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Nov 3, 2012 07:28 PM

Fall food fandango -- report from Van BC Hound

I keep trying to find time to edit this more and a month has now passed since our visit, so I'd better post but be warned, it's a doozy...

Since this is going to be a long report which I'll post in chunks with pictures, here are the highs and lows from our highly enjoyable November trip to Portland – our third time this calendar year and I’m hungry for more:

Highlights: burgers! at Gruner, Matchbox, Café Castagna, fresh hops!!, Evoe, padrones
Lowlights: more disappointing food trucks, the bad la lot at Luc Lac

Here’s my query thread where I got good advice from generous Portland Hounds:


Arrived in Portland at about 5 pm and headed to Saraveza for happy hour. We got the special pastie with roasted pork loin, apples, white beans and cilantro to share. It was very tasty but did seem a tad dear at $9, though it was beautifully plated in halves for us and came with some mighty fine pickles. We accompanied our snack with Alesmith Speedway stout imperial with coffee for the SO (very espresso-y) and a Boneyard Girl Beer (tart/acid notes) for meafter the beertender kindly allowed me several tastes ($5 each plus $1 off re happy hour M-F 4-6). Later he brought over two wee snifters of the stout plus one of their fancy Nutella Love cupcakes to share gratis. What is it with Portlandians and free stuff? So awesome and a great welcome back to the city.

We checked in and unpacked, then it was off to Luc Lac to try our "luc" (sorry!) without a reservation. We were seated after a 10 minute wait that included ordering at the till at 7:50 but it took till 8:30 for the food to come out. When we inquired about the delay we were told it was because they were slammed but that seemed lame. Good thing we had snacked earlier. The women at the next table said they waited a long time for their food also.

We ordered the eponymous bo luc lac ($15) which was very good, though the dipping sauce was so oversalted it ruined my last two bites. The side of nem nuong was also tasty though weirdly served cold, and the la lot ($4) was a complete flop as it was also cold and rubbery, tasting like it had been made too far in advance. The bo tai chanh ($7) was good but had too many onions for me and the SO found it too one note, just limes, plus he thought it had been prepped too far ahead as well. We ordered a side of regular rice as we’re not fans of the tomato rice that is the typical side for the luc lac. I tried two cocktails which seemed a bit pricey but were successful, particularly the sassy sour. It’s a cute space but considering you do everything yourself apart from bussing your own table it is not good value, especially compared to our usual Viet haunts back home. I’d consider returning for the luc lac as a snack when it wasn’t busy. No pix, too dark.


We got to Courier at 9:45 where a solid espresso (“San Luis farm El Salvador Bourbon varietal natural Aug crop arrival”) from the moustachio’d barista made a good impression on the SO. I had a wonderfully floral but assertive black tea from Foxfire called Mt Hood Sunrise – also noted the Jarbralter (petit latte served in a short mason jar). We split one of their moist and just rightly sweet pear muffins with a cannele secreted about my person for later. And yes it was as good as last time if a tiny bit overcooked on the outside. After the requisite soujourn at Powell's we had a squint at Morso's (on the list) and Maglia Rosa, the newish espresso counter in the bike shop, hoping that the owner would be pulling shots but alas not today.

Our lunch target was Gruner for the burger ($11) and it did not disappoint. Portland knows how to do burgers, people. Juicy, thick, done to a perfect mid rare with just the right amount of fixings and a perfect potato bun. Sigh. SO went for the “Gruben” ($11) which he liked but didn’t think was a full-on wow (unbeknownst to me he is a bit of a Reuben snob from his days on the Prairies and found the sauerkraut a bit weak, not nearly sour enough and the brisket a bit stringy). The bread was quite overtoasted which was a drawback. The pickled eggs ($4) we had to start were spot on, just tart enough and lovely to look at with their beet marinade. And of course tiny raspberry filled doughnuts ($8) for dessert because, well, tiny doughnuts! We washed it all down with the Oktoberfest beer flight, $14 for three seven-ounce pours of Weltenburger Heffe Hell Weissbier (DE), Occidental Dunkel (OR) and Weissenohe Monk’s Fest (DE).

