Living like locals in Portland, Oregon – Our 2-week experiment (cont’d)
As part of our ongoing relocation research, it is vitally important that we check out as many Portland neighborhoods as possible. How can we know where we want to live, if we don’t see it all? So, this morning we’re heading to the NE quadrant and specifically to NE Mississippi Avenue.
The best way to get to know the vibe of a neighborhood here in Portland is to find a local coffee establishment and park yourself for an hour or so. We picked The Fresh Pot, located in an old Rexall drugstore on the corner of N. Mississippi and Shaver St.
One thing I’m quickly learning is that, like the neighborhoods themselves, every coffee shop has its own unique flavor — both in design style and the coffee itself. No two are alike. I order the same coffee drink at each and yet they all taste somewhat different. And that’s what makes Portland so appealing — it’s in no way a predictable, cookie-cutter town.
After our morning coffee and requisite people-watching, we walked the neighborhood for a bit, keeping our eyes peeled for a good lunch spot. Mississippi Ave is abundant with interesting restaurants, so it’s a tricky task. We really wanted to grab a pizza at Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty, which specializes in Neopolitan-style pies, but it was Monday and sadly they were closed. Ultimately, we selected Mee Sen because, in the meantime, we had developed a hearty hankering for some Thai food. The restaurant’s quirky, rustic decor and tin cups made me feel like I was back in the camp mess hall, but the authentic food transported me straight to Bangkok.
I ordered the Pad Kee Mow medium spicy, and it was fresh and delicious and packed a real good kick. The dueling heat from the sizzling wok pan and the Thai chiles was enough to make me keep on eating long after I was full, lest I stop and feel the ensuing burn.
Mike enjoyed the delicious and flavorful Gai Thoon with braised chicken, shiitake mushrooms and wide noodles in a rich and complex beef broth.
After lunch, it was time to finally meet our realtor for an afternoon of property hunting. He had eight tours lined up for us, and we were anxious to get started.
The afternoon proved to be extremely informative and very worth our time. We had been scouring the online real estate sites for months and felt like we had a pretty good handle on our target neighborhoods, but you never really know a neighborhood until you’ve walked it, and you never really know a house until you’ve checked out every bathroom. And let’s be honest, online listings only show the “sellable” features of a home, strategically disregarding the potentially negative aspects, like the damp-smelling, linoleum-floored basement or the bizarre, grotto-like master bath. You only get the full picture when you physically walk through the front door.
By the end of the day, we were encouraged that we could, in fact, eventually find something in our price range in the neighborhoods we had selected, but we were awakened to the reality that it wouldn’t be an easy or a quick process. The real estate market in Portland right now is one of the hottest in the country, just behind San Francisco. With Nike, Intel, Google and other tech companies bringing more and more jobs to the region, coupled with all the positive press Portland has received in the past few years, people like us are swarming here like a pack of flies. And with that increased interest comes competition in the real estate market which, of course, leads to elevated housing prices. We’re not the only bees in the hive. But alas, we will keep looking and hope that the perfect house will eventually arise. We will not be deterred!
Returning home around 7:00, a little tired and with a lot to talk about, we decided to stay local and hit the restaurant on the corner, Ava Gene’s (SE Division/34th Ave.). Now mind you, this is the same restaurant we tried to go to on Saturday night but were turned away with the promise of a 1.5- to 2-hour wait. Tonight, thankfully, we were seated right away at the bar. But it was pure luck that two seats happened to open up just as we walked in; otherwise, there would have been a wait once again. Moral of the story – Portland never slows down. When we commented to our server about how busy it was for a Monday night, he told us that “Monday is the new Friday” in Portland. Restaurants are so busy on the weekends that people have to defer to Monday nights to get into their restaurants of choice. I believe it.
Ava Gene’s (SE Division/34th) is a beautifully designed restaurant. Twinkling with dozens of overhead lights, it gives the impression of a night sky full of fireflies.
They offer traditional table seating in the dining area under the lights, seating at the bar or at the chef’s kitchen counter, as well as outdoor seating in agreeable weather.
The highly competent bartender was also a very amicable server, so we took the opportunity to chat him up and probe him with questions about the neighborhood. One thing we’ve noticed on both of our visits to Portland is that all the people here are genuinely and effortlessly friendly. Without exception, everyone we’ve met has been relaxed, casual and, well, downright happy.
