The search for America’s best food cities: Portland, Ore.

The search for America’s best food cities: Portland, Ore.

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Published on June 30, 2015

Fourth in a monthly series

Imagine a city where no one honks their horn and drivers pause mid-block to assure pedestrians safe passage from one sidewalk to another.

Picture an urban landscape painted in rivers, forests and mountains — Frontierland as if created by Alice Waters.

Above: Breakfast is a meal worth commemorating in Portland, as this diner captures a photo of his meal at Sweedeedee.

Click to play: See why no other city in the country takes its morning meal as seriously as Portland.

Envision a part of the world where waiters write “Albion” before “strawberries” on a chalkboard menu to flag a local treat, taxi drivers tag the restaurant you’re going to when you simply say the address (“Pok Pok!”), breakfast and brunch are practically civic duties, an entire bookstore is devoted to matters of home and garden, and some of the Thai cooking rivals Chiang Mai’s raciest.

Welcome to Portland, as in Oregon, the land of milk and honey — also coffee, tea, beer, wine, game, berries, crab, salmon, ice cream in flavors lifted from food trucks and olive oil that chefs compare favorably to Italy’s liquid gold.

The Search for America's Best Food Cities:
Part I:
Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston
Part X: Washington D.C.

Dubbed Stumptown, a nickname acquired in the mid-19th century when logging outpaced the full clearing of trees, Portland is the fourth stop on my exploration of America’s best food cities, which has taken me to Charleston, S.C., San Francisco and Chicago and will continue to six more markets. In December, I’ll rank my destinations based on such factors as creativity, tradition and community.

Setting the stage for five days of eating my way around Portland in June, a friend and resident forecast a satirical sketch comedy: “Everything you see on ‘Portlandia’? It’s kind of true.”

He was right.

Clockwise from top: Oregonians enjoy a warm evening outside Mayas Taqueria in Portland; Le Pigeon chef Gabriel Rucker demonstrates a new dish for his sous chefs; a chicken curry thali meal at Bollywood Theater.

Photo gallery: A close-up of Portland’s dining scene.

Where chefs come to stay
Describing the bounty of his native Oregon in his 1964 memoir “Delights & Prejudices,” James Beard, the dean of American cooking, wrote, “No place on earth, with the exception of Paris, has done so much to influence my professional life.” Although the land and water made for an exceptional pantry for cooks — cue Hood strawberries so juicy and fragile they rarely leave the state fresh, and more than 300 types of truffles — the restaurant scene before the early 1990s was “quiet,” says a diplomatic Janie Hibler, the author of five cookbooks about the region. Gourmet magazine almost turned her down when she pitched a restaurant find more than two decades ago; her editor didn’t think Portland worthy of ink.

Karen Brooks, the influential food editor and critic of Portland Monthly, sums up the period this way: “We didn’t have the menus, but we had this treasure chest open and waiting for us.”

To understand the food scene that was, and the food capital Portland has become, it helps to be familiar with Zefiro, the restaurant introduced 24 years ago by a trio of talents with ties to San Francisco: chef Chris Israel, maitre d’ Bruce Carey and food scout Monique Siu. Radicals and rich alike thronged to the amber-lit venue for cooking that looked to Italy for inspiration, but also to the great outdoors. “Everything about its mood and menu signifies a turning point in local culinary aesthetics,” raved the Oregonian in 1991.

Where Tom went:

Shop

Alma

Sarah Hart got her start selling fanciful chocolate icons dressed in gold leaf at the big Portland Farmers Market. Eight years ago, she opened a shop, named for her grandmother, to show off the rest of her repertoire: bonbons whose fillings change with the season, Thai peanut bars and shots of melted dark chocolate. Coming this summer: a second location in Southeast Portland at Alma’s manufacturing site.

140 NE 28th Ave.

503-517-0262

www.almachocolate.com

Restaurant

Ataula

A rare taste of Spain in Stumptown, from Barcelona native Jose Chesa. He’s the skill behind braised veal on house-baked brioche, salt cod fritters and white gazpacho — sparkling with pineapple granita — and the smile that lights up the wood-beamed dining room. (Ataula is a Catalan phrase Chesa’s parents used back home; it means “To the table.”)

1818 NW 23rd Pl.

503-894-8904

ataulapdx.com

Bakery

Blue Star Donuts

Forget Voodoo Doughnuts. Discerning sweet tooths will steer you to the refined rings at Blue Star, which relies on a French brioche recipe and local butter, milk, flour and cage-free eggs for its glorious creations: doughnuts in such flavors as Mexican hot chocolate and blueberry-bourbon-basil.

3549 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

503-477-9635

www.bluestardonuts.com

Restaurant

Bollywood Theater

A stage set of a self-serve restaurant that evokes the colors and flavors of Mumbai. Snack on julienned fried okra hit with chilies, samosas crammed with lamb and spiced potatoes, and roasted beets tossed with curry leaves and coconut milk.

