Fydeaux's Portland Adventure (pretty long)
I spent most of a week in Portland accompanied by my son Josh, visiting my daughter Rachel and her boyfriend Cas who moved there about a year ago. My initial impressions, just the ones driving from the airport to Rachel’s apartment:
Being a Midwesterner in his mid-50s, I guess I just don’t get coffee. I drink a cup or two at my desk at work in the morning; I make a pot on Saturday & Sunday mornings; I like good coffee. But I don’t understand going out for coffee, at least not the way Portland does it. You have Starbucks across the street from other Starbucks! Plus Peet’s! Plus Stumptown! Plus a couple dozen one-off neighborhood coffee shops! Considering how mellow everyone seems to be, I figure that there must be AWESOME grass in Portland to counter all the caffeine.
And then there are the Thai restaurants. Any corner that doesn’t have a coffee place has a Thai restaurant. There must be more Thai restaurants in Portland that in Bangkok!
We all decided that if driving weren’t involved, “Spot the Starbucks” and “Spot the Thai place” would make excellent drinking games. But you’d be hammered within 4 blocks.
All that being said (and these are not necessarily bad things, just initial impressions), we had a wonderful time in Portland, and the restaurants we ate at were amazing. Some of these places have received barely a mention (if any mention at all) on this board. I would like to think that this points to the astounding depth and variety of the food scene in Portland.
So here we go:
Our first meal was lunch on Thursday (4/3) at Kenny & Zuke’s. Rachel had never heard of it. Being a fan of kosher style delicatessen, I found this place to nearly perfect. I had a tongue sandwich (getting harder and harder to find in some towns due to lack of demand) and potato salad, Josh had a pot roast sandwich and potato salad, Rachel had pastrami and mushroom-barley soup. The tongue was superb, and big enough that I took half of it home. We all loved what we ordered, and Rachel was thrilled with the soup. I didn’t write down prices, but I remember that my sandwich was $11.00, and considering the size and what I would have paid for it at Katz’s, I thought this place to be a bargain.
After First Thursday Gallery Night, we started out by heading to Henry’s for the late-night happy hour menu, but it was too crowded. We then spotted Jake’s Famous Crawfish, which I had read something about, but looked over the menu and decided to save it for another visit. We were actually going to go back to Kenny & Zuke’s (Cas had not been with us that afternoon) but then we spotted the Roxy. This was as pure a dive greasy spoon diner as I have ever been in my life, and the décor can be considered to be from the ‘horrific splendor’ school of restaurant decoration. But you have to love the fake leopard skin seats and the old toasters being used as planters. I would consider this just a fuel stop food-wise if it weren’t so good! And cheap as hell too. Anyplace with a Soylent Green Omelet (RIP, Chuck Heston) on the menu is OK by me.
On Friday, Josh and I were on our own for lunch, and we ended up at Clay’s Smokehouse, another place with hardly a mention here. If it had not been across the street from the tattoo shop at which Rachel is an artist, we probably would not have found it at all, and that would have been a true pity. I had a chicken-ribs-hot link combo served with beans and coleslaw; Josh had a pork loin sandwich with bleu cheese and granny smith apples, served with potatoes with garlic mayo. All of this was delicious! This is definitely a place I will have to return to.
On the advice of a Chowhounder, I had gotten Rachel a gift certificate to Montage for Channukah, and she loved it. So we went there for dinner Friday night, and I can understand why. OK, just based on the noise factor alone, this is not a place for grumpy old people, and the waitstaff SHOUTING orders back to the kitchen can be alarming if you aren’t expecting it. Intimate conversation is not going to happen here. But this was some of the best New Orleans style food I have ever had outside of New Orleans. I started out with a couple of oyster shooters, not my preferred way of eating oysters, but it knocked my oyster jones out of the way for a while. We had alligator bites and crawfish beignets for appetizers which were quite fine. I had the linguine with clams and andouille, Josh had the gator jambalaya, Cas had the pork medallions, Rachel had the green pesto mac & cheese with crawfish. True, much of what they serve doesn’t qualify as traditional Creole cuisine, but it was all hands down delicious, and I, a diehard Louisiana food aficionado, would go back in a minute. We split a chocolate pot du crème for dessert.
