At Southeast 43rd and Belmont’s collection of food carts with the truth-bearing title “Good
Food Here,” there are some naughtily named food carts. Eurotrash, Lucille’s Balls, Lardo, Dog Eat Dawg and Da-Pressed don’t typically sound like they’d neighbor up with a French dining establishment, but let’s face it-anything can happen in the Portland food scene.
In the back of the cart pod sits Charlotte, your go-to girl for French food. No, she isn’t the coquettish French owner who wears a beret and smokes cigarettes. Charlotte is the name of the multi-colored 1961 Ford bus where owners Michael and Bianca Benson serve up an array of carefully prepared French cuisine at Crème de la Crème.
The menu reads more like something you should see in a white tablecloth affair, but luckily the prices are more true to the food cart expectations, with nothing over $9.
It’s separated into two sections: salads, soups and starters; and the sandwich/entrée section. Each part offers traditional French dishes, some with a Northwest touch. The French onion soup ($6) is made with caramelized onions, beef stock, sherry and topped with crunchy Gruyere croutons.
The roasted beet salad ($4 small, $6 large) reflects Portland’s affinity for fresh produce and is topped with grapefruit vinaigrette. The standout dish on the starter section (and arguably the entire menu) is the escargot. Served in a small cup with melted butter, garlic and parsley, the snails are flavorful and fun to eat with the provided plastic toothpicks. They also provide a good consistency contrast with the accompanying loaf of warm French bread (Allessio Bakery), which has a perfect crust on the outside, and warm softness on the inside.
In the entrée section, the French dip ($7) is a memorable one. The roast beef is sliced thin, and you can optionally add spicy horseradish and your choice of cheese (I suggest Gruyere). The au jus is rich and flavorful, almost good enough to sip on its own.
Other options include the Croque Monsieur (ham, Gruyere and Béchamel) for $7, an onion tart ($7) or a cucumber, Brie and butter sandwich on a baguette ($5). Most entrées come with a salad of organic greens from Sweet Leaf Farms that is lightly dressed in vinaigrette, which is tangy but not overpowering. Additions to your meal, like the lemon lavender tart and reasonably priced San Pellegrino drinks, are also available.
Crème de la Crème was originally located-along with the pork-slinging Namu food cart-in an alley off of Hawthorne, but weren’t receiving the service they expected. Luckily, their new home has brought them lots of love. The success is likely because, in combination with the quality of food, their bus offers quite a different experience from most food carts.
Like the French, Crème de la Crème encourages you to stay a while with cute vintage tables under an awning and provided reading material (everything from Saveur magazines to an old copy of “Howl”). A small note at the bottom of their menu informs customers that the preparation may take a moment or two by stating “Allow time for love.”
Customers can look forward to even more additions, like upcoming menu items such as lobster bisque, as well as a recently added special: a Chanterelle and bacon tart topped with walnut oil. Also look out for new extended hours and open days, which have been promised recently on their Facebook page.
Crème de la Crème may be serving your food out of a bus, but if you close your eyes, you might just forget that it was Charlotte who gave you lunch, not someone named Pierre.