2039 NE Alberta St.

971-200-4711

www.bollywoodtheaterpdx.com

Restaurant

Castagna

Some of the most sophisticated food in town, from chef Justin Woodward. His summer tasting menu is informed by his time at the late WD-50 in New York. Highlights: Oregon shrimp with toasted jalapeño, green strawberries and kohlrabi; brined, smoked pork with blood orange-tinted hollandaise; French meringue, frozen in liquid nitrogen and served with goat milk ice cream.

1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

503-231-7373

castagnarestaurant.com

Restaurant

Clyde Common

This downtown tavern — “the living room of the city,” says writer Karen Brooks — hosts the most international happy hour. Knock back the $4 beers and $6 wines and cocktails with grilled duck hearts, saganaki and lumpia. Spring for the refreshing Spelling Bee: tequila, agave, absinthe and grapefruit peel.

1014 SW Stark St.

503-228-3333

www.clydecommon.com

Restaurant

Davenport

The vibe is so relaxed that when you call to say you're running late, you hear, “Oh, we don’t care.” Yet every taste — agnolotti floating with spring peas and porcinis in chicken broth, golden sand dabs with shaved asparagus — reveals a stickler’s attention. The care taken by chef Kevin Gibson extends to the wine service by Kurt Heilemann.

2215 E. Burnside St.

503-236-8747

www.davenportpdx.com

Bar

Expatriate

A moody, candlelit, classics-focused drinking den by husband-and-wife team Kyle Webster (the bar ace) and Naomi Pomeroy (chef-owner of Beast, across the street). The snacks — shrimp toast, Burmese tea leaf salad, Korean fried game hen — tilt Asian, with a nostalgic exception: Portland native James Beard’s crazy-simple onion-and-butter sandwich.

5424 NE 30th Ave.

(no phone)

expatriatepdx.com

Coffee

Heart

A spare coffee lab with a Nordic soul created by Finnish pro snowboarder Wille Yli-Luoma, whose recipe for an optimal cup of java starts with green beans and a light roast.

2211 E. Burnside St.

503-206-6602

www.heartroasters.com

Bakery

Ken’s Artisan Bakery

Master baker Ken Forkish, a former software engineer, makes a French walnut bread that will whisk you to Poilâne in Paris; his pretty macarons rise with the fruit of the moment. His award-winning cookbook, “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” spills secrets for the home cook. One bite of his buttery croissants, and you'll be glad he ditched the tech world for the dough scene.

338 NW 21st Ave.

503-248-2202

kensartisan.com

Restaurant

Langbaan

This dusky restaurant-within-a-restaurant is the city's toughest reservation and its premiere Thai tour, led by Bangkok native Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom. His evolving tasting menu recently stopped in Chiang Mai for scallops, galangal and coconut cream in a tiny crispy-rice cup; fiery lamb tartare with mint, avocado and rice powder; and robust curry with pork belly, hanger steak, peanuts and ginger.

6 SE 28th Ave.

971-344-2564

langbaanpdx.com

Restaurant

Lovely's Fifty Fifty

Portland’s three-branch Salt & Straw gets more attention, but superior scoops can be had at this ice cream and pizza parlor, where the flavors of the former run to fig leaf-vanilla and anise-hyssop. “I like steeping herbs,” says Sarah Minnick, one of two sisters who own the treasure.

4039 N. Mississippi Ave.

503-281-4060

lovelysfiftyfifty.wordpress.com

Shop

The Meadow

Is it a boutique or a shrine? Whatever you call it, The Meadow beckons with 100 salts, 700 kinds of chocolate and bitters in flavors from anise to maple moonshine. Tequila shot glasses made with Himalayan salt will set you back $8 a pop.

3731 N. Mississippi Ave.

503-288-4633

themeadow.com

Market

New Seasons Market

Ask a question about a mango, and the produce guy cuts you a slice. Inquire about what look like bullet-shaped blueberries, and another tells you about honeysuckle from Siberia. Upscale labels appear alongside common brands, which means the dozen-plus coffee choices include the best of what’s local -- and also Folgers.

6400 N. Interstate Ave.

503-467-4777

www.newseasonsmarket.com

Restaurant

Nodoguro

What began as a pop-up morphed last year into a captivating Japanese restaurant inside a grocery store. Chef Ryan Roadhouse’s tasting menus spring from a kaiseki obsession that permits delicious rule-bending, such as kelp-wrapped, sake-kissed abalone and sweet Dungeness crab draped in an egg dressing atop buckwheat.

