Portland ranks high as a foodie city showcasing the hottest gastronomic trends amidst the city’s enchanting vibe that’s caught somewhere between wholesome and edgy. Farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, farmers markets, and food trucks—it’s all here.

But credit those food trucks with driving attention to the Portland food culture, which is attracting top chefs from all over the country.

Acclaimed chefs Jose Garces, Paul Kahan and John Sundstrom chose Portland as the ideal city to host this year’s National Pork Board’s Pork Crawl for a taste of Portland’s best, with an emphasis on pork, of course. The October 18tour included stops at Adam and Jackie Sappington’s Country Cat Dinner House and Bar, Scott Dolich’s The Bent Brick, and Rick Gencarelli’s food cart, Lardo.

Yes, a food cart.

While most cities’ food trucks vie for high-traffic parking during peak meal hours, Portland’s food carts are “parked” semi-permanently in comfy clusters called “pods” in every major neighborhood. The 600 food carts in Portland have turned this trend into an institution that has significantly influenced and helped define the food culture, fine dining included. 

Lardo is doing its share of that.

One bite into Lardo’s Pork Meatball Banh Mi on Ciabatta and it’s clear this is not just any food cart. Fresh-baked ciabatta, a delightful kick of siracha aïoli, fish sauce-marinated, locally raised pork, and the crunch of pickled vegetables and cilantro hint at Gencarelli’s culinary talents.

Well-known in culinary circles, chef Rick Gencarelli’s credentials are many. CIA-educated, he has fifteen years of experience in such top restaurants as Rubicon and Olivos, where he spent ten years with James Beard recipient, Todd English. He came to Portland from Shelburne Farms in Vermont, which was named one of Gourmet magazine’s top 100 farm-to-fork restaurants. He is also co-author of ‘Cooking with Shelburne Farms: Food and Stories from Vermont.’

Though the food cart wasn’t Gencarelli’s plan, the economy put his vision of opening a restaurant on hold. The buzz that Portland was a hot place for food on a shoestring budget was what brought him here. 

Though “It’s not a realistic way to make a living,” he says, “the excitement has been great. I have momentum.”

Flavor is not limited by size at Lardo. Gencarelli house-cures his namesake creamy pork fatback, and serves up porchetta, prosciutto and pork belly accented by hand-cut fries. He also sources everything locally so you’re getting a genuine taste of the Pacific Northwest.

“We approach our $8 sandwich like a chef, working toward texture and contrasts,” Gencarelli says. “That’s the way a professional chef approaches anything.”

Word is out. Lardo has an impressive following that includes a big industry crowd of chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs. The influence of the food cart culture is undeniable. “There’s such a thing as happy hour here,” says Gencarelli. “There’s got to be restaurants that want to capture the excitement. I’d say restaurants definitely have eyes and ears open to incorporating this into a bar menu or happy hour menu.”

By Lori Zanteson

Industry News, NextGen Casual