Keeping Portland’s Food Unique (And Sometimes Weird)
Which is the “weirder” city between Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas, the two well-known cities that pride themselves on mottos preaching “Keep Portland (or Austin) Weird.”? That’s hard to say. They’re both truly unique cities in their own (sometimes weird) ways.
Which city has “weirder” food? Again, spend some time at Portland’s food carts or Austin’s food trailers and you’re bound to find some distinctly quirky creations that usually are equally unhealthy.
On both sides of the Willamette, north and south, Portland’s dynamic dining scene is certainly no longer a little regional secret. Yet, what is it that necessarily makes Portland such a stand-out? Is it the endless days of rain? Is it the beautiful parks and gardens? Is it the abundant ingredients chefs can grow and buy from within the city and the surrounding areas?
Perhaps, it just might be those brilliant, daring minds of Portland’s chefs who are not afraid to push the envelope. This isn’t a Nathan Myhrvold-Ferran Adrià type of cutting-edge, avant gârde horizon changing type of cuisine. Sous-vide doesn’t even seem too fashionable in Portland compared to the rest of the country. The futuristic techniques and high wire acts fit in the big ticket dining cities. Here, it’s about channeling your passion to the plate.
It’s that these chefs are so good at finding a particular niche and sprinting away with these fascinating visionary concepts.That is what makes Portland’s unique and weird at times dining scene, truly Portland.
Any discussion of Portland’s unique dining scene usually begins with Pok Pok. After a novice chuckles at the peculiar “knock knock” sounding name, they quickly learn about Andy Ricker’s relentless pursuit of replicating authentic Northern Thai food exactly as he experienced traveling extensively in the region. Even the water is fantastic and completely authentic, flavored with Pandanus leaf. Try this at home.
After several visits to the original Pok Pok on Southeast Division over the past two years, the only restaurant I have insisted on dining at every trip to the Rose City, I now have a bit of an idea of the sublime, the good, and the areas where to look the other way. Pok Pok is never a smooth dining experience. It’s not trying to be. You feel like you’re being served by bouncers since each waiter has an ear piece and a walkie-talkie device. No matter the size of the group, your table will be saturated with dishes leading you to put the plate of pork loin skewers marinated in coconut and turmeric in your lap. At least if you gather five people together, you skip the inevitable wait. Either way, pacing is not part of the restaurant’s vocabulary and the atmosphere will be incredibly crammed and uncomfortable. It’s a fact. You have to deal with it.
After each visit, I still don’t understand what is special about the drinking vinegars that quickly get diluted by ice and oftentimes (especially the tamarind) taste weak to begin with. I still don’t understand the catch with the respectable, but far from remarkable papaya pok pok salad made in the pok pok (a stone mortar) itself, or the kai yaang signature charcoal roasted game hen stuffed with lemongrass and cilantro that really is more a dish of lemongrass stuffed with game hen.
I’m able to look past these and acknowledge them as part of the experience. Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings are indeed one of the finest renditions of chicken wings probably in the world, period. Yes, the recipe is from Vietnam, not Thailand, and the experience of eating the wings goes down one or two notches when ordered not spicy. Still, a visit to Pok Pok is not a visit to Pok Pok without those wings.
Lately I’ve been on a muu paa kham waan kick, enjoying boar collar meat rubbed with garlic, coriander root, and black pepper. Follow me here: then glazed with soy and sugar, grilled over charcoal, wrapped by the diner in chilled mustard greens like a taco, then splashed with a spicy chili-lime-garlic sauce. Now this is exemplary drinking food. They know what they’re doing in the bars of Northern Thailand.
Phat si ew, rice noodles tossed with pork, Chinese broccoli, egg, and soy sauce is as glorious a stir fry affair as there is, showing the fruits of Ricker’s unwavering attention to authentic detail. This last visit, I probably took more than my share of the yam makheua yao, a Mezcal-level smoky charcoal grilled long eggplant that still retains some moisture despite the blistering heat, tossed in a dressing of Thai chilies, lime, fish sauce, palm sugar, and all topped with a boiled egg, shallots, and no shortage of crispy garlic. Spice, smoke, sweet, wholesome– you name it, it’s here.
