Living like locals in Portland, OR – our 2-week experiment (cont’d)
From farmer’s markets to Da Bears…
It’s Saturday, and you know what that means…it’s farmer’s market time! Portland has more farmer’s markets per capita than any other city and for good reason — it’s literally surrounded by farms on all sides. Fruit orchards to the east, vineyards to the south, produce and dairy farms to the west – it’s a veritable Garden of Eden! I can’t wait to see what interesting and oddball tidbits we find today.
We decided to head straight for the largest of the markets, located right in the heart of downtown on Portland State University’s campus. Parking was a little tricky, so we opted for a parking garage a block away which offered a very reasonable $7 weekend daily rate (in Chicago, that same space would have cost us $40). When we entered the market, we were blown away by the sheer size of it. There must have been 60-70+ vendors lining both sides of the PSU quad with a collection of food trucks at either end selling every imaginable kind of prepared foods.
The first thing that struck me as different was the immense variety of produce – a particular vendor might offer 8 different types of peppers or 5 varying sizes of artichokes, from XL down to XS. Not just one or two types of eggs, but eight.
Another aspect that intrigued me was the artistic displays that vendors created to showcase their wares — cupboards made from old windows, wooden crates, whatever materials they could scrounge up…and it all looked awesome and cool.
Then there was the food itself, all made or grown locally, of course, and representing every possible food category — flavored salts, seafood, nut butters, chocolates, jerky, mushrooms, and so on — and every ethnic flavor, from Middle Eastern and Vietnamese to (very respectable) Chicago-style pizza (below) and vegan (lots and lots of vegan!).
And we were duly impressed by the booth selling half a dozen varieties of peppers that they were grilling on-site in a big rotating roaster that resembled a giant bingo spinner…
And then there was this…
And if that’s not enough to pique your interest, there’s always the quirky, characteristically Portland-esque entertainment. On this particular visit, we were serenaded by a guitar/kazoo duo and a guy playing a saw (yes, the tool) which, if you closed your eyes, sounded a lot like an aging B-grade opera singer…
In total, it was a fun and memorable morning, and undeniably a feast for all of the senses.
After the market, we strolled down the green to the Portland Art Museum for some culture. Unfortunately, one of the two buildings that comprise the museum complex was closed for a special event that night, but we were offered free entry to the one building that was open which housed the museum’s American and modern collections…
Guess we will just have to return another time to see the European and Asian collections. Darn.
All that culture made us downright hungry, so we headed east to 2nd Avenue and a popular Vietnamese restaurant called Luc Lac (835 SW 2nd Ave.). Being Saturday, the place was packed, as are most Portland restaurants on a weekend. But they have devised a brilliant tactic to get patrons through quickly. While standing in the queue to check in for a table, they provide menus and then proceed to take your order and payment before seating you…sort of like a very high end, hipster Chipotle but with a full bar. That way, the kitchen is preparing your meal before you’ve even been seated.
Within 10 minutes, we were escorted to two seats at the bar. Having already placed our orders at the hostess stand, all that was left to do was enjoy or cocktails and wait for our food to arrive.
In an effort to eat a little lighter, I ordered the shrimp-and-pork spring rolls and the Bo Tai Chanh (raw steak salad), both of which were delicious. As is typically the case with good Vietnamese food, fragrant fresh herbs play a leading role. In this case, the mint in the spring rolls and the abundant cilantro in the salad took the dishes to the next level. Mike thoroughly enjoyed the pork Bahn Mi — an explosion of flavors and truly outstanding. Expertly prepared and well-balanced with a nice, crusty French bread, it was a winner.
After lunch, we headed to the SW quadrant to view a couple of residential open houses and then back to our ‘hood in the SE quadrant. One of the many great things about Portland, we’re finding, is the ease with which you can get from one neighborhood to another and the unique personalities of each. Once back in SE, we decided to park ourselves on the outdoor patio of OP Wurst (SE Division) and soak up the elusive sunshine. What better way to pass the afternoon than with beers in hand, listening to live music and watching people enjoy the sunny weather playing ping pong and corn hole? It just works, trust me.
Dinner that night proved to be a little trickier – a novice mistake, you might say. Eager to try some of the great restaurants in the neighborhood, we headed out to Ava Gene’s on the corner only to find a wait of 1.5-2 hours for a table. Undeterred, we moved on down the street to Pok Pok – same 1.5-2 hour estimation there. Restaurants 3 and 4 – same story, different place. Even Salt & Straw, the ice cream shop, had a line down the block. Sufficiently disappointed and plenty hungry, we returned home to whip up some pasta and drown our sorrows in wine. Lesson learned – don’t go out on a Saturday night in Portland without a reservation or a very high level of patience.