But I digress…back to Ava Gene’s. You have to appreciate and respect a menu that feels obligated to clarify that “foraged products are not inspected.” That steadfast dedication to farm-to-table cooking is the nature of Ava Gene’s and very simply personifies the Portland restaurant scene as a whole. Any restaurant worth its salt here, serves only ingredients that are sourced locally — the beef likely came from just over the mountain, the lettuces were probably grown in a plot behind the restaurant, and the shiitakes were foraged by some guy with a beard earlier that morning. Just ask, and they’re happy to tell you all about the free-roaming farm where the chickens were very likely raised on organically grown corn and watercress.
Mike and I started with a couple of items from Ava Gene’s ‘fritti’ selection. Directly translated, ‘fritti’ means fried, but don’t get the impression that these were anything like your typical fried calamari or worse yet, deep-fried mushrooms. We decided on the baby artichoke and the gnocco fritto, which is basically a savory beignet sprinkled with freshly shaved parm. Served with a side of thinly shaved prosciutto, the gnocco was nothing short of sublime. And the diminutive, delicately fried artichokes were so fresh and flavorful that they brought a whole new meaning to the widely overused term farm-to-table.
Selecting a main course from their innovative menu was surprisingly easy for me because I never seem to be able to turn down Pasta con Vongole (with clams) when it’s on any menu, and Ava Gene’s preparation with fresh mint and Calabrian chiles sounded too interesting to pass up. Unfortunately, the dish proved to be more intriguing than it was inspired. The abundant chiles way overpowered the subtlety of the clams and the mint didn’t elevate the dish as much as it became a distraction. I appreciated the chef’s ingenuity, but in this case, it just didn’t work. It’s tough in a town with such a high level of culinary competition to continually create a menu full of worthy dishes, and this one didn’t quite make the grade.
One the other hand, Mike’s pasta with wild mushrooms was expertly prepared. The earthiness of the mixed mushrooms was complemented by the bitterness of the radicchio and a rich yet light bianco sauce for a lovely combination of flavors.
After a long day and a big dinner, we were glad we were only a block from home and our beckoning bed.
We woke up to beautiful sunny skies, and you know what that means. Sunshine in Portland means it’s time to hit the trails! Conveniently, you don’t even have to leave downtown to find a great hike. There are hundreds of miles of trails for all levels of hikers right in town. We decided to take the Marquam Trail up to Council Crest Park, where on a clear day, you can see all four mountain peaks in the Oregon/Washington region from its very accessible vista.
On our way to the trailhead, we stopped into Zupan’s Market (W. Burnside/23rd St.) for picnic provisions. Mind you, Zupan’s is not your average, everyday grocery – imagine if Whole Foods and Harrod’s had a beautiful baby, that would be Zupan’s. Take a look at these incredibly exotic displays…
And their expansive deli counter overflows with beautiful prepared foods, sandwiches and salads. We grabbed a couple of baguette sandwiches and some bottled water and made a promise to return for more comprehensive shopping later (noting that Zupan’s is one of the closest markets to where we hope to live).
Reaching the trailhead, located at the Marquam Nature Park near OHSU (Oregon Health and Science University), we parked and started the trek up to Council Crest Park. The up-and-back 3.2-mile hike is rated as ‘moderate’ for its uphill portion which consists of a variety of 25- to 40-degree inclines. It’s a beautiful walk on well-groomed trails under a soaring canopy of evergreens.
We made the initial leg in a little under an hour, reaching the Council Crest Park just in time for lunch. But first, we stopped to admire the incredible 360-degree views from the vista. Looking east, you can spy the four snow-capped peaks of Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helen’s and Mt. Ranier, ranging in elevation from 8,300 to 14,000+ feet. The closest to Portland, Mt. Hood (elev. 12,400) is only 50 miles away and therefore has become synonymous with the Portland landscape.
To the northeast you can see Mt. St. Helen’s (elev. 8,364) with its distinctive flat top, a result of the 1989 volcanic eruption, and Mt. Ranier (the tallest at 14,410 ft) in the distance behind it.
