Portland, Oregon's Cutting-Edge Cuisine
Published: September 2010
By Adam Sachs
Is Portland, Oregon, America’s newest food capital? T+L gets to know the indie chefs, coffee geeks, meat obsessives, and salt fanatics who are turning up the heat in the Northwest.
“I’m just gonna come right out and say it,” Naomi Pomeroy says, stealing a glance over her shoulder before just coming right out and saying it: “Men brutalize their vegetables!”
Boy chefs suffer from a meat-first machismo, she says, giggling. Hers is a commanding giggle, if there is such a thing. She’s no dainty herbivore. At her restaurant Beast last night, I’d eaten boudin noir set in apple and duck-fat pastry and sliced hanger steak with brown-butter béarnaise. Then came the salad. It was a salad that was actually worth saving for the end of the meal. Why? Maybe it was the peppery freshness of the wild miner’s lettuce and greens from Gathering Together Farms. Maybe it was the unbrutalized way in which they’d been handled (emphasis on hands; tongs are to Pomeroy’s greens as wire hangers were to Joan Crawford’s closets) or the light, tart touch of the Sauvignon Blanc vinaigrette. Or maybe it really did come down to the “gentle chick-flick approach” Pomeroy says she and sous-chef Mika Paredes bring to their cooking: a two-woman, two-seating, six-course, set-menu nightly show in which 20 or so satisfied-looking participants eat communally and leave no trace of salad on their plates.
Veggie-handling trash talk aside, Pomeroy has nothing but love for Portland’s community of chefs, guys she’s worked with and grown up around over the years in the city’s flowering, cross-pollinating restaurant industry. There is Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon, the small and celebrated Lower Burnside space that is half civilized bistro and half culinary crack den, where your darkest desires (foie gras torchon with buttermilk pancakes? Sweetbreads with blue cheese?) are indulged. And there’s Jason Barwikowski—with whom Rucker and Pomeroy once worked—who has now turned to the curing and butchering arts at Olympic Provisions, in Southeast Portland.
Beast is run like a nightly dinner party, with Pomeroy and Paredes as the busy hosts. During a brief break in the action, Pomeroy takes me to a nearby café, where she immediately spots and is spotted by a local food blogger. She lowers her voice and we take our coffees to go. Surely there are other food nerds lurking nearby. Artisanal picklers, back-to-the-land lettuce farmers, sandwich-shop schemers, coffee micro-roasters, sous-chefs sketching their plans for the next great wood-fired pizza cart. Is Portland the most food-obsessed city in the country? It sure feels like it.
Pomeroy traces the city’s enduring culinary obsessions to the 1960’s hippie influx, to people who came to Portland to grow their own food and do their own canning; it’s an awareness of the politics of consumption that never went away. “My generation is coming around to our own interpretation of what our parents did,” she says, looking up from a pile of torn bread that will become tonight’s wild-onion-and-Swiss-chard panada. “But we’re doing an edgier version. We like meat. We’ve got no interest in suffering. We like to have a good time.”
“This should be a cologne,” Jason French says, sniffing like a hound at the meat-fragrant air. “You need to bottle this. Call it ‘USDA-Approved.’”
We’re in the laboratory-like curing and hanging locker at Olympic Provisions, a restaurant and salumeria occupying an old cereal mill on the eastern side of town. Olympic may well be the first curing facility in the state to have its wares approved by the USDA, which means not only doing things by the book but also having an agency official looking over its shoulder on a daily basis. The room looks clean enough to make microchips in, but the air is invisibly alive: garlic, allspice, a nose-tickling chorizo-ness.
French runs Ned Ludd, a small-scale, pure-hearted restaurant that has no stove. What it’s got is a wood-burning oven he and his partner inherited from the space’s last incarnation, a short-lived pizza joint. Named for the storied leader of the Luddites, the restaurant manages the trick of turning this accidental technological limitation into a great, sort of illuminating and inspiring DIY strength. Everything from slow-roasted chops and vegetables to meat pies and flat breads goes into the oven. Earlier in the week I’d gone in and tried charred, sweet, crunchy baby leeks with romesco; a plate of house-made charcuterie including thin slices of porchetta di testa (a cold cut made of rolled, well-seasoned, epically porky head meat); and a dewy, chewy, just-the-right-side-of-dry bresaola. There’s an honesty and straightforwardness about French’s cooking that I really admire—but more to the point, it all just tasted great.
