Damn, I am lucky to live in Portland.  This time of year always reminds me of that, and despite the monsoons lately, when the rain finally lets up, I take a look around, and wow, it’s green and luscious and amazing here.   I spent two years in Boston, and it seemed like it was winter one day and then hot, humid summer the next.  Oregon’s good at drawing out its springtime, making us all linger a little longer outside on our lunch breaks on those days where the sun actually sticks its landing.

It’s a great time of year for getting out to the food carts, too.  My most recent new taste obsession has been at the SomTum Gai Yang cart.  The cart offers several options, but most of it revolves around a combination of items with a spicy papaya salad called som tum.

According to wikipedia, som tum combines “the the four main tastes of Thai cuisine: sour lime, hot chili, salty fish sauce, and sweetness added by palm sugar.”  It is derived from a Lao dish, tam mak hoong, which makes a lot of sense to me, as the flavors reminded me of food I recall at my Lao friends’ houses in high school.

The salad is tangy and fresh – in addition to shredded unripened papaya, there are also crispy green beans, cherry tomatoes, and a good kick of spicy lime sauce (they ask how spicy you want it — I’m slowly building up my heat tolerance, but I find mild/medium bearable).

The Gai Yang part of the cart name refers to the Lao style BBQ chicken, which in this case was fairly mild which made it a good partner to the intensely flavored papaya salad.    Below is a picture of how this may be served as street food in Thailand — here in Portland, the serving was disappointingly not on a stick, but came still on the bone instead in small pieces.   A little plastic baggie of  sticky rice (which may be what’s on the silver tray below) also comes in the combo meal — I guess it’s cooked in the bag somehow.  It’s an unusual serving method, but I broke it up and mixed it in with the juices of the salad.

Gai yang cart in Thailand
Gai Yang Cart in Thailand, Image courtesy of Heinrich Damm (User:Hdamm, Hdamm at de.wikipedia.org)

The first time I visited this cart, I had the combo with the chicken, papaya salad, and sticky rice for $7.  The next time I was curious about branching out a little and went with the dish featuring salted egg & peanuts with the papaya salad, otherwise known as Som Tum Khai Kem, for $6.50.  Okay, this may not be for everyone, but I loved it.   The salted egg is a sliced up sodium-soaked hard-boiled egg.  It’s an odd taste, but I love salt, especially in combo with lime and spice.  This dish is also good for a lighter lunch – the crunch and spice will wake you up, and the papaya base makes it fresh rather than heavy.  So many Thai dishes (especially the curries)  come in such heavy portions over rice and are almost too much for the office worker to digest and stay alert!  I’ll definitely be stopping  back here on the (hopefully) hot summer days in Portland coming up.


Located on SW Alder, between SW 10th & 11th — just a few doors down from Nong’s.  Hours typically lunchtime, M-F.


A few weeks ago, I was able to head to Seattle for the baby shower of my dear friends, Cynthia and Nik.  Rumors say the little Mister is likely to come nearly any day now, as he has already begun to outgrow his surroundings, despite a May 12 due date.

I was called up last minute for cake duty, and I am pleased to note that if you are asked to bring cake on the Amtrak train for approximately 20 people, it’s not as difficult as one might imagine.

The best solution is to make 2 of Molly (aka Orangette)’s “winning-hearts-and-minds-chocolate cakes“, keep them in their tins in a tupperware, and then douse with fresh strawberries & fresh whipped cream upon arrival.   It wasn’t necessarily a baby shower cake, but I’ve found people get over the lack of pastels & overly sweet frosting when you put a delicious chocolate  cake in their faces.

While my cake made it safely and in a timely manner to Seattle, my return trip was not as smooth.

I had the unfortunate luck at the end of that weekend as I stepped into the train station approximately 30 seconds after they closed the train doors & refused to let me or another passenger on.  They did offer me a spot on the next train leaving at 5:30pm (the time was now 2:22pm).  *(and nicely did not charge me extra – try that one at the airport! I do love you still, Amtrak, even if you are stubborn)

So…I found myself with about 3 hours to kill in Seattle on a lovely sunny afternoon (ironically, I’d been bemoaning the fact that I’d be spending such a nice afternoon on the train).  Conveniently, Pike Place Market is a fairly short walk from the train station and a perfect place on a spring day.

