Arts & Culture

The Street Food "Chowdown": Not Much Chow, Not Much of a Smackdown

By Lady Bird March 15, 2010

Last weekend's "Mobile Food Chowdown"—an annual event held this year in the shadow of Safeco Field—promised a standoff between street food vendors between Portland and Seattle—12 food carts from Seattle, and just four from Portland.

Veraci Pizza

Did it deliver? Not even close—not because the vendors' food wasn't delicious (most was), but because the lines, by noon, were Disneyland-long, providing a visceral illustration of why Seattle needs more street vendors (Portland, with its 450-plus food carts, simply didn't send enough to make up for Seattle's shortfall).

County and city regulators lifted a seven-year ban on street food downtown, in the University District, and near parks and schools last year. But onerous regulations—roadside vendors must install refrigerators, propane heaters, and three dishwashing sinks, among other equipment, if they want to serve more than precooked food like hot dogs and popcorn—continue to stymie Seattle's nascent street food scene.

King County doesn't keep a list of every vendor licensed under its mobile food licensing program (at least not one that I could find) but a Yelp search for mobile food stands yielded just six pages (compared to Portland's nineteen) many of them filled with places that aren't food stands at all (like the Subway at the downtown Convention Center, or the Filipino place in Pike Place Market) or hot dog stands outside bars. We do have our share of taco trucks. That's great—I love having a half-dozen trucks within walking distance of my house—but not enough to make up for the lack of other options.

That shortfall showed at this weekend's Mobile Food Chowdown. With only 16 vendors in attendance, nearly every line stacked up hundreds deep, with people waiting hours for spam sliders from Marination Mobile (Seattle), boxes of poutine (fries smothered in brown gravy and cheese curds) from Potato Champion (Portland), Korean burritos from Koi Fusion (Portland) and spicy hoisin pork sandwiches from Here & There Grill (Shoreline).The only line that wasn't stacked hundreds deep by early afternoon was the one for Chipotle Grill, the McDonald's-owned burrito chain.

(I'm told it's best to show up around 9:30, before the event even opens, but frankly, a kimchi burrito just doesn't sound that great first thing on a Saturday morning).

As a result, by the time I got through my first line, I was starving—hungry enough to wolf down a so-so Tillamook cheeseburger and a white-bean-and-basil veggie burger that looked like a hockey-puck-size version of the pellets they feed horses. Both were from Burgerville, the mediocre Portland-based chain (in my defense, I was trying to stick to Portland's non-corporate trucks, but their lines were by far the longest). The meat burger wasn't warm enough to melt the cheese, and the veggie burger, though tasty as those things go (more like a Boca Burger than a Gardenburger), was so dry it gave me cotton mouth. A vanilla shake tasted like fake vanilla flavoring; even my friend who never says no to a milkshake tossed it in the trash.

The menu at Here & There Grill

While I was waiting in line, another friend who happened by gave me a taste of Potato Champion's poutine. My reaction? Meh. The oddly sour gravy tasted like it had been made from a mix (a mix oddly heavy on apple cider vinegar?), and the curds didn't seem close to fresh—instead of squeaking the way cheese curds are supposed to, they just disintegrated. The fries, meanwhile, were mushy and semi-cold.

The line for Whiffies, a Portland fried-pie outpost that people rave about, was too long to even consider, and my friends gave up on Koi Fusion after standing in nearly the same spot for nearly an hour. So it was off to a couple of Seattle stands where, inexplicably, there was virtually no one in line.

First up was Dante's Inferno Hot Dogs, where I sampled a wickedly spicy veggie dog crunchy with fennel and topped with a pile of pickled jalapenos. Although the dog tasted nothing like a hot dog—and thus might produce grossout responses in people who aren't used to the texture of fake meat—I loved its veggie-brat-like texture and fiery kick. Finally, I tried a braised short rib sandwich on Columbia City Bakery ciabatta with horseradish cream and grilled onions from Shoreline's Here and There Grill. Easily the best thing I'd tasted all day (maybe all week), the sandwich had the perfect amount of spicy kick from the horseradish, a generous pile of mellow, spoon-shreddable slow-cooked beef, and a crusty white roll just thick enough to hold the whole thing together. The chickpea salad on the side—mostly there to make me feel virtuous after all that beef—actually disappeared faster than the sandwich.

The "chowdown," such as it was, was a draw: Portland's food, at least what I tasted, was inferior to places in Seattle I know and love (like Marination, Skillet, and Maximus/Minimus), but I'm willing to believe that a town with nearly 500 food vendors has it over Seattle in terms of both quality and variety, assuming you know where to look. The lesson for Seattle? Let down your hair. Loosen those restrictions. And let's become a real street food city. We've got lots of hungry mouths to feed.
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