The search for America’s best food cities: Portland, Ore.
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.
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.
Sounds of the Portland Farmers Market
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.)
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.
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.
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?)
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.”