Even more conveniently, one of my favorite specialty shops EVER is right behind the market — World Spice Merchants.  They have jars and jars of spices and blends from all over the world – many I’ve never heard of – and they encourage you to open the jars & take a sniff if you like.

The place feels like old Seattle to me — the floors are little funky and the bricks show through, the light filters in softly, and there is a tea area on the next level down.  It’s the Seattle I used to love as a teen – not the overly trendy, pricey, urbanized Seattle that sometimes feels like seeing someone you knew as a toddler now wearing too much make up.  The counter staff is exceptionally nice, and don’t complain when you order 1 ounce of 5 different spices (most of the spices have a 1 ounce minimum order; some have 2 ounces, especially the blends, I think).

This place is great for trying out new spices without committing to a full jar.  And, we all know we’re supposed to toss those jars annually for freshness, so why buy that much to begin with?  *(confession: I don’t toss my spices, I’m kinda thrifty at the expense of good taste).

On this lucky bonus visit, I got aleppo pepper, dried chipotle flakes, gomasio (Japanese sea salt/sesame seed condiment), and garam masala (Indian).   The aleppo (a dried & crumbled pepper from Syria) has been the star so far — it’s a lovely way to add heat without overpowering a dish.

Aleppo Pepper

Aleppo Pepper - image from World Spice Merchants webpage

I’d been nervous about the chipotle being quite hot as I am a little bit wussy about hot peppers, but I found it was perfect in the black bean soup I made this weekend.  Earlier this year, I went in on an order with a friend of Rancho Gordo beans – they are a farm that specializes in heirloom beans and shipping is a flat $8, no matter what you order so it’s worth ordering with a friend or two to split the shipping cost.  I got the sampler pack as it was my first order, and I wasn’t sure what to get.

I’ve only just started cooking beans from scratch — canned beans are so convenient, but I can tell the difference with the dried beans in taste and texture (and sodium!).  I was perusing the recipes on the Rancho Gordo website for ideas this weekend and decided to go with a variation on the vegetarian black bean chowder from Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks (a great food blogger with a focus on healthy recipes), as I wanted to try out my package of Midnight Black Beans.

Rancho Gordo Midnight Black Beans

Rancho Gordo Midnight Black Beans - photo from website

Here’s my spin on it – I decided to mix the tangy kick of the OJ with the toasty chipotle heat & smoky paprika.  Feel free to toss in whatever veggies around your crisper or lingering in your leftovers:

Black Bean & OJ Chipotle Soup

a glug of olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 shallots, chopped
1 tsp salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-4 small zucchini, chopped
1-2 carrots, peeled & chopped
~4 cups of Rancho Gordo midnight black beans, cooked and drained (I started with about 1/2 lb dried) or about 2 cans of black beans
1 (28-oz.) can crushed tomatoes
2 cups of orange juice
1/2 tsp dried chipotle flakes (could sub cayenne pepper or canned chipotles — use chipotles to your level of acceptable spicy-ness!)
1 tsp smoked hot paprika
good shake of chili powder & cumin — maybe 1 tsp each

Saute onions, shallots, and salt in olive oil in a large soup pot for about 5 minutes or till softened.  Add garlic after about 3 minutes, once the onions start releasing some moisture (I always overcook my garlic if I put it in at the beginning with my onions).  Add other veggies (zukes & carrots) and cook till softened.

Toss into the pot:  beans, tomatoes, orange juice, and spices.  Bring to a boil, reduce to low, and simmer (covered) for 10 minutes.  Add salt if needed.   I served mine with a little sour cream & cheese for topping, along with corn bread on the side.

