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Sep 27, 2012 10:51 PM

Foodie Disappointment on the Oregon Coast

Just returned from a September foodie trip down the Oregon coast. With memories of my last trip of 50 years ago, I was very disappointed on how the quality of Oregon's available specialties have changed, especially with that pertaining to seafood. Here is what I have found . . .

Apples - Oregon used to have a fabulous fall apple crop. Crisp, fresh apples available in local markets everywhere, but no more. Washington State, namely the Yakima Valley, is now the major exporter of apples to the Western states. Yakima apples are now stored for a mandatory 60 days of cold storage to meet the agriculture pest law's of importing states that used to grow, but now do not grow, apples as a major crop. Major apple consuming states such as California have turned most of their domestic apple orchards into vineyards, and no longer need the 60 day import law, but this law exists non-the-less. Since California is a major apple importer, and Washington is a major apple exporter, little Oregon now goes along for the ride and receives these same 60 day old apples. (Please note the brown stems of your supermarket apples - a sure sign that they were sealed in a 60 day cold storage vault).

Seafood - Many "fresh" fish and chip shops down the Oregon Coast use frozen Cod imported from Alaska. I can easily get frozen Alaska Cod at home. Although Oregon Halibut is available, at $19 /lb, local halibut is seldom used, nor is it affordable. Local Salmon is also priced high in most Oregon fish markets. With the marvels of modern next day shipping, my supermarket frequently offer the same freshly caught wild Salmon - at the same price, in my own neighborhood store (Southern Ca).

Chowder - Oregon Clam Chowder is offered everywhere on the coast. Most of the chowder offered is thickened with flour to the point that your spoon will stand straight upright, with hardly a speck of clam in it. Very bland of flavor, most advertise that their clam chowder has won "best chowder" awards . . . however it is a mystery to me as to how Oregonians tolerate it.

Dungeness Crab - Although Oregon's open water commercial Dungeness Crab season had officially ended on August 30, (this being late September) many local fish markets were offering defrosted crabs to the tourists at a whopping $12/lb. Some fish markets even had a crab pot steaming with boiling water outside to simulate that they were still boiling live caught crabs!

I had found however, that Oregon is an oyster lovers dream. Oyster farms are ubiquitous there, and they also sell their fresh oysters at a good value. I had even found a restaurant (near Tillimook), that offered all the Pacific Oysters you can eat for a bargain of $12. That experience alone was almost worth the trip.

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  1. Nothing is as good as it once was, and the problem is not unique to Oregon. California's "Silicon Valley" displaced orchards.

    Still, I think your take on Oregon seafood is unduly pessimistic. I am an Oregonian and lived at the beach 50 years ago. When I return to visit, I have no trouble finding fish and chips made with halibut — unusual where I now live. The halibut may be Alaskan, and may have been frozen, but it doesn't matter for fish and chips. Freezing technology has improved a great deal in 50 years. Most seafood available in the US has been flash-frozen.

    Razor clams are the principal local delicacy, and easy to find fresh. For fresh Dungeness crab, it is best to know the season. Norma's in Seaside is highly regarded for its chowder, but I don't know if it would meet your expectations — I always get the oyster stew, made with Willapa Bay (Washington) oysters. Pan fried Willapa Bay oysters are one of my favorite meals, along with razor clams.

    The ultimate local delicacy for a snack is smoked Columbia River white sturgeon, available from the Bell Buoy in Seaside. The BB has hardly changed at all in 50 years, despite ownership changes.

    Salmon is the real tragedy. Salmon is so popular, and the salmon runs so depleted, that you have to seek out fresh local Chinook. Always ask what is being served. If you are visiting, there is no point in buying farmed salmon which you could get anywhere.

    I hope you won't wait 50 years for your next trip to the Oregon coast.

    1. There are good apples to be found in Oregon, but apples are a minor crop. The Washington harvest is about 30 times larger. The coast is not where the orchards are, so if you are into apples you need to know where they are and go in season.

      I don't remember supermarket apples at the coast being that special 50 years ago. When I wanted a good apple, I got one from my grandmother's trees.

      1 Reply
      1. re: GH1618

        Thank you GH1618, for your considerate comments. I wish that I knew of your recommendations before my trip.

        Years ago, I was a produce man in a Southern California supermarket, and had always looked forward to September when the new apple crop arrived. The apples were crisp, and as hard as a billiard ball. Sadly you need an apple tree to experience such today (apple trees are far and few in the warm LA basin). I also remember that many now disappeared apple varieties, came directly from Oregon.

        Oregonians are lucky that they have their coastal bounty available . . it's just that they have to get it themselves as sport fishermen. Commercially caught fresh-off-the-boat fish in the Oregon fish markets are outrageously expensive today, probably because of poor supply and high fuel / labor costs.

