Back then, nearly every American city had shaped an enduring identity. New York was about restaurants and Los Angeles about film, but nobody had any idea what to make of Portland, Oregon. I traveled there regularly in the early '70s as an NBA beat writer for a Philadelphia newspaper, covering the 76ers against the Trail Blazers, and only vague memories remain, none of them relating to a remarkable meal. Other cities in the league, including the second-rate ones, had some food attraction, even if it was an oddity such as the revolving restaurant above the Holiday Inn in Baltimore or Mushy Wexler's Theatrical in Cleveland.
I remember walking through the industrial grayness of Portland forty years ago, passing the occasional pancake house, putting up with the relentless drizzle. James Beard, a founding father of American cuisine, was born there but had long since fled to New York. Neither Blazermania (a few years away) nor the food carts (a few decades away) had appeared.
Perhaps you are wondering why I am not now heralded as the prophet of Portland. I can answer that. It's because I always said such a cultural and culinary makeover would occur in Seattle. But Seattle, it turned out, was just like every other city, and Portland was something else. Explains Karen Brooks, the Portland Monthly restaurant editor and critic, "Portland had the don't-give-a-fuck attitude."
Wackiest to Classiest: Ten Ways to Dine in Portland
Somewhat serious Korean and Japanese food. Porn films! Weird waiters! Pinball machines! Decaying couch! What's not to like?
America's only vegan strip club. Strippers okay. Hickory burger better. Kudos to Becky Lou, tattooed chef with pierced lips.
Biscuits Endless, infinitely slow lines. Patient locals wait and wait and wait. Doesn't anyone in Portland ever go to work?
A zoological garden of the near-infinite variety of enthralling Homo sapiens residing in Portland. Very satisfying grub.
My four-course extra-fatty brunch: First, clafouti with maple-glazed bacon. Second, lamb, eggs, hollandaise. Third, cheese. Fourth, truffle cake. Death to diabetics.
Famed twenty-four-hour shop less bizarre than believed. Owner talks like Princeton grad. Good fun, good baking, glorious pink box.
Once as unrefined as a meal around a campfire, now settled into cozy middle age. Little resemblance to typical Thai restaurants.
Fine dining like no other: cramped, crowded—and uncompromising. Long admired as Portland's best, with good reason.
The Woodsman Tavern
Menu includes tasting of three cured hams, very Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Looks and eats like a first-rate New York restaurant.
Breakout restaurant of chef Daniel Mondok—might turn minuscule city (pop. 3,000) of Dundee into hot spot. Mondok brilliantly adds spice and heat to haute cuisine.
Portland, it turned out, gave all who arrived a chance to do whatever they desired. It defined success and prosperity by an extraordinary model, one that did not involve big business or luxurious automobiles. Today it boasts a vegan strip club, a Voodoo Doughnut empire, a restaurant featuring a female chef with a mostly unbuttoned blouse, and an Asian eating establishment that presents zombie porn movies to a diverse clientele. Also proliferating of late is a new breed of larger, more polished restaurants that are both stylish and informal. As Kyle Linden Webster, one of the city's best bartenders, says, "Portland wants to be a small town, but it's really a big restaurant."In Portland, dating begins at breakfast. The late-twentyish kid eating at Gravy, one table over from me, is wearing a huge chrome watch, thick black glasses, and biking shoes with clips. Bike-to-table is standard here. His date is wearing a peacoat and no makeup. Their sartorial style is somewhere between hipster and hootenanny. Both have backpacks at their feet. Both are nervously jiggling their legs. He says to her, "I will pay for this because I want to encourage you to take me out to dinner." A few tables over, two men in black, their arms smeared with tattoos, are gently comforting a distressed baby. The kid is mostly in black, too—black shirt, black sneakers. I ask the manager of Gravy, Trish Schot, what's with the two and a quarter men. She knows them, and she explains: "Mom's at work."