Last night’s recipe via the web (a sweet-n-sour tempeh recipe) that I tried out was not so successful and resulted in a painful burn from honey (don’t ask!) and lumpy cornstarch.  So, not all internet recipes become princes, but this soup has royal status in my house.

In my family, like many, we show love through food.  My dad always has big plans for dinner anytime one of us kids come home.  My sister and brother and I swap food as gifts usually.  My brother gives me  home canned tuna, frozen salmon, and elk jerky – all of which he has caught himself and done the processing.  I bring my sister gluten-free treats from Portland, and she gives me tea or apple butter or something gluten-filled that she can enjoy vicariously through me.

I’ve carried on this tradition, so that a holiday or birthday for me is about the food.  What should I make you?  Where should we go out to eat?  One of my Valentine’s traditions has become this recipe – Grace Neill’s Chocolate and Guinness Brownies.  I began making this recipe when I first started dating my fellow, after he pointed it out to me in that week’s Food Day (2003 by the way, wow, how time flies!).

What else could say love like chocolate + beer?

Wanting to please him,  I decided to surprise him with this treat one night.  After eagerly pulling them from the oven, I thought they needed a prettier presentation, so I proceeded to turn the pan out onto a plate.  Uh, yeah, I wouldn’t try that with this recipe.  The brownies split open and a thick stream of chocolate oozed over the plate, like a volcanic eruption.  Luckily my fellow pointed out they were still chocolate and still perfectly edible, despite appearances.

So, since V-Day has come and gone, I thought what could be more perfect than to share my favorite Irish-themed recipe in honor of St Patrick’s Day, the day when everyone gets to be Irish.  Who knows, maybe this weekend, you’ll find yourself with a leftover can or bottle of Guinness knocking around the fridge?

The name of this recipe, too, is a little inaccurate.  It creates what technically is a brownie, but (as my explosion incident may illustrate), they are more like a cross between fudge and a flourless chocolate cake.  Very moist, and they may still slightly quiver softly in the middle upon removal from the oven.  Don’t even start to add up how much chocolate is in this – it’s a lot.  Drown out that noise by finishing off the remainder of the bottle of Guinness (1 1/4 cups is about 1/2 a bottle).  Oh, and vanilla ice cream is highly recommended as a partner.

Grace Neill’s Chocolate and Guinness Brownies
*Adapted from Food Day in the Oregonian,Best Recipes of  2003 – a note on the recipe says the recipe comes from Grace Neill’s, listed in the Guinness (appropriately!) Book of World Records as the oldest bar in Ireland.
4 eggs
3/4 cup superfine sugar (regular sugar has always worked)
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 ounces white chocolate, chopped
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 1/4 cup of Guinness stout

Preheat oven to 375, and grease an 8-inch square pan.

Beat eggs and sugar with a mixer till light and fluffy.  In a medium saucepan on medium heat, melt chocolates and butter, stirring until smooth.  Remove from heat and beat into egg mix.

Sift flour and cocoa together, then add to chocolate mix.  Whisk in Guinness – it may look funny at first, but hang tight.

Pour into pan,  and bake 20-25 minutes (I think it’s closer to 25 min in my oven).  The recipe claims till a skewer comes out clean.  I generally go by when the center has very little wiggle left and the edges are done & pulling away.  It will firm up a teeny bit as it cools.

Sorry no photo, but they were distractedly devoured over the Valentine weekend last month in a mad rush of deliciousness.

When I go visit my parents, I get to indulge in a few great things I don’t have at my house:

1) cable TV (gotta check out the latest crazy reality & home decor shows)

2) my Dad’s fabulous cooking

3) my Mom’s subscriptions to Real Simple and Sunset magazine

Real Simple magazine always sucks me in with its promises to make my life better and more orderly and also gives me uses for random household items like q-tips – beyond just your ears.  It’s like a bit more realistic than Martha Stewart, as I put it down thinking hey, I could actually do that.

So last year, I absconded the February 2009 issue and brought it back home with me;  my thievery brought on by the promise of healthy! comfort! food!

