and began work in an architecture firm. The company recognized her talents and soon she found herself on the management track. Like so many of us, she started to itch for more. More life, more adventure. More than 9 to 5.
She decided to leave the job and travel. Her idea was to liquidate everything and travel until the money ran out. Then figure out the next step. She told her boyfriend, Allen, he could come if he wanted but she couldn’t not go if he didn’t.
He went and they traveled for 2.5 years, including six months in South America and six months in Asia. In the middle of the travels, they came back to the US to attend a wedding, ended up traveling the US in a van for six months.
Angie says when she came back she knew two things. One, she didn’t want to return to corporate life. And, two, she wanted to move to Portland.
Somewhere in there, she and Allen got married and got the idea to start Eat Adventures. They’ve had the business for almost ten years and love it.
I am confident all their tour guides are great, but I felt especially lucky on our tour because Angie wasn’t scheduled to be our tour guide. But things happened and so she was.
We met at one of the downtown hotels. I was curious if they were associated with the tours but learned they were not. They were simply gracious enough to serve as a meeting place. Smartly, when Angie ends up with extra food (like the pastries she brought us at the hotel to start the day), she shares it with the doormen of the hotel.
We were a group of five plus Angie. It was a great size. It was yours truly, obviously, plus two of my RVing friends who were in Portland. Last, there was another couple from San Francisco who flew up for a weekend getaway. I learned that when they are in a new city, they always do a food tour. For them, the food speaks to the heart of the city and they find it to be a great (and yummy) way to learn about the location and the food.
Isn’t that a cool idea?
Food Trucks in Portland
There are more than 700 food trucks in Portland. That’s astounding.
Do you know what they call it when you have three food trucks together? I know it sounds like the beginning of a joke but it’s a real question. I don’t know if this is a Portland thing or an everywhere thing but three or more food trucks together are called a pod. Nearly all the food trucks in Portland belong to a pod.
The oldest pod in Portland is the downtown pod. If you want in that pod, the wait list is a year. The unique thing about the downtown pod is that it’s without intentionality. Whoever is next on the list gets in.
What does intentionality have to do with pods, you might wonder? Pods are not merely food trucks with geography in common. They are a community. As a true community, vendors understand that the health of the pod is dependent on the success of all pod members.
One way the interdependent relationships manifest is by ensuring menu diversity. No repeats.
Let me share a story that illustrates this idea. One vendor in a particular pod focused on southern comfort brunch. Biscuits, gravy, grits, etc. Because it was brunch, she also served coffee. But when a coffee food truck moved into the pod, she stopped selling coffee because coffee wasn’t her focus.
Tongue in cheek, it’s why Portlanders sometimes call their town, SupPortland. Remember this term because in a future post about another adventure in Portland, I decide to test the accuracy of the moniker.
The Food Truck Stops
Eat Adventures offers both walking and driving food tours. The food truck tour is a driving one, though we walked to our first stop from the hotel.
Stop #1: Grilled Cheese Grill. Their motto is fantastic.
Come by for a taste of your childhood. (Unless your childhood sucked, and then we’ll let ya have a taste of ours.)
The owner worked at a food shack on the New Jersey shore during high school. Two little kids stuck with him. Each day these two kids—a preschooler and a kindergartner—would come order a grilled cheese. Later, their mom would come down and pay.
He named two sandwiches after this strong memory. The Kindergartner is a plain grilled cheese. The preschooler is the same, except with the crusts cut off.
We sampled the Kelsey, a basil pesto with Tillamook cheddar cheese and the Hot Brie with brie, roasted red peppers and mustard. Tillamook, in case you don’t know, is an Oregon cheese. Several people recommended the Tillamook Creamery Tour in Tillamook (town).
At the end of the tour, Angie asked us each to name the favorite thing we tasted. Mine was the Kelsey. It may have something to do with almost never making grilled cheese myself so it really was a treat.
That said, our next stop was a very close second for me.
At Stop #2, Bo Kwon’s Koi Fusion, we sampled Korean tacos. It was served with beef but I’d told Angie that I don’t eat meat so the vendors made adjustments. My Korean taco was served with marinated tofu. It was amazing. As a side dish, the group was offered kimchi. Some of us tasted it, some didn’t.
Angie said, she finds most people either love or hate kimchi. Middle ground doesn’t exist. Turns out I’m in the former. I loved it, though it was a tad too spicy for my palate. Yep, my first food tour came with another first, the first time I ever tasted kimchi.
The “fusion” in Koi Fusion is Mexican. So, they serve Korean-Mexican fusion.
Life Cycle of a Food Truck Business
According to Angie, a typical food truck business goes something like this: Work like crazy, alone, for the first two years. Making it through the first winter is the biggest test because business slows down considerably. Getting through a first full year, just like with a traditional restaurant, is a really good sign. Year three is generally when the first staff person is hired. From there, a really successful food truck has to start thinking about managed growth—additional food trucks, moving to sticks and bricks, products, etc.
She told us this at Koi Fusion because Bo Kwon’s story follows this path. Today, he runs multiple food trucks and a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
His story is a little bit unusual in how he came to it though. Once he decided a food truck was the way to go, he purchased a local Mexican food truck. As he tells it, “I literally walked up to this lady and said, ‘I want to buy this cart from you, but only if you let me work for free for six months and teach me everything you know.’”
That’s what happened.