Gravy appears costly for Portland—omelets going for about ten bucks, a biscuit with gravy for almost four—but then you see the portions, which are staggering. "Mark [Greco, the owner] likes to eat," Schot explains. The biscuit is far from fluffy—Portland isn't a fluffy place—but the plate overflows with luscious chunky sausage gravy, enough to feed the Confederacy. I similarly admire the oatmeal brûlée with mixed berries, basic breakfast food transformed into dessert.
This is the first morning of a week in Portland, where I have come on an expedition that is as much anthropological as gastronomical. Portland has become an American archipelago of a unique species of humans: tattooed, brazen, and so uninterested in conventional appearance that almost nobody carries an umbrella, although it rains about 150 days a year. As one unfashionably dressed friend explained to me, "Why bother buying expensive clothes if you're only going to get them wet?"
Gravy is located on Mississippi Avenue, four miles north of downtown. It is both a street and the name of one of the vital mini hipster enclaves that have emerged in recent years. Like faraway Pittsburgh, Portland is a city of bridges, and most of the enclaves are reached from downtown by driving—or, as is common, bicycling—over one of them. These neighborhoods, scattered around and fiercely loyal, are at the core of what Portland has become, a breeding ground for innovative, fascinating, and often unconventional food and drink.
All of them are in what were underutilized and underpriced sections of the city. (Opportunities remain, but the cost of buying in is going up as property values rise.) For newcomers, these ready-for-rehab neighborhoods stretched out before them the way grassy plains lured settlers in Conestoga wagons centuries ago. Most of the neighborhoods were poor, with mixed populations, and they were taken over by equally poor white guys who came here wanting to open restaurants.
If a film is made of this phenomenon, it should be titled White Men Cooking, although Portland resident Paul Mones, my old friend and culinary counselor, describes these entrepreneurs differently: "They are of a new color, white with tattoos." These cooks, often near-neophytes, opened restaurants that were inundated with customers, most of them as poor as the chefs. In Portland, everyone eats out, whether they have a job or not, which might be the true economic miracle.
Says the veteran Portland chef Chris Israel, "I'm always amazed at the level of the restaurant business. Eating has become the pastime. Not movies, not bowling, and this is a big bowling town, like Milwaukee."
Should you be attracted to Italian food, the underpinning of most American dining, you won't find the customary glut of it here. Should you have a hankering for cured meats, you might think you've stepped into one big Hungarian butcher shop. The best salumi and charcuterie I tasted was at Olympic Provisions, where the sweetheart ham is as exceptional as Italian culatello and the Saucisson d'Arles (cumin) and Saucisson d'Alsace (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg) are magnificently scented. Apparently nobody in Portland can resist the lure of cured meats: At my communal table sat a young woman openly nursing her baby while eating lunch.
I gallantly looked away, but I can't say I did the same at Beast, a restaurant with an open kitchen operated by the well-known chef Naomi Pomeroy. A sign there reads IF WE'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO EAT ANIMALS, WHY ARE THEY MADE OUT OF MEAT? One of the cooks, not Pomeroy, was working with her shirt almost totally unbuttoned, yet another Portland innovation—open kitchen, open blouse. At Casa Diablo, the vegan strip club, I dined on a beautifully prepared garden burger while chatting with a bare-breasted bartender whose aspirations were spelled out on a glass bowl: TIP JAR FOR TORI'S BOOB JOB. Nobody in Portland can gripe that dress codes stand in the way of success.
Possibly the only beloved downtown eating spot is Voodoo Doughnut, built by Kenneth "Cat Daddy" Pogson and partner Tres Shannon in 2003. Says Pogson, "We had an epiphany. We saw there was no doughnut shop in downtown Portland, and nobody could prove there ever was one. We put it up for way less than $50,000 and sweat and tears and a good landlord who gave us more than a few months of free rent. We promised five of our friends free doughnuts for life if they helped us, and one of them still holds us to it." Voodoo Doughnut is a candy store for adults, with impossibly tricked-out, freshly made doughnuts, almost all of them too sweet and too delicious. A bacon-maple bar is the primary draw. I found it particularly significant because it predates most other insane uses of pig meat. Here's some voodoo for you: I kept a box of these doughnuts in my hotel room for four days, and they remained scarily fresh.