We don’t eat much meat at my house – probably about once every 3 months, no joke.  Both the boy and I eat pretty much vegetarian diets, with a hint of seafood and a sprinkle of white meats – we’ve both eaten this way since our early 20’s for various reasons to be discussed another time.

But every once in a while, a little turkey hits the spot.

And the ratio of spinach-to-turkey in this recipe is nearly even, so it’s a pretty good way to shovel in some veggies, too.  The mashed potatoes rely on buttermilk to replace the usual sticks of butter, and it’s a good substitution, adding a nice little tang.  But go ahead and add a little bit of butter to drizzle on top if you need it.  I won’t tell anyone.


Turkey-Spinach Meatloaf with Potatoes & Broccoli

Turkey Meat Loaf w/Mashed Potatoes – from Real Simple, Feb 2009

1.5 lbs ground turkey (I think dark may be better for this dish – less dry? but don’t ask me, the 98% vegetarian!)
1 onion, chopped finely
1 bunch fresh spinach, stems removed & leaves chopped finely (about 4 cups – use a chiffonade technique for good results)
1 cup Italian parsley (flat-leaf), chopped finely
1/2 cup whole-wheat bread crumbs
2 Tbsps Dijon mustard
1 large egg white
1/2 tsp each of salt & pepper
1/4 – 1/2 cup ketchup
marinara sauce

Heat oven to 400.  In a bowl, mix all ingredients, except ketchup.   Toss onto a baking sheet (foil-covered for easy clean-up if you roll that way), and shape into an approximately 10-inch loaf.  Top with ketchup.

Bake till done – about 45-50 minutes.  Remove from the oven carefully, as a bit of liquid comes off, and you really don’t want that in your oven!  Using a baking sheet with sides may also be good.   Serve with warm marinara sauce.

2 lbs of red or yukon gold potatoes, quartered
1 cup bvttermilk
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt/pepper to taste

While the meatloaf’s cooking, start washing and chopping the potatoes.  Place in a large pot of cold water.  Simmer until tender – about 15 minutes.  Drain and mash potatoes over warm burner with buttermilk, oil, and salt/pepper.  Perhaps throw in a sprig of parsley if you feel fancy.

Serve warm with the meatloaf, and optionally a steamed veggie – broccoli or asparagus are nice – or a fresh salad.

I was a bit of a whirlwind in the kitchen this weekend, and a lot of great stuff came out as a result.

First off, I am sure you may be anxiously wondering what I did with my Alma’s caramel sauce.  As suggested by a reader, I first sampled it warmed up with fresh Concorde pear slices which was quite good and simple.

Thinking about ginger + caramel + pears, which is one of my favorite dessert combos, I decided to make gingerbread which seemed fitting for the drizzly Portland Friday that faced me.

I recently got this book from the library:

The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper

Picture of book courtesy of delish.com

If you are an NPR fan, you may be familiar with Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s Sunday night cooking/food show, The Splendid Table.  It’s also available as a podcast for your bus-riding pleasure!

So far, I am really enjoying this book.  It has some great simple recipes, with a focus on weeknight cooking, so most of the recipes are not too fussy & require only a handful of ingredients.  It’s also the kind of cookbook that’s perfect for just curling up in a chair and reading – if you’re a cookbook fan, you’ll understand what I mean.  I also like how frequently they will have a recipe, then a variation or two on the same idea.  I’m going to give a few more recipes a spin, but this may be a contender for adding to my shelf.

I have already made a chowder from it – using a great suggestion from the book to add both smoked & fresh salmon.  I decided to next try the “Dark and Moist Gingerbread” and furthermore, the variation called “Apple Chunk Double Gingerbread” as I had both some apples and candied ginger clunking around in the kitchen.

It was fantastic – just what I like in a gingerbread – dark and smoky and moist.  Perfect with tea, and even better with a little of that previously mentioned caramel sauce & a few Bartlett pear slices to scoop up the extra sauce bits.


