Living like locals in Portland — Our 2-Week experiment (cont’d)…
One week down, and one to go…our first full week of living like locals in Portland proved to be an extremely worthy and informative exercise. And with one week still ahead of us, we felt incredibly lucky to have more time to delve even deeper into Portland’s unique culture. There’s no limit to the things that we still want to do!
Another stunningly beautiful September day. It’s imperative that we spend it outdoors taking advantage of every drop of sunshine. So, we decide to go to another of Portland’s city gardens. Due to its moderate climate and verdant terrain, Portland is abundant with beautiful flora and lush gardens. Mike and I last visited Portland two years ago in June, and it seemed the entire city was virtually exploding with vibrant blue hydrangea.
In my last post, I mentioned the spectacular International Rose Test Garden as well as the Japanese Garden, both located in the expansive Washington Park green space that comprises a good portion of west Portland. Today, with our friend and house host, Heather, we decided to check out the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which is conversely located right in the heart of downtown, at NW 3rd and Everett Streets, in the Chinatown neighborhood.
When you step through the Chinese gate and into the first inner courtyard, you immediately feel as if you’ve been transported to a peaceful, sheltered oasis. And that’s not by accident. The garden’s unusual city location is intended to reflect the opposing yin and yang of modern urban and peaceful garden. In the photos below, you can see the juxtaposition of the garden and the adjacent modern high-rise buildings just outside the garden walls.
But to call Lan-Su just a garden is a gross understatement. In cooperation with Portland’s sister city, Suzhou, the idea for the garden was developed in the 1990s and the current site was selected. Subsequently, the garden and its structures were designed and built by 65 artisans in Suzhou. It was then shipped to Portland and reconstructed by elite tradesmen over 14 months. The name Lan Su, aka ‘Garden of Awakening Orchids,’ was ultimately selected to represent Portland (Lan) and Suzhou (Su).
Opened in 2000, the garden is only 17 years old but gives the impression of being much more established. All of the plants in the garden are native to China and have flourished in Portland’s temperate weather. Don’t miss the miniature ginkgo tree – the original yin yang plant because it is both male and female. And make sure to follow one of the excellent and knowledgeable guides so that you can fully appreciate every detail of the intricate and exquisite space and learn about the 5 interconnected elements of a Chinese garden – architecture, plants, stone, water and poetry.
We were lucky to visit Lan Su on a quiet weekday in September, but I can imagine it gets quite crowded in the summer months and on weekends, so try to be selective with your times, if you can. We arrived at 10:30 in the morning and conveniently finished our tour right at lunchtime (allot at least an hour if you plan to follow a guide). Seeing as though we were already in the trendy Pearl District — home of Portland’s infamous flagship Voodoo Doughnuts, 22 SW 3rd Ave. (below), we headed for Pine Street Market to refuel.
Pine Street Market (SW 2nd Ave/Pine St.) is a food-lover’s paradise. Less market and more indoor food hall, it’s home to nine different mini-restaurants, including outposts of Marukin Ramen, Salt & Straw ice cream, OP Wurst and Trifecta Annex (pizza and bakery).
After perusing the menus at each, it was an exercise in self-discipline to pick just one. Not an easy decision, but as luck would have it, we all independently settled on Kim Jong Korean Smokehouse. Mike and Heather both opted for the bibimbap bowls — Mike’s with Galbi short rib and Heather’s vegetarian — while I chose the steamed buns with pulled pork. The short rib mounded on the bibimbap (below left) was especially tender and tasty, and extremely plentiful. The pork buns (below right) were less filling but also less flavorful than the bibimbap. The side of sweet and spicy gochujang sauce added some zest to the shredded pork but not quite enough. Maybe next time I’ll try it with the kim chee mayo instead.
After lunch, we decided to get some culture of the literary variety by venturing over to the renowned Powell’s Bookstore (Burnside btwn NW 10th and 11th Aves).
Who says bookstores are dead? Amazon may be taking over the world, but Powell’s Books apparently didn’t get the memo. Comprising an entire city block, it is the largest independent bookstore in the country. Like a rabbit warren of rooms spanning three levels, it’s so massive that they have to offer color-coded maps to help customers find their way around the store – either that or provide breadcrumbs.
