While the Rose City restaurant scene ascends to the upper echelons of “the foodie capitals of America,” we must always remember it was our food carts who blazed the trail now followed by many a James Beard winner. So-much-so, that some of them have become Portland tourist destinations in their own right.
For many, the food cart is the destination, while for others, it’s the journey. Ask Cliff Allen, chef/owner of The People’s Pig, and he will tell you no matter where you are, you’ve got to “make every bite count.” Judging by how he got to where he is now, it’s an appropriate mission statement.
Five Years a Food Cart
For five years, Cliff Allen managed to squeeze himself and a flaming mesquite wood grill into a food cart no larger than a prison cell. It was here that he preached from the culinary pulpit of The People’s Pig.
For half-a-decade Allen treated downtown Portlanders to insanely good ribs and mouth-watering rubs. How he managed to create such delicious food out of such a confining space is a trick only the most expert food cart captains would know.
Even so, five years was Allen’s limit. Although The People’s Pig was making money, it wasn’t enough to satisfy Allen’s desire to branch out and start something more. He wanted to leave a more permanent mark on the Portland scene, and wound up finding just the place to do it.
The Old Tropicana
Ask anyone in North Portland to verify and they will speak to the legend of Lula Parker. The longtime Portland resident had been slinging black eyed peas and smothered oxtails at the Tropicana on Williams Avenue for decades, well into her 90s.
Then, after Parker’s retirement, the Tropicana closed in 2013. Still, something had to be done. Burgeoning Williams Avenue was making itself known as another go-to street for good eats, good drinks and great shopping. Somehow, the show must go on.
Then the proposals flooded in, but they weren’t what the Parkers had imagined. Some proposals called for big-time buildouts, significant changes, or even complete demolition, but “Parker wanted none of that,” Allen says.
As it turned out, the timing of Tropicana’s closing coincided perfectly with Allen’s desire to finally take The People’s Pig up a notch. It was then that one fabled barbecue joint seamlessly handed over the reins to another, and The People’s Pig found its new home. Allen explains it as being like “we were both looking for each other.”
Even so, having the ability to go from food cart to brick-and-mortar isn’t easy, no matter how compelling your product. With this in mind, Allen put a strong focus on tradition. He wanted The People’s Pig to be different without scrubbing away the character of the building.
Although the force of Portland’s food cart scene runs strong, it takes something truly special to make it to the five-year mark. One needs more than just a gimmick to satisfy the Portland pallet.
Fortunately, there’s no gimmick here. If you’ve tried Allen’s signature porchetta sandwich at his food cart, then you’ve already been to hog heaven. With its roasted pork and arugula drenched in lemon and sandwiched between a fresh, warm bun, it’s not hard to understand what The People’s Pig is saying.
The Whole Hog
In keeping with Parker’s legacy, The People’s Pig’s interior remains much the same. The wood-paneled ceilings and walls remain, as does the L-shaped lunch counter. The booths show their age in the most charming of ways, complete with cream and green upholstery. The room has the inviting feel of a building that seen its fair share of fine cooking.
Yet, despite the synergies, there was a big problem. Whereas Parker used a hulking pit to create classics like brisket and pulled pork, the giant brick chimney runs too hot for Allen’s needs. Even so, he brags that it can fit a “full-grown 260-pound pig.” But until it’s retrofitted, Allen smokes all of his meat in a pair of barrel smokers parked out back.
Within those barrel smokers lies Allen’s delectable example of barbecue done right, a marbled pork shoulder rubbed with salt, brown sugar, cumin and mustard seed spice then bathed in oak smoke and house-made barbecue sauce. It arrives to your table thick, fanned out and set next to a steaming helping of house-made greens.
Not in the mood for pork? Worry not, because some would argue it’s the smoked fried chicken sandwich that steals the show. First smoked, it’s then baptized in hot oil and doused with house-made jalapeño jelly. It arrives skins on and glistening, practically begging to be eaten.
With the recent addition of two beer taps and a few cocktails, you’ll have your choice in washing it all down. By this summer, Allen would like to have an outdoor seating area set up behind the restaurant. He would also like to have a photo of Lula Parker somewhere on his wall. And although she hasn’t yet entered The People’s Pig, she has eaten Allen’s food, and as he puts it, “She called it quote, ‘Damn good barbecue.’”
Are you looking for some “Damn good barbecue?” If so, check out The People’s Pig. The People’s Pig is located at 3217 N. Williams Ave. For menu information visit their website or give them a call at 503-347-2357.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.