A little while ago … ok, a big while ago … ok eight months ago I had the pleasure of going to Portland, Oregon, courtesy of Travel Oregon along with a cadre of other bloggers. This fandango, called Full On Oregon, was designed to showcase the best food-driven experiences Oregon has to offer. (Disclosure: Yes, this means Travel Oregon covered my expenses for this trip. I did not, however, accept any compensation for writing about it.)
Why did I wait this long to write about it? Well, I could give you some line about how I wanted to tantalize you at the appropriate time of year to consider traveling to Portland (which it is), or how it's taken me this long to lovingly craft the eloquent prose it deserves (which it does), but the truth is I immediately got super busy with work stuff after returning home, and, well, yeah. But what's important is that I'm here, telling you about this, now. So read on.
I've been to Portland before. Dear friends of ours used to live there, and DPaul and I took a visit back about six or seven years ago. And we liked it! But it was in the fall, and the typical Northwestern drizzle pervaded through the weekend. It didn't prohibit us from eating and drinking our way through town, but it certainly was more conducive to cuddling up in front of the fire than getting intrepid. Not this time, baby! By the time I arrived in PDX, the town was already scorching, and it would stay in the 80s through the entire visit.
I arrived on the early side, right around lunchtime, and had a few hours to kill. Portland has a famously vibrant street food scene, and though I should have known I was in for a few days of sport eating, I still struck out through the streets to sample a few nibbles on my own dime. My first discovery was an Indian truck just around from the hotel, where I nabbed some pani puri, delicious crisp puffs of dough with a devilishly spicy liquid to pour in. As you pop them in your mouth, the crisps burst, filling your mouth with the liquid. Excellent on a hot day.
Just a few blocks aways is the Alder Street Carts, one of a few entire city blocks given over to street food. Here, trucks and booths set up more or less permanent shop. Many offer full-on entree sized food, but I was in for more of a graze, so I patrolled until I found the bites I wanted, like a screaming hot lumpia.
And a refreshing honeydew salad with prosciutto and arugula from The People's Pig.
And some frozen yogurt from Cool Harry's. Forget the sugar-sweet TCBY crap; this is made from real, zingy, freshly fermented yogurt. Plain is the way to go.
What struck me about the street food in Portland, versus here in San Francisco, is that it's more straight-up. An Indian truck serves Indian food, not Indian burritos, or curry paella, or whatever fancy-pants fusiony derivation one can think up. It's just food. And good food at that.
Later that evening, we all convened for a quick meet-and-greet (with some Oregon wines, of course). Actually, we didn't all convene. The way this trip was structured, there were different activities slotted each day. While there were a handful of times when we were all in the same place at the same time, for the most part we were traveling in smaller groups to each activity. This, in my opinion, was super smart for a few reasons: 1) To the greatest degree possible, we were able to select the activities we wanted, which in turn generally meant the things we would be passionate about writing about. 2) We weren't all in each other's grills 24/7, which means; 3) When we did see each other, we actually had something to talk about. Brilliant. All this to say that at our inaugural gathering, several had already been whisked away to fly to the Oregon coast to get an early start fishing and crabbing the next morning. Yeah, it was like that.
Anyhoo, after a glass or two, our group broke into four subgroups, each destined for a different notable Portland restaurant. My group went to Aviary, in the up-and-coming Alberta Arts district. Now, if the only reason we were going to Aviary were for the food, that would have been fine. After all, it featured stuff like this:
Zucchini charlotte, summer bean ragout, smoked tomato consommé, cucumber and dill WHAT!
But no. There's more. Aviary has a story. The three chefs came to Portland from New York, tired of the impossibly high bar (and cost) of producing food in the city. And so they landed in the Alberta, opened Aviary and all was well.
Until July 4.
A rogue firework hit the restaurant, and it, uh, burned down.
But! The other restaurants in the area wanted to help them out. So, they let the Aviary chefs use their restaurants for pop-ups while they were rebuilding. Our meal was at Pine State Biscuits, which since it's a breakfast-and-lunch place, worked out just fine.
So. Newcomer chefs come to town, open a hot-shot restaurant with Manhattan swagger. It burns to the ground. Neighborhood restaurants — the competition – open their doors to them until they get back on their feet. This, we were told, is typically Portlandian.
And all at once, I was smitten.
Next: Part two.