Saturday, December 5, 2015

Happy Valley Station Grand Opening Today! (12/5)

The new Happy Valley Station pod, at the corner of SE Sunnyside and 145th, has its grand opening today. I joined several food writers a few days ago to sample food from each of its 23 carts, a mix of food and drinks.

After three years and one month of frustration, rezoning, petitioning, and selecting of carts, Happy Valley Station opened its first food pod a few short weeks ago.

The official grand opening is set for today, December 5, and will include a final Cook Off to determine who gets the last food cart in the lot. The votes from the five judges, plus a community vote on social media, will determine the winner.

While we waited, I ordered a Breakside IPA from 30 Taps. Valerie runs this cart and is the owner of the entire pod. The cart actually has up to 45 taps, also serving wines and local ciders. The first two columns are devoted to Oregon beers.

First up for food was Mixteca and their mole tacos inside blue corn tortillas. While I've been to their pop-up events at Last Thursdays on Alberta and their food cart at Portland Mercado, those were mainly for the tamales. Now I'm happily finding out that they have great mole tacos.

Second was Chole's Mexican Grill, bringing in two types of nachos. The owner went into the military and then moved back in 2008, wanting Mexican fusion with the influences of Southern California. The Swap Meet Nachos and Spicy Tinga Tostadas brought wonderful flavor. The latter also provided a smoky punch.

Kickin' Chicken Wings is another venture from Deb (who once ran Deb's Blazin' Grill). Various flavors of chicken wings, which they twice-fry. They also tout their Pork Wilkd Wings, basically a pork shank cooked slow until the meat literally falls off the bone. A slightly spicy Sweet Baby Ray's sauce coated the pork. The Pork Wild Wings were one of several menu items I couldn't stop thinking about after the event was done. Oh, and if you have an idea for a wing sauce, let them know. If they create it, the owners will name it after you!

Strano Gelato came in with some refreshing gelato choices to cleanse our palates. The lemon gelato and red velvet gelato were very much appreciated.

A Cajun Life, a business which originated in Damascus, was next on our tasting agenda. Chris brought his cart -- affectionately named "Roux" -- from the Good Food Here pod. Chris' gumbo, featuring chicken, sausage, and tasso, was rich, hearty, and flavorful. The "Bayou Boogie" features the same chicken, sausage, and tasso, but presents as a more rice-and-meat dish with gravy sauce. Just don't ask for a "Bayou Boogie" in Louisiana; the locals will look at you funny and know you're not from the area!

Fernando's Alegria brought a couple of mini burritos for us to try (don't worry, the actual burritos are much larger). The tinga burrito features juicy, shredded chicken with smoky chipotle, while Nyssa's Veggie features zucchini, yellow squash, cheese, and spinach. Both were wonderful, but the spicy panda in me prefers the tinga. You can have their habanero sauce or their milder green sauce.

Khao Niew (pronounced "cow new" and translated as "sticky rice") presented Laotian food, a type of cuisine not commonly seen around Portland. Sticky rice is part of every dish, and it gave us food writers a chance to get dirty with finger foods. Generally you'll get a small ball of rice and pair it with other foods.

We tried two of their dishes. The Sien Savanh and Thum Muk Houng is a Lao beef jerky with papaya salad. The jerky reminded me of the sakuraboshi (think teriyaki fish jerky) that my grandparents made at their fish market on Maui so many years ago.

Next, the Pienng Sien Jaew is BBQ beef with a spicy Lao tomato-based sauce. It was quite a neat experience, with each dish hitting hard on flavor. The sauce is much like a salsa, with roasted tomatoes, Thai chiles, shallots, and garlic all ground in a mortar and pestle.

Joe, the owner of Yaba Yabaa, was next with Lebanese cuisine. The beef shawarma had lovely beef with refreshing veggies and tahini. But I also loved the falafel for its Mediterranean spices and extremely crispy exterior.

E-San Thai is probably one of the most well-known Thai food carts in Portland, with roughly six locations as of December 2015. Mao (the owner) and Kelli (who runs the E-San cart at this pod) have proudly confirmed that this is their busiest food cart location. They also started a restaurant back in 1999.

As if we weren't already stuffed, E-San brought the house with five dishes to try. The Chicken Pad Thai is a common, popular staple and was a lovely start. Pad Kee Mao (a.k.a. Drunken Noodles) has wider rice noodles than its Pad Thai counterpart, with nicely cooked vegetables stir-fried in. I also enjoyed the Pineapple Fried Rice with Shrimp, complete with fairly large, juicy shrimp on top. The Pad Phet is a spicy Thai stir fry of chicken and veggies with white rice. Finally, no Thai feast seems complete without some delicious Yellow Curry.

Pad Phet; Pineapple Fried Rice w/ Shrimp

Pad Kee Mao; Pad Thai

Yellow Curry
Fruitbox came next with three refreshing dishes. The lone savory dish, Ceviche, was yet another incredible dish worth getting a huge tray of. I'm sure my cousins living in Florida would pounce all over this. Excellent citrus blast and lots of seafood. Their Bionico is a parfait-like dish containing roughly seven different fruits. Finally, the Diablitos is a snow cone complete with tamarind on the straw. Think of tamarind as a spicy-sweet-salty fruit roll-up.

Chinese Lucky Dragon presented us with a tiny Chinese takeout box of General Tso's chicken (complete with steamed veggies and white rice). The chicken was extremely light, brined first, lightly battered with a cornstarch mix, and then stir fried. It's their first location and I hope they continue to do well. The owner has been in the restaurant business since he was four years old.

