Visiting over 50 places in one week, I may have just gotten started in Portland, but I certainly made a dent. So much so that I’ll need to break this into a 4-5 part series. Here’s my restaurant list – now I cover Portland’s famous food carts, ice cream, coffee (all important), chocolate, farmers markets, bakeries and other memorable snacks.
Soaking wet from rain half the week (no, it’s not just a mist), I biked to neighborhoods East, West, South and North with my usual (if cold and grumpy) tenacity to dig in and really taste the soul and breadth of a place rather than its tourist veneer. Join me as I eat my way through the rainy town up north.
FORKTOWN FOOD TOURS
Forktown Food Tours are led in either the Alphabet District (Fridays 2-5pm) or North Portland (Mississippi Ave., Saturdays 2-5pm), worth $65 for three hours of tasting and exploring, meeting with owners and tastemakers behind each location. Starting at Besaw’s, an adorable, historic restaurant since 1903, I took a tour led by Forktown’s lovely founder through the Alphabet District, which I had explored a few days before on my own. Impressed with the range and quality of stops, from a distillery and bakery to ice cream and restaurants, the tours give you a real peek behind the food and drink businesses in the area.
In one week, you can merely scratch the surface of Portland food carts (often permanent carts vs. roving food trucks), a vibrant scene allowed to thrive due to looser city legislation and costs than we face in SF. There are numerous food cart “pods” throughout Portland – I visited the main ones downtown and the playful D Street Noshery across the street from Pok Pok on the East side of town. I sampled through about eight food carts on a couple different days, some delightful, others just ok, but taking in the scene in general is all kinds of fun (makes me grateful SF just launched the beer-friendly, permanent food truck “pod”, SoMa StrEat Food Park).
Of Portland carts tried, EuroTrash was a standout, not just because of its bright, neon colors, but for good times with mostly fried seafood, like fantastic Squid Fana, a curried squid sandwich on toasted french baguette layered under spicy curry slaw, or fun, fried anchovies – order the heads separately. Chorizo and chips (house fried potato chips) doused in grilled chorizo, cilantro, giardiniera, and a curry aioli, are likewise memorable. Another cart winner? Addy’s Sandwich Bar serves fresh baguettes wrapped in paper, a worthwhile special-0f-the-day being a sandwich laden with pickled herring and avocado.
PSU FARMERS MARKET
The lush, shaded grounds of Portland State University’s campus in downtown Portland make a welcome setting for a bustling Saturday farmers market. The PSU market is an ideal way to sample a range of Portland bakeries (like Lauretta Jean’s Pies and Pearl Bakery, below), charcuterie (like Olympic Provisions), etc… all in one location, particularly if you have limited time in town. Seely Family Farm’s peppermint patties – made with natural Oregon peppermint – were a standout snack, but, of course, I am crazy about intense, fresh peppermint.
Portland obsession, Pine State Biscuits, however, were a disappointment. With the longest, slowest line by far at the market, I waited 30 minutes for a biscuit sandwich,
grateful to scratch one of many breakfast go-tos off my list here. Chicken and biscuits are appealingly fried before you, while the restaurant’s classics are all here, including the beloved Reggie ($7): fried chicken, bacon, cheese, topped with gravy. I’m used to such lines at home for street food, etc…, and am a biscuit and Southern food fanatic, so it was rough to find the biscuit bland, not even close to the top 25 I’ve had, much less a “best”, and similarly so with the fried chicken. Oddly enough, the cheese is a bewildering grocery store-style slice thrown in the sandwich, every element but the gravy a letdown.
SALT & STRAW
Worth crossing town for, Salt & Straw is truly exciting ice cream. With two locations (the first opened last Summer), I visited the brand new Alphabet District cafe, a white, airy space winning me over with common flavors done their way, like ubiquitous salted caramel which I first saw as an ice cream at SF’s Bi-Rite years ago before witnessing it pop up all over the country. Here it manifests a local slant using salt selected by Portlandian Mark Bitterman, author of the book, Salted.
Rather than one of the more unusual flavors (and I sampled over 20 here), I was surprised my favorite was Arbequina olive oil. I’ve had olive oil ice creams for years, but this one was uniquely vivid and creamy, standing out above combos like Apricot Sweet Heat with Bridgeport Beer and candied scotch bonnet peppers.
Banana walnut was evocative of childhood, while honey lavender is very different from Bi-Rite‘s more elegant, subtle honey lavender, which they were making many years before. Salt & Straw’s beauty is purple, floral, even soapy, but not overwhelmingly so. A rather genius combo is their fresh mint ice cream laced with candied lemon peel – my other favorite.
Salt & Straw was just launching a much buzzed about round of custom ice creams in collaboration with individual restaurants, from Pok Pok to Aviary. For example, at new restaurant hotspot Ox, they’re utilizing the chefs flavor profiles, making a foie with veal stock and smores ice cream. I’m in! I love everything about this place, from friendly staff to not-too-sweet flavored coffees, using Stumptown beans.
With only a handful of flavors at the Pearl District location (right by Powell’s Books), Mio Gelato is traditional Italian gelato in basic pistachio, lemon, mascarpone, and the like. But this creamy goodness is reminiscent of real, Italian gelato – a welcome treat when in the area.
LITTLE BIG BURGER
Little Big Burger is a local mini-chain doing your basic burger, cheeseburger and veggie burger, all small, all under $3.75. I’d heard the Pearl District location was the best so that’s the one I tried. Friendly servers and the right price made it an ideal snack, though the clientele was mostly teenagers and there was a minuscule smattering of cheese on one side of the cheeseburger. Though decent, I couldn’t help but recall similarly simple – but far superior – burgers at Super Duper in SF or Burger Joint and Shake Shack in NYC.
