Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Eating My Way Through Portland: This Town is Tasty!

Let's just say that when Ran and I decided to head to Portland, Oregon for a little mini-vacation, the last thing that entered into the equation was a culinary adventure. Hiking? Sure. Sightseeing? Of course. R&R? Mandatory. But some of the best dining experiences of our lives? Hardly. But that is what we found on our five-day escape. Excellent fare, service that generally exceeded all expectations, and beverages that packed a world-class punch. It was foodie overload - the likes of which I don't really need to revisit any time soon! (Two days later, I'm still full!)

Mother Nature rolled out the red carpet for our visit, and the normally drizzly Pacific Northwest was resplendent with sunshine and temperate climes. Perfect street-wandering weather, which was fortunate since we were staying in the heart of downtown and exploring on foot.

Save for our dinner reservations at a couple hot new restaurants (more on that in my "Living to The Nines" post!), there were actually only two food-related items on my short list of things to do: 1 - eat lunch at one of Portland's famed street food carts, and 2 - visit the oft-celebrated Voodoo Doughnut shop. I managed only one of the two.... turns out that a whole host of other unexpected delights got in the way!

One of the unexpected delights came at Pazzo Ristoranti, where we found ourselves for lunch on our first day in town. Since I travel to Portland fairly often for business, I was familiar with the restaurant and knew we could get a tasty, healthy meal since I'd eaten there many times before and knew the drill.

But this time around, we had the Ned factor.

Ned was our server, and he turned our meal into a memorable experience - a foreshadowing of our days to come. First of all, the food was excellent. My salad was exactly like something I would make at home (spinach salad with grilled chicken, pinenuts, sun-dried tomatoes and currants, with a kalamata olive vinaigrette). What surprised me was the portion size - it was HUGE! I think I easily had an entire half chicken piled atop my greens. I took the majority of it to go - unheard of for me, since I can down a normal entree-sized chicken salad without blinking an eye.

But I digress - back to the Ned factor.

Since we were in Oregon, we were eager to get familiar with the local wines. It's Pinot heaven up there (Gris and Noir), and Pazzo's wine list was brimming with local selections. As Ran is often want to do, we played a little bit of "stump the wine guy"; he's always interested to find out the extent of the waitstaff's wine knowledge - not to be critical, but A) - to gauge how a restaurant factors wine into the dining experience - and B) - to see if we can learn something new.

The question posed to Ned was: "What is the difference between a Pinot Gris and a Pinot Grigio?" Not only did Ned know the answer (Pinot Grigios are Italian wines made from the Pinot Gris grape), but he went on to expound on their stylistic differences from a winemaking standpoint. He then brought complimentary samples of both wines to our table so we could do a taste test for ourselves. It was this gesture and attention to detail that set the tone for our entire trip. (BTW - I liked the fruit-forward Oregon Pinot Gris; Ran was partial to the stony Italian Pinot Grigio.) Thanks to Ned - we were off to a great start!

We commenced sampling lots of local wines in the coming days, and of course there were a couple of standouts that I would recommend wholeheartedly:
  • Lange Estate 2007 Pinot Gris Reserve
  • Domain Serene 2006 Pinot Noir
  • Erath 2005 Pinot Noir
  • Chehelem 2005 Pinot Noir
  • Adelsheim 2006 Ribbon Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir
Among all the wine sampling we did, we certainly had to give craft brews their due as well! Despite the world-renown wine country in its backyard, Portland is a beer town, through and through. It seems as though there is scarcely a square mile within the city limits without a brew pub. Ran actually got to visit a couple more breweries than I (he made it to Full Sail and the McMenamin's Brewery at Edgefield), but we both made it to BridgePort Brewery in the Pearl District for some beer tasting. I got the sampler (why try one when you can try them all?) - Ran stuck to the cask-conditioned IPA for which the brewery is known.

I guess you could say we weren't ever thirsty!

And we certainly weren't ever hungry. Which is why I never did make it to the first of my two spots to check out, the street food carts. Portland has this wonderful and diverse collection of food stands, randomly scattered across the city. In the downtown area, there are several clusters of these funky food carts lining the edges of public parking lots, and you can get your fill of anything and everything: Mexican, Thai, Middle Eastern or Greek food; coffee, pastries, salads or vegan fare... you name it, the sky is the limit. Two of the carts held special appeal: the homemade soups and grilled cheese sandwiches at Savor, and the Czech pork schnitzelwich at Tabor. Alas, I walked by both on several occasions, and just had to keep on walking because I was stuffed at the seams.

But despite being stuffed at the seams for pretty much the duration of our stay, I was bound and determined to get to the Voodoo Doughnut shop. It has been on my list of places to check out for years; let's just say that its reputation precedes it. I am far from a doughnut kind of gal - I really couldn't care less. But when you hear tales of maple doughnuts topped with actual strips of bacon, or blood-red jelly filled voodoo doll-shaped doughnuts impaled with pretzel sticks... well, you have to go simply out of curiosity. Right?

So I did. Bright and early on our last day in town, I made my way over and through the scattered bedrolls of the homeless that camp out in the vestibules and alleyways in the neighborhood, and found myself in one of the oddest doughnut shops on the planet. It's tiny - it's grimy - it's painted black. A certain counter-culture sort of flocks to it, and it's even a pretty notorious place for weddings (weddings?). As Ran said, "there were enough bad vibes in there to start a voodoo factory" (chuckle chuckle). The surly girl behind the counter didn't so much as utter a word - just looked at me with impatient eyes, and waited with barely concealed annoyance until I fumbled through the menu of dozens of unique choices.

I went with the obvious - opting to get some of Voodoo's most well-known novelty doughnuts: the vampire and bacon ones described above, as well as some cereal-topped sugar bombs (that's right - Cap'n Crunch and Fruit Loop-topped doughnuts!). And despite the non-existent customer service, I found myself happy. For some reason, to finally tick off Voodoo from my list was satisfying. And I have to give them credit - the doughnuts were good. Really good. I had a nibble here and there (for quality control, of course), and then we gave them all away. The three street urchins that were the recipients of the pink box couldn't have been more overjoyed.

Does that count as paying it forward? :)


  1. Growing up in Ohio Maple country I still never considered Maple Doughnuts with Bacon. Genius!

  2. Oh hell yeah! Eating here is such a great experience. My personal favorites are both Pambiche (Cuban Caribbean) and Zack's Shack (hot dogs!!!!).

    Then there's Saint Cupcake, Papa Haydn's, Mio Sushi, Peemkaew, Pix Patisserie, Cha Cha Cha...

    Jesus, I gotta go eat!

    -PDX Advice Guy