Too few visitors remember about dessert at Pok Pok. Even fewer visitors are willing to give durian custard a chance, a true pity. Each time I have seen a durian-palm sugar-coconut scented custard rookie sample it for the first time, they don’t stop until the last morsel of the sweet sticky rice beneath the custard is removed. It’s incredibly deceptive and alluring.
Being completely not Thai whatsoever and Vietnam’s signature breakfast, the Pok Pok signature dessert of a savory fried doughnut dunked in a pool of Stumptown espresso (is it single origin?) and condensed milk ice cream is as fine an affogato as you’ll find the world over. Maybe I get very enamored with the desserts because the plates don’t cram the table like during the main feast. Whatever the case, they’re the perfect end to a not-so perfect meal that is always remarkable. Now that is weird.
You want weird? Go to Tanuki, an izakaya way out on SE Stark at 81st Street. It almost seems like you’re entering the Columbia River Gorge that far east. Chef-owner Janis Martin re-located here from the NW Alphabet District two years ago, bringing with her the eccentricities and swoon-worthy Japanese bar snack cooking that has made Tanuki such a distinct and flat out weird place for dinner. It’s just Janice cooking and two waitresses pouring sake and presenting dishes. They clearly don’t realize the hype surrounding the always packed joint, by asking me continually how in the world I had heard of this place. It’s not exactly an unknown hole in the wall, even though it is a hole in the wall dive.
One part of the room has a pinball machine, another is a bar stocked with high end and low brow sake, another is the closet sized kitchen, and another could be a dorm room lounge. Televisions with animé and sometimes violent, always kinky Japanese porn films serve as the main decor. So much for chandeliers or oceanfront views.
Omakase is really the name of the game for enjoying Martin’s array of salty-spicy-spine tingling snacks and plates. Name a price between $15 and $30 a person and you’re off. With how dark the room is, forget about taking pictures or remembering every description of the food before you. There’s kimchi and edaname touched with lemon, sea salt, and shichimi togarashi. Easy to remember. So is the sublime sweet and spicy squid jerky, the finest smoked seafood around. I could eat a dozen of the spicy cinnamon tea pickled quail eggs a night, as pristine as they sound. Wakame seaweed gets tossed with lotus, cucumber, and sesame for a refreshing set-up.
My mental notes read like how a character from Ulysses might review a restaurant. It’s all bits and fragments. That crab, yes that enormous claw full of easy to access meat, it was something else. What was it with? It was some sort of ginger sauce. Trust me, it was magnificent. So too were the baked mussels, and even more sterling, trout in a “green” sauce strewn with scallops. Best of all, a chilled octopus salad with a mukberry nomi-su ginger dressing. Don’t ask me what mukberry is. Before a miso soup for dessert, the final dish was a riff on tacos with seaweed in place of tortillas, and a filling of diced spicy hamachi, julienned cucumber, and tobiko pearls.
You won’t remember much description-wise you see. You’ll order some excellent sake after starting with the Breakside Brewing Aztec Strong Ale. Strangers talk to strangers, then get hypnotized by the videos. You’ll want a second round of squid jerky. And for the omakase price, this may be the best dining bargain in the entire country. Just remember, no kids and no sushi here. There is udon on Tuesday nights, however. Pretty unique place you’d say?
In Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood, John Toboada (owner of the nearby, red hot Italian small plates spot Luce) has created a restaurant I’ve always envisioned making. It’s not a particular cuisine or style. It’s sometimes modern, sometimes rustic. Sometimes the cuisine might seem Tuscan, other times Mississippi. Navarre is in theory loosely based in Italy, but the crab cakes could never be found in Genoa. Then again, they can’t be found anywhere. These crab cakes are a tour de force, a masterpiece of imagination with one of the most boring dishes known to man. At about 95% crab, the cakes are held together by mushrooms and scallops. Yes, scallops as filler. No bland bread filler needed. All you learn on the sparsely worded menu is that these are “crab cakes.” That’s like calling the Ike’s fish sauce wings at Pok Pok merely “chicken wings.” Baltimore’s crab cakes can’t compare even with these.
I’m no fan of the brief menu description style so in vogue today. However, I admire Navarre for allowing each dish to be ordered as a small plate or a large plate. So with a party of five, go for it all. Navarre is a master at this casual art. You can have “bird” or “vegetables braised.” The latter turned out to be a formidable rendition of braised kale turning even converting anti-kale advocates into believers. The “bird” was a hearty paprika stew with lovely tender chicken as the “bird.” It seemed more like chicken paprikash, the signature dish of Hungary than any Italian classic. Not a problem with me.
This globe-spanning bent really shows with Navarre’s regional menu that compliments the regular menu and the specials. Presently, Morocco is the region in the spotlight, and the dish that should be in the spotlight is the lamb kebob with a most impressive harissa yogurt. There is a tagine of rabbit, turnip, and carrots, and several intriguing salads, including one with beet and cinnamon that could have used more cinnamon, but never was not interesting.
The casual nature of the menu extends to the service (you’ll be pouring your own wine style), the convivial atmosphere of bare wood tables, cookbooks lining one wall, the open kitchen on another side, and a whole wall of pantry items stacked to the ceiling that could never pass a seismic-safety test in California. For dessert, quince pie which is like a funky, less sweet apple pie, or how about an almond cake?
No discussion of Portland’s unique dining places is complete without a nod to the iconic food carts. The Stark Street Downtown food cart pod is home to the Tabor and its “schnitzelwich,” breaded pork loin on a ciabatta roll with lettuce, paprika spread, sautéed onionsm and horseradish. Nearby on Alder Street, is the beloved Nong’s Khao Man Gai. Who runs the cart? Nong. What does she serve? Khao Man Gai. It’s a dish best known as Hainan Chicken, from the same named province in Southern China. Served in the finest of butcher paper with a jewel-studded plastic fork for a utensil, poached chicken strips reside on a bed of rice cooked in chicken broth from that poached chicken. A few cucumbers and cilantro sprigs get tossed about. The crowning moment is when you cover everything in the fermented soy bean puree sauce, singing with ginger, and some Thai chilies, vinegar, sugar, and garlic. A somewhat boring yet weirdly comforting “bland” soup comes on the side.
It’s sensational eating and such a wonderful story to hear how one dish and one person have really succeeded like this. Portland’s food cart culture is quite special, but none of the carts quite reach the level of Nong’s Khao Man Gai. As wonderful as the chicken and rice were, I’ll remember from this recent visit the order-taker who literally tried to get his iPad wireless signal to work in every nook and cranny of the cart for my credit card. Wireless was clearly down. He wanted to be 150% sure.
We could go on and on about Portland’s unique cuisine– the biscuits at Pine St., a brunch like none other at Tasty n Sons, or the exquisite cannellés at Courier Coffee. Yes, the rare superb coffee roaster, superb coffee bar, and superb bakery. Everything at Le Pigeon garnered raves from me, but nothing beats rabbit pie with mustard ice cream that works wonders with the cheddar cheese and apricots involved. Chaos becomes art. And we’ll have a whole separate article on Portland beer. Apparently, the city has a few craft breweries if you haven’t heard.
