This is the summer of the food truck. Just this Spring, the city of Portland decided it was high time to allow mobile meals, and since then, food trucks have been popping up everywhere, offering finger-friendly bites like pizza cones and cup cakes. But in the midst of all this casual fare, Small Axe is serving up something pretty special. Helmed by two of Portland’s top chefs, this truck is making restaurant worthy food available in the middle of a parking lot. Craving a quick bowl of fish curry? Small Axe can make that happen.
I had my first meal at Small Axe on a sweltering July afternoon, on one of those obscenely hot days where even breathing feels like a chore. But inside the Small Axe truck, things were a bit cooler. Chef Karl Deuben buzzed about the small kitchen, assembling sandwiches, chopping vegetables, and spreading house-made roasted tomato jam over slices of white bread. “The only thing we do not make are the rolls,” he reveals. We had a hand in how they were created. One Fifty Ate Bakeshop does all our bread products except for the flatbread. The bright, acidic pickles and the fresh salsa verde, even the tangy Korean barbecue sauce, are all made by Karl and his business partner Bill Leavy, who he has been working with for upwards of ten years.
“We’ve been doing local food at every restaurant we’ve worked for in town, so we figured we should take it to a truck,” Karl said as he prepped a Panelle sandwich. Since their first gig together at Hugo’s, Bill and Karl have been developing recipes for Portland landmarks like Miyake and Back Bay Grill. Their years of restaurant experiencecoupled with their individual foodie backgroundshave culminated in this bright red truck and its casual gourmet menu.
I ask Karl to serve me some of Small Axe’s most popular items, and he is happy to oblige. After just a few minutes wait, I find myself sitting on the asphalt with staff photographer Sean Thomas, scarfing down an order of cheeseburger hand pies. While the pies themselves are a fantastic treat, filled with gooey cheese and flavorful ground beef, I’m particularly taken with the Gochujang ketchup. For those not familiar with Korean fare, Gochujang is a condiment made from fermented chills, soybeans, rice, and salt. When mixed with ketchup, it creates this deeply flavorful, slightly pungent, and mildly spicy sauce that elevates the handpies from a fun riff on the all-American meal, to a sophisticated and highly addictive snack. One mouthful hits all the bases: it’s sweet, salty, spicy, cheesy, and flaky.
After I polish off the pies, I turn to the salad for a quick palate cleanser. While the menu doesn’t rotate daily, it does change frequently to accommodate specials (and whatever produce looks good at the market). Karl explains that the white beets inspired this salad, which pairs the root vegetable with watermelon, cucumber, shiso, and a light sherry vinaigrette. This, too, is delicious. Crisp and cool with a mellow sweetness from the watermelon and an earthy richness from the beets, it tastes summery and unexpected. With a little help from Sean, I quickly finish the salad and turn to my final adversary: the fried local flounder sandwich.
At this point, I’m pretty full, but in the interest of journalism, I decide to power on. The flounder, which is served on a buttery toasted bun with bibb lettuce, salsa verde, and a touch of caesar dressing, is not nearly as heavy as I imagined. It might be fried, but it’s not at all greasy, and the generous helping of lettuce adds both texture and the illusion that I’m eating something healthy. In just a few minutes, the sandwich, and its accompanying pickles, is gone and our lunch break is over.
But trust me, I’ll be going back. If not tomorrow, then most likely the next day. Parked conveniently close to 75 Market Street, Small Axe is already a staff favorite, and I’m excited to join the fan club.