At 8 p.m., Teressa Snelling flips on the neon “open” sign in the window of her Belmont Street food cart. The first customers of the evening trickle in, and she begins topping deviled eggs with smoked steelhead and house-pickled beets. Throughout the night, she feeds a cast of daily regulars: doulas heading home after a successful birth, nurses finishing shifts at Providence, and, often, other food service workers grabbing a bite after their restaurants shut down for the night. She loads takeout containers with quinoa salads crunchy with Cosmic Crisp apples, steams clams in white wine and dill butter, and stacks sandwiches with roast beef, smoked black pepper white cheddar, and Piquillo peppers.
After her cart shuts down, often after her official 2 a.m. closing time, she spends a few hours prepping for the next night before she cleans up her workspace. She walks out of the Bite on Belmont as the sun rises, in search of a quick breakfast before she heads home. “That’s one of my favorite things,” Snelling says. “All the birds are out, all the little squirrels.”
Snelling is the owner and chef behind Night Owl, Portland’s only explicitly late night-focused food cart in town. Portland, as a city, is very limited when it comes to dining after midnight; most options are found within bars, excluding a handful of food carts scattered across the city. But for many food service and night shift workers, bar menus don’t work for them: Many bar kitchens — not all — rely heavily on fryers, which can be tricky for those looking for a quick refuel in the middle of the day. Many nurses, in particular, end up eating “lunch” around midnight.
So instead of offering late night classics like chicken tenders and burgers, Night Owl’s menu almost feels closer to a luncheonette or deli. A menu of “owl bites” includes things like feta dip with vegetables, pickle plates, and apple-poppyseed slaw. The sandwich menu is extensive, with hot and cold options, a BLT, and a vegetarian number with beets and hazelnut gremolata. She tops wagyu beef hot dogs with things like like BBQ aioli, while her chili, paying homage to her heritage, uses a combination of tri-tip and ground beef. “I’m half Mexican, and the chili reflects that,” she says.
Snelling grew up in a big family with three sisters, and started playing in the kitchen when she was around 11 or 12. After beginning to pursue a degree in public health, she dropped out to go to culinary school; she left early to start a job at stalwart gourmet market Pastaworks (now Providore). Snelling worked her way through most of the market’s departments, cutting her teeth in the production kitchen before working under Davenport chef Kevin Gibson at the now-closed Evoe. “That time with Kevin was crucial,” she says. “That guy’s a genius when it comes to letting ingredients speak for themselves.”
After Evoe and Pastaworks/Providore, Snelling went in a completely different direction, and took a job working within the Viking Soul Food cart. She originally started in the cart as a stage, but owners Megan May Walhood and Jeremy Brandon Ikaika Daniels ended up hiring Snelling soon afterward when the couple’s employee quit unexpectedly. Snelling moved up the ladder to become the cart’s chef de cuisine. When it was time for her to open her own business, she stayed as close as possible: In June 2021, she opened Night Owl in the cart next door. “Megan and Jeremy are just like the most amazing people,” Snelling says. “They taught me a lot of the ins and outs, and they were the ones who pushed me to open my own business.”
As an homage to them, Snelling serves Viking Soul Food smoked fish in various dishes, including two deviled eggs: one served cold, with an everything seasoning and chive filling, sumac, rice vinegar cucumber, and dill; the other almost between a deviled and a Scotch egg, dipped in everything bagel seasoning breadcrumbs, toasted, and finished with sumac, pickled beet, and dill.
Many dishes on the cart’s menu are allusions to loved ones, family, and friends. The Murphy, named for her sister-in-law, is a sandwich she has made her for more than 10 years. It starts with a foundation of toasted ciabatta, with hot baked ham, melted Provolone, garlic aioli, and herb-marinated red onions, plus cabbage and red leaf lettuce. The Sassy Cassy — named for her sister Cassandra — relies on a combination of melted Brie, prosciutto, and apple slices; the bread gets a swipe of stone-ground mustard aioli, apricot preserves, and balsamic glaze, plus a handful of arugula for freshness. The Tony — an Italian sausage with melted cheese and peppers — is a sandwich she used make her boyfriend, Tony Thepkaysone, while he was building out the Night Owl’s food cart.
“We have been together for nine years and have been friends for over 15,” she says. “He is my best friend and my rock. ... He is an incredible craftsman and I would not be where I’m at today without all his support.”
The clams are also a nod to Thepkaysone and the couple’s love of seafood. She steams fresh clams in white wine broth, with scallions, garlic, and dill butter, plus house Cajun seasoning for those looking for a little heat. Snelling will throw in shrimp and Bay scallops for good measure, when customers are interested.
Snelling occasionally hires a few other part-time workers, but generally, she works every shift herself — which means, with prep, she works 16 to 20 hour days four days each week. “I kind of am a night owl, and I’m kind of a control freak,” she says. “I know it’s going to come out the way I want it if I make it myself.”
Night Owl is open at 4255 SE Belmont Street.