3735 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

(no phone)

nodoguropdx.com

Bakery

Nuvrei Bakery

The almond croissant will spoil you for any other, and the flaky Danish, sweetened with berries that owner Marius Pop might have picked himself, may be the best you've ever had. A veteran of Payard Patisserie in New York, Pop presides over a display that includes a rainbow of macarons sold in the underground Mac Bar. Pop says "nu vrei" is Romanian for “Would you like some?” Of course you would.

404 NW 10th Ave.

503-972-1700

www.nuvrei.com

Restaurant

Ox

The heart of this Argentine-inspired restaurant by Greg and Gabrielle Denton is the massive wood grill, from which emerge mouthwatering dishes. A few favorites: smoked beef tongue with sweetbread “croutons,” clam chowder with jalapeños and bone marrow, roseate ribeye from Uruguay, and artichokes cooked in coals.

2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

503-284-3366

oxpdx.com

Bar

Pepe Le Moko

In the tiny foyer: an oyster shucker. A flight of stairs down: a bunker of a bar, so dark you’re tempted to ask for a flashlight. On the menu: drinks that tend to get no respect — grasshoppers, espresso martinis — remade for modern tastes. Try the smooth amaretto sour with a brandied cherry. Sip, sip away!

407 SW 10th Ave.

503-546-8537

pepelemokopdx.com

Restaurant

Pok Pok

Andy Ricker snagged attention for Portland and Thai cooking 10 years ago when he opened a shack to serve the street food he had fallen hard for overseas. Not to be missed is the sticky, smoky game hen served with an eyelash-curling dipping sauce. Homemade drinking vinegars help fuel the cocktails and stanch any flames.

3226 SE Division St.

503-232-1387

www.pokpokpdx.com

Market

PSU Portland Farmers Market

One of the top farmers markets in the country, this year-round, 140-stall draw unfolds on Saturdays on the lush grounds of Portland State University. Buy hazelnuts from Freddy Guys, charcuterie from Chop Butchery & Charcuterie, corn tortillas from Three Sisters Nixtamal and mushrooms — porcinis, morels, lion's mane — from Springwater Farm.

SW Park & SW Montgomery (approx. 1717 SW Park Ave.)

503-241-0032

www.portlandfarmersmarket.org

Shop

Powell's City of Books

Among the city’s most beloved institutions is Powell’s, whose flagship store counts more than 1 million books on its shelves. Gravitate to the epic Orange Room, home to overstocked cookbooks from around the world, vintage copies of “The Joy of Cooking” and “Larousse Gastronomique” and even “The Portlandia Cookbook.”

1005 W. Burnside St.

503-228-4651

www.powells.com

Shop

Powell's Books for Home and Garden

The Hawthorne District offshoot of the flagship City of Books specializes in works related to house and yard projects, cooking and entertaining.

3747 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

503-228-4651

www.powells.com

Restaurant

Renata

This new Italian restaurant is awash with reasons to visit: The owner is a former frontman at the acclaimed French Laundry, the chef previously worked at the starry Quince in San Francisco and the cheese plate features fromage made by the creamery next door. Ace drinks, dewy geoduck crudo and a wood oven (pizza!) forecast a hot spot in the making.

626 SE Main St.

503-954-2708

www.renatapdx.com

Coffee

Ristretto Roasters

Founder and owner Din Johnson personally sources the coffee for his pedigreed, medium-roast brews, which change with the season. Want to learn more about what you’re drinking? Ristretto’s sleek cafes host weekly cuppings for free.

555 NE Couch St.

503-284-6767

ristrettoroasters.com

Restaurant

Screen Door

If you have time for only one breakfast, make it this convivial Southern charmer, easy to spot due to the inevitable line out the door. The rewards are cayenne-spiked hush puppies; tender omelets packed with smoked mushrooms, goat cheese and kale; and buttermilk fried chicken stacked on a sweet potato waffle.

2337 E. Burnside St.

503-542-0880

www.screendoorrestaurant.com

Restaurant

Sweedeedee

Ten bucks buys a breakfast plate for the memory books: a perfect fried egg, a raft of brioche, crisp bacon, seasonal fruit and lightly dressed lettuce leaves. Pies, such as the custardy honey pie made with a crackle of salt, are divine. Throw in overhead vines, strong coffee and service that’s all smiles, and you’ve got a full house every a.m.

5202 N. Albina Ave.

503-946-8087

www.sweedeedee.com

Sounds of the Portland Farmers Market

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Soon, other artists followed, eager to return to their roots or plant themselves in a more relaxed environment. Chef Cory Schreiber, a veteran of the restaurant scenes in San Francisco, Chicago and Boston, returned to his native Oregon, where his family owned an oyster bar dating to 1907, in part to reacquaint himself with the prime ingredients of his youth. “I had amnesia for 12 years!” he says now of his work before Wildwood, the proudly Pacific Northwestern restaurant he opened in 1994 with two wood-fired ovens. (The establishment closed last year after a 20-year run.)

