Portland Oregon’s Best Tastes
Two Food-Filled Days In Portlandia
By Kurt Jacobson
Though small compared to other food destinations like New York City, or San Francisco Portland’s food scene packs a big punch. Some of the nation’s best food, wine, craft beer and hard cider is coming from this area along the Willamette River Valley and I had to investigate further.
I took my always-ready taste buds and my wife for a two day trip to see what’s up in the Portland area before traveling south along the Willamette. The trip started in Portland on a sunny day in late October. After landing and picking up our car we sped off to downtown Portland to park the car at our hotel and walk the town.
Rare October sunshine
We spent the first night downtown at the corner of Washington Street and SW 5th in the Hotel Monaco. This was a perfect location for walking the downtown area. Tom McCall Waterfront Park was just four blocks away; a perfect place to walk on a sunny day for some “people watching” and exercise after a long flight. Joggers, dog walkers, bicyclists and the area’s homeless people were out enjoying the sunshine and warmth. We headed downstream taking in the sights and sounds with no clear plan of where we were heading.
Following the sound of live music and the smell of Asian cooking laced with garlic we stumbled upon the Portland Saturday Market on the riverside. Locals were enjoying music, food, drink and crafts. We had found a starting point for our food and drink adventure.
The first stall I stopped at was offering free samples of hot apple cider. This was a one man operation selling creative spice blends. The free sample passed the test offering a spicy warm cider with more than cinnamon going for it. Maybe a touch of cardamom set this blend above others I have had, but whatever it was I happily bought a package.
A Chocolate Booth
Onward we went when a chocolate booth pulled me in. Named “Wild Sweets Chocolate Factory” I asked about free samples. The owner said “We don’t offer free samples here, you just have to buy some to try it.” You never can tell for sure about chocolate just by looking so I bought two types just in case it was worthy.
Since they don’t sell online it would have been difficult to buy from home back in Maryland. When I tried the dark chocolate almond clusters the next day I knew I had made the right choice. The nuts-to chocolate ratio was just right in these lumps of heavenly confection.
We checked out wood carvings, photography booths, and tie-dye sellers before ending up at Voodoo Doughnuts. We overheard a walking food tour guide say, “Just when I thought I’d seen it all at Voodoo Doughnuts I saw a two hour long line of foodies wanting these trendy doughnuts.”
We saw the line and watched for about five minutes, noticing it was moving very slowly, before moving on. What’s all the fuss? At the end of the day it’s just a doughnut with bacon and other odd ingredients.
Back at the hotel we had just enough time to unpack in our room and grab a sampling of Crowley Pinot Noir, a freebie from the Hotel Monaco. Never one to pass up a free glass of quality wine it was our first sip of Willamette wine on the trip. Willamette Valley pinot noir is all the rage but don’t overlook white wines like: pinot blanc, pinot gris and viognier.
James Beard Winners
Portland has its share of James Beard award winning chefs including: Andy Ricker of Pok Pok 2011, Gabrieal Rucker of Le Pigeon 2013, Naomi Pomeroy of Beast 2014, Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant 2002 and Vitlay Paley of Paley’s Place Bistro & Bar. We chose Gabriel Rucker’s Le Pigeon, a top rated French restaurant on the east side of the Willamette River.
Arriving at Le Pigeon we saw a line out the door waiting for the 5 p.m. opening. Ten seats at the chef’s counter are open on a first-come-first-serve basis, while the rest of the seats are available by reservation for parties of two or more. Le Pigeon is not classic French; it’s more like Portlandia French and it was love at first sight.
This tiny restaurant is in an old storefront and seats no more than 50 diners. The food was good, but not great; maybe because the James Beard Award winning chef wasn’t cooking that night? Overall we loved the experience; especially the octopus fried rice and the quailducken and would give it a try in the future.
Petite Provence Breakfast
On a previous trip I had fond memories of breakfast at Petite Provence, a bakery and restaurant. With seven locations (previously only 3) they have grown since I first visited them at their Alberta Street location northeast of downtown Portland. A warm golden glow lit the pre-dawn street scene as we parked the car. The smell of butter from baking croissants filled our nostrils as we opened the door and came in from the cold.
Before taking our seats the pastry case had to be examined to make sure I would make the right menu choice. The mushroom brioche and marrion berry blossom stood out. I made my choice before even seeing the menu. My wife ordered the cheesy polenta, bacon and eggs that proved to be a winner.