Molasses meets the egg

Gooey gingerbread and caramel sauce, with pear wedges

Dark and Moist Gingerbreadfrom The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper

2 cups minus 2 Tbsp flour
1 generous tsp baking soda
generous 1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp ground ginger
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup mild or dark molasses (I used Aunt Patty’s Blackstrap – from Fred Meyer’s natural foods section)
3/4 cup very hot water (190 F – I just boiled water in my tea kettle & let it rest a few minutes while mixing the other stuff)
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, tightly packed (I used light ’cause that’s what Trader Joe’s sold me!)
1 large egg
Variation for apple chunk – double ginger: 2 Tbsp finely chopped candied ginger & 1 apple, peeled/cored/cut into small chunks (the book suggested Granny Smith, but I used a mystery apple from the produce drawer)

Preheat your oven to 350.  Butter & flour an 8-inch square light-colored metal baking pan.  (To flour: dump some flour in your tin and then shake around over a sink, tapping it so that the flour just barely coats the sides & bottom).

In a medium bowl, whisk together dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt) and all spices.  Add apples & ginger, if using, at this point.

In a large bowl, beat together butter, molasses, hot water, and brown sugar till somewhat frothy.  Add egg and beat well, then gradually add the flour mix.  Stir till just mixed in.

Pour into prepared pan, and bake for 35 minutes or till a tester in the middle comes out clean.  Mine was a still a little gooey, but I decided to go with it, as the edges were done and pulling away.  It set up well, and I kinda like my baked goods a little soft in the middle.

Cool on a wire rack, but be sure to eat some while still warm!  It gets even better in a day or two if it lasts, as the flavor just deepens.  Great with caramel sauce, if you got it, pears, and/or fresh whipped cream.  Or just plain with hot tea.

You’ve got to admire the simplicity of a food cart that serves one dish.  Or the outright brazenness perhaps – this, this is exactly what you want to eat.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a cart that does exactly that.  There’s something pretty zen about a cart that makes the same meal over and over again day in and day out.   Their dish is pretty simple: boiled chicken, sauce, rice, and broth, but there’s more to it than it sounds.

I haven’t been to Thailand, but from I’ve read, khao man gai is a common street food dish in Thailand.  The recipe on one website is prefaced by the description of the dish as a ” ‘high end’ street vendor dish because it’s more complicated to make, and requires a fairly sophisticated cart and tools.”

The cart owner is originally from Thailand, but she spent some time working in one of Portland’s most highly rated Thai restaurants, Pok Pok, before venturing out on her own.

Here’s the cart:


Nong's Khao Man Gai - SW 10th and Alder

So, there are a few options – the regular khao man gai  ($6) which is a butcher-paper wrapped pile of sticky rice cooked in chicken broth, topped with slices of boiled-till-tender chicken, cilantro, cucumber slices, and a little container of sauce.  This package is presented to you like an origami present all folded up, a rubber band holding it together, and then slipped on top, there is another little container of broth and a spoon/napkin.

You can also add extra chicken, chicken livers, extra sauce, or supersize your khao man gai (piset).

The Menu!

Drink Menu

One of the highlights of the drink menu is the Vietnamese coffee (made with Portland’s Stumptown Coffee!) which I prefer to the often overly-sweet Thai iced tea.  The rich, strongly brewed coffee is complimented by sweetened condensed milk.

Nong's description of Khao Man Gai

So, as described above, one of the key parts of the khao man gai is the sauce.  I mean, otherwise it’d be kind of dull – chicken + rice?  The sauce is zippy, a little spicy but not much, and definitely garlic-filled.  It’s very fresh tasting, definitely not from a bottle, and it has that magic that a good Thai dish has – a balance of tangy and sweet and spicy, all at once.

I forgot to take a picture of the cute wrapping job or the even cuter food cart lady herself (her and her crew are usually jamming out to some good beats while chopping chicken furiously).  There’s usually a long line for this dish, and I hear she frequently sells out for the day.

The package unwrapped, with broth to the left and sauce on top.

Now with the sauce poured on top.