In France, onetime New York chef Vitaly Paley was cooking at the two-star Michelin restaurant Au Moulin de la Gorce near Limoges when he noticed the origin of the sumptuous morels his employer was using: Oregon. So impressed was Paley by the promise of such edible gems that when he returned to the States, he ended up settling in Portland instead of Manhattan, where he had cooked at such hits as Union Square Cafe, Remi and Chanterelle. Paley’s Place opened to wide acclaim in 1995. Ten years later, its headliner received a James Beard award for Best Chef Northwest. (A Portland chef has won that honor over one from Washington state in three of the past five years.)

How Portland stacks up

Creativity

Can you say Pok Pok? Hams from around the globe — and craft cocktails to match — are featured at the new Hamlet in the Pearl District, while the freshly minted Chizu serves cheese as if it were sushi at an intimate 11-seat bar. The city’s myriad food carts and pop-ups also underscore Portland’s entrepreneurial spirit. Novelty has its limits, best demonstrated by the “food cart” flavors scooped up at Salt & Straw: kimchi and ice cream? No, thanks.

Community

Host to the popular Feast, a fall food and wine celebration that includes panels and cooking demos, the net proceeds of which contribute to ending childhood hunger.

Tradition

Unlike other major markets, Portland celebrates its bounty more or less out of hand rather than in the form of a signature dish. Recipes tend to be ingredient-driven. “In a state with no regional cuisine, no defining dishes, no take-to-the-grave secrets, the cult of ingredients has always reigned,” writes Portland critic Karen Brooks in “The Mighty Gastropolis: A Journey Through the Center of America’s Food Revolution.”

Ingredients

This slice of the Pacific Northwest seduces with Chinook (king) salmon, Dungeness crab, a rainbow of berries, a forest of mushrooms and world-class pinot noir. Seek out the local marionberries, dubbed “the cabernet of blackberries” for their richness.

Shopping

The city’s businesses can fulfill almost every food whim, be it a shop specializing in salt, chocolate and bitters (the Meadow); a grocery store that combines basic goods with designer labels at fair prices (New Seasons); or farmers markets that help set the gold standard in the country (see: the Saturday model on the campus at Portland State University). In the planning stages: the James Beard Public Market, an homage to Portland’s most famous cook, on the Willamette waterfront. Designs call for market halls, more than 100 vendor stalls and a teaching kitchen. U-pick farms and orchards abound.

Variety

On the liquid front, Portland brims with premium coffee roasters, brew pubs, tea sources and spirits makers (notably eaux de vie and other liqueurs produced by Clear Creek Distillery). Regarding restaurants, examples of distinguished Thai and Vietnamese cooking are especially impressive. Other parts of the world — say, Latin America and China — enjoy less representation, and despite a population with considerable Native American and Scandinavian roots, those ties aren’t much in evidence menu-wise. Fine-dining spots are also few. As Michael Russell, the restaurant critic for the Oregonian, says, “Portlanders prefer places where they feel comfortable in their hiking boots and fleece.”

Service

If you’ve watched “Portlandia,” you know the drill. Expect smiles — along with sincerity that borders on the precious.

The “wild west of food,” populated with chefs who aren’t afraid to take risks, Portland is a heady feast composed of world-class ingredients plucked from nearby waters, forests and fields. The city’s abundant amenities include one of the best farmers markets in the country, first-rate food shopping and some of the finest sips – of coffee, beer, spirits and pinot noir – anywhere in the nation.

Along with Greg Higgins of Higgins restaurant, Schreiber and Paley “set the table” for the area by establishing a grower-connected network and forming strong relationships with farmers, foragers and fishermen, says Brooks, also the author of the captivating “The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland.”

The bench deepened a decade or so ago, when another wave of talent emerged, including Naomi Pomeroy — best known for her supper-clubby Beast and later appearance on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters” — and a slew of proteges who went on to open restaurants that lured food critics onto planes to taste them. Witness Tommy Habetz (Bunk Sandwiches), Troy MacLarty (Bollywood Theater), Gabriel Rucker (the nose-to-tail Le Pigeon, followed by Little Bird).

World-class ingredients draw chefs to the area and keep them there. So do low rents, cheap liquor licenses and loose regulations, says Marc Hinton, author of “A History of Pacific Northwest Cuisine: Mastodons to Molecular Gastronomy.” The Portland-based blogger says, “You can be really small and make a whole lot of noise across the country.”

Or simply across the dining room, as at Pok Pok, where my cab driver at PDX dropped me off for a reunion with smoky, succulent game hen and funky, fiery ground duck liver — Thai food by enthusiast Andy Ricker that’s every bit as exciting as I remember it from my first meal at the outsize shack five years ago. (Like its residents, restaurant interiors here tend not to be flashy. The spotlight is reserved for the food.)

