After our one, glorious night at the McMenamins Kennedy School, we moved downtown to the Ace Hotel. When we arrived mid-morning, no one was on the streets, presumably because it was about 100 degrees outside.
At lunchtime though, people swarmed out of their offices and onto the streets for the Portland Food Carts - a phenomenon that exists, well, nowhere else that I know of. They might remind you a little bit of the food stalls at the County Fair, but they're right there on the street, they're only open during the day on weekdays, and there's nary a stick of fried butter in sight.
Most stalls offer up ethnic and regional specialities - Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican, BBQ, Pizza - and a few serve desserts or novelty items like cupcakes or quesadillas. Seems like a win/win for the vendors who are able to run their businesses without high overhead, and patrons who benefit from a plethora of affordable dining options.
We went to the pod (the local term for a group of carts) at 5th and SW Stark, just a few blocks from the hotel. There were lots of options to choose from, including pizza from Give Pizza a Chance...
Southern fried goodies from the Swamp Shack...
as well as a variety of Korean, Indian, Mexican and other Asian options. I sailed past all of these though, in favor of something I had read about in my pre-trip research - a Czech specialty known as the Schnitzelwich, served up by the Tabor cart. As you can see, a few other people had the same idea.
The Schnitzelwich is a winning combination of pounded, breaded and fried pork or chicken "schnitzel," stuffed into a crusty roll with a leaf of crisp lettuce, sharp and creamy horseradish spread, and a slightly sweet bottled Hungarian red pepper relish known as Ajvar. The juicy meat with its crunchy crust, the horseradish cream and cooling lettuce, together with the little bit of sweetness from the pepper relish make for a fabulous hand-held meal.
Though I haven't tried them all by any means, based on the lines and the fact that it appears on almost every top Portland eats list, I think's safe to say that the Schnitzelwich is one of the best options the food carts have to offer. If a breaded and fried piece of meat is not on your diet, they offer variations such as the "Nakedwich," with everything but the breading; a Schnitzel Salad, without the bread, and a cheese or eggplant sandwich. I am also told they make a mean Goulash.
The Ace Hotel is in the center of town, a block from Powell's books and adjacent to the Pearl District. The lobby features funky, cool decor and lots of remnants of the former life of the building, including a tiny elevator that is slower than molasses. That was ok though, because it gave us a chance to enjoy this charming artwork in the stairwell...
The paintings in the room on "wallpaper" made of pages from an old dictionary were interesting too, though I quickly grew tired of James quizzing me on the meanings of obsolete words I'd never heard before. I also liked the cast iron freestanding bathtub, and the fact that the doors had actual metal keys - though that did mean we had to remember to lock the door behind us.
It had a great crowded and lively vibe - enhanced by an after-hours appearance of a bride in her wedding dress with her groom.
The kitchen was churning out lots of these burgers and fries, and though they looked good, ours was underseasoned and overcooked. I couldn't tell if it was because it was late night happy hour (and thus they assumed we were all drunk and wouldn't care) or if the food just isn't very good. The people across from us at the giant communal table sent their food back, so that isn't a very good sign. Cocktails were excellent though, so maybe this is just a place to go for drinks. For a quick bite during the day, the Kenny & Zuke's deli just outside the building looked like a great option, though we didn't get a chance to try it.
On the other side of the lobby is Stumptown Roasters - Portland's most famous source for serious coffee.
They roast their beans lighter than some, and the full, rich flavor comes through without any bitterness. For this reason the coffee needs very little (if any) cream. Somewhat remarkably, they french press their coffee and store it in vacuum carafes instead of using a drip maker. Since most of their customers order espresso, that may not be as onerous as it seems.
We started both of our mornings there with some latte art and surprisingly good croissants from a local supplier whose name I didn't catch.
I loved their cups and saucers - they're standard brown Nuova Point Italian porcelain, but with a little golden horseshoe hidden inside and under the cup like a cheeky good luck symbol.
order some to brew at home. I recommend you treat it gently though - grind it with a burr grinder and brew in an espresso machine, french press or vacuum pot. If you grind it in a standard grinder and dump it in your cone filter coffee maker you just won't get the full effect - as I sadly learned the hard way on my return home.
SW 5th St & Stark St
1022 SW Stark Street
1022 SW Stark Street
Portland, OR 97205
Coming up - prizes for the Food 4 Kids donation drawing!