The Palate goes to Portland, OR

PART ONE – FOODS AROUND THE CITY

Several months ago, as I began to plan our annual summer vacation I started out with a plan to go to California.  My son had never traveled to the West coast and I have quite a few friends there that wanted to meet him.  Once I started mapping out our trip and deciding on places to visit, I realized the amount of driving I would have to do to get it all in.  Then I began to think there might not be that much of interest to my son in that state aside from Yosemite, the San Diego Zoo and the beach.  We had recently gone to Disney World & Sea World and amusement parks aren’t his thing. 
On a conversation with a friend who lives in Portland, OR, he suggested that we consider vacationing there.  He even offered to let us stay at his apartment which is a 10 minute ride to downtown.  How could I possibly refuse this generous offer?  And I’ll admit, I was immediately excited about the trip.  I have been to Portland many times for business and found a day here and there to do some fun things but I’ve always thought the state is so beautiful that I was looking forward to exploring more of it with my son.  A bonus was that most of the places we wanted to go were all within a day trip distance from Portland.  And so it was decided, we would go to Portland – the city of bicycles, food carts, great restaurants, awesome microbrews, wineries of the Willamette & Hood River, and lots of outdoor activities in the surrounding area – all right up our alley.
What I realized in our eleven day journey was that Oregon is one of the most diverse and least touristy places I have been to in this country.   The diversity I’m referring to lies in its varied climate and topography.  Portland gets an average of 37 inches of rain per year while Bend the most number of days of sunshine of any city at 300.  Mount Hood is the one place in the US where you can ski right through till the beginning of September.  Yes, they were skiing on the Palmer lift at Timberline Lodge in August when we visited.  So if you live in Portland, you can be skiing one hour to the East or at the beach one hour to the West.  One thing we did notice was that while Portland is pretty culturally diverse, the rest of the state is fairly monochromatic.  I don’t mean that in a negative way at all, it was just a fascinating observation for me and even my 10 year old son who one day, out of blue, stated “This is the first place I don’t see a lot of Indian people”.  I had to laugh because he’s so right.  We Indians will go anywhere.  So, why the low tourism here?  My theory (with no data whatsoever) is that Oregon is the forgotten state between California and Washington.  And I don’t believe the locals are unhappy about it.  There’s a certain way of life there that I have not seen elsewhere in the US.  It is very hard to describe but the words laid back and friendly without the California superficiality are a great start.  Nothing against Cali folks, I love that state too!!
As I start writing this post, I’m not quite sure how to attack this one.  There’s so much to write about.  We ate at great restaurants, awesome food trucks, some hole in the wall finds, many picnics after long hikes, meals with friends, wine tasting in two different AVAs, and even a trip to a microbrewery.  I’ve decided to break it up into multiple posts each highlighting a different component of this fabulous vacation that I did not want to return from.  I even went real estate hunting – only partially as a joke.
So we begin with the city of Portland.  We spent more days here than any other place we visited.  As mentioned earlier, my friend (we’ll call him D) was kind enough to lend us his apartment for the duration of our stay.  I much prefer staying at a home than in a hotel when I travel.  It makes the trip so much more comfortable and D went out of his way to make sure we were taken care of.  I can’t thank him enough.
Portland is a beautiful and interesting city.  Considering the climatic challenge they face, Portlanders are all about the outdoors and taking advantage of great weather.  This city boasts the most percentage of bicycle commuters in the country.  Portlanders are very conscious of the environment and very “green” indeed.  The Willamette River separates the East & West parts of the city.  Most restaurants & food joints will offer outdoor areas of some sort. And if they don’t, you can always get takeout and go to Pioneer Square or the park along the river and find a spot to eat.



Food Trucks on Alder Street
Our first day upon arrival (we landed past midnight West coast time so it was very late for us), we got a lazy start and eventually decided to venture out into the city.  I had done a lot of research on the food trucks of Portland and while there are many all around the city, you can get to a majority of then off Alder St.  That is where we headed for our late lunch.  I think it was more fun walking around the square and checking out all the menus than actually eating the food on that day (exhaustion & jet lag will affect your appetite).  We settled on a gyro for my son and a Bahn mi (Vietnamese sandwich with pork, onion, cilantro, hot peppers) for me.  Don’t get me wrong, they were very good.  We just weren’t ready to tackle the food scene yet.  So we moved on and went to the river and walked around instead.