Gravy is such an exquisite example of the new Portland it should someday be lifted out of the ground intact and put in a natural-history museum. It was built at minimal cost with the assistance of Greco's brother-in-law, a contractor, but many of the new restaurants rely primarily on using layperson labor. You might wonder how Portland came to have so many citizens with the requisite skills, but local ordinances are such that little expertise is mandated. A hammer and nails are nearly enough. Andy Fortgang, a partner in two upscale Portland restaurants, Le Pigeon and Little Bird, moved to Portland from New York City and says, "In New York, I did not look forward to working with community boards and Con Ed [the power company]." A former Portland chef now working in New York City said to me, "Don't forget to include the New York Fire Department in that list."
The owner of Gravy, Mark Greco, came to Portland from Chicago twelve years ago and set out to open a restaurant, although he had no idea what it should be. Lack of focus has never been a drawback here. An oversupply of creativity is what counts. He says, "I saw people lined up for breakfast," so a breakfast spot is what he built. You might think it can't be that easy, but in Portland it is. "People seem to have an easy time making their dream come true," Greco says. (His sister came to Portland in 1992 and opened a shop that sold bloomers. It did well.) Although Greco worked sixteen hours a day to establish Gravy, he now stops in for a few hours five days a week to see that all is well and works the line the other two days. He's 48, not wealthy, and he has no desire to get that way. He just bought a bow and arrows, and his current ambition is to learn how to shoot well.
Where food is concerned, Portland attracts individuals with peculiar ambitions. It has become the promised land for young people who want to cook but lack the savings, the training, and perhaps the resolve to pursue traditional restaurant careers, the kind based on French-inspired drudgery. They arrive and are greeted by a populace that instantaneously lines up for the food, the only stipulation being that it doesn't cost too much. Nothing else is demanded, not even experience preparing the food they plan to sell.
The nonconformity that is embraced at a personal level is largely absent architecturally. The simpler restaurants lack majesty, a result of not having to bother with architects and contractors. They tend to have exposed pipes and ceilings crisscrossed by unpainted lumber.
Portland's seminal slapdash restaurant is Pok Pok, opened in late 2005 by Andy Ricker, who has triumphed like few others at preparing the cuisine of a country not his own. Ricker cooked authentic Thai food in a small shack and served it from a take-out window. The experience wasn't much different from eating at a food cart, except that alongside the shack was a Thai rotisserie for cooking game hens stuffed with lemongrass. Acclaim was immediate. The national press parachuted in. Food & Wine magazine brought in a crane to take photographs from overhead. Guy Fieri showed up. Ricker now has a mini-empire that has spread to New York, and he has gone from obscurity and near bankruptcy to being named the James Beard Foundation's best chef in the Northwest in 2011. He did it by being as Portland as Portland gets, and that includes personally financing his start-up with credit cards and loans from friends.
Pok Pok is not comfortable, although everyone tells me it used to be worse. It is not easy to get a table. The menu, filled with too much information, is difficult to read. The dishes, written out in phonetic Thai, are impossible to pronounce. You cannot order by number. Pok Pok's chicken wings—sweet, spicy, and slippery—are enormously famous, possibly because they're one of the few menu items easy to order. I ate there twice, the first time with friends who ordered tamely, and I wasn't impressed. I mentioned this to Karen Brooks, who was restaurant critic for The Oregonian when it declared Pok Pok restaurant of the year in 2007, and she was so incensed by my lack of awe she insisted we go back. Her selections were much better, the highlight being boar collar in mustard greens, eaten as a kind of Thai taco. She lectured me, too: "You're not in Portland to be blown away by the food. You're here to participate in a state of mind."