French offers to chauffeur me around on his night away from the wood oven. He picks me up at the Ace Hotel and we wend our way around in his beat-up old truck. From downtown we cross over the Willamette River to an emptyish-feeling industrial area of Southeast where a lot of good stuff has been popping up. First stop: House Spirits Distillery, to sample their Oregon gin and local malted whiskeys. Then to Kir, a dark little wine bar where we eat baked chèvre and chicken-liver-and-currant mousse and our server praises a Muscadet by declaring that it “tastes like something an otter swam through.”
“Those two nerds out front are two of the best baristas in the country,” French says, tapping the window. That’s Portland, he says. Where the food nerds are the cool kids. Where everyone came for the products and the energy and stayed because it’s cheap enough to try anything.
Next we’re at Olympic with Barwikowski, and the two Jasons are praising each other’s curing techniques. Barwikowski wants to get into the business of canning preserved fish. “I’ve done a bunch of research on where to get the canners and the flywheel crank cans for tuna and octopus,” he says, with the twinkly-eyed look of the committed tinkerer gearing up for a new project.
There was a time—like a year ago—when the words hipster and charcuterie (let alone octopus canning) were not naturally linked in one’s mind. But now the old ways are new again. What saves Portland from being crushed under its heavy load of hipsterdom is the levity and sincerity of its enthusiasms. And there is an enduring, endearing appreciation of the low-rent, the goofy, the not-ready-for-prime-time. For all its farm-to-table zeal, it’s also a city that takes civic pride in Voodoo Doughnut’s bacon-maple-glazed variety, its friendly strip clubs and packed sandwich shops (I’ll let you navigate the former on your own; for pork-belly cubano and meatball subs, look for the lines at Bunk Sandwiches; stop in at Meat Cheese Bread, in Southeast, for a flank-steak sandwich with blue cheese or a BLB—bacon, lettuce, and golden beets).
There are other cities with a good food-cart culture, but few are as organized and encouraging as Portland’s. Many of the city’s several hundred registered food carts are clustered together in dedicated “pods,” or food-court trailer parks. Everyone I talked to urged me to find a cart called Nong’s Khao Man Gai. Go, they said, and you’ll understand. Step one to khao man gai enlightenment: check Nong’s Twitter feed to see if she’s sold out of her signature (and only) dish, poached chicken and rice with soup. Wait too long and the news on Twitter (twitter.com/nongskhaomangai) is usually bad, so I get up early and go one drizzly morning. On the cart is a smiley-faced, rain-smudged sign: add fried chicken skin $1. I do and take my butcher-paper-wrapped bundle and soup container in search of cover from the drizzle. The contents of the package are as advertised: sliced poached chicken, the sticky unctuousness of rice cooked in the chicken’s broth, a bit of light spiced soybean sauce, crisp curls of chicken skin. How to describe it? Deeply, comfortingly, almost movingly plain.
At another pod, in the North Mississippi area, I find sweet, redheaded, and tattooed Kir Jensen smiling from within her cart of sweets, the Sugar Cube. Her “Amy Winehouse” cupcake is soaked in brandy and comes topped with a straw and “bump” of powdered sugar. I eat one and bounce down North Mississippi Avenue on my way to the Meadow, which looks like an innocuous gift shop but hides within it an outlandish library of exotic salts curated by salt nut—sorry, “selmelier”—Mark Bitterman.
There are black salts from Cyprus in pyramid-shaped crystals, Balinese reef salt, and El Salvadoran fleur de sel. Pink salts and gray salts, ones that smell like volcanoes and others like chocolate and hickory smoke and the briny sea. I nibble all the samples I can; and the salt-sugar counterpoint makes me think of Alice and her many mushrooms, and it seems we are down the rabbit hole of culinary obsessions.
“Tell me, where else in the country do you find sturgeon?” Robert Reynolds asks. Not waiting for an answer, he continues his partial catalogue of the qualities that contribute to a great food city. “We have uncultivated berries, you can get them off the bush and onto your plate by the end of the day. There are coasts and rivers and orchards and vineyards and dairies—this is one of the great dairy regions of the country.”
Reynolds was a chef in San Francisco in the 1970’s and 80’s and took motorcycle trips to Oregon on his time off. Long before the Portland restaurant scene exploded, he fell in love with the agricultural wealth of the state. He used to take his cooks to France to eat and learn. “Then I realized you had everything in one place here, and you could speak English,” he says. He left California and the restaurant business and moved here to open a private cooking school.
