WORDS: KATE WEINER
IMAGES: DEEPAK SAXENA
Located on Alberta Street in Northeast Portland, DesiPDX is a beloved neighborhood food truck serving "local fare" with an "Indian flair." Owner Deepak is not only an excellent cook but also an advocate for sustainably-grown food. Since the inception of DesiPDX, Deepak has made it his mission to craft affordable eats from farm-fresh products, making DesiPDX a refreshing twist on the farm to table movement (here's hoping that the "farm to truck" trend takes root!)
I learned about DesiPDX, in fact, because Deepak buys several of his veggies from the farm where I work. After spending hours harvesting rat-tail radishes--a breed of radish that grows like crazy--I was curious to find out just who was buying this unique treat. And so, inspired by a personal interest in learning more about the fruits of my labor, I checked out DesiPDX with my friend Rachel. I ordered the cardamom-chai chicken wings and discovered that they were served with a tangle of pickled rat-tail radishes on the side. It was a superb meal, made all the more delicious by both the aromatic brine (Deepak steeps his wings in tea for two days) and product provenance. When you're working with veggies straight from the soil down the street, it's hard to go wrong.
I recently sat down with Deepak on a muggy afternoon to talk about the origins of DesiPDX and bringing the farm into the food truck. He graciously served me a delectable plate of rice and beans, garnished with cilantro seeds I'd plucked from the plant just last week.
Deepak's route to where he is now has been nothing short of unconventional. Born in India and raised in Mozambique, Brazil, and Indiana, Deepak grew up immersed in international flavors. He didn't take up cooking, however, until his early twenties. After testing out a few of his Mom's recipes--and garnering praise from family and friends alike-- Deepak continued to nourish his culinary skills and grow his passion for food. Food is what would bring Deepak to Portland in 2004--although up until February of this year, he was still working in the tech industry.
What made Deepak swap a career in computer engineering for manning his own food truck? "Last year," Deepak shares, "during my review for my tech job, my boss asked me 'where do you see yourself in two years?'" That (not so) simple question made Deepak realize that he wanted food to be his livelihood. Once he made that decision, he was on the go. Within three months, he left his job and opened up DesiPDX. Although he toyed around with a couple of other ideas--working as a personal chef, opening up a flavored popcorn stall--DesiPDX struck the right balance between affording Deepak the opportunity to foster interpersonal connections and giving him the space to be experimental with his cooking. And as the great reception from the neighborhood attests, Portland is sure glad he made that call. DesiPDX is home to the kind of goodies--pakora waffles, belly bowls--that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
Desi means both authentic and unadulturated, as well as refers to a person of Indian descent. Deepak sees DesiPDX, in this sense, as a play on conventional notions of authenticity. It's Indian food that sources its inspiration from Oregon's natural bounty. As Deepak tells me, many of his culinary experiments are inspired by the unusual produce grown on the farms that he collaborates with. He is particularly interested in working with urban farms that are challenging our conceptualizations of who a farmer is and what a farm looks like. So much of the food industry is male-dominated: Deepak appreciates collaborating with female urban farmers who are defying gender norms and creating productive agricultural spaces in unconventional locales.
Moving forward, Deepak hopes to start organizing supper clubs in order to provide him and his customers a unique opportunity to experiment with flavors, vegetables, and pairings. He could envision a bricks and mortar place years from now: his present mission, however, is to grow the DesiPDX community and continue to hone his culinary skills. DesiPDX is evidence that affordability and high-quality food can mix, that sustainability and community-building work in tandem. What's authenticity? Recognizing that there is no one singular way of being, eating, connecting. And it's that kind of thinking that leaves room for the type of inventive, delicious, inspiring farm-food collaborations that DesiPDX is fostering within the Alberta Arts District.