Alex of Wasabi Sushi undoubtedly presented us with the most attractive dish of the night. A plethora of colorful sushi awaited our stomachs, and had it not been for the other food carts, I may have taken the entire tray and hid somewhere to eat it all. The Temptation Roll is one of their premium sushi rolls, containing tempura shrimp, crab, cream cheese, avocado, and spicy sauce. Other rolls featured crab, tuna, and/or salmon. Alex said he was from Honolulu, so it's always nice to help a fellow brother out.

Gulf Bites took it easy on us with small samples of Stan's Key Lime Pie. Of course, I ate more than one because science. Even Valerie -- who admittedly said she did not like key lime pie -- loved this one. I'm sure adding some whipped cream helped. As my blog post noted, you can also enjoy some great shrimp tacos at Gulf Bites, and they will also be serving fish tacos now.

Dog Haven is the one place you can get Vienna beef dogs and other components native to the Chicago area. They even serve Bill's Lemonade, and you can view more about the process here. Only 140 calories for a 32 oz. helping. The "Maxwell" features a Vienna beef dog with caramelized onions (caramelized with Pepsi). The dog itself has a nice snap and full of lovely beef awesomeness. But of course, the Chicago Dog was the main event, complete with sport peppers, celery salt, and neon green relish.

Kim's Kitchen presented a wonderful story. It's a family business, and the mother, who is from Vietnam, wanted something to remind her of home. Pho was the one comfort food that delivered on all fronts. It's usually a noodle soup with beef, but you can also get it with chicken. They added sriracha into the soup itself, and I wanted to enjoy every last drop. My mom is a huge pho fan herself, and I know she would love this dish at Kim's Kitchen.

Brandie and Joshua from the Chicken Adobo food cart provided three samples of Filipino staples to try. Both adobos (chicken and shrimp) delivered with juicy protein and a wonderful tang. Two types of lumpia (pork & shrimp, and chicken & vegetable) had a slight crispness and lovely flavor.

iCandy gave us a bag of their yummy caramel corn to take home. Light and airy, with a velvety, even coating of caramel. Sweet, but not overly sweet.

They are a company that started in Gresham and have opened a food cart to further expand their sweet treat business. This place should be popular with all ages. So now the question: Did they get their name as a play on "eye candy" or the Nickelodeon show iCarly? Or both?

Bardo's Grill may be a familiar name to longtime readers of my blog. He came over from Cartlandia and has stepped his game up immensely in the 18 months since my initial blog post. The chipotle aioli and secret BBQ sauce remain phenomenal. But of course, Bardo had to entice us with mozzarella sticks and jalapeno poppers -- and bacon-wrapped versions of each. While I would have obviously enjoyed both more if piping hot and fresh from the fryer, no fault can be placed here. Maybe we should have let him go first....

Executive Chef Marty Mazurik started the You Eating Healthy cart after being a computer programmer for 30 years. After reading many books on healthy eating, Marty embraced a 100% plant-based diet. His delicious 3-Seed Kale Avocado Salad contains toasted sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds. The lemony dressing livens everything up. The Black Beluga Lentil Chili and Vegan Cornbread Muffin was a lovely surprise. I also tried a delicious Red Lentil Curry with steamed broccoli and brown rice. Marty proves that food can be both healthy and tasty.

Red Lentil Curry; 3-Seed Kale Avocado Salad
Black Beluga Lentil Chili w/ Vegan Cornbread
It was only fitting that Mama's Minis followed with S'mores Doughnuts. The presentation and appearance alone would likely break the internet. Chocolate sauce, marshmallow sauce, and graham cracker crumbles over their mini doughnuts. They have six different doughnuts with signature toppings, or you can get their cinnamon and powdered sugar doughnuts. Should you want something more savory, Mama's has biscuits and gravy and biscuit sandwiches. That biscuit game is on point.

Scones and Biscuits
Strano Gelato returned with three different gelatos: Pumpkin Spice, Pistachio & Fig, and White Chocolate & Raspberry. If I had to pick one, it's the White Chocolate & Raspberry all the way, for its refreshing berry flavor. But yes, get them all. And if you have any flavor ideas, let them know via Facebook or Twitter.

Has it really been over three and a half years since Ole Latte Coffee set up shop in Portland?! Todd now has his third location at Happy Valley Station, with plans for his own roastery in SE Portland coming soon. As usual these days, Todd comes up with seasonal lattes. At the end of a night that could produce infinite food comas, I was grateful for that extra shot of caffeine to get me home. How about a cranberry, grapefruit twist, and anise latte with some Holy Kakao chocolate sauce? All of the ingredients are locally sourced. Superb presentation and execution.

Another reason to head to Ole Latte Coffee: The Suspended Coffees board. Go here to find out more about the Suspended Coffee movement.

There are a couple of other carts that were not on hand for the event.
  • Happy Valley Station's Facebook page listed a woodfired pizza cart on their list, but unfortunately, there was no sign of them.
  • Lei'd Back Catering will be opening their food cart on January 1. Their menu has ribs (probably pipikaula-style), huli chicken, and shoyu chicken. Being born and raised in Hawaii, I should be well qualified to review and try their food for science.
Finally, a final few words about Happy Valley Station. While I'm sure Valerie has received many messages from the community (both positive and negative), I feel this food pod will end up being even more well-received than it is now. The one huge concern will be the parking, which can already be at a premium next to a residential area. Happy Valley Station did not even open during summertime, which is when food carts traditionally get slammed with the most business. Considering all carts have been experiencing high sales and foot traffic so far in late fall and early winter, the cart owners may be in for a bigger rush in a few months -- and that's even with the "new food pod hype" leveling off.

I look forward to many more meals at Happy Valley Station's newest food pod!

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