There are other natural resources harder to measure, for instance openness and creativity. One of my favorite places in the city is Evoe, a low-key lunch counter attached to a gourmet grocery called Pastaworks, on Southeast Hawthorne. There are jars of pickled vegetables, specials on the chalkboard, and soup-stained copies of The Art of Eating to read while you eat. Kevin Gibson, who used to be the chef at the well-regarded Castagna, quietly presides over the space, stripped to its bare essentials: a hot plate; a small stove; a couple of stools gathered around the woodblock bar that also serves as his workspace. The food, too, is pared down: a perfect salad of sweet Sauvie Island beets and an egg with a yolk of deep sunset orange; scrambled eggs and chanterelles over a good buttered toast. One afternoon I fall into talking with Jon Hart, a cook and writer who helps out Gibson at Evoe sometimes. “There’s very little smoke and mirrors,” Hart says about why he thinks Portland restaurants work the way they do.
Reynolds urges me to see what’s happening at Castagna these days. The restaurant’s been around for a while, but it has a young new chef who trained at Mugaritz, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain. The first time Reynolds tried Matthew Lightner’s food, he marched into the kitchen and told him, “This dish has everything—including disappointment.” They got along well after that.
Lightner’s not your typical Portland dude chef. No visible tattoos, no swaggering sausage-curing side projects. He’s a bit brainy and formal, which is how the elegant, serene Castagna feels. The room—all muted grays and greens—is refined by Portland standards. White tablecloths? Have I seen any white tablecloths since I got to town? The menu mentions “hay” and “twigs” and I worry that foams and spheres might not be far behind. And then the food comes and it has everything and very little disappointment. To my great relief, Lightner’s dishes are neither smeared-plate think pieces nor high-tech dazzlery. There is an organic simplicity to the way they look, artful assemblages of good-tasting things. Raw oysters are dressed in apple and fennel fronds and puffy clouds of frozen horseradish cream. A yuba-like skin of milk is draped like a noodle over a melting piece of halibut that’s been poached in whey. This isn’t mission-statement food or polemic food or international show-off food. It’s personal, surprising, and, true to the spirit of the city, not just local but a bit odd and very likable.
It strikes me that part of what makes Portland work is not just the many things the city has going for it but precisely what it lacks. There is the self-consciously indie vibrancy of Brooklyn without the long shadow of Manhattan. It has the natural bounty of San Francisco minus Bay Area rents or the inherited seriousness of its food revolutions. It has the ethnic food carts and the whatever-works energy of Los Angeles without the sprawl.
“We try to put you in the field, forest, or ocean,” Lightner says when I ask him to describe the effect he’s going for. A noble conceit, but I don’t want to be anywhere other than here: in a city of ambitious food nerds working hard to amuse themselves and please the rest of us.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.
Beast 5425 N.E. 30th Ave.; 503/841-6968; dinner for two $150.
Bunk Sandwiches 621 S.E. Morrison St.; 503/477-9515; lunch for two $16.
Castagna 1752 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/231-7373; dinner for two $110.
Clyde Common The meat-centric restaurant at the Ace Hotel. 1014 S.W. Stark St.; 503/228-3333; dinner for two $70.
Evoe 3731 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; 503/232-1010; lunch for two $20.
House Spirits Distillery 2025 S.E. Seventh Ave.; 503/235-3174; tasting for two $20.
Kir 22 N.E. Seventh Ave.; 503/232-3063; drinks and snacks for two $46.
Le Pigeon 738 E. Burnside St.; 503/546-8796; dinner for two $80.
Meat Cheese Bread 1406 S.E. Stark St.; 503/234-1700; lunch for two $20.
Meadow 3731 N. Mississippi Ave.; 503/288-4633; free salt tastings.
Ned Ludd 3925 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; 503/288-6900; dinner for two $65.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai S.W. 10th Ave. at Alder St.; 971/255-3480; lunch for two $12.
Olympic Provisions 107 S.E. Washington St.; 503/954-3663; lunch for two $21.
Sugar Cube 4237 N. Mississippi Ave.; 503/890-2825; dessert for two $6.
Voodoo Doughnut 22 S.W. Third Ave.; 503/241-4704; doughnuts for two $5.