Jose Chesa, the Barcelona native behind two-year-old Ataula, one of the best Spanish kitchens on the West Coast, says he was drawn to Portland from Puerto Rico by a “small-town feeling” where “everyone takes care of everyone” and his profession is “all about the farmers, the ingredients.” Greg Denton met his wife and co-chef, Gabrielle, while the two were cooking at the destination Terra in Napa Valley. The couple moved on to Hawaii but traded island life for the Pacific Northwest, where they opened the Argentine-inspired Ox in 2012. “We’ve never felt as settled as we do in Portland,” Denton says. Unlike their previous locales, says the chef, Portland seemed like a blank canvas: “There are no real restrictions, no cuisine you need to stick by.” (By way of example, the commonplace pad Thai is intentionally absent from the list at Pok Pok.)

“We’re the Wild West of food,” says Brooks. “People here channel the traditions they love, often European or Asian, and make them their own.” Enter Bollywood Theater, a celebration of Indian street food; Langbaan, a speak-easy of a restaurant whose tasting menu transports diners to Thailand; and Nodoguru, a pop-up turned permanent Japanese feast — in a grocery store. “The pioneering spirit is still alive and well,” says Paley, whose empire has grown to three places to eat plus a once-a-month Russian pop-up.

Every chef I spoke with credited an open and appreciative audience, diners with a keen interest in knowing where their food comes from, for spurring them on. “When you can look out your window and see Mount Hood and the Columbia River, people feel connected to the land,” says Schreiber, now a cooking instructor with the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Portland. While Pomeroy laments all the “pork-bellying” she sees in her back yard, she, too, applauds a “willing and excited” clientele.

For sure. Small-town Portland supports such niche concepts as Alma, an-all chocolate boutique created after its owner became frustrated with the choices available for filling her son’s Easter basket, and the Meadow, a curated selection of salt, bitters and chocolate from around the world. Portlanders can get CSA deliveries of ice cream, and coffee in waves. Stumptown set the bar high when it helped introduce farm-direct coffee bean sourcing and artisanal roasting in 1999, and unlike a certain competitor to the north, its coffee shops and wholesale accounts remain mostly local.

Pride of place is part of many food transactions. “Nobody just serves things,” says Brooks. “Everybody proudly serves” — whatever. At Burgerville, the fast-food feeder based in nearby Vancouver, Wash., summer specials feature fresh raspberry milkshakes and Walla Walla onion rings. Chefs gush about olive oil from Red Ridge Farms in the Dundee Hills. And guests who order coffee from room service at the new Hotel Eastlund are informed that the brew comes from “Ristretto Roasters, just down the street,” says an employee of the hotel bakery. “It’s a pretty big deal here.” (Pride with a side of chipperness is another Portland token.)

The biggest concern for any business in a city of just over 600,000 residents is the “challenge to remain unique” and stand out among the competition, says Marius Pop, a veteran of the refined Payard Patisserie in New York whose chic Nuvrei Bakery in Portland sells exquisite almond croissants and bite-size strawberry-basil canelés. “We don’t have enough people for as many options as there are,” he adds, which encourages chefs and others to work harder.

Clockwise from top left: A young customer chooses a treat from the Little T Bakery case in Portland; a breakfast plate of farm eggs, raw cheddar, brioche toast and seasonal greens at Sweedeedee; customers wait for Egyptian dishes at a food cart in downtown Portland; the waterway as seen from the Hawthorne Bridge over the Willamette River.

In breakfast lines, ‘an outdoor party’
“If you want to understand what’s going on in the restaurants,” says Heidi Yorkshire, “go to the market.”

A former food journalist and current wedding officiant, she’s my escort at the premier Portland Farmers Market on the lush grounds of Portland State University on a sunny Saturday morning in summer. (Portland counts more than 20 farmers markets just in the city; plans are underway to open an indoor, waterfront James Beard Public Market, complete with conference center, as early as 2018.) Few other markets in the country give a shopper such a sense of place as this grazer’s Eden of berries, including the complex marionberry, a hybrid test-grown in nearby Marion County; of mushrooms such as lion’s mane, its flavor reminiscent of lobster; of walk-away crab cocktails; of hazelnuts that make me feel as if I’m eating the nut for the first time.

Photo Gallery

A close-up of Portland's dining scenen

A close-up of Portland’s dining scene.

Heirloom rhubarb, anyone? Say sí to the fresh corn tortillas distributed as samples at Three Sisters Nixtamal, and be sure to drop by Chop Butchery & Charcuterie for a taste of spicy porkstrami. If you don’t mind the wait to warm them in a mobile brick oven, the bagels plied with cherry jam, peppery greens and crisp bacon at Tastebud, yet another draw at the outdoor market, make a supreme hand-held breakfast.