It was so hefty I had to help her finish this bowl of dreamy, creamy polenta and bacon. My two pastries were fresh as could be and delicious. They also have an airport location for those with time for breakfast or lunch before a flight. We would sadly miss out due to a 5:45 am departure three days later.
We had time for a quick walk through the Japanese Gardens and a tour of the Pittock Mansion before resuming the food and drink quest southward. Our schedule called for touring Salem and Albany before resuming our Portland explorations three days later. After such a calorie rich breakfast the Japanese Gardens were perfect for an hour long walk amongst the flaming red maple trees showing off autumn colors.
An Amazing Garden
The light rain kept the crowds away and we wandered the stone pathways stopping at frequent overlooks to take in the splendor of this amazing garden. I felt it was almost as good a garden as any I have seen in Japan. With easy access from downtown by bus be sure and visit this gem of a public garden. Entrance fees are $9.50 adult, $7.75 senior, $6.75 kids 6-17 and free to kids under 6. Parking can be a problem so consider taking the bus.
Just up the road is the Pittock Mansion. I recommend seeing the Mansion then take a walk in Forest Park, a 5,000+ acre woodlands wonderland. One of the trailheads is at the top of the Pittock Mansion parking lot. Open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
This is one of the best urban parks anywhere in the world. Towering trees engulf you as get deep into these spellbinding woods. Deep in this forested trail you can scarcely believe you’re in a big city. With over 100 bird species and 60+ mammal species this is a good place to get wild and experience nature.
Dining at Andina
To finish off our foodie adventure in Portland we had dinner at Andina. Andina was the first famous Peruvian restaurant I heard about in the U.S. some five years ago. This is a high end experience not to be missed. Andina will take you on a food adventure into one of the most interesting food cultures anywhere. Andean music sets the mood while the flavors of Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and Peruvian cuisines are evident in menu offerings. Try the Arroz con Mariscos, a Peruvian style rice dish with mussels, octopus, shrimp, fried white fish, and bay scallops. Paired with a local pinot gris and a pisco sour, this was a great meal.
Although the dessert menu at Andina was tempting, we had walked past Tilt just a block away on our way to dinner. Being curious I poked my nose in the door and the rest of me followed to get a view of the menu board. What really caught my eye were the desserts in the display case. Fruit pies, cookies and cream pies planted a seed that grew. Tilt is one of those “order at the counter” type restaurants with great food and few frills.
We came back after dinner and ordered the coconut cream pie along with a triple layered brownie. The coconut pie was full of toasted coconut flavor and had a Mt Hood sized layer of whipped cream on top. The brownie was saved for our flight home and was chocked full of peanut butter cream and deep chocolate flavor.
Not all is well
With dinner and dessert behind us it was time to wander downhill and find the MAX (light rail train) back to our last hotel of the trip near the airport. Under the influence of wine, dinner and dessert I didn’t trust my internal compass and asked a nice lady toting two bags of groceries where to catch the MAX train.
She said, “Don’t keep walking the way you are going because even I won’t walk that street at night.” She pointed us to a safer street one block away. Her directions were spot on. As we rounded the corner the train was just pulling into the stop and we barely caught it in time. In most any city in the U.S. it pays to be safe, especially at night when walking, Portland is no exception.
I always like to ask cabbies about their town and I asked why Portland seemed to have such a large homeless population. One cabbie said, “In just the last three years rents have doubled in the Portland area making it hard to stay off the streets.” I guess that’s part of the price of becoming a food, arts, wine and craft beer mecca?
In the end we found a world-class food and drink destination and would highly recommend Portland. The creativity is evident in art, food, craft beers, ciders and wine. With so much to see and do in a condensed area most will have a great time in the City of Roses. Just be sure and bring a rain jacket or umbrella.
Where to stay
The Hotel Monaco is in the historic Lipman-Wolfe Building, built in 1912. All rooms are suites and don’t miss the free happy hour serving local wines from 5-6pm nightly.
506 SW Washington St.
Portland, OR, 97204
The MAX light rail runs from the airport to downtown as well as several surround suburbs. Trip time to downtown from the airport is 35-40 minutes depending on which stop you get off at. A 2 ½ hour pass costs a mere $2.50 or buy a day pass for $5. Passes are good on the Portland Streetcar also.
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Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.