The broth is very simple – it usually has a wisp of greens or some bitter melon, not much else.  Somehow – add all together this becomes  a special dish that is both exotic and comforting at the same time.  It’s a bit like a deconstructed chicken noodle soup with a little extra zing.  I must admit this week’s serving of chicken wasn’t my favorite – a few “bits” were left that were a bit ugly, but that’s the risk of eating meat, I suppose (this is one of my rare meat-excursions).  That won’t stop me, I’ll be back again for this magic combo.

Essential Details:

Nong’s Khao Man Gai
Corner of SW 10th & Alder, Portland
Open M-F, 10am until sold out!

I’m kind of a stickler for following recipes, especially the first time through, but even after that, I still find myself peering at a cookbook to see if it was a teaspoon or half a teaspoon of thyme.

Eventually I’d like to get better at winging it in the kitchen – either throwing things together by instinct or having a collection of recipes sitting in my head.  I always imagine myself on a trip somewhere far from home and having a desire to make scones – could I do it?  Could I recreate that same recipe I’ve made over and over many a Saturday morning?

There are just a few things I cook straight from memory, and I find those recipes with simple ingredients or an easy-to-remember formula are best.

Here’s one I like to think of as my “back pocket” fish recipe. If  I find myself with some fish or decide to pick some up on the way home, I know I can always make this one with maybe just a stop by the produce aisle for a lemon.

A note about fish quantities & types: Since I’m usually cooking for two, I get about 3/4 lb of fish – this is plenty with maybe a little extra leftover.  I like this recipe best with a firm white fish like catfish, tilapia, or cod. It would work with salmon probably, but I think there are better ways to show off salmon.

Honey-Mustard Fish

First, let’s start with the ratio – it’s quite simple.    honey : lemon juice : dijon mustard

  • Whisk an equal amount of each in a flat dish or bowl.  I usually do 1-2 Tbsp each.
  • In a 2nd bowl, toss together some panko crumbs (my preference) or in a pinch, regular bread crumbs with dried thyme, salt, and pepper.  Regular bread crumbs come out a little bit soggier I’ve found.

fish coatings

Honey:lemon:mustard on the left and panko crumbs on the right.

  • Dip filets of fish in liquid to coat well, then dip in panko mix.
fish in dish

Breaded fish, ready to go in the oven

  • Place in a single layer in a baking dish.  (I often like to put either parchment paper or foil in the dish to make clean up easier.)
  • I’ve baked this recipe at anywhere from 350-425 degrees, depending on what other sides I’m making.  So, for the purposes of giving you some directions – let’s say about 12-18 minutes at 375, depending upon thickness of fish.

If I’m doing catfish, sweet potato oven fries are a natural fit, so I’ll start those first then put the fish in for the last 15 minutes.  What’s in your back pocket?

Two years!! Two years!!

And even a few months beyond that.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  Okay, what am I muttering about?

Us foodies can be a bunch of procrastinators at times.  I started this blog mainly as a way to motivate myself to both organize my recipe pile that teeters in one corner of my kitchen and perhaps actually cook through some of those recipes I’ve clipped or sticky-noted hopefully in back issues of bon appetit magazine.

So, I finally did it!  I made the simple tomato sauce ala Marcella Hazan via Orangette that I first read about over 2 years ago.

The ingredients are so simple – there are 4 – butter, canned tomatoes, salt, and an onion.

If you’re afraid of tears, there will be few, as you peel and chop the onion in half.  Then, you grab a deep saucepan or skillet, throw in the 4 ingredients (yes, just 2 big chunks o’ onion!) and simmer for 45 minutes.  Done.

That’s it, but what remains is lovely and smooth and surprisingly rich for a tomato-based sauce.  Mmmn, butter.  I even put a very non-traditional spin on it (kind of embarrassing but let’s just say it involved veggie turkey grounds that had to be used & I have this thing about needing protein in my meal, especially after the gym) that wasn’t pretty but damn tasty.