Speaking of which, no other city in the country takes its morning meal as seriously as Portland, whose hopping weekday breakfast scene could pass for Saturday night on the town just about anywhere else. Sweedeedee opens with the possibility of pie (home in on a slice of the honey), while the Southern-minded Screen Door makes a specialty of fried chicken and waffles. On weekends, 500 customers on average gravitate to Screen Door, says co-owner David Mouton, who has seen block-long lines outside the destination, where a voicemail prompt thoughtfully shares wait times. Within minutes of opening its doors for brunch, Navarre finds a full house and patrons scribbling what they want on sheets of paper, based on dozens of French, Spanish or Italian choices. No one save me seems bothered that the food — a crimson salad of cherries and beets, pleasing crab cakes with red-pepper jelly and duck with strawberry sauce — takes more than an hour to get from the tiny kitchen to its recipients. Portlanders are a patient bunch.

[Recipe: Screen Door Breakfast Hush Puppies]

The obsession with breakfast and brunch, Mouton theorizes, stems from the area’s many non-traditional and self-employed workers and their appreciation of small businesses. (The median household income in Portland is just under $60,000.) Compared with dinner, “there’s an affordability about breakfast and brunch,” says Brooks, the critic. “People spin an event out of it.” Lines and waits, which encourage conversation among strangers, turn the first meal of the day into “an outdoor party,” she says.

Clockwise from top left: Gunnar Sorenson eats an ice cream cone from the creative Salt & Straw ice cream shop in Portland; customers wait for Thai food from Nong’s Khao Man Gai food cart; food carts are organized into pods, of which there are more than 50 throughout the city.

You can find it all on food carts
The city’s unofficial slogan — “Keep Portland Weird,” borrowed from Austin, Texas — pops up on signs and bumper stickers and gets realized in real life. Oregon is the only state besides New Jersey that doesn’t allow people to pump their own gas, and Portland counts the largest number of strip clubs per capita in the country. (Casa Diablo, in northwest Portland, hints at the city’s inclusiveness with its vegan menu. Dancers there are forbidden to wear leather or fur. Can a “Portlandia” sketch be far behind?)

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Few American cities do quirk as deliciously as this one, evinced in part by one of the country’s most colorful food cart scenes. Between 500 and 600 vendors occupy permanent spots — no need to check a Twitter feed to verify position! — in more than 40 lots, according to Brett Burmeister, the owner of Food Carts Portland, an online guide for street food fans. Incubators of talent, the lots typically see 10 or more vendors a year morph into bricks-and-mortar businesses.

Progressive urban planning allowed sausages, tacos and rice bowls to be dispensed from carts as far back as the mid-1980s, Burmeister says, but the concept snowballed in the mid-2000s along with the city’s enhanced restaurant scene. Some of the food cart pods come with entertainment, fire pits and even hair salons.

Name a cuisine or dish, and chances are good that a Portland cart has it covered. Insiders talk up the lefse and gravlax at Viking Soul Food, the Japanese street food at Buki and the pakora-fried chicken laced with black cardamom-spiced honey at Tiffin Asha. From its cart, the Bridgetown Bagel Company mixes, rolls, proofs, boils and bakes its signature from scratch.

While “it’s hard to find a standard hot dog anymore,” says Burmeister, he knows exactly where to go for reindeer sausage.

Perhaps the coolest take-away from Portland, where everyone seems to have a point of brew but no one seems smug about it, is the sentiment shared by a member of the city’s old guard, Vitaly Paley. The intriguing restaurants I experienced? The uncommon shops I visited? “It’s not done for novelty,” says the chef. “It’s a way of life.”

Where Tom went:

Shop

Alma

Sarah Hart got her start selling fanciful chocolate icons dressed in gold leaf at the big Portland Farmers Market. Eight years ago, she opened a shop, named for her grandmother, to show off the rest of her repertoire: bonbons whose fillings change with the season, Thai peanut bars and shots of melted dark chocolate. Coming this summer: a second location in Southeast Portland at Alma’s manufacturing site.

140 NE 28th Ave.

503-517-0262

www.almachocolate.com

Restaurant

Ataula

A rare taste of Spain in Stumptown, from Barcelona native Jose Chesa. He’s the skill behind braised veal on house-baked brioche, salt cod fritters and white gazpacho — sparkling with pineapple granita — and the smile that lights up the wood-beamed dining room. (Ataula is a Catalan phrase Chesa’s parents used back home; it means “To the table.”)

1818 NW 23rd Pl.

503-894-8904

ataulapdx.com

Bakery

Blue Star Donuts

Forget Voodoo Doughnuts. Discerning sweet tooths will steer you to the refined rings at Blue Star, which relies on a French brioche recipe and local butter, milk, flour and cage-free eggs for its glorious creations: doughnuts in such flavors as Mexican hot chocolate and blueberry-bourbon-basil.

