I made pulled pork the other night. Not having my familiar trappings, my spices, my usual butcher1aka, Costco, it did not turn out as well as something I would normally make. It was a bit humbling, actually, making some crap food for once.
I’m sorry, did that sound immodest? Well, I’m sorry, but it’s true. I make the num-nums. May I continue? Thank you.
Anyway, I pondered my poorly constructed American meal as I helped myself to some dumpling noodles from the local hawker. I thought about my cooking at home, how I had grown as a cook in my nearly 7 years of living in Oregon. I pondered my cooking from before then, when Beverly and I lived in an apartment not much larger than our current situation, when I started to hone my hobby. I thought about the miscues – the time I neatly sliced my finger instead of an onion, the scar still quite visible on my left middle finger. Or the time I tried using our new slow cooker to make chicken paprikash. The less said about that, the better, my friends.
But, as thoughts about Portland and food are wont to do, my thoughts drifted to Portland cuisine. The pubs. The farm-to-fork restaurants. The food carts. The food scene in Portland has been much blogged and written about and parodied to perfection, but since I have an audience that might not have heard of Portlandia, let alone the good shit happening in my adopted home, I thought I might wax loquacious about the food you might find in Portland, Oregon, of all places. I’m sure those in Portland might find this a bit boring compared to my adventures in far-off locales and musings of climate change, and those in San Francisco and Seattle might be rolling their eyes a bit at the audacity of Portland’s food scene, but for those not familiar with Portland, well…
Let us go, then… sorry. Wrong prose.
Here’s the first thing you need to understand about The City of Roses to understand its food. Portland is weird. Like, Portlandia weird. Friends know that I am fan of the Tennessee Williams quote, “America only has three cities. New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland.” For most of its life, Portland was Cleveland, a tiny steel town on the edge of the only frontier left in the lower 48, the largest city in a state that had its glory years before it even was a state. In the post-war period, like many American blue-collar towns, it grew without plan, expanding, until the downtown core became abandoned, industrial wasteland. The steel mills closed, and logging, the old industry in Oregon, went through massive regulations during the rise of environmentalism in the ’80s. Oregon could have been another Ohio.
Oregonians, however, are perhaps some of the most fiercely independent people in a country filled with rugged individualism. That frontier still exists out in the eastern reaches. New industries popped up in Oregon, technology moved up from the Bay Area, techies looking for a more calming environment than the hustle of San Francisco. The oldest industry – agriculture, you pervs – took on new life, with viniculture and hops farming leading the way. Portland soon got on the map for its wine, an off-beat alternative to the now established Napa wine culture. But most of all, where Portlanders found their groove was in beer.
Portland, Oregon has the most breweries of any city in the world, full stop. It is now widely renowned for being the beating heart of the craft beer movement, and frequently considered to be home to the best beers in the world. Oregon’s access to local hops and agricultural legacy gives it a massive edge on any beer producing region in the world, and yes, Germany, I’m looking. Right. At. You.
Let’s stop and do the math. Blue collar history. Craft beer mecca. Frequent migrants from the Bay Area, finding San Francisco of all places too busy and too serious to live life. A liberal social attitude, mixed with a fierce anti-government frontier legacy. Portland found a new way to grow past the urban decay of the 70’s and 80’s, and its final answer? It got weird.
So what does this have to do with food? Everything. Sandwiched between three pillars of the American culinary scene, Seattle, Los Angeles and chiefly, of course, San Francisco, Portland was bound to take on some of the culinary traits of its larger neighbors. The obvious place to start was of course breweries. With beer makers pumping out uniquely flavored craft beers with a myriad of flavors and styles, how easy must it have been to find chefs willing to find dishes to pair with a triple IPA, or a caramel stout, or a… you get the picture. As the Oregon craft beer industry grew, both in and around the Rose City2full disclosure, some of Oregon’s best-known beer makers are headquartered in Bend, Newport and Hood River; Deschutes, Rogue and Full Sail, respectively, so did the pub scene within Portland. Now, you have craft beer makers like Breakside known not only for their amazing beer but their often hearty and yet complex pub food3seriously, try the omnivore mac’n’cheese. Amazing..
