As much as he tried, Jesse Martinez couldn’t stay away from pasta. The longtime Bar Mingo cook spent a year couch-surfing while his house was listed on Airbnb, squirreling away enough money to open a food cart where he planned to start by serving Italian food, then tangent off to whatever his heart desired. The only problem? At Gumba, which Martinez opened a year ago with best friend Robin Brassaw, the fresh pastas were such a hit, they couldn’t take them off the menu. To not get stuck with the same dishes, Martinez and Brassaw compromised with a globally inspired specials menu — Vietnamese porridge with pork belly braised in coconut water, braised and fried beef ribs tossed with fish sauce and molasses and a squid ink spaghetti with calamari — that would keep them engaged. A year later, they’re still rolling excellent bowls of pasta out of their cubbyhole pod on Northeast Alberta Street.
The dish: Many Portland Italian restaurants don’t put out pastas that look and taste this good, let alone at this price. Here, a $12 bowl of spaghetti might arrive firm and gilded in eggy carbonara-like sauce with blobs of cart-made burrata, fried shallots and sumac under a shower of delicate flowers and fennel fronds. Fresh-made pappardelle tossed in a braised short rib sugo with olives and pecorino is an earthy stunner dusted in pecorino and bread crumbs. The “pizza fritta” is an enormous, Neapolitan-style street elephant ear stuffed with porchetta, sage, Mama Lil’s peppers, pickled golden raisins and mozzarella or artichoke hearts, cascabel chile pesto and salsa rossa. It’s basically an inside-out, deep-fried pizza. We barely scratched the specials menu. But if it helps Martinez and Brassaw keep making this outstanding pasta, we’re glad it’s there.
The takeaway: Come for the pasta, stay for the pasta.
Sample menu: Chicken liver pate ($5), pappardelle ($12), spaghetti ($12), pizza fritta ($12)
Drinks: Non-alcoholic sodas and waters ($2-$4)
Go: For an excellent bowl of pasta.
Details: Dinner, Wednesday-Thursday; lunch and dinner, Friday-Sunday; 1477 N.E. Alberta St., 503-975-5951, Facebook: Gumbacart
— Samantha Bakall
Holdfast’s Will Preisch (left), Dana Frank and Joel Stocks.