Ah, Portland! The name implies a land of ports, evoking images of water and trade. But really, it is a paradise of passionate pursuits, where the entire city feels like a tastefully handcrafted, small-batch, local concoction.
The food is divine. The beards brim with personality. The streets are tree-lined and pristine. The flora flourishes with a lushness that takes your breath away. The storefronts beckon with charms ranging from quaint to hipster to eccentric.
In other words, Portland pays attention to detail. Every manifestation of the city is an art, thoughtfully conceived and executed. When I set foot in the city for the first time, a little voice inside my head wondered, “It seems almost too perfect…what’s the catch? Where’s the secret, dark underbelly?”
But alas, I am getting ahead of myself. Just as I documented my travels to Maui in Hawaii and Yellowstone in Wyoming, I shall continue to share my travels throughout the U.S. with this record of my visit to Portland, Oregon, complete with linked food and site recommendations.
EZ and I were picked up at the airport by EZ’s friend PK, who was barefoot. I’m not sure if he was just messing with us, or if his barefootedness was emblematic of the Portland spirit. Either way, it left an impression. After checking into our hotel, the first thing EZ and I did was join PK for lunch at Lardo, since we were as ravenous as wolves. Wolves tend to have a taste for little piggies, so it was fitting that we ended up at a sandwich joint where pork infused much of the menu (EZ did find a non-pork option, however, as he doesn’t eat pork. Bad wolf!).
I ordered the Bronx Bomber, which included shaved beef, provolone, salami, griddled onions, mayo, and pickled peppers (pictured below). Let me tell you – it was the bomb. Bursts of flavor exploded in my mouth with every bite, and I surrendered to them wholeheartedly. One of the best sandwiches I’ve had, no joke.
As we ate, PK told us about his time living in Portland and some of the quirks of local society. For one, he mentioned that it was almost taboo to ask somebody what they do for a living. Instead, it was more appropriate to ask people what they do for fun, or what their passion is. Materialism and status are apparently not big values in Portland; in fact, there are often frowned upon.
According to PK, many Portlandians work however they can to pay the bills – whether as a bartender, barista, or engineer – but focus their lives on their passions. PK’s particular passion happens to be woodworking (you can check out some of his beautiful creations here).
Of course, there are also people whose jobs coincide with their passions. I found the passion-centric nature of Portland very interesting. In LA, when I meet new people, it’s customary to ask each other two main starter questions: What do you do? Where do you live? In LA, your profession and neighborhood are what local society has deemed important starting points for getting to know someone. In Portland, they jump right to the deep stuff.
After lunch, PK left EZ and me to our own devices, and we wandered through the downtown area. One of the first things I noticed about Portland was how clean it was. As a Valley Girl who often spends her time gallivanting through the various neighborhoods of LA, I was astounded by the lack of litter and grime in the streets of Portland. And, unlike downtown LA, the stench of urine is startlingly absent from downtown Portland. It’s not that there aren’t any homeless people in Portland – in fact, I met quite a few. But somehow all the Portlandians, homeless included, seem to take pride in their city and make efforts to keep it clean. Or perhaps the city just happens to have stellar maintenance/sanitation departments? Hard to say…
I also noticed that downtown Portland boasted more greenery, wider pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, and more bike paths compared to LA – all of which make it quite pleasant to traverse the city by foot or by bike. There are also a number of parks and plazas where children frolic about. EZ and I walked through a plaza to the music of violins, perusing the bouquets at a nearby flower stand and admiring the detailing on the Benson Bubbler water fountains. However, EZ noted that the Benson Bubblers, lovely though they are, waste ridiculous amounts of water.
EZ and I also appreciated all the awesome street art throughout the city. EZ’s favorite was the ghostly girl pictured below on the left-hand building: A lady in white, her back to the viewer, a long braid trailing down her spine…
I’m a sucker for colorful, whimsical designs.
Luckily we planned our visit in the summer, so we enjoyed our walk in beautiful weather, sunny yet crisp. But PK had warned us that in the winter, the sun may never be seen –perpetually shrouded by clouds – and the dark of night advances as early as 4:00 p.m.
At the food carts, EZ and I met up with our friends GS and NR (with whom we traveled last year to Barcelona, where GS proposed to NR), along with their friends KB and KO. The food carts lined the entire block, a “pod” presenting a smorgasbord of cuisines from around the world. We roamed from cart to cart, inhaling the unique aromas of Indian, Thai, Hawaiian, and Polish dishes, among others. EZ and I were still full from Lardo’s, but the rest of the crew enjoyed delicious plates from several different food carts. I treated myself to some Thai iced tea.
Portland is home to hundreds of food carts/trucks. Unlike many American cities that prohibit or limit food carts, Portland embraces them as an integral part of the local food scene. Food carts are not perceived as competition for restaurants, but as complements. Many of the food carts are operated by immigrants who lack the resources to open their own full-scale restaurants…thus allowing for mobile, global bites for consumers, and an opportunity for immigrants to work toward their American Dream.
