Portland, Oregon is a quirky place. If you don’t know what I mean, watch a few episodes of “Portlandia.” The hipster population is soaring, there are homeless people everywhere, and fun fact: it supposedly has the highest per capita of strip clubs in the country. of some oddities, I depart the city with a deep infatuation for the food. And the coffee. And the wine. But mostly the food.
My Portland visit is primarily devoted to work, but I take time whenever possible to get a taste of the city and its diverse offerings. Here are some of my favorite bites.
Pok Pok. Spend any time at all researching Portland food, and Pok Pok tops the list of dining destinations. Andy Ricker is the James Beard award-winning chef behind the Thai-style cuisine. Do my colleagues seem puzzled by my insistence that our first stop in Portland be at a Thai restaurant? Sure. But once we dive into renowned specialties like Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings and Kai Yang charcoal grilled chicken with lemongrass, they get it. The wings are notorious for good reason- the sticky, spicy sauce has just the right amount of heat and the audible crunch delights. Also memorable is Sii Khrong Muu Yaang- smoky baby back ribs with a rub of Thai spices. It’s a well known fact that the quality of Portland’s food is based on access to a wealth of fresh local ingredients from the Pacific Northwest. Combine that with creative and bold Asian dishes executed to perfection, and it’s no wonder why Pok Pok is such a hit.
Bollywood Theater Our next meal is a rousing adventure in Indian street food. Bollywood Theater’s dishes have a level of sophistication that are surprising for a casual dining spot where you order at the counter. I’m obsessed with a uniquely seductive dish of crisp fried okra with chili, lime, and raita. Also notable is roasted beets with coconut milk and curry leaves. I’m also a fan of bhel puri with potato cubes, mango, and fried chickpeas, sweetened with tamarind chutney, and crackling with puffed rice and peanuts. There’s plenty of drama to be had at this popular restaurant – on the plate and on a screen featuring Bollywood hits.
Imperial A requisite for my Portland itinerary is to visit a restaurant helmed by a “Top Chef.” Imperial fits the bill with Executive Chef Doug Adams from Season 12. Imperial spotlight classic Pacific Northwest cuisine with many dishes prepared on a wood-fired grill. It’s a tough night for the restaurant with the wood-fired grill out of service, making some of the most appealing options unavailable. After a challenging start, I opt to share a burger along with an order of comforting tagliatelle carbonara. Both dishes more than satisfy my quest for quality. But it’s a bite of fried chicken with honey and Imperial hot sauce that has me thinking “winner, winner, chicken dinner.” I snag a few minutes to converse with Chef Adams who charms as we chat about “Top Chef.” Happy dance for me.
Le Pigeon This intimate spot is the site of my favorite meal in Portland. Its now up there on my list of all time favorites. The food, by James Beard award-winning chef Gabriel Rucker, is unconventional but approachable. I am dazzled by the flavor combinations. Lamb neck is not something you often see on menus. Le Pigeon features chicken fried lamb neck with herbed grits, sweet habanero honey, spiced carrot, dill, and a hint of pickled peppers. It’s a dish that’s quirky in appearance, but scintillating to taste.
Fried quail is one of Le Pigeon’s most popular dishes. The bird is a touch overcooked, but I am intoxicated by the preparation which includes masa poblano hummus, pears, spicy honey and feta. I overlook the flaw and focus on the brilliant flavor.
Pinot noir from nearby Willamette Valley is a natural accompaniment to dinners in Portland. At Le Pigeon our drink of choice is a bottle of Air Guitar- a wonderful reasonably-priced Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend from Bow & Arrow winery.
A desire to return to Portland is fueled by memories of the excellent food and wine at the award-winning Le Pigeon.
What takes Portland to an even higher level as a supreme dining destination are the sweets. Voodoo Donuts is legendary, but I am infinitely more excited by Blue Star Donuts. Donuts are made from a brioche recipe originating in the south of France, and they are light as air. At least that’s what I tell myself as I eat my way through them. Maple bacon is a delight, and so is anything they offer with citrus accents. The ultimate sugar high comes from a syringe that infuses the crème brûlée donut with cointreau. Genius.
And then there is Nuvrei. I have to fit this into my agenda, even though it involves hiring an Uber and asking the driver to wait while I grab food and scurry back to a meeting. Owner/Pâtissier Marius Pop worked under famed pastry chef François Payard in New York. His skill with croissants nearly brings me to tears. Flaky, crispy, and fantastic. I grab a canelé filled with vanilla rum custard for the road, and a cappuccino from Heart Coffee Roasters to go, and my morning is like a fantasy come true.
Salt & Straw Ice Cream merits two visits. It’s evident how pure local ingredients and creativity can elevate ice cream into another realm. It’s Halloween time so I enjoy “A Potion of Malicious Delight” which fuses fruit, caramel, spice, and finishes with a mini-explosion of pop rocks. Holy crap! My next visit is slightly more tame with a scoop of pear and blue cheese ice cream. Although is there really anything tame about ice cream made from local pears and blue cheese? There are so many flavors I wish I could try including strawberry honey balsamic with cracked black pepper, and sea salt with caramel ribbons. Regrets are tough to swallow.
The people of Portland take coffee seriously, with micro-roasters in nearly every neighborhood. I’m filled to the brim during a walk around the Pearl District, but when we stroll past Nossa Familia, we are drawn to the small shop featuring locally roasted beans. The coffee is smooth and rich, but the chocolate whipped cream takes it way over the top.
I am hyped up on adrenaline after experiencing the culinary treasures of the Portland, Oregon with its adventurous and sometimes eccentric flair. I am also feeling the effects of far too much coffee and sugar. While the city is synonymous with “keeping it weird,” for me it’s more about keeping it wired. I’m definitely addicted to Portland.
Pok Pok, 3226 SE Division Street, Portland, OR (other locations including Brooklyn)
Bollywood Theater, 2039 NE Alberta, Portland, OR
Imperial, 410 SW Broadway, Portland, OR
Le Pigeon, 738 E. Burnside Street, Portland, OR
Blue Star Donuts, 4 locations in Portland plus Los Angeles and Tokyo
Nuvrei, 404 NW 10th Avenue , Portland, OR
Salt & Straw, 3345 SE Division Street, Portland, OR & other locations including Los Angeles
Nossa Familia, 811 NW 13th Ave, Portland, OR