As we entered, the three of us decided it would be most efficient to separate and go our own ways, agreeing to meet back at the main entrance 45 minutes later, which it turns out, is not nearly enough time to even begin to make a dent in Powell’s vast inventory. However, that didn’t stop me from swiftly covering some territory and ultimately picking up the latest release from author Michael Chabon and a fascinating photographic history called “Portland: Then and Now,” while Mike giddily walked out with two books detailing all of the many hikes in and around Portland.
Following our express bookstore excursion, we decided to seek a different kind of culture, this time on the wild and wacky streets of Portland. There are virtually dozens of intriguing neighborhoods scattered around the city, each with its own personality. These distinctive shopping and dining enclaves might be as small as 3-4 blocks (such as the NE Mississippi neighborhood mentioned in my last post) or as long as a mile or more, like Sandy Boulevard, but each is worthy of a visit. We chose to set our sights on NE Alberta Street, a vibrant district stretching at least 15 blocks from NE 14th Street east to 30th Street. A culturally diverse neighborhood, Alberta is literally awash in color — many of the area’s restaurants, shops and businesses are artistically adorned with vivid murals, making for an interesting and enriching visit.
In my opinion, one of the most appealing aspects of Portland is that, unlike many US cities today, its areas of commerce are populated with bespoke local businesses, privately owned cafes and coffee shops, one-off boutiques, food truck pods and distinctive neighborhood establishments. In lieu of strip malls and chain stores, you find block after block of unique and fascinating shops, restaurants and small businesses catering to the immediate community. Alberta is a prime example. Strolling the ‘hood, we passed a local craft brewery, numerous independently run dining and drinking establishments, a community-owned and operated co-op grocery (common in most neighborhoods) and even a sticker shop (yep, he sells a very limited selection of stickers).
Each and every neighborhood is made all the more vibrant by the local residents, all unique in their own way. People-watching in Portland is essentially a sport. The city’s self-prescribed motto is “Keep Portland Weird,” but it might as well be “live and let live.”
You would never catch anyone craning their neck or even batting an eyelash at the sight of a dude with a mountain-man beard down to his waist or a fully tatted-out guy (or gal). That’s just Portland keepin’ it real. If anything, Mike and I felt downright pedestrian, feeling slightly self-conscious that we stuck out like sore thumbs despite our deliberate efforts to try to assimilate. If we plan to live here, we might need to get real hip real quick.
That evening, we wanted to take our friend, Heather, out for a nice dinner as a small gesture of appreciation for allowing us to camp at her charming home during our 2-week Portland experiment. Without her generosity and hospitality, we wouldn’t have been able to “live like locals” and completely immerse ourselves in the Portland lifestyle. With so many incredible restaurants to choose from, we relied on Heather to pick a worthy destination for our celebratory meal. The choice: Ken Forkish’s central eastside eatery, Trifecta, which also houses the full-service bakery that turns out the sweet delicacies available at Trifecta Annex, his Pine Street Market location.
Appropriately named, Ken Forkish has long been a pioneer of the Portland culinary scene. Since opening Ken’s Artisan Bakery (NW 21st St.) in 2001, followed by Ken’s Artisan Pizza (SE 28th St.), Forkish has become somewhat of a legend, attracting the praise of many, as well as a James Beard Award for best pastry chef in 2013. The following year, he made the logical next step from sweets and pizza to full-service restaurant with the opening of Trifecta (726 SE 6th Ave.). Housed in an old industrial warehouse, Trifecta’s high ceilings and open spaces are sufficiently warmed by the lipstick-red walls and cozy booths.
On a Wednesday evening, it was not particularly crowded, although most of the tables filled as the evening progressed. The hostess escorted us past the bustling open kitchen to a quiet corner banquet. Soon, we were presented with a basket of Ken’s beautiful breads, baked on-site that morning, and a crock of freshly churned butter. I don’t normally waste my appetite on bread, but this was altogether different. This is Ken’s first love and his specialty, his bread-and-butter so to speak, and I’m glad that I didn’t abstain.
For starters, we decided on the deviled eggs and the fried cauliflower salad to share. For someone who doesn’t fancy eggs, I strangely adore deviled eggs, and these were expertly prepared with just a hint of Dijon. The evening’s two preparations — one topped with shaved zucchini and a piquant tomatillo salsa, the other with sausage crumbles and chile sauce — both were delectable orbs of goodness. But it was the fried cauliflower salad that was the unexpected standout. Tossed with smoked farro, radicchio, pickled sour cherries and almond sauce, it sounded convoluted and overly complex on paper, but in fact, it was an inspired and noteworthy concoction that somehow worked (pictured below).