Back to the Tour
Stop #3: Olivia’s, Wonderland of Taste. Nick started in the restaurant business at the bottom, at as a dishwasher at the age of 15. He worked every job available in a restaurant, all the way to head chef and manager.
Olivia’s is his first food truck (we never learned who Olivia is or was) and when we visited him, he’d just passed the two year mark. A very good sign. He also has a couple “best of” honors. I’m betting he’ll be around for the long haul.
We were served one of his signature dishes, a deconstructed Philly Cheesesteak, called the Philly Bowl. As you can tell by the name, it is served in a bowl, not as a sandwich. Perfectly prepared potatoes replace the bread of a traditional Philly Cheesesteak. He even told us the trick to the potatoes. He boils them until done, firm but done. Then flash fries them to a golden brown and crispy.
Atop the potatoes are meat, veggies and a cheese sauce. Since I’m new to not eating meat, I’ll tell you the steak smelled amazing. My fellow eaters said the steak was fantastic. Mine came loaded with extra veggies to replace the meat.
Nick’s was in the Piedmont Station pod and the pod had a cool setup. It was an old gas station. Turns out gas stations are kind of perfect for a pod. Why? Because developers stay clear of them. Once they start digging there will be so much to deal with—soil samples, cleanup, underground gas tanks, etc. But pods don’t dig.
Additionally, gas stations have restrooms. Most other pods have a port-a-potty. The place where the pumps used to be often has overhead cover. At Piedmont Station, this area was set up for seating. You can see how appealing this place would be on a rainy day. And even better, gas stations that also did mechanical work will have an old garage. That area serves as indoor seating.
Stop #4: The Viking Soul, whose tag line is Nordic Street Eats Since 2010, resides in The Bite in Belmont pod.
They make lefse. Never heard of lefse? It is a Scandinavian holiday treat. It looks like a tortilla in color and shape but the primary ingredient is potato. Traditionally, it is sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, rolled up and eaten.
Megan grew up eating lefse. She is the “Viking” in the name. She and her partner, Jeremy, started tossing around the idea of operating a food truck. Around the same time, they introduced the other to their families. Megan took Jeremy to meet her family for the holiday. He was not familiar with lefse, got hungry one day and found it. He treated it like a tortilla and filled it with meat and veggies.
An idea was born.
He is the “Soul” in their food truck name.
The most common structure for a food truck is a trailer. I’d say most all the food trucks look like the stereotypical food truck. The Viking Soul stood out because of its silver bullet shape. They run their food truck from a 57-year-old Streamline Duchess aluminum trailer (yes, it looks like an Airstream). The shiny silver food truck with their black chalkboard menu is a striking combination.
Our group sampled lefse wraps in the “savory” category. My non-meat one included Mushroom and Hazelnut Patties while the rest of my group got Norwegian Meatballs.
Of course, The Viking Soul also serve the sugar and cinnamon lefse.
And, if we weren’t full enough already, it was time for our last stop, dessert. Stop #5: Smaaken Waffle Sandwiches. Smaaken is a Dutch word for tasty. Aptly named.
Their menu includes a variety of sandwiches but we were there for the sweets. We each got two—a pumpkin one (it was October) and one with fresh blueberries and lemon curd. Both were heavily topped with whipped cream and served between two perfectly crispy thin waffles.
What I particularly like about the waffle desserts is that they weren’t too sweet, as can sometimes be the case with desserts. These were subtly sweet but it was really about the flavor of the stuffing—the pumpkin and the blueberry/lemon.
Then, sadly, it was back to where we started. The tour took about three hours and the time just flew by. There is no lingering. We ate, got in the van and went to the next stop, ate, got in the van and went to the next stop. I swear it moved at such a continuous clip that, if you’d asked me, I would’ve said we did the whole thing in an hour.
More than Food
Although, I’ve written about food trucks in Portland and all the delicious food we tasted, the tour was much more than those two things. It also was a tour of Portland itself. Our stops were in different sections of town and along the route, Angie provided history and information. It was a lovely balance of everything wonderful—learning, food, walking, riding and good company.
At each stop, Angie found us a table, got us settled then she would go up to the cart and bring the food back. As we ate, she told us about the food, the owner’s story and other tidbits. She provided bottled water for each of us at the start of the tour as none of the stops included a beverage. Although at one stop, we could purchase an adult beverage or an espresso drink.
Angie’s most frequently asked question on her tours is about the cleanliness of the trucks. People are concerned about eating from, basically, “the back of a truck.” Remember the term Roach Coach?
Angie said she finds them to be cleaner than bricks-and-mortar restaurants for two reasons. First, everyone can see inside as food is prepared. And, second, in such a tiny area, you have to be clean and efficient. There simply isn’t the room for sloppiness. As someone who lives in a very tiny space, I can attest to that statement.
The bottom line is that if you haven’t taken a food tour, put it on your to do list. And if you are in Portland, I highly recommend Eat Adventures. I’m sure all of Angie and Allen’s tours are awesome—and, no doubt the ones with beer or wine get everyone happy and loose—but it’s hard to imagine a better time than the food truck tour.
Finally, are you wondering about the title? Angie said it on our tour. Portland, apparently, is known as a foodie’s paradise. And, literally, people come to Portland for the food.
Have you ever taken a food tour? If so, what was your experience? Please share. I have so much more to share about my Portland adventures. Watch for those in the coming weeks.
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