Like many American households, Sunday means one thing: NFL. And when we’re on the road, it still means NFL; it just means we have to be a little more resourceful to find our game. Mike is a lot of things, but first and foremost he’s resourceful. Portland doesn’t have an NFL team, so most Portlanders adopt another team, typically the Seattle Seahawks. But we needed a bar that would be live-streaming the Chicago Bears game. With a few Google searches, Mike found the Hobnob Grille (SE Morrison St./33rd Ave.) which appeared to be a Bears-friendly bar. And boy was it! When we arrived, unsure of what we might find, we were greeted by a table of excitable, Bears jersey-wearing fans screaming expletives at the TV screen. It felt just like home!
We grabbed two stools at the bar and ordered a round of very respectable Bloody Marys.
As we looked around, we noticed that absolutely everyone was dressed in Bears gear, including the staff. We had definitely found our place!
Even the food was surprising. We were expecting typical pub grub, but this is Portland and nothing is typical here. Even neighborhood corner bars have talented chefs and inspired menus. Since it was brunch time (Games start at 10 am Pacific time – something we will have to get used to. Bloodies help.), I ordered the Pork Belly Benedict and Mike ordered the Brisket and Hash.
Simply wow. The pork belly was incredibly tender and flavorful, and when layered with the soft egg and bacon-dripping hollandaise, it was ridiculous. The brisket and hash browns were equally delicious and highly recommended, but I think Mike was expecting something more resembling corned beef hash. Either way, he wasn’t disappointed. And I overheard the couple next to us repeatedly assert that the Philly omelette they had ordered was the best omelette they had ever had. Quite a commendation for an unassuming corner bar.
Yes, we have found our Bears go-to bar, and yes, we will be returning Thursday night for the Bears-Packers game. Hopefully it will bring us another win!
Sunday afternoon was filled with more residential open houses — one slightly encouraging, the other quite disappointing. But that’s the nature of house-hunting. After you see a lot of dogs, you really know when the right one comes around. It makes the hunt all the more compelling.
Later that evening, we were anxious to get out and grab some dinner. Seeing that it was Sunday, we hoped that we would have better luck than the night before to get in some place. But not willing to risk it, we made an advance reservation. Since it was a lovely night, we decided to walk the dozen or so blocks to La Moule, a little Belgian restaurant tucked away in a tiny pocket neighborhood at SE Clinton and 26th Ave. I’m quickly learning that these quaint little pockets exist all over Portland. You turn a corner and boom, there’s yet another interesting enclave of shops and restaurants.
La Moule is a lovely, sophisticated little corner restaurant, consisting of two narrow rooms and an open kitchen.
We were seated in the back room which, with its dim lighting and glowing bar, made for a nice, romantic atmosphere – a great place for a date!
As the name implies, La Moule specializes in mussels, a traditional Belgian dish. The typical ‘Mariniere’ preparation involves a mound of mussels swimming in a broth of shallots, tomatoes, garlic and wine. But La Moule offers several other variations as well, from Korean to Puttanesca to Saffron-infused. I selected the Vietnamese preparation with bone broth, bean sprouts, jalapeño, cilantro, mint and lime. (Sorry for the lame photo below.)
The mussels were plump and incredibly tender, and the fragrant herbs and bone broth added a balanced complexity. I didn’t think I could finish the entire bowl, but somehow I found the inner strength to power through. Mike order the lamb t-bone with crispy artichokes, baba ganoush and sea beans.
Again, due to the dim lighting, the photo doesn’t do justice to the dish, but hopefully you can see the delicately fried artichoke on the left because it was a little gem of deliciousness and deserves to be recognized. The accompanying lamb steak with a flavor-packed spice rub was prepared to perfection.
Despite being completely stuffed from the mountain of moules, I never seem to be able to pass up the temptation of a cheese plate…so bring it on! A beautiful selection of sheep’s milk, pungent gorgonzola dolce and ricotta-style goat — all locally produced and truly delicious — paired with a Belgian Westmalle Trappist ale. The perfect ending to a meal. And thankfully, we had a nice walk back to stretch our legs and encourage digestion. What will tomorrow bring?