Saturday lunch had Cas, his friend Matt, Josh, and me heading to Blitz, a sports bar in the Pearl, I think. Sports bars are not my preference for much of anything, but the food was pretty darn good. I really enjoyed the calamari appetizer and the totchos (tater tot nachos). I had a burger with bleu cheese and mushrooms; Josh had a burger with red chile. Both were excellent.
Dinner was Blue Fin for sushi. This place has a conveyor belt going around the whole restaurant. Diners pick their plates off the belt, and the cost is determined by the number and colour of the plates. But we were there for their 1-year anniversary, and all plates were $1.50. I cant tell you the name of a single thing I ate, but we enjoyed it all.
On Sunday, Rachel, Josh, and I went down to the Portland Saturday (Weekend?) Market, and grazed on things from the various food stands there. While nothing was truly the “absolute best ever”, it was all quite good, and I was amazed by the variety available.
Dinner Sunday was at Sweet Basil, one of the Thai restaurants that didn’t have a ‘cute’ name like My Thai or Thai One On or the like. If all the Thai food in Portland is this good, I can understand why it is so popular. The four of us shared appetizers: spicy wanton, avocado larb, and something called Oh My God, which we all really loved. It was a sort of egg roll wrapper rolled with cream cheese and some other ingredients with the ends French-cut. The avocado larb, with large pieces of grilled avocado, was also excellent. Mains were the House Special Curry with seafood (if you like red curry peanut sauce, this is your dish!), Spicy Fried Rice, Fisherman’s Fried Rice, and Pad Thai. Spice heat is ordered on a level of 1 to 5. The Pad Thai and Spicy fried Rice were ordered as 2s, the House Curry was a 3, and the Fisherman’s Fried Rice was a 4. These all turned out to be pretty good choices; there was an appropriate tingle but nothing was overpowered by heat. We all enjoyed this dinner immensely.
On Monday, we went to Jam on Hawthorne for lunch. Corned beef hash is one of my all-time favourite comfort foods, and jam makes it the way all corned beef hash should be made: big chunks of meat, potatoes, green pepper, onions, grilled and served with a couple of over-easy eggs on top and Tabasco available. This is one of my personal versions of heaven. Josh had lemon ricotta pancakes and loved those too.
Late in the afternoon, we stopped for a snack at Mio Sushi. We tried the double crunch rolls, spider roll, Inari, Albacore, and the giant clam. It was all fresh and delicious.
There are very few things in life as comfortable as a neighborhood Italian restaurant, the kind of place where you can go and even if you have no idea what you want, the will fix you up right. The Italian Joint is just such a place. We spotted it while walking around the area in the afternoon, looked at the menu, and liked what we saw, so we decided to try it for dinner. The deep fried ravioli appetizer and the garlic bread were exceptional, as were the cannelloni, butternut squash and gorgonzola ravioli, and seafood medley (fettuccine with clams, shrimp, and scallops and a white wine sauce) that we had for mains.
Our last meal before heading to the airport was to be lunch on Tuesday at Pine State Biscuits, which I had read about in a B&G discussion in this board. I had a biscuit and sausage gravy with a fried egg and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but I am now in love with Ayers Creek grits! Rachel had a biscuit sandwich (egg, cheese, bacon), and this seemed to be a small mountain of food, but was a mere hill compared to the Reggie Deluxe that Josh ordered: Fried chicken, bacon, cheese, and a fried egg on a biscuit with gravy! Even to his own amazement, Josh finished every bite. This is the place I want to be near if I have to duck in from the rain.
Over the course of the stay, we managed to hit Voodoo Donuts three different times, and it is everything I hoped it would be. The maple-bacon bars must be very popular as they were sold out each time we made it there. But the old dirty bastard was a worthy substitute.
I also experienced a Fred Meyers for the first time. I found it to be like a higher-end version of a Super-Wal-Mart, and if one doesn’t open in Milwaukee*, I’ll be OK with that.
*I bought a lot of stuff that I had shipped home (Powell’s City of Books, Everyday Music, Millenium Music: all REALLY dangerous places!), and kept having to explain that it was the one in Wisconsin and really is spelled with two e’s.