3549 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

503-477-9635

www.bluestardonuts.com

Restaurant

Bollywood Theater

A stage set of a self-serve restaurant that evokes the colors and flavors of Mumbai. Snack on julienned fried okra hit with chilies, samosas crammed with lamb and spiced potatoes, and roasted beets tossed with curry leaves and coconut milk.

2039 NE Alberta St.

971-200-4711

www.bollywoodtheaterpdx.com

Restaurant

Castagna

Some of the most sophisticated food in town, from chef Justin Woodward. His summer tasting menu is informed by his time at the late WD-50 in New York. Highlights: Oregon shrimp with toasted jalapeño, green strawberries and kohlrabi; brined, smoked pork with blood orange-tinted hollandaise; French meringue, frozen in liquid nitrogen and served with goat milk ice cream.

1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

503-231-7373

castagnarestaurant.com

Restaurant

Clyde Common

This downtown tavern — “the living room of the city,” says writer Karen Brooks — hosts the most international happy hour. Knock back the $4 beers and $6 wines and cocktails with grilled duck hearts, saganaki and lumpia. Spring for the refreshing Spelling Bee: tequila, agave, absinthe and grapefruit peel.

1014 SW Stark St.

503-228-3333

www.clydecommon.com

Restaurant

Davenport

The vibe is so relaxed that when you call to say you're running late, you hear, “Oh, we don’t care.” Yet every taste — agnolotti floating with spring peas and porcinis in chicken broth, golden sand dabs with shaved asparagus — reveals a stickler’s attention. The care taken by chef Kevin Gibson extends to the wine service by Kurt Heilemann.

2215 E. Burnside St.

503-236-8747

www.davenportpdx.com

Bar

Expatriate

A moody, candlelit, classics-focused drinking den by husband-and-wife team Kyle Webster (the bar ace) and Naomi Pomeroy (chef-owner of Beast, across the street). The snacks — shrimp toast, Burmese tea leaf salad, Korean fried game hen — tilt Asian, with a nostalgic exception: Portland native James Beard’s crazy-simple onion-and-butter sandwich.

5424 NE 30th Ave.

(no phone)

expatriatepdx.com

Coffee

Heart

A spare coffee lab with a Nordic soul created by Finnish pro snowboarder Wille Yli-Luoma, whose recipe for an optimal cup of java starts with green beans and a light roast.

2211 E. Burnside St.

503-206-6602

www.heartroasters.com

Bakery

Ken’s Artisan Bakery

Master baker Ken Forkish, a former software engineer, makes a French walnut bread that will whisk you to Poilâne in Paris; his pretty macarons rise with the fruit of the moment. His award-winning cookbook, “Flour Water Salt Yeast,” spills secrets for the home cook. One bite of his buttery croissants, and you'll be glad he ditched the tech world for the dough scene.

338 NW 21st Ave.

503-248-2202

kensartisan.com

Restaurant

Langbaan

This dusky restaurant-within-a-restaurant is the city's toughest reservation and its premiere Thai tour, led by Bangkok native Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom. His evolving tasting menu recently stopped in Chiang Mai for scallops, galangal and coconut cream in a tiny crispy-rice cup; fiery lamb tartare with mint, avocado and rice powder; and robust curry with pork belly, hanger steak, peanuts and ginger.

6 SE 28th Ave.

971-344-2564

langbaanpdx.com

Restaurant

Lovely's Fifty Fifty

Portland’s three-branch Salt & Straw gets more attention, but superior scoops can be had at this ice cream and pizza parlor, where the flavors of the former run to fig leaf-vanilla and anise-hyssop. “I like steeping herbs,” says Sarah Minnick, one of two sisters who own the treasure.

4039 N. Mississippi Ave.

503-281-4060

lovelysfiftyfifty.wordpress.com

Shop

The Meadow

Is it a boutique or a shrine? Whatever you call it, The Meadow beckons with 100 salts, 700 kinds of chocolate and bitters in flavors from anise to maple moonshine. Tequila shot glasses made with Himalayan salt will set you back $8 a pop.

3731 N. Mississippi Ave.

503-288-4633

themeadow.com

Market

New Seasons Market

Ask a question about a mango, and the produce guy cuts you a slice. Inquire about what look like bullet-shaped blueberries, and another tells you about honeysuckle from Siberia. Upscale labels appear alongside common brands, which means the dozen-plus coffee choices include the best of what’s local -- and also Folgers.

6400 N. Interstate Ave.

503-467-4777

www.newseasonsmarket.com

Restaurant

Nodoguro

What began as a pop-up morphed last year into a captivating Japanese restaurant inside a grocery store. Chef Ryan Roadhouse’s tasting menus spring from a kaiseki obsession that permits delicious rule-bending, such as kelp-wrapped, sake-kissed abalone and sweet Dungeness crab draped in an egg dressing atop buckwheat.

