Thinking about lunch in Portland? I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that there is no shortage of lunch options in Portland. The bad news is that there is no shortage of lunch options in Portland. Let me explain.

Portland’s tagline could very well be “Food Cart City.” With about 400 of these enticing culinary units (and an outstanding array of traditional dining options), Portland’s food scene is on fire. So, figuring out where to chow at noon certainly doesn’t leave you searching for ideas. Rather, it leaves you overwhelmed by possibilities.

We decided to tackle this dilemma.

Over the last few months we’ve made multiple visits to Portland’s food carts, providing us with the opportunity to experience many of them. Each visit, in honor of our “research,” we opted for a different approach. We’ve eaten alone; we’ve met others; we’ve been in a hurry; we’ve taken our time; we’ve chosen those with spiraling lines; we’ve eaten at some without a single other patron.

Viewfinder Tip: The best food cart finds are a product of research. Do your homework!

Use the following pointers to learn from our triumphs and mistakes and pick up some ideas for tasty options along the way.

Go in eyes wide open

If food carts bring to mind super cheap eats and quick service, think again – it’s not 2003! While certainly more cost-effective than their traditional sit-down counterparts, in most cases you’re not going to walk away with a $5 lunch.

Similarly, now that food carts are all the rage, expect a wait. Don’t go in with an eat-and-run mindset; you’ll only end up frustrated. We waited about 30 minutes for an order at our best food cart find, but it was worth it (see below).

Finally, be prepared to eat standing, sitting on a curb, or teetering on the edge of a filthy bench. When we had the time, we’d seek out a nearby green space for a bit more comfort, but that wasn’t always possible.

Do your research

Over the course of those recent visits to Portland, we often met friends with the idea that we would just randomly grab some food truck eats near our hotels. Those arbitrary picks didn’t end up being among our most positive.

Caanan ordering at Brunch Box

During one of those lunches with a friend, we decided we wanted to share three things. We agreed on one Mexican pick, one Middle Eastern pick, and one American pick. Only the American pick, a burger between two grilled cheese sandwiches from Brunch Box (plus a 20-minute wait), was a winner. That’s likely because it was the only place of the three that we had selected based on research. Conversely, our Mexican platter of enchiladas, rice, and beans was entirely disappointing and the Middle Eastern fare was just average.

In similar fashion, the only decent dish we had on another multi-cart visit came from a place we had researched and involved enduring a 30-minute wait for our order to be called. I can tell you, with no hesitation, it was well worth it. The food we had at E-San Thai – phad thai, pumpkin curry, and salad rolls with peanut sauce – was the best food we’ve had from a Portland food cart.

E-San Thai’s phad thai

Do your research; it’ll pay off!

Bring your friends and your culinary wanderlust

All of this talk about knowing what to expect and doing your research is not meant to squelch your experimental spirit. Portland’s food carts provide an ideal opportunity to sample some foods you don’t come across every day.

Scope out well-rated, unusual foods that you’d like to try and bring others along so that you can share.

Our next food inspired trip to Portland is planned. We are going to try the dumplings at Kargi Gogo, Pirogis at Eurodish, grilled cheese sandwiches from The Grilled Cheese Grill, and penne alla vodka from Built To Grill.

What have been some of your favorite unexpected food finds?