To the west, you can see the sprawling Tillamook Mountain range, and that’s precisely where we parked ourselves to enjoy our Zupan’s sandwiches and the view.
After lunch, we made the easy downhill trek back to our car – the entire hike and picnic completed in just over 2 hours. But our interest in capturing the view didn’t stop there. We hopped in the car and drove down Marquam Hill to the South Waterfront district to access the tram to the viewing terrace at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).
OHSU is a massive in-town complex that encompasses most of Portland’s healthcare facilities, as well as the university’s medical, dentistry and nursing programs. The teaching hospital is located halfway up Marquam Hill (fondly called ‘Pill Hill.’ Once OHSU outgrew it’s original location in 2003, it began expanding to a second campus in the South Waterfront area directly below on the banks of the Willamette. To connect the two campuses, they cleverly installed a cable car system to ferry patients and hospital employees up and back. Thousands of people a day utilize the trams to access the hospital and the upper campus. And, as is the culture in Portland, most come to the lower tram station by public transportation — train, trolley, streetcar, bus — or by bicycle…
In the photos below, you can see the sleek gondola and the ever-expanding lower campus below.
To ride the tram, you can by tickets from the kiosk at the lower station. Board the gondola and look behind you to enjoy the views of the Willamette River, the bridges, and downtown Portland as you ascend to the upper station and the OHSU campus. Once at the top, cross over the pedestrian bridge and just before entering the hospital, take a right through the doorway on your right which leads to the vista terrace. There you will find unobstructed views of Portland and the four peaks in the distance. Look for the then-and-now vintage photo of Portland that shows the similarities and differences between the turn of the century town and the current city.
Another option to consider, if you have the time, is to tackle the “4T” which cleverly combines trail, tram, trolley and train for for the ultimate Portland experience. Start by hiking down the Marquam trail from Council Crest park to the OHSU campus, where you can catch a free ride on the tram down to the South Waterfront district. From there, hop on the trolley into downtown and the Pearl district, where you can catch the MAX light rail train back to the start.
But we didn’t have time for the full 4T excursion because we were off to explore a different vista, one of a very fragrant variety — the International Rose Test Garden. Portland, aka PDX, aka the “City of Roses,” is home to the largest and most established rose test garden in the United States. With 7,000 rose plants, it spans over 4 acres.
Started in 1917, the garden originally served as a safe haven for European hybrid roses during World War I. Today, the garden boasts 550 different varieties, more than any other garden of its kind, and regularly receives new cultivars from all over the world. Due to its temperate climate, Portland is considered an ideal location to test new specimen for fragrance, color, disease resistance, heartiness and other attributes.
The thousands and thousands of rose plants are terraced into embankments and artistically laid out in rows, clusters and patterns. As the garden expanded over the years, more and more “rooms” were added, each with its own design.
Located adjacent to downtown Portland in the beautiful 410-acre Washington Park (which also houses the Portland Zoo, arboretum, children’s museum and Japanese Garden), the Rose Test Garden is easy to access and shouldn’t be missed. Since it draws visitors from around the world, it can get quite crowded at peak times, so if possible try to visit on a weekday and/or off-season (Portland is beautiful in September!). There is no fee to enter the garden, only nominal metered parking fees apply, a small price to pay for the beauty that awaits you.
Before you even enter the gardens, you’re struck by the unmistakable and intoxicating aroma that only thousands of roses could produce. Sadly most commercial roses these days no longer have that distinctive rose fragrance. In fact, after decades of over-production, they typically have no scent at all. Not so for the heirloom hybrids at the Test Garden. Each one I breathed in had its own unique scent, including one that smelled oddly of black licorice. Wander through the rows of roses, and I dare you to try to pick a favorite.
Adjacent to the rose garden, you can enjoy the Shakespeare Garden and the grassy amphitheater which offers concerts and theater productions in the summer months. Or head over to the Japanese garden for an altogether different experience for the senses.
But for us, it was time to leave the garden, knowing that we would have the luxury of returning again and again when we move to Portland permanently. For now, we had to hit the grocery store to procure the necessary foodstuffs we needed to prepare a welcome home dinner for our friend and house host, Heather, who had arrived back in Portland from L.A. while we were out smelling the roses.