        Oregon's once native supermarket chain, Fred Meyer, is now owned by Kroger, which is based in Chicago . . . what Fred Meyer sells locally is reflected /authorized by Kroger's corporate buyers in Illinois. Same for Safeway in Oregon, but with California corporate buyers instead. My point is that now regardless of region, food is practically sourced from the same suppliers with little regional differential.

        As you have said - nothing is as good (and with regard to seafood - plentiful) as it once was.

      2. I am new to Oregon coast, but a few observations. Company of ours went hunting for fresh crab 2 weeks ago (late Sept.). At Kelly's in Brighton they found live crabs, brought them home uncooked and we cooked them here. Absolutely delicious. I have found seafood very expensive, but fresh. The Cannery in Garibaldi has a good supply just off the boats, and for a treat, there is where I go for something other than shellfish. They have shellfish, and usually cheaper than some of the local docks. It just depends if I want to drive an extra 10-15 miles there and back. As far as restaurants serving seafood, they are few and far between. I have yet to find a seafood "shack" where they just serve fresh and nothing fancy. I don't need fancy when I want seafood.

        5 Replies
        1. re: katsea

          "I have yet to find a seafood "shack" where they just serve fresh and nothing fancy. I don't need fancy when I want seafood."

          That was very well said! In fact, a simple "seafood shack" (that is not a rip off) is the object of my eternal search.

          1. re: jbermo

            Haven't been in a while but Ecola Seafood in Cannon Beach or Pacific Oyster in Bay City were good "keep it simple" non destination places (the latter looks like but is not a tourist trap) for your fresh fish fix. Pacific Restaurant in Tillamook is decent too and has fun (like eating inside a wooden ship) vibe.

          2. re: katsea

            A seafood shack seems to be the eternal search of many in the PNW. I'm not sure if that's just not the sort of restaurant we traditionally have had (people also seem to want places that dump everything on your table and give you a mallet, which is definitely not a NW tradition); if good seafood has become so expensive that it's not tenable; if us PNWers just eat our seafood at home because it's expensive to eat it out (my personal theory) or if you're not going to find that in tourist destinations because most Americans have a very low bar in terms of quality.

            I think it's hard to find good food in any tourist destination most places in the US (in lots of other places too). My own rule is not to expect good food unless the vacation spot attracts a certain amount of wealthy people. Snobby but true. It's why I can find great food on Orcas Island (in the San Juans), but not most of the Washington Coast. Rich people don't go there.

            1. re: christy319

              It is an interesting question. We are lucky enough to have 3 friends with ocean-going boats - which is like having our own but without the maintenance (in other words: perfect!). So we rarely seek out fish shacks since we have a freezer loaded with salmon, halibut and rockfish. I suspect that's another theory to consider.
              That being said, Aloha Charlie's in Long Beach, WA is a great little spot for fish and chips - fresh and lightly battered. So is the Bowpicker in Astoria, Oregon. There are a few spots here and there to be had but it would be nice to see a more traditional shack setup more frequently! Maybe some of the food cart types from Portland should relocate and remenu!

              1. re: christy319

                Another issue is whether fishermen find it more profitable to sell to local restaurants, or to buyers from the big city.

                Some years ago, when camping on the BC coast, we had to use a tip from the campground owner to find someone who was selling salmon steaks at retail. We couldn't just go into a grocery store and find locally caught fish.

            2. I spent 10 days on the Oregon coast this month, checking out food stores and sampling a farmers market. it was early for apples, but I don't think the coast is a producing region in any case. Go to the Saturday market at PSU in Portland, however, and you will find as good a variety and quality of apples as you would want, especially in October. One orchard in particular specializes in heirlooms and is worth seeking out.

              I agree that Garibaldi is a good choice for fish and seafood, but it may be far from where you're based. Fresh wild salmon is available at most farmers markets in the PNW, as are oysters, mussels, clams and crab. If you have the chance to cook the stuff yourself, you should be happy.

              1. More details about your trip might be helpful. How long were you here? Where exactly did you travel - writing off the entire coastline of Oregon is a little sad. Were you in Astoria? Cannon Beach? Seaside? Pacific City? Lincoln City? Newport? Florence? Bandon? Gold Beach? Other than Tillamook, you don't say.

                Regarding the fish markets with the pot of boiling water - sport crabbing was still going strong when you were here. It's quite possible that the markets with the boiling water were offering that for the locals to bring their catches by to cook. I have my doubts that these markets are going to go to that trouble to deceive you into thinking they have fresh cooked crab. Really curious what jerk was offering Dungeness at $12/lb. I regularly see it around $6 but can't remember ever seeing it that high.

                I'm guessing at this point you don't remember specific restaurants but even sharing where you traveled might be helpful.

                One of our favorite stops on the coast is Local Ocean in Newport. They offer a variety of seafood dishes - many with an asian twist. They also have their own market.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Sushiqueen36

                  You'll get first-rate apples at Portland Farmers Market at PSU. The coast is not an apple-producing region, so that's kinda odd that you'd expect great apples there.
                  Best smoked fish anywhere can be found at Karla's Smokehouse in Rockaway.