Popcorn, pizza and pirogies were just a few of the many items that attracted throngs of hungry diners to the Sixth Annual Eat Mobile food festival and competition, a first-come, first-served, all-you-can-eat event co-sponsored by Willamette Week and OMSI.
This year, 50 carts answered the call and lined OMSI’s parking lot not just for the sake of competition, but also to celebrate the uniqueness and popularity of food cart culture. Thousands of people were on hand to sample the cuisine and find out who would take home the coveted “Carty Award” in one of three categories: the Judges’ Choice Award, the People’s Choice Award and the Style Award.
The judging panel was comprised of local personalities, business people and past Eat Mobile winners like David Mcintyre of Whole Foods, local man-about-town Byron Beck, Portland Fire Chief Erin Janssens, Gregg Abbot of Whiffies Fried Pies and David Stokamer of FlavourSpot.
Some might argue, including author Tiffany Harelik, that the culture of food trucks and food carts first took root first in either Portland, Oregon or Austin, Texas.
Harelik, a Texan and the author of the series Trailer Food Diaries, was in town attending Eat Mobile. Her perspective on the origins of the recent food cart trend is somewhat flexible.
“If I’m in Portland, I say ‘Portland’; if I’m in Austin, I say ‘Austin,’ ” laughed a partially joking Harelik. “I would say that those are the two meccas of food carts in the United States.”
“But of course, street food isn’t something new. It’s not something we’ve just started in the modern world: It’s ancient, it’s in every continent and every culture.”
One could say that mobile food is in Harelik’s blood. Her great-grandfather, a Russian immigrant, had a food truck in the early 1900s that he used to pedal bananas all along the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Eat Mobile was on Harelik’s “bucket list” of things to do. In the Portland edition of her Trailer Food series, she has included recipes and stories from Portland’s food carts, but until this year Harelik had never made it to the event.
“It was great! We run similar events in Austin and there are several other cities that do events like this. Willamette Week does a great job of pulling together some really cool food trucks,” she says.
“It’s curious to me because Portland has so many food trucks, why people would be willing to pay money to stand in line over and over and over again [at the Eat Mobile event] when you can just walk down the street.”
And many lines there were. All of the 3,500 tickets for the event were sold out and lines to sample the food from the various food carts, trucks and trailers were often 10- to 20-minutes-long.
“I think that really speaks to the level of interest that people have in trying the different types of food and having it in one cool place under the Marquam Bridge,” Harelik adds.
This level of interest has also had a lasting economic impact. Successful mobile food operations are often a stepping stone for chefs looking to “jump the cart” and open brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“It’s not everybody’s goal,” says Harelik. “Some people are completely content; some people get into restaurants and wish they had their truck back.”
But if food cart owners do want to “jump the cart,” Harelik says that investors are noticing.
EAT MOBILE 2013 WINNERS
“I get calls all the time from investors asking, ‘Hey, who’s the next up-and-coming truck [cart] chef, we want to get him [or her] into a brick-and-mortar.’ They see that and they want to play — they want some skin in the game.”
For Harelik, Eat Mobile was a complete success. The well-organized event gave her the chance to meet new chefs and connect with people that she hadn’t had the opportunity to meet.
“You get to actually eat with the person that is cooking the food. It’s really personal. It’s more like eating at your aunt’s house or your uncle’s house. Carts really have maintained their connection to their roots.”