Needing a pick me up after a whack of antiquing and some eye candy at Clive Coffee (great timers), Water Avenue Coffee seemed an obvious choice that afternoon. On a sunny day, the light just pours into this high ceilinged narrow space. We sat at the counter by the window and enjoyed a latte and a Chemex pourover plus a Fleur de Lis orange scone which was not too sweet and dry in that goes-with-coffee-well sort of way – same appeal as a biscotti. The espresso (El Salvador Buena Vista) was well received, not too acidic, while I found the pourover (El Salvador Las Delicias) a bit too earthy and resorted to cream to doctor it a bit for my tastes.

For dinner we had reservations at Pata Negra where my padron jones was addressed in a deliciously classic way. When I made the reservation, I asked the chef (who answered the phone) whether he would still have padrones and he said he would order extra. That's some service. We also enjoyed a great tortilla, crunchy bacalao croquetas with pointless tomato sauce, tender if a bit underseasoned pincho moruno, and gambas al ajillo, whose expertly prepared sauce was sopped up using the strangely lame bread like croutons. The $10 glass of tempranillo was unmemorable enough to prompt the SO to say “I should only drink beer in Portland.” This is the kind of tapas bar I wish we had in Vancouver still (they are all fusiony and sorta modernist now) where you can get well prepared classic Spanish dishes for a reasonable price in a relaxed and inviting setting. All told our small tapas cost $41 and we were plenty full and happy. After dinner we popped into the Food Front coop across the corner and found Portland Red Pepper Sauce for $3.99 plus Aadvark was a couple of bucks cheaper than at Pastaworks so note to self.

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  1. Some pix: Saraveza pastie, porter with cupcake, Courier muffin, Foxfire tea, Gruner eggs'n'beer, burger, Gruben, Water Ave scone, nifty china with pourover inside

    12 Replies
    1. re: grayelf


      Our second trip to the PSU Farmers Market was prefaced by a return visit to Coffeehouse Northwest on Burnside. This was a gnarlier, more citrusy capp than others so far this trip but tasty and the latte art pattern stayed right to the bottom of the cup which was cool (see pic). We arrived at the market right at 8:30 and I was fifth for Pine State biscuits. A regular ahead of me in line recommended the plain biscuit and fried chicken with a side of honey butter. Excellent idea! I ate half the biscuit with the chicken and saved the top to have with the butter. For $5.50 this was indeed a breakfast of champions. I can (almost) see why people will wait in even longer lines for these morsels.

      Thus fortified, the SO and I wandered the market, ogling the awesome barrel roaster full of peppers of every description, available at $5 a pound fresh as well. We soon found the Viridian Farms stall where we had a rather Portlandia conversation about the padrones we'd had at Pata Negra the night before. They were cooking more up so I had another sample. I don’t even recall seeing them on a menu in Vancouver :- (. Also intrigued by the fico de glaciale which I'd never seen before. Reconfirmed my violent dislike of anise by sampling a gibassier from Pearl Bakery (nothing wrong with the pastry, just the flavour!). The indigo rose tomatoes were just gorgeous (see pic). We bought Anthem hops and pear cider ($6 each) to take home and some pickled asparagus from Unbound ($9). This market is in such a beautiful setting and has an abundance of great stalls -- I am jealous.

      Our next stop was The Wedge, a semi-annual PNW cheese fest that is held once a year in Washington and once a year in Oregon, this day at Green Dragon. We arrived right at the start with some of the 25 vendors still putting out their product. After making a donation and receiving a lovely Oregon Cheese Guild t-shirt, we made the rounds (sorry, terrible cheese pun). The standouts of the day were the Tillamook Cheese van (so ridiculously cute, like a giant cheddar on wheels), the havarti (!) from Willamette Valley Cheese Co and Cyprus Grove Creamery's Midnight Moon, a semi-hard, decidedly sweet goat cheese reminiscent of gjetost.