Most emblematic of that is Tanuki, located across the street from a hot-tub company. Soaking is something everyone does, right after an afternoon of mountain climbing or other excessive activity. The theme of Tanuki is Asian-influenced chaos. The exterior is among the least welcoming in hospitality history. The windows are covered in sailcloth, perfect for blocking out light, and a blackboard outside warns: NO SUSHI! NO KIDS! The interior resembles a second-rate clubhouse in a Third World country: concrete floor, vintage pinball machines, large-screen TVs, grungy couch, and unstable black chairs
Oddly, the early crowd appeared to be mostly elderly suburbanites, rather like me. On one side of the room, facing the couch, was a modest TV showing a clean-cut Comcast Asian family drama. On the other side was a much larger TV playing Big Tits Zombie, a flesh-eating film featuring a surfeit of succulent soft tissue. We arrived during happy hour and began our meal with a startlingly good $1 kimchi hot dog. The miso soup that followed was watery, broth for the undead, but everything else was impressive, particularly the crab claws in XO sauce and the oysters with kimchi ice.
Our waiter was a shuffling symbol of Portland service. He wore a lumberjack jacket and a black stocking cap and brought food and drink at the speed of an animated corpse. He poured nothing, removed nothing, and seemed confused by the concept of napkins. I kept carrying our empty plates to another table and piling them there. The two women with me complained that I didn't tip him enough, and I had left 15 percent. Call me crotchety, but I don't believe waiters wearing stocking caps deserve more.
The restaurant Ox was brand-new when I arrived. It's big-ticket by Portland standards, most main courses galloping past $30—locals call that "spendy." It wasn't built frugally, like the aforementioned archetypal Portland restaurants; the centerpiece is an enormous Argentine-inspired wood-burning grill. The cuts of beef were tasty, if short of magnificent, but the wood-fired ricotta, the grilled maitake mushrooms with smoked salt, and the clam chowder with smoked marrow bone were irresistible. Leave it to Portland to discover a new way to present marrow, a foodstuff as old as mankind.
The finest restaurant in the city, by most accounts, is Le Pigeon. The enormously appealing haute-rustic food comes out of a tiny, bustling, relentlessly busy open kitchen and is far more complex than I would have thought possible. The signature pigeon preparation was a croquette of pigeon and foie gras in a luscious sauce made with Italian vincotto. More startling was an exquisite rabbit pie with mustard ice cream.
The one-room Le Pigeon is simple and one-dimensional, the customers more basic than that. About thirty can fit into the room, and most were men the night I was there. Six wore plaid shirts and one a Pendleton jacket—nothing wrong with patronizing local merchants. A well-dressed woman wearing a wide-necked peasant blouse in peach chiffon was sitting next to a guy who was scrolling through a BlackBerry and ignoring whatever she said to him. But I guess that happens everywhere, not just in Portland.
When I asked Joe Guth, who founded Provvista Specialty Foods in the early 1990s, for an explanation of Portland's growth, he answered, "Cheap rent, cheap rent, cheap rent." From that foundation evolved what might be the most affordable upscale urban economy in America. It certainly offers the most pleasure for the price. If dinner is too expensive, happy hour is not. In Manhattan, happy-hour cuisine tends to consist of tortilla chips. In Portland, it's practically the proverbial free lunch. Many restaurants have two happy hours, one early and one late, and food is always offered because the law demands it.
At the mostly Chinese restaurant Ping, opened several years ago by Ricker of Pok Pok, the draw is a small menu of items costing roughly 40 percent less during happy hour than during dinner. Even then, nothing is more than $14. Two years ago GQ declared Ping one of the best new restaurants in America, and to me the food is more approachable and comforting than that of the far more celebrated Pok Pok. At happy hour, don't miss the semi-Japanese, semi-Jewish $5 Kobayashi dog, named after a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion.
Yet it's drinking inexpensively where Portland stands alone. Twelve-ounce draft beers often go for $3, and not just at happy hour. Cocktails are $5 or $6 during happy hour, not a great deal more at other times. At St. Jack, an upscale two-year-old restaurant where the patron saint of the bar is deemed to be Natalie Wood and the bartender is Kyle Webster, chicken-liver mousse or pork rillettes were $4 per portion, each generous. A small assortment of Webster's unsurpassed cocktails went for $6; I paid $10 for his signature Guillotine, not offered as a happy-hour special. It was a bargain nonetheless.
