During the sweltering heatwave back home in Los Angeles, our chef Matt and I went on a mission to discover what Portland was cooking. We researched, asked locals about the insider scoops, and did a lot of grab and go eating to pack in as much as our bellies would allow in our two days there. Our first impression after we got off our train to walk to our hotel was the permanent kitchen trailers that lined certain thoroughfares downtown like an outdoor mall. They seemed to represent the cultures of those cooking out of them although I can’t be sure because we didn’t try any. The list of brick and mortar eateries we carried with us weighed heavy in my pocket and we were anxious to get started there.
We’ve heard that AirBNB is the way to go in Portland but since this trip was so last minute there was not much available. Luckily a room came up at The Ace which is such a great location in the hip artery of downtown. It’s walking distance from so much, including a multi-story, independent bookstore haven called Powells that is a genuine oasis in an era where bookstores are becoming so rare. There’s just nothing else like opening a book and reading the first page to see if it really is going to mesh with you. Portland, we are off to a fantastic start! Oh, and The Ace is also near (Fashoinista Alert!) Frances May which is a high end clothing boutique you’ll want to be on the mailing list for so you can jump on their online sales and drool over their curations.
When you window shop over at Frances May, walk across the street to one of the only working milliners in the United States. Dayna of Pinkham Millery will assess your bone structure and excitedly fit you with hats that you would have never picked out yourself. You will get measured and she will custom make a hat for you by hand. Her prices are reasonable for such an experience and she’s the most illuminating person to spend some time with. If you enjoy watching people who are exceptional at what they do, you’ll want to pop by this little gem of a store.
Our first dinner was just around the corner from our hotel at Tasty-n-Adler, and came highly recommended by locals we encountered. Without reservations, we walked in right as they opened to score a table. The food was straightforward and called out farm names, and the cocktails utilized seasonal fruit. Locals seemed to permeate the dining room which gave the impression that the small menu changed a lot, and that this is the kind of food you can eat everyday.
Afterwards, we did some walking downtown where parts of Portland felt like an outdoor mall for successful young professionals with big names like West Elm and Design Within Reach within spitting distance of each other. Other parts were slightly edgy with strip clubs and tattoo parlors, all of which felt considered as they occupied older buildings with modern, thoughtfully designed logos. The streets were remarkably clean, as if they got power washed every night. Seriously, there was no discernible garbage anywhere.
We ended the evening with a nightcap at our hotel which has a lively bar/restaurant called Clyde Commons. There is no fancy ice or glassware going on in Portland, they haven’t acknowledged that trend, but it seemed most restaurants had a liquor license and all the drinks we ordered throughout this trip were your basics prepared with care, so much so, that there were not really any standouts. A respectable cocktail without any accessories is the norm here.
For our first morning in Portland, there was an abundance of good coffee in downtown to choose from. Heart and Stumptown were the standouts, but expect a wait. Baristas, everybody really, take their time in this town. Long lines were commonplace in the city’s favorite outposts like this superb donut hub, Blue Star Donuts where they use European style butter and flour from a local mill. My regret is that this photo you see represents the extent of our order, and after realizing the dreaminess of these sweet pillows, my characteristic lack of patience prohibited me from waiting in that long line again to get about a dozen more. Good news is, I hear they are opening in Venice so I will get to fulfill my desire to eat a large variety of them all at once. I can’t even wait.
The Ace offer bicycles to borrow so we rode across the river into a whole different food mecca where the streets were wide and the neighborhoods were steadfastly green and mossy. Unlike Los Angeles, you don’t need to fear competition of the road between your flimsy wheels and a steady array of zooming vehicles. This is a bicycle friendly town.
We landed at Olympia Provisions before dinner service so their menu was limited but the hot dogs they were offering smelled and looked as good as any I have encountered, and they make all their own charcuterie. It looked like a great dinner spot but we had to march on. I want to point our how deeply impressed I was by a compost bin outside this restaurant, and how prominent recycling bins were everywhere. Even if earth consciousness is not your own mantra, here you are reminded that it should be.
Coava Coffee shares their space with a craftsman team who works exclusively with bamboo which felt like the perfect pairing with how much thought and care went into both of these businesses. I had never seen bamboo used as the star for woodwork and because it is such a sustainable material, I am now going to seek it out. I mean, look at that counter! Gorgeous, right? The coffee (and it’s branding) was worthy of lingering over and being a little late for our next stop.
Ava Genes is the one destination where Matt made a reservation. He did not want to risk getting turned away as he had heard many great things about this place and how they booked up fast. Upon arrival, we were initially seated at a table but whenever there is a bar at the kitchen, baby, that’s the best seat in the house! Here you get a premium show with ring side seating to witness the culture of a kitchen’s pressure cooker. You see the rhythm, the coordination, the teamwork, and how all of that is translated into the quality of what is served. This is the seat to request whenever possible.