      We then headed out to Sellwood for a rather disappointing round of antiquing and a just-okay snack of doubles and tacos at a small food pod nearby. J noticed a sign for the 2012 Portland Fresh Hop Fest at Oaks Amusement Park that was taking place at that very moment just a short ride away, so off we went. This was our first exposure to fresh hops and the SO found it revelatory. Alas, they are hard to come by at home but we had our fill this day with 40 different options on offer to taste. We tried Lompoc's Fresh Hops Harvest Man Red, Three Creek's Hop Wrangler Red (the SO's second favourite sip), Logsdon Farmhouse's Fresh Hops Seizon, Cascade's Fresh Hops Porter (which even I liked, and I'm not a porter fan), Fort George's Fresh Hop Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale and Beer Valley's Tristate Fresh Hops Ale, which was J's top taste of the day and a fitting way to finish off our first fresh hops foray. The event seemed a bit disorganized, and they missed a huge opportunity to have more food on sale, but everyone was good natured about the lines which moved relatively quickly, and a lot of people brought their own grub rendering the rather lame food options irrelevant.

      Heading back into town with yours truly at the wheel since J had imbibed most of the 6x4-oz pours, a coffee stop at Cellar Door was in order. I had an Ethiopian Guji Sedamo pourover ($3.50) that had a sweet, berry flavour and turned out to be my favourite coffee of the trip. A house made apple streusel muffin complemented J's well executed small latte. We enjoyed our window interlude this laid back coffee shop but it was time to seek out a more substantial snacking option. We wanted to try the Guam food cart but I had the wrong address. Fortuitously, this was at D-Street so I was able to reconnect with my beloved Matchbox burger. This time we ordered the regularly sized one to share and it was even better than the happy hour version, done to a perfect mid rare. J had a pint of Double Mountain Killer Green, while I had a whisky sour with amarena cherry onboard (see pic). A plate of tasty carnitas tacos (the SO thought the meat was too sweet) and some kettle chips rounded out another satisfying visit to Matchbox.

      A quick freshen up at the hotel and then it was time for the Racion popup dinner [post here:].


      Off at 9:45 to Coava without hitting any Pdx marathon traffic or road closures. Nabbed the last orange danish, o joy, as well as a cheese pretzel (just okay) and a wild berry scone for the SO. I had a Salvadoran pourover called El Ishco and J had a cappuccino made with the Guatemalan Xeucalvitz. We didn't get our favourite seats at the drill press as it was as busy as we've ever seen it but we still managed to get in a bit of cryptic puzzling at one of the big communal tables.

      More antiquing/shopping got us thinking lunch at Evoe. It was pretty busy but we only had to wait 15 minutes to be seated. While we were waiting we noticed that two of the diners from Racion were seated at the bar! J also overheard a local saying this was her favourite lunch place in Portland but that she never tells anyone about it so it doesn't get too crowded. We started out with the deviled eggs for $6 which had chile instead of mustard and were very much to my taste. J was craving greens so we tried the butter lettuce salad with anchovy and lemon $9 which I thought was good but not super special. We also had a platter of roasted piparras peppers ($10) that were a close second to my beloved padrones. The star of the show, however, was the skate sandwich ($10) which came with avocado and garlic aioli. I'm pretty sure I've never eaten skate before but I'd sure do it again if it was perfectly pan fried and served in a soft white bun that was toasted to perfection. J sampled the Caldera Ashland amber ($5) and found it good. A complimentary flight of fresh figs ended a superb meal. I'd like to come back at a less busy time so we could chat with the chefs at the bar again and eat more of their excellent food.

      After a bit more wandering on Hawthorne, we headed over to Extracto for J's second favourite capuccino of the trip made with Eleven of Spades beans and my top coffee beverage, the cold "toddy" to help wash down a cookie and an orange chocolate scone from Fleur de Lis. The female barista also produced the finest latte art we have yet encountered (see pic). This is an unassuming but welcoming café despite the complete lack of signage outside. Thus refreshed, it was time to revisit the Mississippi area where we bought a number of prints and also tried the salted caramel from Lovely's 50-50. I should have checked my notes because it was the malted milk ball one I was after, doh. Once again, I was a bit disappointed by my continuing ice cream forays in Portland. This one was just okay.

