Portland, OR: America’s Newest—and Gutsiest—Food City

For years, people have been branding Portland, Oregon, as the next Berkeley, California—of food-and-drink culture, anyway. And Portland has done its best to oblige. You can’t throw an heirloom radish in the Rose City these days without hitting an artisanal producer of one kind or another: microbrewers, of course, but also microdistillers, micropicklers, microbakers, microcharcutiers, and so on. (On my visit, I came to think of the locals as micros instead of foodies.) Ramps and yuzu have taken their place beside Gore-Tex and Nalgene as hallmarks of the Portland lifestyle.

All of that might seem prohibitively precious and irritating if it weren’t for a less noted side of Portland—the seedy cowboy-drifter side of dive bars and strip clubs. (A posse of micros and their wives took me to breakfast one morning at Acropolis, where nude dancers and a fine selection of craft beers accompanied the $6 steak-and-eggs.)

When I asked Naomi Pomeroy, co-owner and chef of the restaurant Beast, to assess how the city’s food scene had grown in the years since she ran an underground supper club here, she said, “I’d say we’re like 12- or 13-year-olds. We’re not as mature as out-of-towners think we are.”

I like to think Pomeroy was speaking, in part, about the streak of lusty mischief that is the yin to all of Portland’s pious, farmers’-market yang. You taste it in dishes like the sweetbreads at the offal-centric bistro Le Pigeon—glazed Buffalo-style with hot sauce and served over shaved celery and blue-cheese dressing. Or to play the gimmick a different way, in the blazing fish-sauce-and-palm-sugar-coated chicken wings at Pok Pok, chef Andy Ricker’s revered Thai-street-food spot.

You taste it in the pork-belly Reuben at Bunk Sandwiches and in every other messy, dripping, inspired creation on the chalkboard menu—from porchetta topped with onions, fennel, and mustard on ciabatta to a spicy shrimp-salad po’boy made with micropickled green tomatoes. Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood opened this dream lunch counter last November (Habetz worked under Mario Batali in New York, and Wood at Brennan’s in New Orleans). Named for an immortal character on The Wire, Bunk proves that culinary ambition and sloppy goodness can co-exist.

More even than food scenes in other cities, Portland’s feels like the product of true community—a relatively small number of like-minded (and like-bearded) folks feeding one another, using one another’s products, and trying to outdo their friends. While no doubt claustrophobic for some (the saga of Pomeroy’s divorce from her husband and former partner, Michael Hebb, is as well-known as her foie gras bonbons), the intimacy also has a certain quality-control function: If you’re going to sit down across the table from somebody tomorrow, you’re a lot less likely to put anything less than your best effort in front of him tonight.

“Across the table,” by the way, is entirely literal, given Portland’s embrace of communal seating. At Beast there are two long tables, two seatings, and one six-course menu per night. As in several other restaurants around town, the place’s bratty inner 12-year-old is indulged in a note: “Substitutions politely declined.” My table started with a shot of smoky tomato soup accompanied by a piece of candied bacon. Then came a plate of homemade charcuterie, a slab of beef tenderloin en croûte topped with truffle demi-glace, and, only then, a revivifying salad course of shaved celery topped with a giant prawn. At $52 per person, the meal spoke to another Portland virtue: Thanks partly to Oregon’s lack of sales tax, the eating is cheap.

“It allows the chef and you to try innovative things,” said my companion, Christian Krogstad, a partner in the microdistillery House Spirits. “If it doesn’t work out, you’re only out fifty bucks.”

Another spot where you’ll eat elbow-to-elbow with strangers is Simpatica Dining Hall. Founded by three friends as a catering company, Simpatica has communal tables and an open kitchen that impart the cozy feel of a college cafeteria. An ever changing farm-to-table dinner is served Fridays and Saturdays, but Simpatica’s real achievement is brunch, when dishes like the Logger—a chicken-fried bison steak, pounded thin and heaped with sausage gravy—turn that blighted meal into something actually worth lining up for.

You’re less likely to make friends with your seatmates at Evoe, a café attached to the legendary specialty-grocery store Pastaworks. But that’s because you’ll be busy watching the chef methodically chop, dice, and assemble salads, sandwiches, and hot plates—such as razor clams tossed with almonds and scallions—from scratch. It’s like being at some genteel, yuppie Benihana.

There are plenty of reasons to be dubious about Western-run Asian restaurants, especially those in a city as strikingly un—ethnically diverse as Portland. Pok Pok has become justly famous for dispelling such doubts. Andy Ricker, after traveling in Thailand, started the restaurant as a stall, and there’s nothing gringo about dishes like green-papaya salad or roasted game hen stuffed with lemongrass and garlic.

Ricker’s new operation, Ping, in Portland’s revitalized Chinatown, takes a wider view of Southeast Asian nosh. There are Indonesian and Thai skewers sizzling on a yakitori grill in the kitchen, as well as Malaysian noodle soups and Chinese steamed pork buns. And then there’s something called ju pa bao, a simple pork-loin chop fried in pork fat and slapped on a soft butter-soaked roll with all the finesse of a Filet-O-Fish. It’s fun to watch people take their first skeptical bite and then dissolve in pleasure.

At Toro Bravo, the long list of local farms and other providers on the wall clearly announces that you’re in Portland, but chef John Gorham’s flavors are straight out of Spain. His signature is a coppa steak (a shoulder cut of beef) delicately smoked and topped with olives and garlicky salbitxada sauce. But my favorite was a classic stew of chicken and clams studded with nuggets of Spanish ham. And an appetizer of brandy-soaked prunes stuffed with foie gras could legitimately compete with the best desserts in town.

If all these international forays lead to the obvious question of what exactly constitutes “Portland food,” one answer is “all of the above”—a mélange of cultural and culinary influences bound by a common spirit. Specifically, the beginnings of an answer can be found at Paley’s Place, which, at nearly a decade and a half old, qualifies as one of Portland’s grand old institutions. The profligately talented chef, Vitaly Paley, and his wife, Kimberly, an equally gifted front-of-house artist, came west from New York in 1995, drawn by the Willamette Valley’s agricultural bounty—which Paley continues to put to good use. My meal started with a pile of greens tossed with shreds of smoked rabbit and bacon and moved on to sweet razor clams, fried like schnitzel and paired with hollandaise and blood oranges.

But the killer dish was Paley’s take on escargot bordelaise, which combined all that I’d come to expect from Portland: recklessly rich ingredients, classic technique, and a wicked sense of humor. On the plate were two gnarled, glistening marrowbones in a dark pool of bordelaise; around and on them, plump snails were scattered about as though crawling through a prehistoric-volcano diorama.

If this is culinary adolescence, I hope Portland never grows up.