RED STAR TAVERN
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KENNY & ZUKES
While some locals tell me Kenny & Zuke’s isn’t quite as consistent as it used to be, I found this funky, fun Jewish deli ferments some damn fine pickles (in cinnamon, allspice, mustard seed, etc ) and makes a mean Reuben ($13.45) with their own rye bread and house-smoked pastrami or corned beef in a coriander crust, cured seven days, smoked ten hours, then steamed for three. I prefer ultra-smoky pastrami on the satisfying Reuben (and you know I’m picky about my Reubens from coast to coast), especially paired with dry-hopped Oakshire Watershed Brewing IPA from Eugene on draft.
With a shop for pick-up downtown and a weekly stand at the aforementioned PSU Farmers Market, Lauretta Jean’s bakes some blissful, all-American pies, lattice-topped and all. Rhubarb is a joy, while tart cherry is the ultimate: tart, juicy, flaky, nurturing. Their quiches are likewise strong – maybe the best breakfast item at the farmers market, like a fresh quiche of snap peas and fromage blanc.
KEN’S ARTISAN BAKERY
My top Portland bakery, after visiting Pearl Bakery, Two Tarts and PIX (all winners – Portland does it right on the bakery front), is Ken’s Artisan Bakery on the Northwest side. Properly done croissants (ham, thyme & Gruyere croissant!) and morning buns made me feel like I was back home, but with local touches like Oregon berries in a sweet pastry. Order a cup of Stumptown coffee to go with.
This is only listed because I’ve been asked by many what I thought of the famed, quirky doughnut legend of Portland? Yes, we’ve seen the maple bacon combo a thousand times now, and at Voodoo Doughnut, where they’ve been doing it for years, that bacon-y essence shines. But sampling through five of their doughnuts, including the bacon maple bar, I must admit I did not like one of them. I respect the kitschy playfulness… but each was sickly sweet, old school sugary, leaving me to scratch my head, just as I have for over a decade re: NYC’s Magnolia Bakery with those legendary cupcakes that taste like someone baked a mound of powdered sugar. It’s all too one-note for me – particularly when there are far more balanced, gourmet donuts (and cupcakes) out there. Realizing we’re talking about two different styles of donut-making, places like Bob’s in SF typify to me what classic, old school donuts should be.
Obviously, coffee is as quintessential to Portland as constant drizzle. In visiting numerous roasters and local shops, I enjoyed plenty of fine coffee. Disappointed in the subtle, so-as-to-be-somewhat-tasteless coffee (not to mention cold, hipster attitude) at Heart in Northeast Portland, I enjoyed (but wasn’t raving about) Cafe Velo. Yes, I made the required Stumptown stop, though I’ve been drinking Stumptown for years, from NY to the West Coast. Below are my four standout coffee cafes:
STERLING COFFEE ROASTERS
Sterling Coffee Roasters is an utterly charming, old world-style coffee window in the Alphabet District, soon to move into a new, equally tiny space around the corner. As a sister outpost to Coffeehouse Northwest, the two smiling gentleman at Sterling are dressed like trendy, pre-Prohibition mixologists in vests, as classy as the beautiful wallpaper lining the closet-sized coffee haven.
Both baristas were knowledgeable and passionate about coffee, preparing each cup with precision. They serve one guest roaster – on my visit it was Backporch Blend from Bend, OR, boasting almond butter notes. They also feature two additional, changing beans, typically one from South America, one from Africa, which they roast themselves – I enjoyed the Rosario from El Salvador with apricot & toffee notes.
They’re meticulous, even blessedly geeky about the details, like partly using organic milk for more grassy tones in their cappuccinos or not steaming milk past 130 degrees. One of their special treats is a European-style drinking chocolate (not as thick as ones I’d drink in Italy, but appropriately rich) using Michel Cluizel‘s Bolivian chocolate – which they describe as adding barnyardy notes – with a pinch of Portuguese sea salt on top.
Coava Coffee’s expansive, artistic space houses woodwork, mural artists and all their in-house roasting. It’s such a cool space, most importantly serving impeccable coffee, that I trekked out to it twice when in the Industrial District.
They source, roast and brew single origin coffees from hand-selected farmers. It’s a special place and one of my top two (alongside Sterling) for coffee in Portland.
COURIER COFFEE ROASTERS
Sitting in the window at stark but friendly Courier Coffee Roasters with bike messengers, couriers and Portland hipsters is a happy way to while away time working on your laptop, reading or watching the world go by. Especially with cool tunes on the record player, accommodating baristas, and impeccable coffee, like a bracing cold brew served in a mason jar.
With two locations (I visited the Pearl District locale), Barista is not a roaster themselves, rather it’s a small shop properly preparing some of the best beans on the West Coast, like SF’s Sightglass, alongside local Portland roasters. Bonus points for the historic, roughly one hundred year old brick building and wood deck from which to sip your chosen coffee.
With two locations (the main cafe in the Pearl District and one “jewel box-sized” outpost in the Heathman Hotel), Cacao is a chocolate haven of assorted chocolatiers and truffles from Portland and beyond, including Alma Chocolates (below), not to mention drinking chocolates, comforting on a wet, Portland day. I happily spent over an hour in this peaceful chocoholic respite.
Alma Chocolates is among my favorite little discoveries in Portland, particularly the Thai peanut butter cup. Genius, is what it is. Ginger, Thai chiles, lime, even red volcanic sea salt, elevate this peanut butter cup (also sometimes found at the aforementioned Cacao). While in Alma’s cafe, you might as well order drinking chocolates (go for shaken and iced on those rare, warm Portland days), or keep it hot with the Caramelita, essentially a 4 oz. shot of decadent habanero caramel, chocolate, milk and heavy cream (moans of pleasure).