      After a pitstop at the hotel, we crossed back over the bridge to meet friends for dinner at Laurelhurst Market. We had a great table with a view of the open kitchen, and the atmosphere was lively without being too loud. As usual, a wide selection of beers was on offer. I had an okay cocktail that sounded better than it tasted. The food was solid to good and the service was stellar. We shared a plate of padrones (again, oh bliss). Great sizing options too, such as the half salads. I had a half wedge followed by the burger and then the apple pie. Really reasonable prices and a perfect place to take people who have dietary issues as they are very responsive to such requests.

      1. re: grayelf

        More pix: the neverending latte art at Coffeehouse Northwest, PSU FM peppers, roasting peppers, fico, indigo rose toms, Willamette Cheeses, Cypress Grove's Midnight Moon, Lompoc Fresh Hop Harvest, entrance to Fresh Hops Fest, Matchbox burger, tacos, burger cross section, the elusive amarena cherry, Cellar Door coffee, Racion tuna and beef dishes

        1. re: grayelf


          We did not realize that for some this was a holiday, so we were facing a half hour wait at Tasty'n'Sons. Luckily, Ristretto nearby beckoned and the time flew. Once seated for brunch, our too-close neighbours were an enthusiastic pair of Atlantans on one side and a small dog and his family on the other. Not sure how I feel about the canine component in places serving food (lots of them at Coava too this trip) but this guy slept the whole time. I think perhaps we did not order well as we left unclear what all the fuss is about. The chocolate doughnuts were nice, the eggs with spinach pleasant if too lemony, and the fried egg biscuit sandwich with chicken was good if not exceptional. It took a long time to come which was a negative after the half hour wait. I did appreciate the non-Brobdignagian portion sizes but thought it was funny that they warn you the plates don't come out together "so you can share."

          We headed over to the SE to try to find Foxfire Teas. We did, but alas they are only open Wed to Sat. Hit up Oui Presse for granola and a less-successful Foxfire tea (Persian mint or some such), then downtown for shopping (sunglasses for $40 less than at home with no tax, woot!). We happened by Nong's stand and figured it was time we tried her khao man gai. The SO liked it more than I did -- I found it a bit bland but Nong is a force of nature.

          After our usual late afternoon break at the hotel, we hied ourselves right back to Hawthorne to sample the wares at Café Castagna's happy hour from 5 to 6 pm. Great room, wonderful server, solid drinks/beers and tasty snacks (berry lemon drop, burger, arancini, plus very nice complementary bread). We'd go back. Made the trek out to Breakside Brewing to try a "bat" of beer. The sampler of six ($8) included their dry stout, wit, Aztec ale, IPA, Rusticity Belgian Stout (the SO's top pick), and their Fresh Hop Citra Double IPA, another SO fave. The first four are available year round, the last two are seasonal. I tried them all but got their Two Towns Cider ($3.50 for 10 oz) since I am a cider hound. Very smooth, not too effervescent. Of the beers, I like the Aztec and wit the best. The former is not for everyone as it is both smoky and hot-peppery with habanero, serrano and cocoa -- the SO was not a fan. It's also quite high in alcohol (10.2%) so proceed with caution! We also ordered a house-made pretzel ($9) which was very tasty but we would have liked some smaller, salty options to go with an impromptu beer tasting as it was quite filling even shared.

          Our 8 pm reservation at Firehouse across the street beckoned so we toddled over into a warm and inviting… firehouse! What a great setup. We sat in the area by the wood-fired oven to check out that action. The grilled corn, crispy cauliflower and padron peppers (again, oh joy!) combo was our choice to start and all three dishes were very well executed. The SO was particularly taken with the corn. I had prebooked an order of the pork roasted with fennel as it was my target dish. Since we had been snacking a lot already, we shared that as a main and still couldn't finish it. Loved it all including the Rancho Gordo beans. I had a delightful house-made elderberry soda as well. No room for dessert. I wish we had a restaurant like this in Vancouver. The staff was on point and the chef-owner welcoming. We'll be back.