I found Portland, it’s people, and it’s restaurants to be loads of fun. With only one exception, all of our servers were friendly and knowledgeable of the food they were serving, even at the Roxy (I wont expose the exception because she was painfully new to the place but very earnest, and will no doubt get better.) I’m looking forward to many return visits.
Thanks for the report!
Since you like food carts I suggest Portland Farmers' Market (where Pine State started as well as many other much-loved places) and SW Alder between 9-10th.
Thais love puns. Hence the "cute" names. Don't let that drive you away. There are at least a dozen Thai places better than Sweet Basil. So if you like them I bet you'll love the rest.
Haven't been to Montage in years. Got tired of all the frozen vegies, in this land of superior fresh produce.
I had read some comments previously about Montage's alleged use of frozen vegetables. None of our dishes were particlarly vegetable-centric, so I cant really comment on anything of large scale. But I did happen to catch a glimpse of the kitchen and saw someone chopping fresh onions and bell peppers. Has anyone from Montage ever commented? Is it possible that they have to bring in some of the more esoteric vegetables (whatever they might be) frozen but use whatever they can get fresh?
Regardless, we really enjoyed our meal there.
Can you give me the names of some of the Thai places you consider to be better that Sweet Basil? I'd like to pass the names on to my daughter who really loves Thai food.
I hope to hit the farmer's market on my next visit. We couldnt fit in everything we wanted to do and see, but we'll be back often. And I also want to check out more of the carts around Pioneer Square.
As soon as I saw baby carrots in one of the stews at Sweet Basil, I knew I was in trouble (and that was the least of the things wrong with the dish I have in mind).
Anyway, I also like Tara Thai, and they've got a lovely patio if weather permits (like that heatwave that showed up last Saturday). Also, Dang's Thai Kitchen in Lake Oswego is really really good.
I've been meaning to go to Thaiphoon in the Hotel Lucia on SW Broadway, as I hear that's good as well.
Coffee culture isn't just a Portland thing, but prevalent in many artistic communities. The Northwest gets lots of pub in this regard, and are arguably the innovators of it all, but towns like SF and LA have a coffee house scene in their own right, to say nothing of Seattle.
Despite the fact that there are only around 5000 ethnic Thai in the Portland area, what can't be denied is how enthusiastic we are about the food. I think it comes from the fact that it encompasses such a varied selection of dishes, from soups to curries to noodles and rice and so on, and so it makes for a great palette. If you like Sweet Basil, you'll be blown away by others.
I mentioned in another thread that pho is equally well-received here in Portland, and I'm convinced that a big bowl of beef soup would warm the heart of any Midwesterner, whether they're familiar with Vietnamese cuisine or not.
Coffee culture is pretty much everywhere, including Milwaukee (We have WAY too many Starbucks but have a few excellet local roasters). I had just never experienced it on your scale belore. I had never considered the relationship between coffee and artisitic communities before...food for thought.
I am also interested in your suggestiions for better Thai restaurants. And I agree with you about pho.
Sorry to be re-opening a zombie thread, but I am returning to Portland in about two weeks, and I wanted to see if the were any updates on the recommendations referenced below.
Any new Thai of interest?
Are there any Korean places I should know about? I LOVE bibimbop and get find it where I live.
Is it true that Roux has closed?
For Thai try Red Onion (the massamun curry is the best ever) or Pok Pok.
For Korean, the best is in Beaverton...try Nakwon, their bibimbop is pretty good.
Yes, Roux has closed. You can try Screen Door, My Brother's Crawfish, or EaT: an Oyster Bar for that kind of food.
Also worth going to: Toro Bravo, Davis Street Tavern, Laurelhurst Market, Pambiche (for great Cuban food and really good cakes for dessert), Apizza Scholls. If you are here during the week, try some of the great food carts (mostly downtown).
Korean in beaverton: Country Korean Restaurant, Nak Won, DJK, Hae Rim
Acadia is another Creole place that should be considered. EaT is really really good though!
If sandwiches are something you like(outside of Jewish Deli's anyways) then Bunk, MeatCheeseBread, Evoe, Grilled Cheese Grill(a cart but they do have indoor seating(a retrofitted school bus!!!!)) and Chop Butchery and Charcuterie all make a damn fine sandwich!