Portland’s Vibrant Food Scene
Portland, Oregon, whose indie food scene was once the underground secret for savvy chefs and foodies in-the-know, has emerged as a must-go West Coast culinary destination, third only to San Francisco and Vancouver.
Over the past 15 years, the city’s food culture has evolved into a funky scene of diversely ethnic restaurants, artisan bakeries, and a multitude of fresh markets and food shops, all with a level of sincerity that is often lacking in this era of celebrity chefs and multi-million dollar restaurant makeovers. Add to this a serious and seemingly collective philosophy of using locally-grown ingredients and seasonal cooking (many chefs change their menus weekly if not daily), a tight community of local producers (fruits, vegetables, fisheries, beef, pork, lamb, etc), a number of cool microbreweries, and a nearby world-class wine producing region, and you have a passionate, comforting culinary atmosphere with a distinct the-way-it-should-be European feel. I’d say it’s the perfect place to visit.
Portland’s population is only half a million, yet the city’s food scene has more culture and soul than cities double its size. And the prices are beyond reasonable. On a recent trip, I lead a group of 20 foodies on a 60-hour food and wine lovers’ excursion to check out what is no longer a food destination for culinary insiders. The experience blew people away. Here are some of the reasons why.
Pok Pok (3226 Southeast Division)
This is not your typical Thai restaurant. The focus of this funky, cozy room is Thai street food. You won’t find Pad Thai, but you will find the most delicious and flavourful Muu Paa Kham Waan (grilled boar collar rubbed with garlic, coriander root and black pepper served with a spicy chili-lime garlic sauce), crazy good Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, a sweat inducing but incredible Papaya Pok Pok (green papaya salad with tomatoes, long beans, Thai chili, lime juice, tamarind, fish sauce, garlic, palm sugar, dried shrimp and peanuts), mouth-watering Sii Khrong Muu (slow grilled baby back ribs marinated in whisky, soy, honey, ginger and Thai spices), and one of the most succulent and flavourful whole fish preparations I have ever had. Eat until you can’t eat anymore and you will still be hard-pressed to spend more than $30 a head. This is food you crave. Chow down under the tented patio for a great open-air experience.
Paley’s Place (1204 Northwest 21st Avenue)
Maybe the most memorable meal of our trip. The food was simply outstanding, delicious and beautiful, with a casual elegance. The service was a perfect match to the food. Locally inspired dishes that change on the chef’s whim keep things fresh. And Chef Vitaly Paley’s talent and confidence is evident in his willingness to let the fresh, quality ingredients be the stars. The assortment of house-made charcuterie is a must and the spit-roasted pork shoulder with white bean and pork stew was a dream. The chocolate brownie cake with Amerena cherries and caramel ice cream was an intoxicating way to end the meal. Wine savvy Kimberly Paley’s adeptness at complimenting flavours was evident in her thoughtful and tasty wine selections.
Le Pigeon (738 East Burnside Street)
You have to love a place with bone marrow, pig’s ears, sweetbreads and lamb’s tongue on the menu. Better still, Chef Rucker knows how to do them right. The simple room lets the food be the star, which it certainly is. A must for any food lover. If you are a little squeamish about offals, just enjoy the flavours and ask what it was after.
Ten-01 (1001 NW Couch Street)
A gorgeous, upscale room, artistic plate presentations, professional service, and excellent preparation all accurately characterize Ten-01. Perhaps the most “big city” of all the dining establishments, but the staff are still warm and welcoming. The leg of lamb with medjool dates was particularly delicious and the local Oregon wine pairings put together by the restaurant’s young sommelier were fun and spot on. A very classy dining spot.
I have never been to a North American city that had streets lined with food carts, trucks, and stands to the extent of Portland. Everything from tacos, Thai, Vietnamese, hotdogs, Korean, waffles, crepes and the list goes on and on. Great food and great value. There are a few clusters of food carts throughout the city. Check out www.foodcartsportland.com
No trip to Portland would be complete without an excursion into wine country. Only 45 minutes from the city, the Dundee Hills and Willamette Valley are cool climate regions producing world class Pinot Noir and some pretty damn good sparkling wine as well. We were treated to an afternoon with displaced Texan and Argyle founder Rollin Soles for an educational and somewhat raucous tasting and romp through the vineyards. Soles is an honest, inviting, tell-it-like-it-is guy who is making stunning wines. His sparklings are easily the best in Oregon and maybe the entire USA. His Pinot Noirs are the very reason that Oregon is thought to be a second home for this Burgundian varietal. In particular, his Nuthouse and Spirithouse Pinots will make a believer of even the most ardent skeptic.
Also at Argyle, we were fortunate to experience the delightfully simple and delicious food of Nancy Gherts of Red Hills Provincial Dining (276 Hwy. 99W, Dundee), who catered our lunch. Wild salmon Nicoise salad, succulent pork tenderloin and the freshest of fresh simply prepared spring vegetables and fruit are evidence that the “use local and be seasonal” philosophy does not stop at Portland’s city limits.
De Ponte Cellars
Welcoming and accommodating are the best words to describe the warm people at De Ponte. A lovely casual tasting on their patio with the owner, followed by a very instructive barrel tasting with the winemaker. They make some pretty good wine, too. In particular look for their fresh, perfect summer Melon 2009, and the rich and earthy Baldwin Reserve Pinot Noir 2007.
Dundee Bistro (100-A SW Seventh Street, Dundee)
For a comfortable, casual lunch in wine country, stop in at the Dundee Bistro for handmade pizzas, wonderfully fresh and flavourful salads, and such tasty mains as battered Oregon Red Rockfish, smoked pork loin, and the beef burger on a buttery brioche bun. The wine list is well chosen and extensive.