          For our final day, we were up at 7:30 to pack and check out at 9:30. Coava was the morning's coffee stop for the same coffees as before but today mine had a bit of a flinty aftertaste. Ham and cheese scone good if a bit sweet. We secured a monkey bread and another orange danish for road food. The monkey bread was outstanding several hours later with a crunchy slightly caramelized exterior, lots of apple and just a hint of cinnamon).

          We next tried to go to Otto's and found a closed sign at 10:30 instead which irked me as I had checked online and called their voicemail to check the hours. We decided to schlep out to Country Cat instead, finding a welcoming, sunny room with a comfortable waitress and chairs, plus no wait but full up by the time we left. I ordered the Country Cat breakfast with two eggs and a sweet cream biscuit plus home fries for $8. The grits needed sampling so I got a side of them -- nice and creamy but expensive at $6 and served cool. The SO wanted something lighter and went with granola and fruit which was just okay. The server comped me some sausage gravy to try as she accidentally brought me scrambled instead of fried eggs (she also replaced the eggs so I had A LOT of food). The biscuit was the winner, on the same level as Pine State's from Saturday, maybe even a bit fluffier. The SO got a capp to go from Courier for the road (I got another cannele to complement our Nuvrei booty) and we were off at 12:20 pm.

          Already planning for our next visit!

          1. re: grayelf

            Sunday's pix:
            Coava x2, Evoe eggs, peppers and sandwich, Extracto treats and latte art

            1. re: grayelf

              Monday's and Tuesday's pix:
              breaky sando at Tasty'n'Sons, Nong's chicken, Cafe Castagna drink, arancini innards, burger and cross section, Firehouse exterior, Nuvrei danish and monkeybread, Coava coffeephiles, Country Cat granola, breaky and grits

              1. re: grayelf

                grayelf, I think you deserve an award for "doing" the Portland culinary scene better than anyone I have ever met or heard of visiting here. Well done!!

                I hope you are reading these posts, travelers to Portland...THIS is how it is done!

                So glad you enjoy your time here so well. Let us know when you'll be back...things are opening all the time!

                1. re: JillO

                  Where does one go to eat fish in Portland? I'm possibly traveling to Portland in December, so I've been reading reports, and most people seem to go for all-meat all-the-time (lot of burgers), which I rarely (couldn't resist the pun ha-ha) eat. I was hoping to find brilliant salmon and other sea foods while in Portland.

                  Also, what is a "pour-over"? I drink espresso. Is espresso good in the good coffee places in Portland, or should one go to special places? (Sorry, I obviously know very little about Portland!).

                  1. re: barberinibee

                    A pour-over is a freshly made drip using either a Chemex or Melitta or other kind of cone with a filter. It is made to order, as opposed to the regular drip coffee (or sometimes french press) that you can serve yourself from the vacuum pots in most coffee places here.

                    There's a new place that is getting a lot of good press, I haven't made it there yet, but it is on my list, Riffle NW.

                    Many places that aren't fish-focused still have some fish and seafood options that are worth exploring like Ox, Laurelhurst Market, Cafe Castagna, Nostrana, other words, if you are at a highly rated/recommended place, fish/seafood is a great choice too. ;o)

                    1. re: JillO

                      I thought of another good fish spot - Roe (the special restaurant in the back room of Wafu).

                      1. re: JillO

                        FWIW we had RiffleNW resos for the night that we ended up at Racion, and the target was indeed fish. We also had lovely king salmon at Nostrana on our previous trip.

                        JillO, thanks for the kind words. It's a pleasure to document our snacks with an eye to remembering all the details ourselves (I write trip diaries from which I excise most of the non-food writing in order to post) and also to aiding fellow food travellers. I hope people who slog through my screeds pick up the odd useful tip here and there. I know I've gleaned so many from CH, it's a way to pay it forward :-). Rest assured I will be haunting the boards between now and our next trip, which with luck will be in the spring.

                        1. re: grayelf

                          Thanks, Riffle looks like a possibility to me.

                        2. re: JillO

                          Thanks for the explanation. I'm really looking for a dedicated fish restaurant. Riffle looks like I can work it around where I need to be. (Roe is out due to location.)