The full recipe is covered here on Orangette. Oh, and I feel better as the amazing, prolific blogger, Smitten Kitchen only beat me to it by a mere week or so.   Please, learn from my mistakes, and don’t wait till 2012 to make this.

Try it out this weekend and tell me what you think.  BTW, I’ll also own up to not even using San Marzano tomatoes (half the reason I put it off, as I don’t usually keep those around).  I used just ordinary canned whole tomatoes (Hunt’s, I think) as I had those on hand.  And if you have made it already, tell me what your favorite use is for the used onion halves – they seem tasty on their own, but I’ve got them and some odds & ends staring at me in the fridge for tomorrow night’s meal .

One of the best parts of my job is lunchtime!  I’m lucky enough to work in downtown Portland, and within a short walk in nearly any direction, I can eat a meal from nearly anywhere in the world.  And no, I don’t mean the Pioneer Place mall food court.

If you live in Portland, the business of food carts is old news to you probably, but it’s an amazing intersection of a supportive health department, cheap vacant lots, and a food-curious populace that has led to the ever growing number of food carts in Portland.  You can find an amazing guide at foodcartsportland.com

Bosnian, Thai, Indian, Japanese, French baguette sandwiches, the list goes on and on.  Some of the best and most original food is being served at food carts.  Oh, and most affordable too – most carts’ meals are in the $4-6 range.  New immigrants, cash-poor new culinary grads, landlords holding onto vacant lots till office vacancies decrease  – these are just a few of the characters involved in this restaurant-less renaissance.

One of my recent favorites is Sonny’s Bowl – largely for its simplicity and strong flavors.  He (Sonny?) offers 3 options – all vegan.

Now, first of all – I’m sorry to my friends that swing that way, I will never unless they can create a vegan brie. I love my cheese & real ice cream, too much.

However, you WON’T NOTICE – I promise.  Okay, so this dish I ordered – you might, if you’re not used to soy subs for meat.  I got the #3 (it’s my fave) – soy curls, green beans, ginger-citrus sauce, and brown rice.

Soy curls, btw, wtf? I know, right? Okay, so I’ve been eating mostly veggie since circa 1995 and have spent 8 years of that time in PDX, certainly a vegan mecca if there were ever one (no joke, actually, I just googled “vegan mecca” and a blog about Portland was the 3rd hit), but I never knew about soy curls till this past year.

I guess they are a form of TVP (texturized veggie protein), but somehow they are all the rage in Portland.  Anyhow, I know for you meat eaters, you are now doubting me, but they are pretty tasty.  And filling.

And the Sonny sauce (that’s what I call it) is what makes the bowl.  Each of the bowls is like KFC for the vegan set – a unique blend of secret spices.  Yum, I wish he sold the sauce in a jar.  The fresh veggies and brown rice add that healthy feeling, so important in January when we’re all thinking we should start working out, right?  The other two feature proteins, too – for those who may be soy-curl-adverse, the other bowls feature black beans and garbanzos.

The #3 is a little spicy, a little gingery, a little bbq-ish, and a little something else.  Really good!  (oh, but hey, Sonny, I think my Chinese noodle thingies on top were a little stale this round, but maybe that’s my fault for putting the lid on & steaming them a bit?).

So for $5, this is my shot of what you get – not bad huh:

sonny bowl

*sidenote: oh, and I feel I have to add – yes, that’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Committed.  Yes, her of the Eat, Pray, Love fame.  I feel like I have to make the disclaimer that I’m borrowing it from a friend at work.  I’m just rarely a hardback buyer (sorry book industry!), and I feel guilty when I see one if it’s not from the library.  But, I’m excited this time to not have to wait for the 465 holds on 50 copies at the library to clear, so I can read it as if you haven’t heard about it, it’s all about the history of marriage, a topic I find pretty interesting (and wrote a paper in grad school about once even).  I have mixed feelings about Gilbert as a writer, but she certainly sucks me in.

anyhow, if you haven’t eaten at a food cart yet, do it!  And if you haven’t eaten at Sonny’s Bowl yet – do it!

