Think Portland, Oregon and funky food trucks, freshly roasted coffee, and craft beer immediately comes to mind. Two weekends ago, I tornado’ed through the city to explore what else defines their eclectic food scene.
With a group of friends, we travelled to Portland for a wedding. Rather than doing extensive research, I left my dining itinerary up to twitter recommendations. I’ve heard such great things about Portland’s food scene that I figured I would trip over awesome joints at every step. That was not entirely the case.
Here are my observations and experience of dining in PDX.
Portlanders love to wait.
That’s fine. I don’t. I’m not too good to wait in line but if I’m travelling for 2.5 short days, I can’t afford to wait 1.5 hours for a seat. The problem doesn’t lie in the fact that certain restaurant are awfully popular. Rather, it baffles me that locals are willing to blow years of their lives on restaurant line-ups. How odd.
Due to group consensus, we ended up waiting 1.25 hours for brunch at Tasty n Sons. (I suppressed my hunger with a danish and a macchiato at Risretto Roasters a few doors down while we waited). Thankfully, the brunch was exceptionally tasty and was my most memorable meal in Portland.
Their cocktails were sublime, the menu was inventive and diverse, the airy space was beautiful, and the comfort food was prepared with care. A definite two thumbs up.
On another breezy morning, we were deterred by the infinite queue at Broder and unfortunately had to pass on it. We instead headed to the oddly empty The Press Club around the block and enjoyed some savory and sweet crepes and artisanal sandwiches. They have a large collection of niche magazines to peruse, including Meat Magazine. This little spot was a really neat find.
In addition to waiting for food, don’t even get me started on the ridiculous line-up outside Voodoo’s Donuts. You’ve got to be joking me, people.
Apart from Tasty n Sons, we managed to squeeze in a few more good bites in Portland. On our first evening, after the challenging hike up the Multnomah Falls, the famished wedding attendees gathered at a food trailer park.
A few bottles of wine non-discretely disguised in paper bags marked our territory on the picnic tables. We ordered a few pizzas from Pyro Pizza, a rustic trailer with an impressive wood burning oven.
Their handmade mozzarella was creamy, juicy, and was the star on many of their pizzas. However, the thin-crust pie topped with caramelized onion pizza, gorgonzola cheese and pistachios stole my heart. The generous layer of sweet, but not overly soft onion melded perfectly with the tangy cheese. The bubbly crust had the right amount of give – ever so slightly stretchy with some resistance. The little pops of pistachios took the pizza over the top.
A fries trailer named Potato Champion was in the same lot but the “champion” title was a stretch. A friend from LA ordered her first poutine and was unsure what to make of it. I had to explain to her that poutines were created in bone-chillingly cold Quebec. The gravy’s role is to melt the cheese curds so diners have to fight with the long, stretchy strands of melty cheese curds.
Here, the tepid gravy resulted in luke-warm and soggy fries topped cold, rubbery curds. What a bummer. Their pulled-pork on cheese curds on fries were much better and I’m still tempted to try their intriguing PB&J fries.
Next up, Gruner. I’ll sum this restaurant (that proudly hangs the GQ article that hails them as one of the 10 best US new restaurants in 2010 in their bathroom) as: solid.
Things I loved:
- bright space, comfortable banquette seating, long patio space
- open prep table in the back where we can watch the cooks roll dough for pies and bread
- clean, well-executed food made with wonderfully fresh ingredients
- great wine and cocktail selection
- unpretentious and reasonably priced
The spaetzel with reisling braised chicken hit the spot. The noodly dumplings had a lovely bite and was thankfully not waterlogged. A creamy thyme sauce tied the spatezel together with the succulent chicken pieces and crimini mushrooms. The fried shallots provided the additional oomph factor.
I devoured half a burger too. The pillowy potato bun was excellent and I especially loved the condiments: lightly pickled onions and cucumbers and a housemade celery ketchup. The crispy and salty smashed potatoes were a fun alternative to fries. They slightly overcooked our burgers (to the medium side of medium rare) but given their busy lunch rush, it was a forgivable glitch.
Oh, and the cocktail was spot on. No complaints there.
Interlude: The Rude Restaurant Experience
Throughout my trip, Portlanders were generally friendly but not overly so. We’re in the chilly Pacific Northwest, after all. The only time that we received unacceptably rude service was at an extremely popular restaurant called Mother’s.
In short, get over yourselves and treat your patrons with some decency.
More specifically, our group went to Mother’s for a bite. We called in advance for reservations and were on time. Upon arrival, a snooty server named Jeffery gave us an unwelcoming precursor before they even poured water for us. He announced loudly that we’d be charged auto-gratuity for our group and asked how we’d like to split the bill. He huffed about, speaking condescendingly to us as if we were wasting his time, and walked off from the table repeatedly without reason. Upon returning, he borderline lectured us that putting all of our drinks on one bill and billing us each separately for our food was the easiest for him. All we really wanted to do was to order some food but we ended up sitting awkwardly, looking confusedly at each other over our menus. His snarky attitude did not improve throughout the meal but we simply endured it. Thanks a lot for single-handedly killing the party’s mood, Jeffery.
Lastly, the merely OK
At only $6 a pop, I can see why Nong’s Khao Man Gai chicken rice cart is popular with locals and visitors alike. The poached chicken on seasoned rice comes with chicken skin crackling and a side of chicken broth with preserved mustard greens. Add a few pieces of chicken liver for $1. It’s good value for a quick downtown lunch but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. The rice wasn’t particularly fragrant, nor the chicken very succulent. Overall, the meal was rather bland, impressionable, and dare I say, overrated.
Lastly, Pix is coffee shop in a hip part of town (neighboring Tasty n Sons) that claims to serve authentic French pastries. Let’s just say that they did not deliver. I liked the spunky decor and the open garage door spacial concept but that’s about all. The dense, unrefined macrons and cakes have a long ways to go to even come close to the most mediocre Parisien creations.
Portland, you were hip, beautiful, vibrant, and overall, delicious.
Since we travelled as a group for a wedding and had very limited time, food wasn’t our primary focus and we truly couldn’t spare any more time in line ups. I’ll be back for Pok Pok, Clyde and Common, Le Pigeon, and Little Bird. I’ll attempt to eat at Broder again too.
What else am I missing? I better start compiling my list now.