When food writers from beyond the Pacific Northwest chronicle Portland's food carts, they tend to gravitate toward the whimsical and precious. They write about the parked carts selling poutine, fried pies and seaweed caviar.
But just beyond the city's gentrified edges, there are a number of Latin vendors serving up dishes designed not to inspire Kickstarter campaigns, but to staunch nostalgic cravings for homeland cooking. Nick Zukin of Mi Mero Mole this weekend kindly introduced me to a few of his favorite carts, all of which served more exciting central American food than I've yet found within striking distance of Seattle's urban core.
La Costera Mariscos
17331 S.E. Stark St.
When I lived in Tucson, there were lots of Mexican seafood restaurants. And there were plenty of taco trucks (which, in those unenlightened days, were still regularly called "roach coaches" in print.) Yet I don't recall the twain ever meeting, which is why I was especially excited to visit La Costera, an ambitious operation that owner Rene Biuiano launched in hopes of earning enough money to put his four children through school.
The menu at La Costera is awesomely long: Our snackaround had started with a warm-up appetizer of two ice cream cones, so we decided to skip the heavier cooked dishes, but Biuiano serves seven different shrimp entrees, in addition to various fish and oyster preparations.
La Costera's shrimp ceviche may not rival what's served on Mexican beaches, but it's a lovely compendium of cucumbers, tomatoes and bright pickled onions. The shrimp tasted clean and fresh, and exactly right on an 80-degree day.
18340 S.E. Stark St.
I'm always on the lookout for a better answer than "Nope" to the frequently-asked question, "Is there any food you don't like?" So I'm indebted to Zukin for ordering tejuino from an agua fresca stand at the bustling Oregon Flea Market, where sellers hawk everything from studded aquamarine jeans to karaoke machines. I'd never before tried the beverage, which is made from fermented corn and brown sugar, and served over ice. No offense to the good people of Jalisco who adore it, but I'm not yet sold on the drink's sweet, dirty-sock funk.
A few steps from the tejuino counter, we found terrific lamb barbacoa, cooked in maguey leaves and served in massive heaps atop soft housemade tortillas. The lamb was threaded with flavorful fat, and took beautifully to a shake of salt and squeeze of lime.
10175 S.E. Stark St.
The most popular pupusa at this El Salvadorean cart is stuffed and smothered with avocado. But Zukin and I preferred the loroco (a flower bud) pupusa, filled with tangy white cheese. The corn-forward pupusa was crisp and greaseless, with an oozy, chewy center. What makes La Cocina especially memorable, though, are the accoutrements: I loved the habanero sauce, packed with floral heat, and the ensalada, a sippable stew of pineapple, watercress and apples. If you think a margarita is the most refreshing Latin potable imaginable on a warm summer day, you've never drunk an ensalada.
10175 S.E. Stark St.
It hardly seems fair that pizza and burgers are served everywhere in the world, but panuchos are limited to the Yucatan. Fortunately, the Mexican diaspora means the snack's now served in places like Portland. The panucho's defining element is its supporting tortilla, puffed, split, smeared with black beans and then reassembled and returned to the griddle. It's a triumph of flavor and crunch. At lesser panucho joints, all the rest is commentary, but Antojitos tops the curled base layer with a spectacularly juicy cochinita pibil.