"We should check out that vegan strip club,” is not a sentence you’ll hear in Seattle—but in Portland, it just means a trip to Casa Diablo, right next to Forest Park. Quirky dining is one area where Portland sure has a leg up on Seattle. 

And there’s another (less racy) distinction between the two food scenes. One obvious difference is Portland’s thriving food cart community. Between Southwest Ninth and 10th and Alder and Washington, a downtown pod—the largest in America—boasts over 60 permanent carts with options ranging from Kargi Gogo’s Georgian meaty dumplings to the Grilled Cheese Grill, whose burger’s “bun” is two melty grilled cheese sandwiches. Other pods are spread throughout the city. 

The food cart model is an economical route; and it’s affordable as far as opening a business goes. Aspiring chefs and business owners in Portland can often start with $20,000 to $30,000, where going brick and mortar demands upwards of double or triple that. 

Seattle has hundreds of food trucks, some nationally recognized, but nothing approaching Portland’s scale. It has a lot to do with regulations. Seattle’s Department of Transportation has a 12-page document spelling out rules and maps for where street-food vending is allowed (not within 50 feet of a food service business, 15 feet of any business entrance, or five feet of fire hydrants, parking meters, or other public utilities). In PDX, basically all you have to do is pass inspection.

Brett Burmeister, the owner of foodcartsportland.com, says Seattle is on the right path but Portland sets the standard. “Everyone is working to emulate us—this is one thing that Portland did right.” 

Will Seattle get it right soon? It’s getting there, but since the city council adopted Ordinance 123659, which streamlined the rules for street vending in July 2011, further simplification is likely years away.

Nationally, Seattle dominated the James Beard Awards in the Best Chef Northwest category in the ’90s. Lately, though, Portland has been getting all the critical indie-foodie-DIY acclaim. But who’s counting? We are. Since 2000, the Beard award tally has been Seattle eight, Portland five. Not a blowout—plus James Beard himself was actually born in Portland. And in Bon Appetit’s 2013 list of the country’s best restaurants, Seattle and Portland tie with one each—Seattle’s beloved the Whale Wins and Portland’s nouveau Italian spot Ava Gene’s. 

Seattle has hundreds of food trucks, some nationally recognized, but nothing approaching Portland’s scale. It has a lot to do with regulations. Seattle’s Department of Transportation has a 12-page document spelling out rules and maps for where street-food vending is allowed .... In PDX, basically all you have to do is pass inspection.

Our reputations may be neck and neck, but size matters. Seattle’s restaurateurs are finding success in large-scale bars and restaurants with themed decor and concepts—think the sprawling Von Trapp’s or the sea fare of Westward. Portland’s bigger restaurants don’t have the best track record; one 5,000-square-foot building was home to Pinot American Brasserie and then Corazon, and each concept sequentially failed. Then, when the building was parceled out into three smaller restaurants sharing a kitchen—Lardo, Racion, and Grassa—all three landed on Portland Monthly’s Best New Restaurants list for 2013. Kurt Huffman, partner in the trio and owner of Portland’s indie restaurant company ChefsTable, says, “In Portland, there seems to be a suspicion about big places with over 100 seats.” 

So we’ll give Portland that—the small eateries, sometimes so tiny they don’t even have seats. Oh, and the veggie hummus wraps to eat during a strip show.

This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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