For the main course, I was sold as soon as I spied steak frites on the menu. I don’t eat red meat all that often but if I did, steak frites would be my jam. There’s something about the simplicity of the dish that I love, and whenever I have it, I’m automatically transported back to Paris and a favorite little bistro on the Left Bank. In this case, unfortunately, Trifecta’s preparation left me a bit flat (below, left). The bavette steak that they use is too tough in my opinion to be cooked rare, as good steak frites should be. And with little or no marbling, it lacked the depth of flavor that I was hoping for. Mike’s crispy bone-in pork shank (below, right), on the other hand, was immensely tender and melted right off of the bone. The underlying bacon broth could have been thicker and more voluptuous, but it was still quite good.
The real show stopper, however, was again a dish that I likely wouldn’t have selected if left to my own volition: the curried chickpea ragout. There are good reasons that I’m not a vegetarian, and chickpeas are one of them. Steak frites might be another. But, always game to try pretty much anything, I sampled Heather’s chickpea ragout, and it may have changed my opinion of chickpeas forever. Bursting with flavor from the fragrant curry broth and paired with puffy house-made flatbread (more like na’an) and a dollop of Greek yogurt, it was truly outstanding.
Although sadly too full for dessert, which is practically a crime considering Forkish’s passion and aptitude for creating world-class sweets, we didn’t leave disappointed. As we passed Trifecta’s in-house bakery on the way out the door, we were encouraged to choose from the day’s leftover pastries to take home, like a sweet, little parting gift. So, laden with morning buns and croissants, we waddled back to our car with full bellies and the prospect for a very good morning!
Today, our youngest daughter is coming out to Portland for the weekend, and we can’t wait to show off our newly adopted city. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the many great things about Portland is its convenient proximity to the airport. From SW Division, we were at the Arrivals dock in a mere 15 minutes to pick her up. There’s quite a lot of talk about the growing traffic problem in Portland these days, and I’m certain that it has worsened as the city has grown, or more accurately outgrown, its small town infrastructure over the past decade. But if you have the luxury of traveling other than peak hours, you can still get around fairly easily. And let’s be honest…it’s all relative. Portland’s traffic problem is small beans compared to Chicago’s diabolical mess, so for us it really isn’t a game-changer. However, that’s not to say that it won’t become completely unmanageable in the near future, as more and more outsiders (like us) move to the area, overcrowding Portland’s finite urban space.
For the ultimate Portland experience, we decide take her directly to a food truck pod for some lunch. In Chicago, there are so many restrictions on food trucks (not to mention Chicago’s notoriously long and cold winters) that it’s nearly impossible for them to succeed and prosper. Requiring trucks to change locations every two hours and to maintain a distance of at least 200 feet from any business that sells food (including convenience stores and pharmacies), the imposed sanctions cause the trucks to be fairly elusive. In Portland, conversely, food trucks are embraced instead of discouraged. So much so, that the city has reserved several open lots for food trucks to convene in, providing local residents and tourists alike the opportunity to find delicious, reasonably priced food, and concurrently allowing food purveyors the ability to sell their wares without the exorbitant cost of a brick-and-mortar storefront. The largest, known as the Alder Street Food Pod, is located at SW Alder between SW 9th and 10th Streets and boasts upwards of 40 food trucks. On any given day, you can choose from Korean, Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, German, Egyptian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, savory or sweet crepes, ice cream, waffles, and even more obscure cuisines, such as Viking Soul Food.
But as we were inclined to stay on the east side of town, we instead chose the Cartopia pod at the corner of SE Hawthorne Blvd. and 12th Ave., which in addition to a wide selection of food options, also offers plenty of picnic table seating and even a fire pit for cooler days/evenings. Many food trucks even have liquor licenses to sell a selection of imported and craft beers, wines, and cocktails, making these pods great drinking and dining destinations day or night.
As is the case with any of the Portland food pods, there are simply too many tempting items from which to choose, so it eventually comes down to just making an arbitrary choice and being resolute in your decision. The benefit to having so many options, however, is that everyone in your group can choose whatever they please. And so we did. Each of the four of us decided on a different food truck — Mike went for the roasted chicken from Chicken & Guns; our daughter chose a cheeseburger from Bubba Bernie’s; I was seriously considering lamb schawarma from Tahrir Square but made a clutch game day call and opted for the pesto and artichoke pizza from Pyro Pizza; and Heather couldn’t resist the urge to try the quirky PB&J fries from Potato Champion. Yep, you read that correctly, PB&J fries, which is essentially poutine topped with house-made satay sauce (PB) and chipotle raspberry jam (J) instead of gravy (pictured below, right). Not my personal favorite, I must admit, but certainly an interesting and unique concept.