It all happened like a concert, the pieces all moving in time. Young people, priced out of San Francisco’s dot-com boom, moved up to Portland, bringing with them the heritage of their parents’ counter-culture days. Rather than act like a petulant child in the face of changing times4hi, South, Oregon embraced the environmentalism movement5mostly and in true pioneer spirit, began looking for new ways to do old business. Liberal politics began to dominate the state as Portland grew, and along with it, liberal attitudes. Multnomah County was one of the first to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Portland grew its own counter-culture, vowing, now famously, to “Keep Portland Weird.”
Nowhere can that counter-culture be seen more clearly than in food. Chefs from Seattle and San Francisco, tired of the corporate grind in big ticket restaurants made for Portland, opening humble eateries, sometimes, incredulously, in trailers parked in an abandoned parking lot in town. Enter the food cart, the ambassador of Portland cuisine. Facing the myriad of issues that urban decay presents, owners of ill-used car lots made a fateful decision to rent out spaces to chefs looking to be their own boss without the capital, the hype, the sheer luck needed to open your own place. Now, people walking down the street in Portland could get a quick nibble of food from a chef good enough to work the best places in San Francisco.
Food carts aren’t exactly a new invention, nor is street food, as anyone in Asia will tell you. However, Portland changed a lot of how Americans look at street food. Before the food cart revolution in Portland, street food in the US meant a hot dog in New York, a taco truck in LA, or maybe, just maybe, a coffee cart in Seattle. Walk around the block at SW 10th & SW Alder in Portland now, and you’ll find food from around the world in places cleaner than most brick & mortar restaurants in town. Within a ten minute walk6or so, you’ll stop to check a lot out, no doubt, you’ll find Polish, Cuban, German, Egyptian, Lebanese, Southern, French, Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Georgian cuisine. You can enjoy mash up choices like a pork belly sandwich with freshly steamed bao as a bun. Or enjoy dumplings from former expats that learned the secrets from Mr. Ma, their neighborhood dumpling maker in Beijing from a place called “The Dump Truck.” Across town, you can have “gourmet” grilled cheese sandwiches while sitting on a picnic bench at the Grilled Cheese Grill7they cater too!, or learn truth in advertising from Big Ass Sandwiches.
The food cart “thing” came full circle, making food cart chefs into national celebrity chefs. Chef Andy Ricker’s amazing Thai eatery, Pok Pok, started as a humble cart with lines literally around the block. When I mentioned Pok Pok to Emma8Oh, Canada!, she replied, “You mean that place in New York?”
No, I mean Portland, Oregon; The City of Roses, motherfucker. Awww yeah.
Portland’s Thai scene has another famous chef as well, Chef Nong Poonsukwattana, who, in her words, moved from Bangkok to Portland with $70 and two suitcases. Now, her “Nong’s Khao Man Gai”, serving just one thing, a dish well known here in Singapore as “Chicken Rice”, has three locations and a retail line for her amazing sauce. When I worked on the Inner East Side, just across the river from downtown, I was three blocks away from her central kitchen. Before I came to Singapore, let me tell you, I was well acquainted with “chicken rice”, albeit a Thai version of the Haiwanese dish.
In true Portland fashion, though, there always has to be a push for more. Our liberal and altruistic attitudes towards commerce and community has spawned the world’s first non-profit breweries, Oregon Public House and Ex Novo, both aiming to donate 100% profits to both local and international charities. Ex Novo9literally, “from scratch” has been a joy to follow and frequent, with Bev and I being fortunate to share some of the brewmaster’s early batches in the shell of what would become their alehouse while hearing the principals share their vision and causes.
And, I have to admit, the scene was made better in that Beverly and I had just run Bridge to Brews, a 10K race, my knee was torn up, and the race started in a muddy pit, so we were throughly muddy, sweaty and wet. Please, if you’re in Portland, go to Ex Novo and have a pint10or three and some of their amazing food.
So, I’ve made it 1600 words without mentioning Portland’s most famous food, Voodoo Doughnuts. Everyone’s heard of Voodoo and their insane creations of stale cereal and sorta-okay donuts. Everyone who goes to Portland will queue up for a pink box of questionable pastries. You can no doubt guess that I’m not a fan of their donuts. They’re okay. They’re not great, but they’re famous and they fit Portland’s image of being fucking weird as all get out. They have a creme-filled “cock and balls” donut after all. So, go, if you must. But Google the fucking place first and don’t ask a local how to find it. Ugh.
There you go, folks. A bit of Portlandia for you. Stay tuned, gentle reader, for next week, I’m returning the favor for my second adopted city, and will wax blog-like about the food of the Lion City.
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