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Portland, Oregon's Cutting-Edge Cuisine

A vintage sign in Portland's Old Town.

Photo: Steve Kepple

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.

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