Eating Alone in America’s Food Cart Capital


If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it’s how to embrace solo travel. Even before 2020, I enjoyed solo travel, and had tried it a couple of times before. But it was intimidating. I worried about deciphering a new city’s public transportation system, about going to restaurants alone, about whether I would have the nerve to go out and explore if the weather was bad. I worried that everyone around me was silently judging me for being alone.

But now, solo travel feels like second nature. I love walking through an unfamiliar city until my feet hurt, or strolling through a park with a podcast and a croissant for company. Even dining alone at a restaurant is less scary than it used to be.

So I took the opportunity to cross a trip off my bucket list by traveling to Portland and taking the train through the Pacific Northwest up to Seattle. One thing I love about solo travel is that I can eat wherever I want, whenever I want, and have as many meals a day as I want.

There were quite a few places I had missed on my first trip to Portland several years ago and wanted to visit this time around, including local icons like Nong’s Khao Man Gai and Blue Star Donuts.

(The pandemic is still going on, and that has changed both brick-and-mortar and food cart dining culture for the time being. Indoor dining in the Pacific Northwest often requires proof of vaccination, and some restaurants are still takeout only or have limited seating. This changing landscape factors into some of the dining experiences below, but fortunately didn’t change which restaurants I had access to.)

Khao soi at Khao Moo Dang

If khao soi is on the menu anywhere, I will order it. Khao Moo Dang was no exception. It wasn’t on my radar before going to Portland, but was near my Airbnb and had near-perfect reviews, so I decided to try it out on my first night there.

Khao Moo Dang absolutely did not disappoint. The khao soi had tons of pork belly and chewy noodles floating in a dark, rich broth. Although the staff at the restaurant seemed concerned it wasn’t spicy enough for me, on the contrary, the spice level was perfect. Slightly nose watering but not overpowering. The flavor of the khao soi was and soul warming after a rainy day in Portland.

I also really enjoyed their house cocktail list. My Thai margarita with lychee hibiscus and mango married the tropical flavors I love to my spirit of choice while on vacation—tequila.

Flaky pastries at Ken’s Artisan Bakery

If I could return anywhere on this list for a second visit, it would be Ken’s Artisan Bakery.  As the bakery’s website proclaims, “Ken Forkish opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in 2001. Since then, the bakery has received national and international attention, earning praise in Travel + Leisure, USA Today, the LA Times, Food & Wine, among many others.”

The goat cheese and leek croissant was possibly one of the best savory pastries I’ve ever tried, deeply herby, with pops of leek flavor and crispy bits of cheesy crust that had bubbled over. The passion fruit escargot acted as a pastry dessert course to my all-pastry meal, literally dripping with passion fruit glaze between the walls of the spiral.

The one drawback of solo travel is the natural limits of how much food one person can eat in one sitting. I knew three pastries would be pushing the capacity of my stomach, which can’t eat like it used to. But if I could have stomached a third, it would have been the Oregon croissant—a mix of blackberries and blueberries atop hazelnut cream, sitting in a croissant crater.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai: a Portland classic

Chef Nong Poonsukwattana has appeared in Eater, TED Talks, and food documentaries. She’s a Chopped champion and has earned a reputation as a “food cart sensation” that has brought Portland, and Nong’s Khao Man Gai, national and international acclaim. Chef Nong’s story is that of so many immigrants. She came to America with two suitcases and $70 in her pocket. Her entrepreneurial spirit, hard work, and flavorful sauce built her business to what it is today.

Nong’s signature dish, the chicken and rice, is arguably Portland’s most famous food. Nong’s khao man gai is lauded for its simplicity and its comfort factor, both of which are well deserved. It didn’t blow my mind—Nong’s brand is not one of gastronomic skills or an overwhelmingly complex dining experience. It’s chicken and rice without pretense. It was satisfying, and hearty, but not a dish that I’ll be telling everyone to try, you know?

The star is, of course, Nong’s famous ginger-forward sauce. Today, you can buy a bottle of the signature sauce to take home from Nong’s online store.

“Donuts for grownups” at Blue Star Donuts

Everyone has heard of Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts, known for their novelty flavors. But ask any local and they’ll tell you that the quality at Blue Star Donuts is much better.

The passion fruit cake donut and the chocolate almond ganache were both good, but the star for me by far was the chocolate buttermilk old-fashioned. It’s popular for a reason. Perfectly cakey and moist, it’s the one I kept coming back to, sneaking bites in between meals.

Vegan Sri Lankan food at Mirisata

Mirisata is one of the city’s few, if only, collectively owned restaurants. It recently made the Eater 38 list of essential restaurants and food carts in Portland. Vegan restaurants abound in Portland, a city with a hippie reputation for organic groceries, food co-ops, and wellness trends. But Sri Lankan restaurants? Those are hard to come by. 

Being the child of Sri Lankan immigrants, I had to try this place. I was exceedingly bummed I wasn’t in Portland over a weekend, when Mirisata serves its main rice and curry menu and brunch favorites like hoppers. Rather than ordering an entree, I chose a smattering of sides.

I ordered a godamba roti (thin flatbread), with dal (lentils), jackfruit curry, and pol sambol (a coconut salad with lime juice and chiles). Everything was delicious. The ambience at Mirisata is fun and casual, with a playlist that alternates between Sri Lankan songs that sound vaguely reminiscent of my childhood and Top 40 hits that are recognizable today.

If you happen to be in Portland on a weekend, don’t miss the rice and curry meal at Mirisata, served on a banana leaf. The food is high-quality here, and it’s the only way to get a true taste of all the curries that make Sri Lankan food what it is. You won’t regret it.

My favorite biscuits at Pine State Biscuits

When I’ve thought about Portland over the last few years, I’ve dreamed of returning to Pine State Biscuits. These are by far some of my favorite biscuits that I’ve eaten, ever.

Usually when trying a new place, I order the biscuits and gravy with a biscuit and jam on the side, so I can really taste the quality of the biscuit. Since I had been to Pine State before, this time I tried The McIsley, a savory biscuit sandwich with fried chicken, whole-grain mustard, and local wildflower honey. Of course, I couldn’t go without a side of sausage gravy for dipping.

A perfect balance of savory, mustardy, and a little sweet, this sandwich satisfied all my biscuit cravings. It was hearty and filling without making me feel bloated or overly full. The ideal biscuit experience and perfect last solo meal in Portland.

On the list for my next visit to Portland, whenever that may be: Hat Yai, Matta, and Jojo food truck, as well as return trips to Ken’s Artisan Bakery and Mirisata. Solo or not.

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