Simple, Exquisite and Inexpensive New Mexican -- in Red or Green
"Red or green?" Travel through New Mexico and this is the ubiquitous question just about every time you eat. It refers to which chile sauce you would prefer drenching your burrito, and if you're a spice fan and want to live it up, simply answer: "Christmas, please!"
It's tough to even find good green or red chiles outside of New Mexico -- trust me, I've tried. Joe Wilson, the owner, chef and staff of the Pepper Box food cart all in one, has nailed both, and he backs them up with super tasty homemade flour tortillas and quality, fresh ingredients adorning his fantastic breakfast tacos and unique vision of "sandwich-style" quesadillas. The tacos start at just $3.50 (two for $6), and they're closer in size to a burrito. It's hard to resist doubling up for the price, but one makes for a healthy snack or small meal -- two make a feast.
Wilson left his native New Mexico after stints in many of that state's restaurants to work in the foodie land of Portland. After working at several local restaurants, he branched out on his own to bring his New Mexican heritage to Portland with Pepper Box in the summer of 2010. I'm glad he did.
Chile Sauce and Breakfast Tacos Worthy of Repeat Visits
I sampled The Original breakfast taco, with eggs, potatoes, cheese and avocado -- one green, one red ($6 for two)-- while my companion went for The Farmer breakfast tacos, with eggs, peppers, onions, mushrooms, avocado, cheddar cheese and green chile crema ($7 for two). Both were exquisite, and as a former longtime New Mexico resident, I don't offer that praise lightly.
The best green chiles come from Hatch, in southern New Mexico. Start with good chiles and you'll end up with a good chile sauce -- and Pepper Box begins with Hatch green chiles. Red chile, which comes from northern New Mexico, is a different story -- in fact, I'd go so far to say that most New Mexican restaurants don't do it well. Wilson's had a great consistency -- neither thick nor runny -- and a nice pungent and tangy flavor.
Those chile sauces served atop the eggs and various accoutrements were big winners. The flour tortillas weren't traditional -- in fact they reminded me more of Greek-style pitas than any Mexican or New Mexican tortillas I've ever had -- but they were fresh (Wilson makes them daily himself), tasty and -- equally important -- sturdy enough to stand up to the heaping ingredients and the moisture of the chile sauces.
The Quesadilla Sandwiches combine deli favorites with tortillas and cheese -- the Albuquerque Turkey adds avocado, bacon, arugula and green chile crema; the Primo mixes pastrami, pepper jack, pickled peppers, onions and chipotle crema; and the Farmer brings together in-season veggies. They're $4 apiece or 2 for $7 and, again, are a whole heap of food for the money.
Mac and cheese goes New Mexican thanks to the addition of pepper jack and roasted poblano peppers to the cheddar ($3 small, $5 large, $1 extra for chorizo).
Pepper Box Food Cart Breakdown
Both green and red chiles are fantastic.
The tortillas are unique -- but are homemade, robust and awesome.
Low prices, fresh ingredients, ample portions
It's a food cart -- look elsewhere for fine dining.
Closed Sundays, Mondays and late afternoons/evenings
Limited seating -- although it is covered
Pepper Box Food Cart's Basics:
Pepper Box is located at 2737 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between NE Graham Street and NE Knott Street.
Getting to Pepper Box: If driving from downtown, cross the Morrison Street bridge, then either shoot up I-5, take the Rose Quarter exit and head north on either NE MLK or N Williams Street, or just head east to MLK and follow that all the way up. It's an easy bike ride via the Broadway bridge and N Williams Street as well, and both the number 4 and number 6 buses access the area from downtown.
Cuisine: Very reasonable, order-at-the-counter New Mexican food, including breakfast burritos and "sandwich-style" quesadillas.
Average tab per diner: $6
Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 9:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.