But, we must finish with dessert and spirits. Out in the Northwest and the far Northeast, Salt & Straw is lighting it up with its out there combinations that don’t stray quite to the absurd. Recently, best was the sea salt with caramel ribbon. Remember, this is Portland, so let’s mention (on the menu too) the salt is from Mark Bitterman of Portland’s “The Meadow.” Not far behind, butter roasted chestnuts and figgy pudding with a splash of Clear Creek Brandy were spot on winter seasonal flavors. I’m a fan of the mulled wine sorbet using Rex Hill Pinot Noir, and even bigger supporter of the classic pear with bleu cheese. The pears are from Truitt Brothers in Salem and the cheese is Rogue Creamery’s Crater Lake Bleu Cheese for those keeping score. Never forget to enjoy a waffle cone here and major points awarded to the staff that never limits sampling no matter how long the wait is.
Portland is a mighty fine bakery city, from Ken’s Artisan Bakery to Little T’s and more. When in the Northeast or at numerous coffee shops, make sure to sample a savory corn & gruyere muffin with plenty of jalapeno involved from Bakeshop. James-Beard award winning author and baker Kim Boyce offers exceptional croissants, hand pies, and chocolate espresso cake. The sweet & salty cookie flecked with various types of chocolate chips could have been softer and was a tad on the dull side. However, the figgy buckwheat scone was magnificent– more like a doughy cinnamon bun in texture than a crumbly scone. Whatever it really was, the center with fig marmalade was royalty. Don’t plan on much comfort dining in the tiny bakery. It’s really Bakeshop instead of BakeCafé for a reason.
Whether you consider doughnuts breakfast or dessert, a small doughnut crawl is necessary in this city. And no, one of the destinations doesn’t include the reliable hour long wait at Voodoo Doughnuts. Grab the cacao dusted “Coco” at Coco Donuts near Pioneer Place and stroll over to the two month revelation of a doughnut bakery, Blue Star Donuts, on SW Washington in the increasingly gentrified West End neighborhood (sharing a glossy glass building with Lardo).
Started by Micah and Katie Camden, with Stephanie Donlan as pastry chef, the key to Blue Star’s doughnuts is a 15 hour brioche dough making process inspired by a bakery in London. Then each doughnut uses that particular dough in various forms and is glazed after ordering. This isn’t an instant gratification Homer Simpson- style spot. The doughnuts getting the headlines are the boozy, 21 and over varieties, including Grand Marnier and Cointreau Crème Brûlée. Despite the last ingredient, you don’t have to be 21 to enjoy my favorite, the Blueberry-Basil-Bourbon. For the record, it’s Bulleit Bourbon. Valhrona chocolate crunch is a sterling creation, filled with vanilla custard and topped with crunchy cereal bits coated in Vahlrona chocolate that look like Beluga caviar. The same can be said for the the PB & J with a strawberry jam filling and fascinating crushed peanut rub on the exterior, in place of a glaze. Only the dulce de leche underwhelmed with a sparse glaze covering and a weakly flavored glaze to boot.
And in a city of craft beer near a region of exceptional Pinot Noir, Portland’s distilleries are no second-rate afterthought. With Distillery Row’s handful of spirits makers just east of the Willamette, you can certainly enjoy plenty of local Brandy here. Best known in the city however is Clear Creek, distilling in the Northwest. I’m not a huge fan of Nebbiolo or Grappa, but the Nebbiolo Grappa is beautiful, with just the right punch of burn at the finish. Less stinging and more refreshing is the famed Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir that actually doesn’t taste like mint or mouthwash. It is exceedingly smooth and refined, and indeed really tastes like the scent of your Christmas tree. The classic Eau de Vie of Poire consistently ranks as the premier pear Brandy in the country. Clear Creek now crafts Single Malt Whiskey, barrel-aged Eau de Vie de Pomme (apple), and for your cocktail making, some delightful liqueurs (best is the unique to Oregon loganberry, a blackberry-raspberry hybrid similar to an olallieberry if that helps).
Like that loganberry, these innovative chefs have found their unique specialties and passions for diners that keeps Portland slightly weird, and one of the country’s most unique cities to eat and drink.