My most delightful meal was a pop-up lunch that fortuitously took place while I was in town. It was a joint effort by the partnership of Roger Konka, a mushroom forager, and Kathryn Yeomans, a longtime professional cook. In most cities, pop-ups tend to be semipermanent: They emerge with fanfare and hang around until the space they're occupying is once again leased. Pop-ups in Portland are exactly what they're supposed to be: here today, gone forever. They're made possible by the camaraderie of the restaurant community. A number of restaurants allow people like Konka and Yeomans to use the facilities on the days they are closed. The lunch I attended took place in the restaurant Tastebud, a combination bakery, pizzeria, and chicken emporium known for its Montreal-style bagels.
The bland dining room, an extreme example of Portland minimalism, resembles a lunchroom in a twentieth-century senior citizens' center. The menu for the day was handwritten. Notice, I did not say "menus." There was one menu to be shared by all. The service was just awful, thanks to Konka, a charming and easily distracted waiter right out of Fawlty Towers.
I had met the two of them at the downtown farmers' market, which is where I learned about the upcoming meal. I started my lunch with one of Yeomans's biscuits, stunningly light, particularly compared with other local versions I had endured. Among the best dishes, as noteworthy as any I ate in Portland, were bruschetta topped with morels poached in Chenin Blanc, stinging-nettle flan with tomato coulis, and, best of all, verging on magnificent, an assemblage of morel mushrooms with poached eggs and roasted asparagus grown by a farmer by the name of Marven Winters, blessed be he.
That was the finest and, for that matter, the most iconic vegetable dish I ate. It wasn't just Portland food. This was idealized Portland food, the kind I thought I would find in every restaurant but did not. This was a glorification of farm, field, woods, and wild. Despite Portland's reputation, few of the inexpensive restaurants call attention to local products, probably because great products are expensive and many of the most successful restaurants charge too little to afford them.
Yeomans's finale was devil's food cake, but not any devil's food cake. It was the best slice of devil's food cake of my life, the cake all of us naively thought we'd been eating at our birthday parties from the time we were 6. A slice was $5. I now add chocolate cake to the list of what makes Portland unexpectedly wonderful.
Portland's not just about the wine. Check out these three great beercentric bars:
Tim Hanrahan picked me up in his 1993 Subaru station wagon, complete with bike rack. He called it "the official car of Portland." We drove off in pursuit of Portland's unofficial pastime—beer drinking. He's an expert at it but admits everyone else is, too. Hanrahan moved here from Boston twenty years ago and says, "In Boston, if you say you're going to brew your own beer, somebody says, 'Sure, good luck, you're going to fail.' Here they say, 'What a cool idea.'"
Brewing got big in Oregon in the nineteenth century, thanks to a German immigrant named Henry Weinhard. Prohibition temporarily slowed progress, but now there are more than forty breweries within the city limits. No other city in the world has more. Here are three I particularly admired.
BridgePort Brew Pub
The barroom of Oregon's first craft brewery. No longer particularly small or innovative, but appealing and extremely welcoming. Come for a primer on suds. Tasting tray of eight ales, totaling forty ounces, for $9. Study, drink, move on.
Down an elevator, past a locker room. You've arrived. Resembles a primitive winery tasting room. Six is a creamy, caramely farmhouse ale, twelve ounces for $3. How can anything so good cost so little? Listen to Tom Waits on vinyl. Sing while you sip.
Hair of the Dog Brewing Company
The best of the brewpubs. Oddly named ales, like Adam (smooth, high-alcohol, honeyed, chocolaty) and Doggie Claws 2011 (cherry-like, smooth, sweet, practically a dessert beer). So much style and originality. Good pan-roasted Brussels sprouts, too.
Paul Mones, my old pal, took me to a food-cart pod on Mississippi Avenue, just up the street from Gravy. Cart pods are a little like trailer parks and a little like second-rate county fairs. This one, built on asphalt, had an ATM, porta-potties, and a covered seating area. It is where food carts figuratively let the air out of their tires and settle down for a sedentary life.
