Walking into the Lil’ America pod, visitors may order Korean fried chicken and mashed potatoes, or saltfish-stuffed Guyanese bakes, from the carts inside. If they walk up to the hot pink cart, however, they can order oat milk shakes, blackberry-filled tamales, and vegan corn dogs from a server in booty shorts.
Speed-o Cappuccino, one of the carts in Portland’s new, exclusively queer- and BIPOC-owned food cart pod, is, in many ways, a recipe for success in Portland: The cart specializes in vegan stoner foods like burgers and fried snacks, tamales, coffee. It’s also a bikini barista, a thoroughly Pacific Northwestern business model in which scantily clad servers supply commuters with coffee out of kiosks or carts. Speed-o opened within the Lil’ America pod in early February after two years hopping around the city, but for owner Dahlia Hanson, their latest location is a fresh start.
“I’m super excited about being here,” she says. “I was not prepared for how accepting and kind people would be here. This has been home.”
Hanson didn’t initially plan to be a food cart owner; she started as a dancer. After losing her home in California, she moved to Portland, living out of her car. She started stripping to support herself, and fell in love with the work. What she didn’t expect, however, was how supportive the community would be. “When I was houseless, dancers would be like, ‘Do you need a place to stay? Do you need clothes?’” she says. “With dancers, it’s a competition — if you’re getting paid, I’m not. But everyone wants to share that community.”
As she developed relationships with other sex workers, she discovered how many sex worker-owned businesses existed in Portland — including bikini baristas. Anyone who has lived in the Pacific Northwest has seen them: pinup-marked huts along Sandy or Columbia Boulevard, baristas pulling shots in bras. Inspired, Hanson began talking to other sex workers in food service, and started utilizing Mercy Corps’s resources for new business owners. “I was really worried people would tense up when I said I was a sex worker and my business would be a bikini barista, but everyone was really excited,” she says. “They said, ‘Oh my gosh, you should do it.’”
When it was time to open her cart, she decided to seek out fellow sex workers and dancers as staff, which she says was fairly easy — “sex workers are very confident and comfortable, and Portland has a ton of strip clubs,” she says. The cart moved from a location on MLK to the parking lot at Old Town’s Rainbow City, before eventually landing at Lil’ America.
Hanson built her menu with what she calls “bar food, but vegan and way better” — cashew mac-and-cheese with rosemary breadcrumbs, smash burgers with grilled onions. “All my ideas come to me when I’m high, so, chef’s kiss, you know?” She’s particularly proud of her fruit tamales, which come with a house-made icing she compares to that of a Toaster Strudel. “I’m Mexican, and that’s my comfort food,” she says.
The cart sources its coffee from Tostado Coffee Roasters, which exclusively sources its beans from farms in Chiapas and Oaxaca, Mexico. Beyond coffee, the cart serves a number of oat milkshakes, with flavors like strawberry, coffee chocolate, and the peanut butter chocolate Exploring Mars, named for one of the cart’s employees.
A huge part of Speed-o Cappuccino’s schtick is the experience, ordering directly from the cart’s loud and bubbly employees. But the cart also offers delivery — free for orders heading to Portland strip clubs. “I’ve gotten DoorDash and Uber Eats at the club, and I get paranoid because people have my actual information, my actual name,” Hanson says. “It’s my way of giving back.”
Speed-o Cappuccino is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 1015 SE Stark Street.