Four funky food halls you MUST visit in Portland

Consider the lowly food court. Typically found in generic suburban shopping malls, they feature mini-versions of large chain restaurants. Think McDonald's. Chipotle. Taco Time. Chik-fil-A. They're not so much places to dine as pit stops, ensuring that mall patrons lose as little time as possible refueling before continuing to forage.

Enter the out-of-the-box answer to mall food monotony: the food hall. While the concept sounds tame, it is anything but. The food hall brings together the best and boldest new tastes under one roof, allowing hungry patrons to pick and choose - and experiment! - with abandon. And in Portland, Oregon, these foodie paradises are the latest dining rage.

With (allegedly) more food carts than any other American city, Portland's foodie mavericks wanted a path for those micro-yet-uniquely-creative vendors to take the leap to brick-and-mortar locations, without substantial financial risk. Food halls - congregations of micro-restaurants, many of which started as food carts - offer customers a mouth-watering array of eclectic choices and communal seating. They also provide existing eateries a chance to branch out with new creations. Plus - and this is a huge plus for often rainy Portland - they are under cover. A win-win-win-win...

Here are four funky, groovy food halls that you must include on your Portland bucket list:

The Zipper

Photo by Marie Sherlock

The Zipper was the first of Portland's communal food-and-drink establishments to appear on the scene (in September 2015). The small eateries - including Basilisk (offering Big Ass fried chicken sandwiches), ChickPeaDX (falafel heaven), Slice (pizza, of course), Wares (ramen, heavenly bao, rice bowls) and a coffee spot are clustered around a dining area.

As well as a bar, Paydirt, with a bourbon focus. As it turned out the concept of selling alcohol to individuals who would then consume it in a common area was one of the stumbling blocks for the entire food hall concept. The Zipper's developers solved the problem by having the liquor license granted to the group (restaurants and bar). Selling to underage patrons and the like is a responsibility shared by the entire pod. (This solution has proved pivotal for other PDX food halls as well.)

The Zipper has a quintessential Portland vibe: cozy, eclectic and neighborly. It is my "go to" food hall - and I'm looking forward to seeing more like it.

Pine Street Market

Pine Street Market, which opened in April of last year, is an upscale Portland food hall - as much as "upscale" and "Portland" can be used in the same sentence.

Rather than erstwhile food carts, its eateries represent novel offerings from existing, popular Portland restaurants (and a Japanese ramen chain). It is also the largest of these communal businesses, weighing in at 10,000 square feet, and presents the greatest variety of eateries: OP Wurst (outside-the-bun franks), Trifecta Annex (bakery offering croissants - and pizza!), BYH Burgers (classic burgers and fries), Kim Jong Smokehouse (BBQ + Korean = steamed buns and bibimbap), Marukin Ramen, Pollo Bravo (spanish-style chicken tapas), Kure (smoothies, acai bowls), Wiz Bang (soft serve from uber-popular Salt & Straw ice creamery) and Brass Bar (coffee, tea, more).

Pine Street definitely feels higher end than The Zipper. Maybe it's the downtown location with the consequent business-attired patrons? Or perhaps it's because these are brick-and-mortar spin offs, not food carts moving to stationary life? Still, it offers a tantalizing diversity of good eats. Not to be missed.

Cart Lab

The name is a giveaway. We're back to food cart roots but with another twist on the food hall concept. Opened in November, CartLab is, essentially, a 7,000 square foot bar - with bar seating and a separate dining space - with four food carts serving up the eats. You order food at a single window and then claim your dish from "food cart alley." Options include PDX Sliders, FOMO Chicken, Tight Tacos and Koi Fusion.

The bar was former Lil Cooperstown and retains the sports theme - with screens and memorabilia - fair warning, in case that's not your thing.

Portland Food Hall

And the very latest addition (as in it opened on Friday, April 14) to Portland's food hall repertoire is the generically-but-appropriately-named Portland Food Hall.

PFH currently houses five food vendors, including Moberi (smoothies, breakfast acai bowls), Boke Dokie (Asian style fried chicken sandwiches), Aiko Ramen (ramen with a Japanese/Hawaiian twist), The Whole Bowl (a Very Portland build-your-own-bowl spot with no nuts, gluten or wheat) and Cosa (coffee and ice cream). There are two additional restaurant spots to be filled.

There's little doubt that that will happen soon. It's also a certainty that Portland will continue to experiment with its cutting edge food scene, pleasing both residents and tourists alike.

Marie Sherlock has resided in Portland, Oregon for three-plus decades during which time she practiced law, married, and then raised kids while writing, editing and authoring a parenting book. She knows, loves and embraces every inch of Portland's weirdness.