After my first visit to Portland, Oregon, I was a starry-eyed amateur: I loved every single bite and there was still so much more to taste. Now that I’ve gorged myself four times in PDX, I understand that being starry-eyed is the way to be: there is an overwhelming amount of delicious food and there will always be more to discover. So how does a person begin to digest all that Portland has to offer? The following list of traveler’s tips are my attempt, after serious contemplation and a few handfuls of Zantac, to give some guidance to my fellow hungry tourists on how best to stuff oneself in the City of Roses.
Relearn Italian and French: Ava Gene’s is not a typical red sauce joint, nor is Le Pigeon serving soupe à l’oignon and sole menuière. Ava Gene’s has exceptionally delicious versions of simple italian favorites: ricotta to eat by the spoonful, silky, cloud-like burrata that made me realize I’ve been eating so-so burrata for years. To say that I had a beet salad would do no justice to their stunning, saucy, tangy, crunchy plate of beets and nuts and herbs. The pastas are satisfyingly homey, but restrained—just the right amount of sauce, cheese, and meat. Le Pigeon is what happens when cool kids take on french food. I had a classic-sounding lineup of escargots, duck, and profiteroles, but those escargots were paired with sausage in a bowl of porridge, the duck came with a date mole sauce, and the profiteroles were filled with foie gras. I didn’t think it was possible for a place to make me love french food more, but Le Pigeon did it.
Find your true self in a doughnut. Are you a grown-up or a kid at heart? Your taste in doughnuts might tell you. Everyone who’s been to Portland knows Voodoo Doughnut. Voodoo stopped putting Pepto-Bismol in their treats, but they still use plenty of kids’ cereal, innuendo, and Tang to keep their followers happy. The doughnuts are very fresh, very sweet, and very silly. Rivaling Voodoo’s dominance is Blue Star Donuts, whose motto is “Donuts for Grown-ups.” They have flavors like Blueberry, Bourbon, Basil (my favorite) and Dark Chocolate Ganache with Almonds. Blue Star uses a brioche dough for its yeast-raised varieties and it’s the most tender, flavorful ring of joy I’ve ever tasted. So I’m definitely in the grown-up camp, but if you’re a doughnut lover, check out both spots.
Vacation is for day drinking. Willamette Valley wine country, land of Pinot Noir, is about an hour drive from the city. Tasting fees aren’t cheap (generally $15 to $20 per flight), but the wine will be worth it and the scenery around the Dundee Hills is breathtaking. I’ve visited Winderlea, Alexana, and Ponzi and enjoyed them all.
Drink from a different perspective. When cocktail bars open at 4, duck beneath the Ace Hotel to Pepe Le Moko, the dark, intimate cocktail bar named for a 1930’s french film about a gangster on the run. We washed down deviled eggs and charcuterie with classic daiquiris and amaretto sours and we couldn’t help but order another round. For the opposite experience, Departure on the top floor of The Nines Hotel has a rooftop deck and a menu of spicy, tangy asian-influenced craft cocktails. Irresistible bar snacks like pork shumai and spring rolls come from the kitchen of Top Chef runner-up Gregory Gourdet.
Eat with your hands. Ed’s favorite meal was at Olympia Provisions, an artisan salumeria and restaurant. He had a brat with sauerkraut and mustard on a hoagie roll, but that simple description does nothing to convey the perfect seasoning of the sausage, the ideal topping-to-meat ratio, and the fresher than fresh roll. My chorizo with manchego, piquillos, and aioli on ciabatta was equally delicious. For a burger so juicy you’ll be licking the drippings off your wrists, make a beeline for Tasty n Alder. The patty is topped with chubut cheese, house bacon, and hazelnut romesco – a combination of toppings that is confusing on paper, but spectacular on a burger. As long as you’re getting messy, you won’t want to skip Pok Pok’s fish sauce wings. Crispy, spicy, salty, and addictive, they could be a meal of their own or the prelude to a feast that includes an exotic Thai daily special, a curry, a papaya salad, and many bowls of coconut rice. While you’re waiting for your table, go across the street to Whiskey Soda Lounge for refreshing and funky cocktails made with Pok Pok’s signature drinking vinegars.
Dessert first, and often. Salt and Straw serves the creamiest, dreamiest ice cream made from local ingredients and spiked with local character. Friendly employees will help you choose a flavor when you find yourself overwhelmed by intriguing choices (like strawberry honey balsamic with black pepper or Arbequina olive oil). I went with sea salt with caramel ribbons because I can never resist anything salty caramel flavored. It was smoother, saltier (in a good way), and richer than any other I’ve tasted. Nuvrei Pâtisserie is worth a visit if you love butter-rich, infinitely flaky french pastries. The croissants made me daydream about Paris, but it was the cinnamon danish (like a palmier with buttery cinnamon filling) that had me smacking my lips the loudest. How about brunch with a side of salted honey pie? Sweedeedee is as cute as it sounds and even if you’re not interested in pie for breakfast, the corncakes with eggs, bacon, and greens will give you all the energy you need for a busy day of eating.
Embrace the tasting menu. Beast and Castagna are two spendy restaurants worth the splurge. Beast is very Portland. It’s in a carefully appointed, slightly rustic space with just two communal tables (which means you’ll savor a bite of food and then turn to the stranger sitting next to you and ask how he liked his foie gras bonbon). The charcuterie plate is a show-stopper and each of the other five courses is inventive yet comfortingly familiar. I was most impressed by the succulent, flavorful roasted pork loin (but that bonbon was pretty amazing, too). Castagna, by contrast, offers a white tablecloth, quiet, modern fine dining experience with delicate flavors and a fine art presentation. The first bites are fun snacks that show off chef Justin Woodward’s training in pastry: a meringue made to look like a mushroom cap with a surprise filling of egg and trout roe, a strip of what appears to be a fruit roll-up that’s actually red pepper leather filled with shiso and sheep’s milk cheese. The courses are paced and sized for maximum enjoyment and every flake of salt and pool of sauce has a purpose in the elaborate, beautiful ballet.
When you’re hungry, but you’ve spent all of your money on letterpress cards and hand-poured artisan soy candles. First stop, food carts. The cluster of carts around SW 10th and Alder is the one I’ve hit most often. Try the famous Nong Khao Man Gai’s poached chicken with rice, but if the line’s too long go next door to Korean Twist for bulgogi tacos and burritos. If you need to rest your feet and drink something sudsy, head downtown to All-Way, Portland’s version of Shake Shack. Skinny griddled patties topped with American Cheese, House Spread, and house-cured pickles on a brioche bun. Don’t try to decide between onion rings and fries: get both. Is it Saturday? Then go to the farmer’s market by Portland State University (SW Park Ave. and SW Montgomery St.). Wander slack-jawed among the abundance of produce, flowers, and cinnamon rolls this little city has to offer and then get in line for breakfast: a monster fried chicken, bacon, cheese, and gravy biscuit with a money ball (egg) from Pine State Biscuits and/or a mammoth egg, sausage, cheddar, green chile, spiced potato burrito from Enchanted Sun Breakfast Burritos.
It’s all just so darn good.