You don’t have to search too hard these days to find great food in most major cities. We have the modern emphasis on cognizance about where our food comes from and the rise of craft restaurants and food culture to thank for that. Yet if you find yourself in Portland, Oregon you may realize a hierarchy still exists in regard to cities and the relationships they have with their food.
Portland is dubbed ‘The city where young people go to retire.’ It’s a town whose brunch lines snake outside any day of the week and whose coffee shops are the watering holes of choice in which people hang out for a full morning-to-afternoon with their tattooed friends. In their retirement from usual working life, these young – and old and in-between – people aren’t just doing nothing, they’re creating an empire of food. For more on this, consult: In Portland, A Golden Age of Dining and Drinking.
While older cities will continue to be known for their food staples, such as New York its delis; Boston its lobster and Chicago its pizza, Portland is known for what’s current. It’s paving a road to the future lined with sustainable, healthy, delicious craft food.
And we cannot forget the beer. The number of breweries in the country has doubled in the past 20 years. Oregon has the 3rd most breweries in the country, after California and Washington. Guess how many people live in Oregon? Not that many. (Half the population of the Bay Area). That means lots of Oregonians are brewing beer. Locally sourced craft beer. And it’s good.
Now that you’re educated and amazed by my population-analysis skills, we can move on to the mouth-watering proof. I was in Portland for three days. That’s sixty hours. I consumed… a lot. Here are my absolute favorite experiences and my favorite dish at each. This list will leave you with a lot more than five things to try, but I needed a less overwhelming title.
1. Potatoes Bravas at Tasty n Sons.
With one bite of these potatoes at Tasty n Sons I knew what I was in for. They spoke to me, actually. They said, “Welcome to Portland, Isara. Our kitchens don’t joke around and their food may leave you in tears.
These potatoes are cooked in sunflower oil and an herbed salsa, which made them unlike any breakfast potatoes I’ve ever had. Tasty n Sons is one of three establishments by John Gorham, a chef whose tapas style plates have found themselves a beloved spot in the Portland food scene. Tasty n Sons’ serves new American dishes in tapas style. The best part is the portions are totally substantial and filling, and priced as if they were much smaller.
This french toast was supposedly the “best we’ll ever have.” I don’t know about that but it was pretty darn good. The marion berries – an iconic Oregon berry – and fresh whipped cream made it interesting.
This dish was amazing. The steak was perfectly seasoned and cooked, the eggs were perfectly creamy. What made this dish so impressive, though, was the cornmeal pancake hiding underneath. Oh, and the jalepeño butter – oh my goodness. Get a bite with each component at once and we’ll see you later because you’ll be on your way to foodie Heaven (it’s a place). This was another dish that was almost too filling for two to share and so worth the price.
2. Pear & Gorgonzola Ice Cream at Salt & Straw
Salt & Straw is on every possible list of best ice creameries in the country, and its ‘farm-to-cone’ mentality is the reason. Before my visit, I was aware of rising ice cream flavor trends like lavender and olive oil and rose water. However, Salt & Straw’s flavors still blew my little ice-cream loving mind. Every single flavor had at least one ingredient I had never seen in ice cream before. There is nothing these clever makers won’t mix into their cream.
Salt & Straw also has a rotating themed specials list. August’s theme was – of course – Portland farmers markets. What does this mean for flavors? Oh, just things like Green Fennel & Maple and Bone Marrow & Bourbon Smoked Cherries. I know. To think we used to settle for chocolate and vanilla!
My favorite was Pear & Blue Cheese. It was the perfect balance of sweet pear and salty cheese – just the way you like your ice cream, right? Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper was another winner, as were the Almond Brittle with Salted Ganache and Honey Lavender. I command you to order the tasting flight. It’s nine dollars you’ll never look back on spending. Plus, if you make it all the way there why settle for one life-changing flavor when your life can be changed four times? Or eight?
3. Chicken Wings at Pok Pok
Pok Pok’s chef Andy Ricker won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest in 2011. That says enough on its own, but I’ll continue. The restaurant space itself and the long, detailed menu offer clues of chef Ricker’s travels through Asia in search of the best recipes to bring to his own establishment. Menu items are a collection of favorite dishes from various parts of Thailand that tell the story of people he’s met and the hometowns from which his fellow kitchen members hail.
The chicken wings are a signature. I take back what I said before about Asian chicken wings, these are out of this (side of the) world. My second favorite dish was the Flank Steak Salad. The Catfish salad is worth a try, but my hunch is that so is everything else on the menu. If you go, go wild. The cocktails are professional, tropical twists on the classics.
The restaurant’s interior is a trip itself. Outdoor, jungle-like seating or indoor cabana-like seating are your options. The spaces are connected with lots of bare wood, colored string lights and lush vegetation. You have to go at off times to avoid the line. If you encounter a crowd, however, have no fear. Pok Pok has its own whiskey lounge across the street. See, Portland’s dining whizzes have thought of everything.
4. Pho’Rench Dip Sandwich at Lardo
Okay. This is the best sandwich I have EVER had. And the tastes of my friends’ sandwiches were the best single bites of a sandwich I’ve ever had. The people at Lardo pride themselves on old world meat curing techniques using all the perfect cuts of meat possible to create some seriously flavored sandwiches. I challenge you to find another sandwich more powerful. Their local draft beer selection and hand cut fries make perfect additions to an already perfect situation.
Chef and owner Rick Gencarelli actually began his career on the East coast (holler) working with Todd English (an all-time personal fave). It wasn’t too long before he experienced an out-of-body call to the Pacific Northwest when the buds of its food excitement began to bloom. He began Lardo as a food truck to get to know Portland among one of its own prodigies. The plan worked. Lardo was a hit and now has three brick and mortar locations.
Remember – Peace, Love & Pig out.
5. Honey Pie at Sweedeedee
This adorable little establishment – with name to match – is the epitome of Portland. It sits on a corner, (the best places are always on corners). It’s bright inside and looks like someone’s perfect kitchen/dining room experience complete with a record player, plants and curtains. It’s as if the decor fell perfectly into place without any overthinking or concern! And, if the tattoos on the arms of the people behind the counter stretched into a single line, they could probably reach Portland, Maine.
The corn cakes with over easy eggs are a breakfast favorite. Sweedeedee’s options are green-heavy, healthy and, of course, us only the most local ingredients. Health is all well and good. But they are also known for their baked goods and, more specifically, Honey Pie. The butter, the flour, the honey – it’s all arrived straight from a nearby farm. If I met this thing in a dark alley I would not survive via death by sugar. It’s the best thing ever. Imagine less-sweet honey that’s been baked into a pie, with a perfectly thick and sweet layer of something amazing on top, with the best pie crust. EVER.
There you have it.