PORTLAND - When you grab a great meal from a food cart, it's easy to fantasize about quitting your day job and opening up one of your own. Cooking your favorite meals, not worrying about big overhead, no boss looking over your shoulder.
Squish Durowa shares his 64 square foot cart with an 800 degree oven. Photo by Deena Prichep
This week, food journalist Deena Prichep brings us stories from food carts around the Northwest—including a snapshot of what life inside a cart is really like.
Squish Durawa owns Wy'East Pizza in Portland, turning out artisan pies from a 64-square-foot trailer. He tells me he loves what he does, would never go back to his old job at the tile store.
Cloud Cap Pizza from Squish Durawa's Wy'East Pizza. Photo by Deena Prichep
Alicia Cruz pulls long hours at her food cart, Portland's Los Gorditos, side by side with her mother and father. Photo by Deena Prichep
But living the dream?
"No. I work roughly 12 hours a day," Durawa says. "Twelve, fourteen, sixteen -— it doesn't matter after twelve ."
And it's not just the hours that are rough. Durawa deals with rain that drives his customers away, and drafts that keep his dough from rising.
And he shares this small space with an 800-degree oven.
"People say we're living the dream," Durawa says. "There are moments where it feels like we may be living a dream – I don't know if it's the dream we set out for.
Like Durawa, Alicia Cruz also pulls long hours at her food cart -— Portlan''s Los Gorditos. She used to go straight from a full day of college classes to an eight-hour-shift.
And Cruz isn't just working on her own dream -— she works side by side with her mother and father.
"They like to fire me at night, and then in the morning, 'Hey, I need you to buy this and this and that.' I'm like okay. We're family, so they can do that," she says.
While most 23-year-olds try to escape their parents, Cruz literally bumps into hers.
"You barely have any elbow room. You're constantly hitting people," Cruz says. "And you don't even say sorry anymore -— you're like 'hey, we're in the truck.' You just have to put up with it ."
And even if you can negotiate the space inside, you still need a lot of technical skills to keep things running.
"You need to know as much about mechanical, automotive, fixing stuff, as much as you need to know about food," explains Stewart Cheung, owner of Buns, a gourmet burger truck in Seattle. "In the mobile food business you open the door, and say, 'What is going to screw up today?'"
Cheung does find it rewarding when customers love his burgers. And the business was something to focus on when his architecture job disappeared in the housing crisis.
But I ask him, knowing what he knows now, would he do it again?
"You have to ask me the same question in three months, when the summer's over," Cheung says with a laugh. "Then I figure out whether this is a really expensive hobby or if it is a business."
While Cheung started his cart after a layoff, Squish Durawa actually left his day job to make pizza. Though he admits the pay isn't quite the same.
"It doesn't compare," he says. "We don't like to think about these things, because we're living the dream."
Durawa puts up with these difficult realities, because he is hoping the dream will come true. Maybe he'll even turn his cart business into a brick-and-mortar pizzeria.
Alicia Cruz's family has actually realized that dream -– Los Gorditos opened a successful taqueria about a year and a half ago.
But Cruz says that the restaurant is not the only good thing to come out of the cart.
"We had to do so many things, and we had to work as a team in everything," she says. "And that has helped our relationship like nothing else."
She adds, "A lot of my friends can't even talk to their parents about little things, but I feel like I can talk to my parents about anything."
Cruz just graduated from college, and her actual dream is to work for a nonprofit. But most nights, she's pretty happy to be working, elbow-to-elbow, at her family's truck.
Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network
Cloud Cap Pizza
— Squish Durawa, Wy'East Pizza
1 ball pizza dough (10-12 ounces)
4 cloves of garlic
1 cup shredded mozzarella, loosely packed
1 Tbsp grated romano cheese
1/2 tsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 tsp each fresh oregano and thyme, finely chopped
Fresh ground black pepper
1 cup thinly-sliced mushrooms
Preheat an oven with a pizza stone to 500 degrees for about an hour. If your pizza dough has been refrigerated, let it sit, covered, at room temperature for about the same amount of time.
Chop the garlic cloves in half, spread on a shallow pan and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, and roast in the oven while it is preheating until they're well-browned (~15 minutes). Set aside.
When the oven is nearly preheated, place the pizza dough on a lightly-floured counter top, and press outward into a thick disk (leaving a 1" unpressed area along the edge as the crust). Pick up the disk and let it drape over the backs of your hands, letting gravity help you stretch it into a 12-14" circle. If the dough resists, let it relax for a few minutes, then try again.
Place the stretched dough on a peel (or overturned cookie sheet or cutting board) that's lightly dusted with semolina or other type of flour.
Spread the 1 cup of shredded mozzarella on the dough, leaving a crust edge of about 1" all the way around
Sprinkle the romano on top of the mozzarella, and scatter the roasted garlic pieces and rosemary evenly around the cheeses. Put the ricotta cheese on the pie in small scoops, and sprinkle with the remaining fresh herbs and black pepper. Cover everything generously with the sliced mushrooms, and top with a drizzle of olive oil.
Slide the pizza onto the stone in the oven—it's best to shake the peel back and forth before attempting to slide it onto the stone, which will loosen it up and make for a successful landing. Bake 7-10 minutes, or until the crust turns brown and all the cheese melts. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly, and enjoy.