The city of Portland can be described by its many names – the City of Roses, the Bridge City… but my favourite is the “Mighty Gastropolis”, a name coined by Karen Brooks who has been Portland’s resident food guru for over twenty years. A city known for its avant-garde spirit, home to over five hundred food trucks and bordered by agricultural richness, it is no surprise to Portlandians that it should be developing a name in both the national and international food scene.
Situated at the northern tip of Oregon, seventy miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Portland is a fourteen hour drive or a short flight from Calgary. When is best to visit? I love the spring-flowering trees, which make the city vivid with colour. Summers are preferred by most locals – dry days and warm nights extend the patio hours into the wee hours. Harvest in wine country along with festivals like Feast Portland and Fresh Hops make the fall appetizing. Check out Eat Beats weekly planner (portlandmonthlymag.com) and Eater PDX (pdx.eater.com) to research year round food related events and activities.
Although outlying suburbs make it seem larger, the city proper is home to only six hundred thousand residents. Similar to Calgary, it is divided into quadrants from east to west by the Willamette River and from north to south by Burnside Street. Portland is known for neighbourhoods that are not only geographically, but stylistically distinct. However, for a long weekend, downtown makes a good base of operations (their light rail system called “MAX” goes directly from the airport to the heart of the action). An eclectic neighbourhood combining the sophistication of business and the character of spontaneous demonstrations or artistic performances in Pioneer Square, it also offers a diverse array of food options within easy walking distance.
Hipster types may want to stay at the Ace Hotel on Ankeny, between downtown and the Pearl district; other options for those that don’t need to be at the center of the action are the Mark Spencer Hotel or The Nines. You can eat all day just on the same block – breakfast and coffee at Stumptown Roasters in the hotel lobby; lunch at Kenny & Zuke’s Deli one door down for an authentic heavily laden pastrami sandwich; happy hour with craft cocktails (try the Bourbon Renewal); and togarashi honey popcorn followed by a veritable feast of beef ribs with celery beer jam and skillet cornbread slathered with smoked bone marrow butter at Clyde Common. After dinner, head downstairs to Pepe Le Moko, an Algerian-influenced speakeasy bar run by renowned mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler.
The next day, meander a few blocks over to 12th Avenue. Portlandians brunch, so expect a line up on weekend mornings at hotspot Tasty & Alder. Order a Tasty Mary and try unique menu items such as the hangtown fry or bimbop bacon & eggs, but if the line is too long, try again for dinner and share plates of wagyu flatiron, Iberican pork skirt and Brazilian fish stew along with a side of grilled radicchio salad. Keep lunch casual with a spit roasted porchetta or smoked coppa cubano sandwich from Lardo (the sandwich shop that “worships at the altar of bovine and swine” and proclaims to have brought fat back) or handcrafted pasta at Grassa, their sister restaurant next door.
Work lunch off by renting a Surrey (four wheeled) bike and cycle the bridge loop, traveling across Hawthorne bridge (home of USA’s first bike traffic counter) and back across Steel bridge, a double deck, vertical lift operating since 1912. Or just stroll the waterfront and stop in at Portland Saturday Market (actually held both Saturday and Sunday) from March to December; it is a unique experience some will love and some will prefer to avoid – fast food, art, T-shirts, bands, and buskers.
All that exercise warrants a stop at the legendary VooDoo Doughnuts. Peak weekend hours guarantee line-ups around the block, but waiting it out will reward you with choices ranging from the bacon maple bar to the cock-n-balls (it really is filled with Bavarian cream). Nearby, take an elevator ride up to the 30th floor of US Bancorp (the landmark pink glass building) and check out Portland City Grill; this popular happy hour destination has expansive views of Portland in all directions that make it worth the lift, even with no room in your stomach.
After spending your day making choices, why not let a chef make the decisions and settle in for a tasting menu for dinner. Book a table at Racion for their five-course molecular gastronomy food and cocktails of Spanish influence. Or travel with the Mediterranean Exploration Company (for $40/pp!) and be transported abroad with dishes like shalosh, mejadar and youvetsi. Top Chef fans can also visit last year’s contender Gregory Gourdet at Departure for Asian inspired dishes, or try Doug Adams’ buttermilk fried rabbit at Imperial.
A must-do if you are visiting on a Saturday is the outdoor farmers market at Portland State University. Tables overflow with Oregon’s bounty – fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, meat, and more. Generous samples from the vendors may fill you up, but if not, share a Reggie at Pine State Biscuits – the line can seem endless, but isn’t fried chicken topped with bacon on a biscuit smothered in white gravy worth waiting for a minute or two? The streetcar stops directly in front of the market entrance, but walk back downtown along Park Avenue for leafy trees, shopping, and your metabolism!
Venturing north from downtown, browse through Powell’s, the world’s largest independent book store, filling a whole city block. End up in the Pearl district, a trendy, warehouse district redeveloped with condos. If you are visiting early in the month, take part in First Thursday, with entry into art galleries and lots of food and drinks-all generally free. Home to many restaurant options, the Pearl is an even better place for happy hour. Portland is well known for its brewing culture, and Deschutes, Rogue, Bridgeport, Fat Head’s, Pints and 10 Barrel Brewing all call this district home. If you prefer caffeine, hit up either Barista or Nossa Familia on 13th Avenue – the old train loading dock line, now pedestrian mall.
Hop on the streetcar and head west to the Alphabet District. 23rd Avenue is the best walking street to explore small independent shops. On a nice day, make a picnic with baguette from Ken’s Artisan Bakery on 21st Avenue/Glisan and charcuterie from Chop on 21st Avenue/Johnson and take a walk in Forest Park, North America’s largest forested urban park, where moss grows thick under dogwoods – right in the city!
Lots of great eateries reside along 23rd, but do not miss a stop at Salt & Straw for farm to cone ice cream. In addition to Oprah’s favourite flavour – arbequina olive oil – they offer a new seasonal series every month. The most unusual I sampled was sea urchin and mint – it worked! Finish up your day with happy hour and a game of pool or the five-course experience (for $36, $61 with wine) at Uptown Billiards Club.
Venturing across the river leads to many other fabulous food finds. Beast, Holdfast and Le Pigeon for fine dining, Pok Pok and Langbaan for Thai, distillery row for hand-crafted spirits, and more breweries than you could visit in a month definitely require planning a return visit before you even depart!
BJ Oudman is a physical therapist with a passion for food and wine. She travels the world when she has time between consulting in both physical therapy and wine.