I didn’t go to my usual places this time around and tried some new ones instead.  I promise not to give you a day by day account and bore you but instead will give you some highlights and lowlights.  We had a fabulous day at the Bite of Oregon which is an annual event to benefit Special Olympics.  There were ribs, and philly cheesesteaks; Ice cream, crepes, and so much more.  My son had his first pav bhaji from an Indian stall and loved it.  Pav bhaji is a typical street food in Mumbai made by cooking and pulverizing a mix of vegetables including potatoes, cauliflower, bell peppers, etc and then served on what looks like a slider roll.  There’s no meat in it so not something my son would normally go for, but he was feeling adventurous and I think he liked the girl who was serving them. We also enjoyed tasting the microbrews and wines while listening to the fabulous live entertainment.



View from Three Degrees



Restaurants we hit included Esparza for some great Tex Mex introduced to us by some friends.  Three Degrees for a light midday snack after a bike ride along the Willamette.  This restaurant is part of the Riverside Hotel and has an inviting patio for seating.  Happy hour each day goes from 3pm – 6pm and you can get food for next to nothing.  We had large servings of fries and edamame for $4.  Of course the wine makes up for the difference.  They let us hang out there for hours.  My son even went and explored the nearby marina with his camera while I enjoyed my drink.  We had lunch with a business associate at McCormick & Schmicks by the water where I had really good rock fish which I had never tried before. 



My “plate” of Khao Mon Gai



My next visit to a food truck was rewarded with the most delicious Khao Mon Gai which is a Thai chicken dish and this one was just perfection.  The truck had been recommended by friends who visited Portland last year.  It serves this one dish only.  The line was long but the food worth the wait.  I pick up my wrapped parcel and we walked to Pioneer Square for a seat on the steps.  The paper wrapped package, when opened, let out a wonderful aroma of fragrant jasmine rice, ginger and cilantro.  The chicken was perfectly poached in a flavorful broth, then placed over a mound of jasmine rice cooked in ginger, all topped off with fresh cilantro, lime and a delicious sauce.  I wish I had time to go back one more time before returning.
Our other Thai food venture wasn’t as successful.  On a recommendation from someone I had met that day, I took my son and D to Thai Peacock.  I’m not sure if they just had an off day or what.  Or perhaps they were on a mission to increase diabetes in the city.  The menu seemed pretty traditional and sounded really good.  The restaurant was crowded – always a good sign.  We ordered our food medium spicy but unfortunately when it arrived, everything had a distinct taste of added sugar.   This was weird to all of us.  I’ve eaten a lot of Thai food and even attempted to make a few dishes at home and have never had any that had the spice covered up by a blatant addition of sugar.  If anyone knows Thai food better than me, please let me know if perhaps this is a regional thing.  So, if you don’t like the overwhelming taste of sugar, I do not recommend this place.



View from Portland City Grill





After the disaster at Thai Peacock we headed to the Portland City Grill which is a rooftop restaurant with an amazing view of the city, especially at night.  I couldn’t bring my son to this city and not take him there.  After perusing the dessert menu, he settled on the tray of fresh baked cookies.  They were so good and warm that we saved them, took them home and were eating them throughout the week.  A final glass of wine later, and one last look at the city lights, we headed home.  Yes, by now it was feeling like home.
By far, our favorite meal in Portland was Sunday brunch at a small Mexican restaurant called Autentica in the Northeast section.  I read about it in a magazine and decided we would check it out before heading to St. Helens and Seattle.  If I say the food was fantastic, it is an understatement.  The Sopes with chorizo were to die for.  My son ordered the Chilaquiles with hangar steak and black beans and proceeded to finish most of the very large portion.  I had the Entomatadas (tortillas filled with chicken and vegetables, then topped with various sauces, cabbage, radishes, cotija cheese and crema.   I can still taste the food as I write this and my mouth is watering for more.  The house special bloody mary was the best I’ve ever had.  I could only drink half since I had a long drive ahead of me but it gave us a reason to chill out and hang around extra long.  At that point we didn’t care that we might get to Seattle pretty late.





 
I also have to make mention of our final meal in Portland.  I am pretty snobby about my fish tacos but I was impressed by the ones they served at this restaurant at an airport of all places.  They were really good.  Even worth the time I took to eat them causing us to rush to catch our flight.  I don’t think I’ll ever hear the end of it from my son.



Don’t leave Portland without one…



There are so many other great restaurants in Portland that I have been to on previous trips, but I’m glad we ventured to some new ones this time.  Some classics like Higgins, Jake’s and the Veritable Quandary (I just love that name) are a few to try if you’re in the area.  There are also many more in the famous Pearl District.  And remember no trip to Portland is complete without tasting a bacon maple doughnut at Voo doo doughnuts on 3rd off Burnside.

The famous Portland Bubbler



Stay tuned for Part two coming soon……..

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