Salem and Albany: Two of Oregon’s Best For Foodies

Salem and Albany
Chicken stew with local veggies

By Kurt Jacobson

My head is spinning from too much great food and wine. I look up and see a fire breathing dragon, a rooster with multi-colored tail feathers, and then a large salmon with a saddle.

No… someone did not slip LSD into my drink; I’m at the Albany historic carousel project checking out the animal menagerie due to open in June of 2017.

Portland gets most of the love when it comes to Oregon travel stories. I wanted to know about the two lessor known cities, (Salem and Albany) south of Portland and see what was worth exploring. I was sure to find good food and wine but what else lay hidden? My wife and I were on a mission to find out.

Our first stop was a two night stay in Salem at a trendy downtown loft. The loft occupied the second story the historic Starkey-McCully building, circa 1868 on 231 Commercial Street.

The plan was to cook dinner one night and breakfast the first morning to take advantage of some of the best produce in the country. The historic loft was perfect for our stay.

Mama Matilda with daughter at Novak's Oregon's only Hungarian restaurant, Albany.
Mama Matilda with daughter at Novak’s Oregon’s only Hungarian restaurant, Albany.

Salem, population 154,000, doesn’t impress when arriving in from the north on the Salem Parkway. I had never been in downtown Salem and was surprised by the not-so-special  scenery. When my wife said, “Why did you pick Salem?” I thought I might be in trouble.

Old and tired looking businesses, light industrial buildings, and a few well-worn houses graced our path to the center of town.

A healthy downtown core

By the time we arrived in the city center the view changed. Several well-kept buildings from the late 1800s were in view and housed many a bar, restaurant, and shops begging to be investigated. Unlike some city centers where lots of storefronts sit vacant, we didn’t see a single vacant one in Salem.

Our dinner that first night ended up being one of the most interesting of the trip. In an old dive-bar looking like a place your mother would say not to go to was Taproot Lounge Cafe. We were both shocked at this café the local visitor’s center had recommended for a good healthy meal.

We bravely went in against our better judgment and saw that the inside was quite attractive. An old windmill fan assembly hung from the ceiling in an unusual ceiling fan/sculpture arrangement.

The first of three bar tops was gleaming aspen wood and looked like a piece of artwork more than a bar top. The two bars in the back are made of sequoia the owner Christopher found at a garage sale!  In the dining area each four seat booth featured a unique painting and the kitchen was ensconced in an old barn-wood shack.

Salem and Albany
Exterior of the Taproot Lounge and Cafe

A whole lot of skill and creativity went into getting Taproot up and running. Christopher Holland is a tall, striking figure of an owner with long dreadlocks trailing behind him. He told me, “I never wanted to open a restaurant; I wanted to open a bar that served good food.”

Christopher had worked as a bartender previously and knew a thing or two about the business. When he saw the opportunity to open Taproot he started a Kickstarter campaign and raised $25,000 to get the project launched.

Over 220 supporters sent cash and were promised rewards like tee shirts, free coffee, or juice for a year. Quite a story for a restaurant’s beginning and is documented by an opened book on the back wall with an aquarium in the middle.

Each donor has their name shown in the two open pages as a Thank You. Also in the back room is a semi-private lounge area with couches, chairs and tables that can be rented out for a private event.

Into a dream world

Above a wall-to-wall bookshelf is a painting of a long dragon chasing a fish. I asked Christopher what the mural meant and he said, “The two friends (boy and fish) have wondered off into the “Real World”, night is falling and the creatures are coming out (dragon). Boy is lighting the way with the lantern back to the dream land. “  It’s quite the fantasy land in the back room of Taproot.

Cascade Baking Company in Salem, OR
Cascade Baking Company in Salem, OR

On day two in Salem I spent the day touring the downtown and the outskirts. I visited EZ Orchards in search of the best produce in the area and found a new and delicious apple called Melrose. Crisp and sweet it rivaled a honey crisp apple.

The Cascade Baking Company, housed in one of Salem’s oldest buildings provided lunch for my tour. Previously a cigar store and a Gospel Mission this sandwich shop is the place for a lunch to go. For $9.40 you get a sandwich and a cookie suitable for the pickiest customer.

At Riverbend Park I learned about big events like the World Beat Music Festival that featured over 90 performance groups in June of 2016. What a great venue on the banks of the Willamette River for hosting such an array of music. I visited Bauman’s Orchard store with wide selection of local fruit and other products. And just for good measure they had fresh made doughnuts.

Salem and Albany
EZ Orchard donut makers waiting for customers

Day three in the Willamette was mainly for food, wine and cider, but first I had to see the Historic Carousel and Museum project in Albany.

