Destination: Portland, Oregon. Food Carts, Fabulous Restaurants & Fantastic Home Cooking
We recently took a food field trip to one of America’s great food cities: Portland, Oregon. Portland is a young city where everyone I met except one person is from somewhere else but no one plans on leaving anytime soon. With the great restaurants and breweries, close access to the mountains and wine country, and an overall friendly, laid back lifestyle, who can blame them? While there was a constant drizzle almost the entire time I was there, nobody seems to notice or care. Take out an umbrella and you may as well have “Tourist!” stamped on your forehead. It’s just not done. And why call attention to yourself? Okay. Hoodie it is.
Commitment to using local ingredients and practicing sustainability practices is big in Portland (as it should be everywhere). But what REALLY sets Portland apart is the unbelievable Food Cart culture. There are over 400(!) food carts throughout Portland. And these are not your run-of-the-mill fast food carts. Savvy young chefs, cooks and entrepreneurs are turning out amazing food in their little cramped carts all over the city. And they’re all very well aware that word of mouth is the best way to build their customer base. When they’re not cooking or waiting on customers, they’re busy tweeting about their specials and collecting fans on Facebook.
Food carts at Hawthorne & 12th are open late night as is one of our featured heroes, The Grilled Cheese Grill (watch Matt make a mean Jalapeno Grilled Cheese). While most carts don’t have seating, Matt’s idea to purchase a Partridge family-style bus, have a local artist paint a mural on the ceiling and turn the bus into a dining car is pure genius.
The carts downtown are plentiful and cater to the business crowd. Hero Nancy Ettinger from Savor Soup is in this neighborhood and ladles out soul-satisfying soups for all like the Potato Leek Soup we filmed.
Mississippi Ave is open every day except Monday and that’s where our friend Kir from The Sugar Cube hangs in her adorable pink cart and bakes up treats like Mom used to make. She shared her spicy, crunchy Gingersnap Cookies recipe with us which I think you’ll all love. There aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the year to try all the food carts but it certainly inspires me to try some more next time I’m in town.
The restaurant scene in Portland is pretty incredible. The way Portland is laid out, it feels more like a bunch of hip neighborhoods instead of one big city. And that’s what makes it fun. Each has its own amazing restaurants, independent boutiques and coffee shops everywhere (I think it’s the rainy weather that creates a big need for coffee!). We hit the SE and the NE of Portland for 2 outstanding shoots at restaurants that really know how to make people happy: Screen Door and Toro Bravo.
Screen Door is owned by New Orleans natives David and Nicole Mouton. Chef Widmayer is originally from Ohio but has mastered Southern cooking. All you have to do is watch his Creamy Grits or Grits & Grillades videos and you will see that he is in his element. Customers wait (again, in the rain) upwards of 2 hours for the chance to sit down and bite into his friend chicken, crispy praline bacon or any of a number of above-and-beyond brunch items on their menu. And above all, he’s a super nice guy. We like to see good people being rewarded for their incredibly hard work.
Chef John Gorham’s restaurant, Toro, Bravo has received virtually every award including “Restaurant of the Year” from Willamette Week and “Chef of the Year” from Portland Monthly Magazine. They even received an award for “Waitress of the Year” from Portland Monthly Magazine. Now that’s full service. Chef John combines his love of Spanish tapas with his commitment to local ingredients. You’ll see in his Bacon-Wrapped Dates w/ Warm Paprika Honey video that he gives a shout-out to a local honey maker, Hood River. He also told us off-camera where we could find local duck eggs for his Spanish comfort dish, Basque Piperade with Duck Eggs. Toro Bravo also usually warrants a wait for a table but it’s absolutely well worth it. They smoke their own bacon and meats which in my book is enough. But try these 2 dishes he created for us on video and you will be booking a ticket to Portland.
Just as much excitement seems to be going on in the kitchens of Portland homes as in the restaurants and food carts. And some dream kitchens these folks have. Nice and open and perfect for entertaining while cooking. We visited with Nike exec by day, Brian Fairben, who welcomed us into his wonderful kitchen with stellar views of Mount Hood. Originally from Long Island, Brian not only shared his Fairben family Shrimp Scampi with us but he also bought his Alaskan shrimp fresh from Seattle just for the occasion. Now that’s hospitality.
Across town, Jason Callough, former chef turned IT professional at HP, had us over to his kitchen he designed himself (beautiful!) and shared his recipe for Brussels Sprouts w/ Roasted Chestnuts & Caramelized Shallots. He has a great way of taking his professional expertise and showing how you can put some of those techniques to practice at home. This is a side dish that just may trump the entree.
After all the gratifying shoots we tackled, there were 2 things we wanted to take in while in Portland. 1 – Voodoo Donuts. Basically, a punk rock donut shop unlike anything you’ll probably ever experience. My Portland friend and field producer Carla Arriaga was up to the challenge of helping me sample the crazy array of donuts they create. When it comes down to it, the maple-glazed bacon donut will change your life. Long & rectangular to accommodate a whole strip of bacon, there’s nothing quite like it. I thought at the time, “I could die right now eating this thing but I just might be okay with that.”
The second thing that was a must on the list was a visit to Willamette Valley where stellar Pinot Noirs are produced. A short 1-hour trip from Portland and we were standing in wide open vineyards taking in beautiful scenery, breathing in fresh air and sipping lovely wines. We visited 4 wineries and it was a fantastic wine education experience because it was focused. Just 2006 and 2007 Pinots. What I learned is that I enjoy the 2006s better as they are a bit more robust. Apparently 2006 was a warmer year and made what, to me, was a more full-bodied wine than your typical Pinot. The vineyards we visited were: Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Serene, Archery Summit and a nice family winery, De Ponte Cellars. My hands-down favorite wine was the Domaine Serene “Evenstad Reserve” 2005. I’m not an expert on wine copy so I will quote The Wall Street Journal‘s description of this wine: “Big, gutsy Pinot, with black pepper, earth and body to spare. Serious wine, made with integrity.” Right. What he said. All I know is that it was damn good!
On the way back to Portland, we spotted a walnut and hazelnut stand. Coming from the East Coast, this was a special treat so I made Carla pull across a busy highway so we could sample and purchase some fresh nuts. The woman who ran the stand was incredibly friendly and patient as we mulled over the options. I got as much as I knew I could stuff in my suitcase to bring back for holiday baking and to share with mom. You can’t forget mom when you take a trip, right?
I would like to thank all the heroes in Portland who were so kind and accommodating to us on our whirlwind tour. In particular I would like to thank our Art Director turned Producer for the week, Carla Arriaga, who did an absolute stellar job lining up all the shoots, introducing me to great Portland people, schlepping me around everywhere and humoring me with a donut binge. Portland is probably the friendliest city I’ve ever been to and I recommend everyone pay those great people a visit.
Cheers from Boston, Lynne