Essential Details:

Located at SW 3rd & Washington cart pod.

Hours – food carts hours vary, but generally M-F lunchtime.

In early December, a piece in the Oregonian’s A & E section about places in Portland serving fancy hot chocolate drinks caught my eye.  It named a few places I was familiar with already such as Cacao (great chocolate drinks & addictive 50 cent salted caramels by their register – hello, storefront by the Heathman!) and Pix Patisserie.  I noted one I had to yet to try – Alma Chocolate – located in one of my favorite neighborhoods I’ve lived in Portland along the restaurant row of NE 28th and Burnside.   Mmm… fancy hot chocolate on a gray Portland winter day, yes please!

I had the luck to enter a drawing while waiting for my drink, and the even better luck to actually win!  I was quite shocked to get a message on my cell phone one Sunday in January summoning me to pick up my prize bag, with the instructions that today was best to claim my prize, as something about “fresh cookies being baked.”

Needless to say, we fit that into our errands for the day and arrived at Alma at the same time as the other drawing winner.   We went through swift negotiations that would impress the U.N. as we determined that I would take the “salty/smoky” bag and she would take the “spicy” bag.  Okay, there wasn’t much to negotiate over – either way, we were going home with a bag of loot, chocolate loot.

Alma bag contents

Contents of my bag from Alma Chocolate

I was quite stunned actually at my winnings and mumbling something that hopefully sounded like “thanks” as I high-tailed it out of there, before they could decide they’d made a mistake.  Once safely in the car, I delved into my findings and felt giddy like a contestant on the Price is Right.  I had about a 1/2 dozen fresh cookies (one of each kind offered that day), 3 packages of various chocolate barks, a small bag of tea, and a jar of Alma’s housemade caramel sauce, all with a salty or smoky tea theme.

Alma cookies

My share of the Alma cookies

Once home, cookies were sampled with our afternoon tea.  It gets a little fuzzy here as let’s be honest, we basically gobbled them up, but let’s just say they were good!  In particular, I believe it was a salted peanut butter chunk one that made me especially pleased.  The size of the cookies was just right – I split each with my fellow and still had a good taste of each.  They weren’t over-sized either – which means you can easily try a few at a time, an option I always like as I like to try everything!

Over the next few weeks, I rationed out my prize, nibbling little chunks of the various bars:

*Salted Nutty Toffee Mini Bar – a small candy bar of dark chocolate speckled on top with crunchy chunks of nuts & toffee & sea salt

*Pistachio Toffee – a layer of thin dark chocolate sandwiched onto crunchy toffee thick with pistachios

*Salted Peanut Milk Chocolate Bark – my favorite of all three – the chocolate in this one had a slight peanut buttery taste, like a really excellent Reese’s Peanut Butter cup

So I’m trying to be critical here, but I really found little fault in any of the items.  To me, there are few combos more divine than chocolate + salt. This bag of treats has only made me more excited to return and sample more of their items, especially their truffles.  Some of their goods like the chocolate icons gilded in 23k edible gold leaf are amazing to look at, and they also do fun seasonal shapes like owls or Day of the Dead skeletons.

As an added bonus, my Chinook book (I keep mentioning this book, as it’s got some awesome deals at local businesses) has a coupon for a free truffle with purchase of a drink.  Uh, twist my arm?

I have two items left in my bag o’goodies – a small baggie of bulk lapsang souchong tea and lapsang souchong caramel sauce.  The sauce’s first ingredient is cream, followed by sweeteners and butter — I think this will be to my liking!

The only dilemma is what to serve it on, besides spooning it straight of the jar.  Vanilla ice cream seems obvious, but I am also think it might be nice drizzled over some roasted pears or a simple cake of some sort.  Ideas, anyone?

I’ll share in my next post a surprising use for the lapsang souchong tea.

Essential Details:

Alma Chocolate
140 NE 28th Ave
Portland, OR 97232
There is an online store if you don’t live in PDX, but if you are one of the lucky ones, current hours of their shop are Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 11am-4pm