I met with carousel board president, Wendy Kirbey. She showed me the temporary digs in a strip mall where carvers and painters made magical creatures. These were no ordinary carousel animals.

Each one was sponsored and dreamed up by members of the community or farther afield. Wendy knew the story behind each of the 51 sponsored creatures.

Wendy told us, “I need to get all this information down in my computer in case something happens to me. It’s all in my head for now and is too valuable to lose.”

Salem and Albany
Igknighter, the fire breathing dragon

All the work on the animals is by volunteers covering more than a decade of work. Anyone 14 or older who would like to try out for the position of carver or painter can come and start small with a wooden rose then move up to more complex tasks to see if they possess the necessary skills. This project when finished will resurrect an old Dentzel mechanism that had languished in California after being stripped of its animals.

Apprentice carver on the Historic Carousel in Albany
Apprentice carver on the Historic Carousel in Albany

The mechanism is from 1909 and currently in a large shed on the outskirts of Albany. The volunteers have the mechanism up and running with three animals already installed. When the rest of the animals and building are ready the whole shebang will be brought into service soon.

As the carousel powers up in June,2017 I predict it will be known as the most beautiful, heartfelt carousel projects ever. For a city of 51,100 it’s fair to say everyone knows someone who has helped bring this carousel back to life.

Chopped lunch

After the carousel tour we went to Frankie’s, a restaurant across the river run by a chef who is a past winner in the TV series Chopped. We had butternut squash soup with fresh apple slices on top followed by pasta, handmade in-house, with chanterelle mushrooms and butternut squash.

Homemade pasta with butternut squash and chanterelles
Homemade pasta with butternut squash and chanterelles

When our waitress asked if we needed anything else I joked, “Just another pound of these amazing chanterelle mushrooms.” Less than five minutes later she appeared with a bowl full of these prized mushrooms of the forest floor. It was a lunch on par with trendy Portland.

With a full stomach it was time to drink! We set off on a course that would take us between Albany and Corvalis.  There we would sample no-less-than eight ciders at 2 Towns Ciderhouse. We tasted BrightCider, Made Marion, Bad Apple, Nice and Naughty and more. The tasting room also served snacks and seemed like a welcoming place to spend an hour or two.

TwoTowns Cider tasting room
Two Towns Cider tasting room

Willamette Valley Vineyards was the next stop. As we exited I-5 I could see the entry sign on the east side of the highway at the foot of a mountain. The driveway took us up a steep and winding road though fields of pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay grapes.

The tasting room looks like a modern day castle built for the enjoyment of wine. We were shown to a special tasting room by Wendy who served us a pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay and three pinot noir vintages.

Halfway through the tasting we met the owner Jim Bernau, who told us “I’m the 6th generation to live and work in this area.” His winery has been awarded many top awards for the wines and tasting room.

Jim and Wendy in Willamette Valley Vineyards tasting room
Jim and Wende in Willamette Valley Vineyards tasting room

The sweeping view of green hills dotted with bright yellow, red and orange trees in their fall colors was enough to make club soda taste good.

Willamette Valley Vineyard wines however are spectacular in their own right. The pinot blanc is crisp and clean with notes of pear and citrus. The chardonnay wowed us with not-your-mother’s-chardonnay taste. Chardonnay was once the go-to wine of choice before the ABC (anything but chardonnay) craze hit some 15 years ago.

This was a bold new voice in Oregon chardonnay worth tasting and taking home. The pinot noir trio was an over-the-top experience that made me glad I wasn’t driving as I consumed all three samples without spitting or dumping any of it. In the end it was easy to see why this vineyard gets such high rankings.

Beef Porkolt and strudel

Dinner that night was at Oregon’s only Hungarian restaurant, Novak’s in Albany. Items like chicken paprikas, beef goulash-aka Porkolt, and a heavenly hazelnut cake made for a memorable meal. It was so good we returned for breakfast to try the apple strudel that mama Novak, age 81, brought to the table. A perfect way to end the food tour of Albany.

We finished up by visiting Christom Vineyards, Left Coast Cellars, and Cherry Country Orchard and Chocolate Factory before leaving the Willamette Valley bound for Portland International Airport. With wine and cherry products purchased on the way out of the area our baggage was teetering towards overweight, but how can you say no to such great local products?

Cherry Country chocolate making
Cherry Country chocolate making

Though we just scratched the surface of Salem and Albany’s food and wine; we left knowing a return trip was a must. Now that we know our way around; the next time will hold more wine stops, great food, and hopefully a ride on an amazing carousel too!

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Kurt Jacobson
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.