Portland’s New Food Cart Pod Empowers BIPOC and LGBTQI+ Chefs


Two Portland chefs had the idea last summer to try to clean up the food business from the inside out. As they worked their way up in the restaurant business, Jasper Shen and Linh Tran from XLB saw years of racism, bad working conditions and harassment.

But the pandemic gave them a chance to step back and think about what they could do to improve things.

Together with Catie Hannigan, they started the restaurant resource group Win-Win. They aimed to give BIPOC and LGBTQI+ food makers in Portland fair and long-term jobs. And a food cart pod with many different chefs and types of food was part of that plan.

This month, that dream came true with Lil’ America, a pod of food carts in Southeast Portland created by Dos Hermanos Bakery, Fracture Brewing, and the Win-Win team.

The cart pod has both well-known and brand-new businesses run by local chefs. It also has things like a walk-in fridge and dry storage for each cart that you don’t usually find in other places.

A new Portland food cart pod is uplifting BIPOC and LGBTQI+ chefs

“That was our No. 1 priority,” said Shen. “Every cart we’ve talked to, their biggest issue was storage because they’re literally in a space that is 12-by-6.”

At Lil’ America, carts pay a flat monthly fee for rent, electricity, water, storage, and sewer. Shen says this is way less than the market rate.

“We want everyone to be successful โ€“ that’s the goal,” he said. “We’re trying to get people started, we’re trying to move the community forward and help BIPOC and queer people get ownership โ€ฆ Trying to gouge [people] just so we can make a couple extra bucks didn’t seem right.”

The space is also directly connected to the city sewer line so that carts can immediately get rid of their wastewater. It was an important part of designing the space because new rules from the Oregon Health Authority ban using wastewater storage cubes on-site.

Before Lil’ America’s grand opening earlier this month, Crystal Ligori and Donald Orr spoke to chefs at three of the seven food carts in the pod.

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Mike Bautista & Xrysto Castillo

Mike Bautista: “Makult” is a word for someone stubborn or bothersome. [laughing] As a child, it was often thrown at me. A few people have come in and said, “I’m going to tell my mom that a restaurant is named after me!” It shows the energy we want to bring and how we think creatively about what we want to do.

Xrysto Castillo: We serve fast Filipino-American food, and no one else does. We’re unlike anyone else. We serve traditional Filipino dishes like pancit and lumpia, but we also put our spin on a burger. Longanisa is a spiced Filipino sausage mixed with beef for our Big Bunso burger patty. It is topped with atchara, made in-house with green papaya, daikon, carrots, and bell peppers. And it tastes great.

Bautista: The way we make food is more of a reflection of how we grew up as first-generation and second-generation people. When we first started, we knew we wanted to make Filipino food, but there’s always that voice saying, “You don’t know how to do this right.”

Castillo: Many people can be too critical of other people’s Filipino food because each household is different. The way each family makes adobo is different from the next. But we want to stay true to what we know and love about Filipino food, and we want that to come through in the way we play with our menu and the names we give our dishes.

A new Portland food cart pod is uplifting BIPOC and LGBTQI+ chefs

We want to be able to answer questions like, “What is a bunso?” What does ‘big bunso’ mean?” It’s like saying, “Oh, the family’s youngest child was called “bunso.” We want to start these kinds of conversations and talks, which rarely happen in this field.

Bautista: It was a no-brainer for a pod to focus on BIPOC and queer communities. It’s a safe space in theory, and when we moved here and were around the other carts, everyone was very helpful, supportive, and not competitive. For us, it’s a dream.

The fact that we will be a business and still have to make it work was a big problem for us, even when we considered opening. So being around people who want to help others is a blessing.

Hawker Station

Andy Kou

A hawker center in Singapore is like a big area with many small food stands, like the food cart scene in Portland. One of the most well-known places to get chicken and rice is in Singapore’s Hawker Center. This place is called “tian tian.” They are well-known because their chicken and rice have a Michelin star.

I was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Texas and Los Angeles. A little less than three years ago, I moved to Portland. I did corporate work in the biotech industry for 17 years.

Cooking has always been an important part of my life, so when the pandemic hit and I lost my job, I thought, “Why not?” There isn’t any typical Hong Kong food in Portland, like chicken and rice, braised pork belly, or fried chicken with gravy, which you can find all over Los Angeles. I thought Portland would be a great place to share my comfort food.

I love this place because every person and every cart has a story. It’s very friendly, and the community gives us a lot of great help.

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Bake on The Run

Michael Singh, Chef Bibi Singh

Bake on the Run is the only Guyanese restaurant on the West Coast from Chile to Alaska. Guyana is a small country east of Venezuela, right above Brazil. It’s the same size as Oregon, but just under 800,000 people live there.

Parts of it are Indian, African, Chinese, Portuguese, and Amerindian, so it’s almost like there are nine tribes inside the border. So, all the food gets mixed. We have chow mein on the menu because of this. Because of this, we have bacalhau, which is salted cod made in the style of Portugal. In English, we call it selfish. So we baked our native fry bread and all the curries.

We were going to sell bake, our semi-sweet puff bread with different fillings, at first. But my mom, being my mom, began making things when people asked for them. That means the menu just got longer. People asked for things that we had already made at home, so it didn’t bother us much. It’s the same as how we make it at home, which is how I grew up.

You know, I came out here mainly to share my culture with people on the West Coast. I love my culture. If we do this right, we could make this place the cultural center of Oregon. We can bring all these cultures together and spread our culture to other places. We can bring everyone in, and we do it through food, which is the best way.

There’s nothing more personal than sharing a meal. Rather than me giving you what we usually eat to provide you with the energy and nutrition you need to get through the rest of your day. And that’s something I care a lot about. You need food more than you need water or oxygen.

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