3735 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

(no phone)

nodoguropdx.com

Bakery

Nuvrei Bakery

The almond croissant will spoil you for any other, and the flaky Danish, sweetened with berries that owner Marius Pop might have picked himself, may be the best you've ever had. A veteran of Payard Patisserie in New York, Pop presides over a display that includes a rainbow of macarons sold in the underground Mac Bar. Pop says "nu vrei" is Romanian for “Would you like some?” Of course you would.

404 NW 10th Ave.

503-972-1700

www.nuvrei.com

Restaurant

Ox

The heart of this Argentine-inspired restaurant by Greg and Gabrielle Denton is the massive wood grill, from which emerge mouthwatering dishes. A few favorites: smoked beef tongue with sweetbread “croutons,” clam chowder with jalapeños and bone marrow, roseate ribeye from Uruguay, and artichokes cooked in coals.

2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

503-284-3366

oxpdx.com

Bar

Pepe Le Moko

In the tiny foyer: an oyster shucker. A flight of stairs down: a bunker of a bar, so dark you’re tempted to ask for a flashlight. On the menu: drinks that tend to get no respect — grasshoppers, espresso martinis — remade for modern tastes. Try the smooth amaretto sour with a brandied cherry. Sip, sip away!

407 SW 10th Ave.

503-546-8537

pepelemokopdx.com

Restaurant

Pok Pok

Andy Ricker snagged attention for Portland and Thai cooking 10 years ago when he opened a shack to serve the street food he had fallen hard for overseas. Not to be missed is the sticky, smoky game hen served with an eyelash-curling dipping sauce. Homemade drinking vinegars help fuel the cocktails and stanch any flames.

3226 SE Division St.

503-232-1387

www.pokpokpdx.com

Market

PSU Portland Farmers Market

One of the top farmers markets in the country, this year-round, 140-stall draw unfolds on Saturdays on the lush grounds of Portland State University. Buy hazelnuts from Freddy Guys, charcuterie from Chop Butchery & Charcuterie, corn tortillas from Three Sisters Nixtamal and mushrooms — porcinis, morels, lion's mane — from Springwater Farm.

SW Park & SW Montgomery (approx. 1717 SW Park Ave.)

503-241-0032

www.portlandfarmersmarket.org

Shop

Powell's City of Books

Among the city’s most beloved institutions is Powell’s, whose flagship store counts more than 1 million books on its shelves. Gravitate to the epic Orange Room, home to overstocked cookbooks from around the world, vintage copies of “The Joy of Cooking” and “Larousse Gastronomique” and even “The Portlandia Cookbook.”

1005 W. Burnside St.

503-228-4651

www.powells.com

Shop

Powell's Books for Home and Garden

The Hawthorne District offshoot of the flagship City of Books specializes in works related to house and yard projects, cooking and entertaining.

3747 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

503-228-4651

www.powells.com

Restaurant

Renata

This new Italian restaurant is awash with reasons to visit: The owner is a former frontman at the acclaimed French Laundry, the chef previously worked at the starry Quince in San Francisco and the cheese plate features fromage made by the creamery next door. Ace drinks, dewy geoduck crudo and a wood oven (pizza!) forecast a hot spot in the making.

626 SE Main St.

503-954-2708

www.renatapdx.com

Coffee

Ristretto Roasters

Founder and owner Din Johnson personally sources the coffee for his pedigreed, medium-roast brews, which change with the season. Want to learn more about what you’re drinking? Ristretto’s sleek cafes host weekly cuppings for free.

555 NE Couch St.

503-284-6767

ristrettoroasters.com

Restaurant

Screen Door

If you have time for only one breakfast, make it this convivial Southern charmer, easy to spot due to the inevitable line out the door. The rewards are cayenne-spiked hush puppies; tender omelets packed with smoked mushrooms, goat cheese and kale; and buttermilk fried chicken stacked on a sweet potato waffle.

2337 E. Burnside St.

503-542-0880

www.screendoorrestaurant.com

Restaurant

Sweedeedee

Ten bucks buys a breakfast plate for the memory books: a perfect fried egg, a raft of brioche, crisp bacon, seasonal fruit and lightly dressed lettuce leaves. Pies, such as the custardy honey pie made with a crackle of salt, are divine. Throw in overhead vines, strong coffee and service that’s all smiles, and you’ve got a full house every a.m.

5202 N. Albina Ave.

503-946-8087

www.sweedeedee.com

Editor’s picks

Recipe: Breakfast Hush Puppies

This dish is one of the many reasons diners stand in line at Screen Door in Portland.

Recipe: Coffee Daiquiri

Portland's robust coffee culture inspired this smooth cocktail at Clyde Common.

Credits

About the series

Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema explores America’s best food cities, 10 of which he’ll rate at year’s end.