Forget San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The West Coast’s premier culinary destination is much more modest. Portland may seem a very “vanilla” town, but in our four days there, we had everything from vegan doughnuts to Cuban tapas, French bites to Iraqi-Jewish street food, Thai cuisine to Lebanese specialties, gluten-free beer to homemade kombucha. (Heck, we even went salsa dancing at an underground club. Check out Andrea’s Cha Cha Cha Club in the Industrial District, and prepare to be intimidated by some serious salsa movers and shakers.) The food stand culture alone is a fascinating display of the independent-minded spirit of this town. Areas of specialty food stands pop up like mini housing developments devoted to nothing other than neighborliness and nourishment. Portland’s lack of big chains allows for healthier competition among these smaller operations, meaning it’s damn hard to find a dud. And it’s damn hard to empty your wallet in the process (ie. the food here is cheap!). But aside from eating and drinking, there’s the grand Powell’s Books, the vibrant International Rose Test Garden, and even one of the U.S.’s few bungee jumping spots just an hour north of the city. Follow our journey through Portland below and discover the charms, the thrills, and the amazing treats it has to offer.
Pambiche Cocina & Reposteria Cubana
2811 NE Glisan St.
Portland is some 2,700 miles from Cuba, but the vibrantly colored and muraled building housing Pambiche plants you in the heart of Havana (or at least maybe Miami). Happy hour here is a steal, from the flaky-crusted empanadas to the light and juicy Ensalada Caribena (a cabbage slaw tossed with fresh citrus and herbs and just $3.50 for a big bowl of it) to the Ropa Vieja, a dish of shredded beef in tomato broth ($4.50). The Yuca Frita and Maduros (fried plantains) were on the dry side, but nothing a Cerveza Cristal or Periodista (AKA “The Journalist,” a cocktail or rum + passion fruit liqueur + orange juice + lime) can’t fix.
The Hazel Room
3279 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
We stumbled upon this charming place and found it to be a must for brunch. Outdoor seating is ideal when it’s sunny, of course, and so is a mimosa with grapefruit juice or a coffee with a generous $2 side of whiskey. For brunch, go for the Chorizo & Potato Hash Scramble (pictured to the left) served with a hearty pile of gluten-free toast, or the Tallboy (a pulled pork, egg, and portabella mushroom squeezed between a buttery biscuit).
3326 SE Belmont St.
A rustic, woodsy bar with bites, with a large open seating area in the back, Sweet Hereafter is so cozy we even saw a few people reading (with real books in hand!) at the rather dimly lit bar. The Omission gluten-free pale ale (from local brewmasters the Widmer Brothers) was a good (and strong!) choice here, and if I were to go back I’d definitely try a dessert or entrée, like the health-boosting “Precious Bowl” of coconut kale, black beans, and brown rice.
Wolf and Bear’s
3925 N. Mississippi Ave.
Head out to Mississippi Avenue for great boutiques, brewpubs, and most importantly, Wolf and Bear’s, a modest food stand tucked away behind a foliage-covered fence. Here you’ll find food you’ll want to scarf down with the animalistic intensity its name suggests. This is some of the best Middle Eastern cuisine this side of the Mississippi (River, that is) and the dinner bill for two people came out to a mere $17, two 12oz Lion Heart Kombuchas (one a combo of lemonade and Kombucha) included. Get the $7 Sabich (the Iraqi-Jewish traditional breakfast) or for smaller appetites go for the Lil’ Critter with a side of falafel. The pita wraps are soft, fresh, and warm and sturdy enough to absorb all the nutrition inside. Don’t forget the hot sauce, more freshly herbaceous than tongue-waggingly hot. Heck, stop here and you may end up in a Portlandia episode. Rumor was they were filming there just hours before we discovered the spot.
Petite Provence Alberta
1824 NE Alberta St.
For a slice of France, hit up Petite Provence (there are a few locations throughout PDX). Rich pastries and desserts will lure you in, but the dinner menu offers a great array of “petite entrees” perfect for tapas-style sharing.
Cheryl’s on 12th
1135 SW Washington Street
With a more upscale diner feel, this downtown spot is ideal for brunch (it’s also a market and bakery). Our waitress was sweet and attentive, and the housemade granola with Greek yogurt and fresh berries is a top-notch choice.
The talk of the town (and the Food Network), Voodoo Doughnut was our first stop from the airport, a perfect late breakfast to kick off our culinary tour through Portland. Situated in the grungier bowels of Chinatown, directly across the street from Dante’s, the building with KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD plastered on its side (apt scenery while chowing down on say, the “Cock-N-Balls” doughnut), Voodoo has become the tourist destination of downtown. Expect a wait of at least 30 minutes. Grab a cup of coffee at Portland’s revered Stumptown Coffee Roasters just down the street on 3rd Avenue to wire up before your sugar rush. Once reaching the inside, it’s a bit intimidating – and hypnotizing, watching the doughnuts swivel around in their glass-encased showcase tube – as you stare up at the big board of endless possibilities, from oreo-crumbled to cereal-encrusted to cream-filled to vegan. We recommend the Portland Cream, Bacon Maple Bar, or Vegan Coconut.
THRILLS & SIGHTS!
Bungee Jumping (One hour from Portland)
NE Healy Rd. and NE Belvins Rd.
Amboy, WA 98601
Yep, that’s us, just jumping 20 stories off of a bridge. In the rain. One of the few bungee spots in the U.S. — and just one hour north of Portland (and near Mt. St. Helens for another road trip hotspot) — this Pacific Northwest bridge is used specifically for scaring the bejeezus out of anyone who dares step into a harness. It’s a great first jump for anyone who hasn’t bungee’d before and the guys of Bungee.com have enough jovial death jokes to keep you on edge as you reach the edge. And, yes, it’s much scarier, ballsier, and more exhilarating than skydiving.
Moulton Falls Regional Park
Near Vancouver, Washington, just across the border — and on the way to bungeeing or Mt. St. Helens — this fertile area offers hiking and biking trails along the crystal-clear Lewis River. Watch for the (small) waterfall just to the right of the main parking area.
International Rose Test Garden
850 SW Rose Garden Way
We took our pink Voodoo Doughnut box (“Good things come in pink boxes”) a few miles west to Washington Park, home to Portland’s International Rose Test Garden. A picnic of doughnuts made under the suggestive slogan of “The magic is in the Hole!” seemed somewhat poetic among the fields of precious, pristine roses. Portland takes its roses quite seriously (you’ll see references to them all over the city), and on these “testing grounds” you’ll find over 500 some varieties. There’s even a miniature rose section and a Shakespeare one, which was, as the garden’s website says, “originally designed to include only herbs, trees and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.” After strolling through the test gardens, you can also stroll through the Portland Japanese Garden (for an admission price).
515 SW Clay St.
This self-proclaimed luxury boutique hotel in the heart of downtown is indeed luxurious. The location is ideal, close to the Portland Saturday Market and the Pearl District, with easy access to all the bridges. The decor is sleek and modern, but not at all stuffy. Our king-sized bed was a little too comfortable, lined with a pillow-top mattress and smooth designer linens. The marbled bathroom adds another palatial touch and we couldn’t get enough of the Tarocco bath products, made with Italian blood oranges and olive oil. There’s also a great outdoor seating area adjacent to the hotel’s restaurant. It’s a great place to chat, relax, read, or strategize the day’s plans.
AND, A FEW SILLY SIGNS