Portland's food cart scene is simply explosive. Once thought to be just a sign of the bad economy, Portland's carts have weaved their way into the local culture in a way that shows they aren't just a temporary stop gap or money saving alternative – they are now part of what makes Portland, Portland.
Like any great experiment, the food cart universe continues to change and evolve, including cart clusters like Cartopias in SE and on N Mississippi, and cart-turned-restaurants like Los Gorditos II.
KoiFusion, one of Porltand's most popular food carts, is furthering the experimentation with a "Pop-Up Shop" restaurant. The pop-up shop concept is not a new one (with temporary stores taking over vacant retail space over the holiday shopping season), but KoiFusion is the first to try to take this concept and apply it to a restaurant.
KoiFusion@1 takes over the failing SOLO lounge in the Pearl (1300 NW Lovejoy) and puts Chef Joe Anderson, formerly of Carlyle and the Portland City Grill, into the kitchen with a menu that expands beyond what can be done in a cart. The most notable addition is the amazingly delicious "KFC – Korean Fried Chicken". These crispy fried bite-sized drumsticks are a symphony of flavors which explode in your mouth. The "KFC" is a quintessential late night craving and a perfect accompaniment to a nice whiskey cocktail. Also on the new menu are Korean spiced french fries, which were equally delicious.
Although KoiFusion knocks it out of the park in the kitchen, the experiment is an abysmal failure on the bar side, with Joshua Palmer, the bar manager from Typhoon/Bo Bar holding on to some of SOLO's vodka heavy drinks. With a cocktail list completely dominated by infused vodka (with the exception of maybe one or two rum drinks), the KoiFusion@1 drink menu is a complete mismatch with the food. The two cocktails I tried from the menu were mostly pre-mixed and the bartenders seemed to be completely disinterested in mixing a quality drink. The result was limp, punch-like drinks which were completely dull and boring.
KoiFusion@1 would do better abandoning its cocktail program all together and simply serving beer and whiskey with the spicy Korean fare. As much as I loved the food, KoiFusion@1 is still a bar and unless they can nail down that side of things this experiment could fail.
With the pop-up restaurant concept KoiFusion will have to prove itself every single month, as the SOLO owners can give give them the boot at any time. It's a big bet on both sides of the equation.
It will be interesting to see if the concept is sustainable or if it's just an interesting recession-era experiment. Either way, the food is worth seeking out. Expect long lines and short runs on their Korean Fried Chicken, but plan on grabbing your drinks somewhere else.
KoiFusion@1 is at 1300 NW Lovejoy. (hours will be 4-midnight to start with lunch being added in the near future)