Known for it’s Italian menu and handmade pasta, it was Ava Gene’s where the message sunk in that being cognizant of your farmer is the norm in Portland. Everything is seasonal and local. Nothing seemed to be ordered from some large scale, generic purveyor. Transparency seemed to be expected, and the fact that tomatoes and peaches were on every menu at every restaurant during our visit, did not feel monotaneous, it felt natural. It felt the way our food system is meant to be.
When in Portland, there is an obligation to visit Pok Pok and Salt & Straw which both reside on the hopping Division Street. We parked our bikes and sauntered up and down each side of this street that felt new, yet lived in. Older buildings had been reinvented into gift shops and bakeries with a collection of notable restaurants. There was too much to eat on this street for just two bellies.
Back across the river to downtown where our hotel stood, we roamed into The Green Room for a nightcap. The upstairs (photo above left) was off limits, overbooked, and the host swiftly directed us back downstairs to the bar with green hued stained glass and light shades. As we drank a signature mixed sherry cocktail, we sat in deep leather chairs and people-watched all our fellow guests who had a shallow green cast to them.
Any qualified pastry chef willing to assertively utilize special flours and grains to their skillful applications has my attention. Although I don’t know Kim Boyce personally, I feel like we have met because we have some pastry chefs who we have worked with in common. Everyone speaks so warmly about her and I am obsessed with her book so it was an absolute that we would travel to the outskirts of Portland to her bakery Bakeshop. Turns out she supplies many of the coffee shops we visited so we could have tasted her goods without taking the time to visit her outpost, but because I’m such a fan, I’m glad we did. There was not much from her book represented but as with all the culinary brick and mortars we visited in this town, the flour, even if it was processed, was local and from a small farm, and stated as such.
The Woodsman Tavern felt the most like Oregon. Wood beams and walls, elements of hunting, dark, rich colors all gave the effect of Paul Bunyon, and the menu matched just what I would imagine him eating: high quality, honest comfort food.
Oh but the clock was ticking to our take off time and there was still so much we had not seen! We desperately needed to narrow down our itinerary so it was The Japanese Garden I choose to allow us to breath in Portlands fresh, crisp air as we set our sights on the majesty of it’s expansive landscape. How I longed for a hike in this park! And to smell the roses, literally! 48 hours is simply not enough time in this enchanting city.
I’m going to admit something that I am not proud of. I really wanted to skip Portland’s Saturday Farmer’s Market. How could it be any better than our own Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer’s Market? California’s produce is supreme, topping it is not possible. Wrong! This, folks, is the food mecca of Portland.
Sandwiched in between venerable structures with hand carvings and stained glass windows on a green street island, some of Portland’s best brick and mortars are represented here with stalls of their most popular dishes to try, as well as Kombocha on tap, raw dairy, sustainably raised meat, and even small batch spirits. I wanted to purchase one of everything as my excitement grew in every corner of this market. College students playing sophisticated instruments to “help with tuition” cooled down our frantic pace and this is where we finally accepted that we wouldn’t get to everything and that was ok because this market was the cornerstone of the experience we were seeking. Upon our return to Portland, whenever that may be, this is where we will stage our plans around.
Hands down, these two baskets were the most impressive meal we had on this trip. Those blackberries were like none other I have experienced. Was it the abundant rain and lack of summer days of Oregon or was it the charm of the farmer himself who wore overalls and chewed tobacco as he explained to me that “organic practices” is how intelligent farmers work the land.
Did I mention that Portland is really safe? I can’t think of another city I have been to where it is common to see people fast asleep with their open purse and groceries next to them.
Here is a goody we managed to cram in. Navarre complied with Portland’s sustainable mentality that eating seasonal and knowing the ranches and farms where you obtain your ingredients is how to make flavors effortlessly pop. They have been open for several years and change their menu based on themes that strike their fancy. At the time of our adventure, “the south of France” provided the chef’s inspiration so we ordered the most tender and simple steak, a perfect green salad (all the green salads in Portland contained delicate and striking greens that tasted freshly picked), and a cabbage gratin. I could eat this everyday. How glorious when chef’s don’t overcomplicate ingredients. It exemplifies a confidence that you can taste.
For our final meal, we took an Uber (Uber just arrived to Portland and is employing many grateful locals) to the esteemed Ned Ludd. The stand out of this dinner was the flat bread fired in their wood oven and served with olive oil. Served right out of the oven, it was spongey and flavorful, and the day old was fried and served with a delicious bean dip.
Back at our hotel to grab our bags and make our flight, this was my parting image: beards, tattoos, table side reflection, greenery, tap water that poses no threats, and a small city vibe with big city style. Dear Portland, we shall return.