Later in the day, after getting settled into our hotel, EZ and I explored the glory that is Powell’s City of Books. It is the mecca of manuscripts, the bastion of books. Occupying an entire city block, it is the world’s largest new and used bookstore.
EZ and I threaded through the colorful shelves of the main floor, where a wall behind the cash registers defined the word litmosphere: “1. The vast domain of the world’s readers and writers. 2. A lively literary mood permeating the air.”
We climbed the stairs and entered the Purple Room, one of nine color-coded rooms. Books, books, everywhere! The Purple Room further divided the subjects of mythology and spirituality into numerous sub-topics. Apparently it’s not enough to find the mythology section; you must locate the appropriate Arthurian or creatures subsection! It’s not enough to find the shelves of spirituality books…you must know specifically which ones pertain to labyrinths and mandalas!
We browsed the wares in a trance for quite some time before leaving to meet up with the others. EZ purchased a book about Middle Eastern history, as he is wont to do, but I resolved to return another day for further perusal before buying anything.
EZ and I joined the rest of the crew at Blitz Pearl, where they were watching the NBA finals – Warriors vs. Thunder. It was a fairly standard sports bar, nothing special. EZ and I grabbed some beers and played a few rounds of shuffleboard while the others watched the game, reconvening with them periodically. Finally, EZ declared a hankering for fried chicken, and he and I set off on our mission while the others continued to watch the game.
First, we tried TILT, which had gotten good reviews…but there was a long line out the door. This would not do. After some impromptu yelping, we decided upon Parish. There was no line, and it seemed fairly pleasant and low-key.
My expectations were not too high, as Yelp rated Parish at 3.5 stars. However, my mind was blown when our golden brown frog legs and fried chicken plate did arrive. The crispy frog legs were beautifully displayed, and they tasted like chicken, only with a richer, more unctuous quality. They paired well with blue cheese dip in the center.
The fried chicken was some of the best I’d ever had. It was a free-range chicken, in a three-day brine, fried in batter to crunchy perfection. I bit through a light, crispy coating into a flavorful, succulent chicken. Hot, seasoned, textured. I was thoroughly satisfied. And EZ’s fried chicken craving had been filled…at least for the time being. He would continue to demand fried chicken throughout the rest of the trip.
As we walked back to Blitz Pearl, we passed an interesting building that looked like a fortress. Upon closer inspection, I found it was the First Regiment Armory, a historic building that once housed the Oregon National Guard. It is now the home of Gerding Theater.
EZ and I rejoined our crew at Blitz Pearl at precisely the right time. The game was in the final quarter, and the Warriors were down. The stands, a solid block of blue jerseys, seemed disheartened.
As our crew consists of Californians, with EZ originally from Oakland and the rest (other than myself) from the Bay Area, we were rooting for the Warriors. And the Warriors did not disappoint. The last quarter pulsed with excitement –surprising three-pointers and last-minute shots pulled the Warriors ahead just as the game was drawing to a close. The bar erupted into cheers.
On that happy note, we decided that celebratory drinks were in order. To the breweries!
Our first stop was Fat Head’s Brewery, a colorful and lively spot whose logo is the head of a jolly, plump man with cool shades and a Charlie Chaplin mustache. We shared a flight of beers, sampling a strange assortment of brews: Bumble Berry Honey Blueberry Ale (I liked this one – it tasted like blueberry, and included an actual blueberry at the bottom…although at first it looked like a strange turd), Bean Me Up Imperial Coffee Stout (this tasted like coffee and had a smooth finish), Goggle Fogger German-Style Hefe-Weizen (this tasted like damp farts…not too pleasant!), White Peach Saison (light and slightly acidic), and Breakfast of Hopions (too hoppy for my taste). EZ and I were still full from our frog and chicken dinner, but the others ordered some appetizers that they enjoyed, including buffalo cauliflower.
Our next stop was 10 Barrel, which had a fun, relaxed vibe. The brewery included a cool rooftop patio, but we ended up being seated downstairs, near the brew tanks. We could see a bubbling broth of yeast spilling into a bucket from one of the tanks. It kept throbbing and pulsing like some live thing, a radioactive swamp monster.
We decided to forgo the flight this time – we didn’t want to risk any more outlandish flavors – and ordered our own brewskies. We also shared a couple appetizers that were quite delish: 1. Crispy Brussel sprouts with bacon, lemon, Cajun spice, and harrisa aioli. 2. Fresh Penn Cove mussels with house-made sausage, Sinistor Black Ale, green onions, and French fries. I particularly enjoyed dipping the fries into the mussel juice and spearing some sausage onto my fork for good measure…it made for a wonderful, savory bite.
After 10 Barrel, our group was spent for the night. But the next day would bring more local delights.
Continue reading: Portland Paradise – Day 2!