I'm no fan of food carts and trucks. Like so many other experiences in life, the fun is mostly in the chase. The food that follows generally lets me down. The lone exception, for me, are Korean tacos, which started the American food-truck and food-cart trend. Providentially, there happened to be a Koi Fusion cart parked in the pod. I ordered a corn tortilla stuffed with marinated beef, pico de gallo, cabbage, bean sprouts, coriander, cilantro, and a tomatillo-based sauce. It was great. Korean tacos always are.
Portland has some 700 food carts, and I don't believe I passed one that was going anywhere. They all seemed to be sadly parked, barely breathing. Huffman, the consultant, offered an explanation. He told me no one in his right mind wants to earn a living operating one of them. "Every food-cart guy I talk to would give anything to get out of the business. They freeze in winter and they roast in summer. They make zero money, show a net profit at the end of the year of $6,000. You can't grow on that model. It's a miserable existence."
It's also a starting point for this thought: Are these the last days of the Portland we have come to admire?
Three of the best meals I ate were at Ox, The Woodsman Tavern, and Paulée, "spendy" spots that did not suggest the alternative Portland that has become symbolic of personal freedom and eccentric endeavors. The Woodsman Tavern, which looked and felt like a New York restaurant, had superb seafood, supposedly a treasure of the region but in fact a luxury that only upscale restaurants offer. "Put a $28 fish on your menu and you can expect a popular uprising over it," Huffman says. "Even salmon is generally off menus. It's too expensive."
Located about thirty miles outside Portland, in the wine-country crossroads of Dundee, is the new and lustrous Paulée, the most un-Portland-like restaurant I visited. When I asked chef Daniel Mondok if he thought customers might resent that, he said Paulée didn't have to be like Portland because it wasn't in Portland.
Paulée's wood ceiling has polished slats, the striking Danish wishbone chairs have woven seats, the black walnut counters glow, the menu is totally ambitious, and the food was beautifully conceived. Along with the pop-up, Paulée was the restaurant most painstakingly dedicated to regional products. "You see this rabbit?" said Mondok, pointing to a saddle of rabbit wrapped around asparagus. "I know the whole story of this rabbit." He pulled me into the kitchen, where his chef de cuisine was dismembering a Red Wattle pig he had personally picked up at a farm thirty miles away. I was, by circumstance, the very first customer to dine at Paulée. Lack of practice proved no obstacle. Mondok manned his command spot at the prow of his quarter-million-dollar open kitchen and fussed over the food. Astonishingly, on this first day, the cooking seemed on a par with the best of Portland. Only the startling Le Pigeon was more impressive.
I didn't enjoy Ox, The Woodsman Tavern, and Paulée more than I did unfussy spots such as Olympic Provisions and Tanuki. But those three are, quite clearly, better restaurants. They are more professionally run, and they are more suited to the long haul, assuming their higher prices are not fatal. Everyone in Portland is in awe of Pok Pok, and while it might once have been extraordinary, verging on paranormal, it is now merely very good. Much admiration is due Le Pigeon, which for years has dished out high-end cuisine in an ambience lacking a smidgen of fussiness. That makes it both the best and the most representative Portland restaurant.
The inevitable maturing of Portland into a more conventional and modern metropolis was somewhat delayed when Andy Ricker and Matthew Lightner—he being the former chef of Portland's high-end Castagna—moved all or part of their operations to New York City. Ricker is following the classic celebrity-chef model, opening spin-offs of Pok Pok both in his hometown (only two so far but another soon) and in faraway cities (two in New York). Lightner opened the new and highly praised Atera in Lower Manhattan. There he charges twice as much for a meal than he did at his equally praised Castagna. He says, "I remember guests coming into Castagna, asking how much the meal cost. We'd say $95, and they'd reply, 'You mean for the whole table, everyone?' I'd say, 'Well, no.' "
Portland has arrived at a point where its famous chefs no longer have to go elsewhere to find economic success. That's wonderful, of course, but it also means America's most extraordinary food city will soon start becoming just like everywhere else.
Alan Richman is GQ correspondent.