My personal pizza (above, right), on the other hand, was an excellent choice. Prepared in a wood-burning pizza oven on-site (or in-truck, as the case may be), the blistered, perfectly chewy crust was crazy good, as was the piquant homemade pesto. Mike’s Latin-spiced chicken (above, left), served with a delicious chimichurri sauce, was ridiculously juicy and the hands-down winner of our ad hoc food truck challenge. Ashton’s burger, although well-prepared, was neither innovative nor particularly special, making her the challenge loser by default. But she enjoyed it nonetheless, and that’s the beauty of a food pod – everyone leaves sated, happy and with a few dollars still in their pocket.
After lunch, we gave Ashton a condensed version of the requisite newcomer’s driving tour of downtown Portland — across the Burnside bridge, past the notable White Stag sign (top), west on Burnside, north on 23rd Ave, south on 22nd, and up Vista Avenue to Council Crest Park. From there, we aimed to impress her with the awesome 4-mountain view from Council Crest Park. Once again, like our previous trek up to Council Crest, it was another gloriously clear day, so we were rewarded with unsurpassed views of the big 4 — Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Ranier. An inspiring sight for any visitor, but even more so for someone from the Midwest where the terrain is as flat as a Chicago pizza.
That night, our hometown Chicago Bears played their age-old rivals, the Green Bay Packers, so we returned to our newfound favorite Bears bar, Hobnob Grille (SE Morrison St/34th Ave.), to watch the game alongside other like-minded (and empathetic) fans. Win or lose, we would celebrate or lament together. In this case, it was the latter. Unlike our last fateful trip to Hobnob, this visit didn’t bring us a win, but it did allow us to further ingratiate ourselves with the friendly Hobnob owners and staff, who we plan to see much more of in the future.
First thing the next morning we would be off to Eugene with our daughter for a campus tour of the University of Oregon, so it was an early night. (Note: for the purpose of this post, I won’t detail the side trip to Eugene, except to say that U of O, located a quick hour and forty-five minutes from Portland, is a beautiful and impressive mid-sized campus (21,000 undergraduate enrollment). Whether she decides to go there or not, Mike and I will definitely be adopting the mighty Ducks as our regional college team to support.)
After a memorable boondoggle down to Eugene, we returned to Portland first thing the following morning to experience another obligatory Portland activity — soccer. There is undoubtedly no other city in the U.S. that embraces soccer more than Portland. With no professional football or baseball teams in town (only the Portland Trailblazers), soccer has effectively filled that void, and devoted fans come out in droves to attend home games for both the Portland Timbers (men’s) and the Portland Thorns (women’s). Another distinct advantage is the proximity of Providence Park stadium, located just off of West Burnside, right in the heart of downtown (SW Morrison ST/18th Ave.).
Our daughter, a goalkeeper for her high school soccer team, first became a fan of professional soccer (aka football) when we lived overseas in London. An avid Manchester United devotee, she grew up admiring Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and the others. Upon returning to America, however, she started following the U.S. women’s soccer team and became mildly obsessed with the remarkably talented players, such as Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, and Carli Lloyd, who served as her role models.
Eager to take her to see a game at Providence Park, we checked the schedule and, as fate would have it, the Portland Thorns happened to be playing our hometown Chicago Red Stars that very day and good seats were still available. We grabbed three mid-field tickets and headed for the noontime game. As we neared the stadium, we immediately noticed the massive number of people heading the same direction, many of them sporting Thorns jerseys and scarves. Back in Chicago, the Red Stars struggle to attract even the smallest of crowds, despite the fact that they have some the best players in the league on their roster. In Portland, however, the adoring Thorns fans come out by the thousands to show their support.
Once inside the stadium, we noticed that a majority of the seats were already filled. The fans were on their feet, chanting and singing, just like you would see at a European football match. The impressively large crowd of 5,000+ would be enormous for a men’s soccer game in Chicago – yet this was all in support of the women’s team. All three of us were dumbfounded and thrilled to experience such enthusiasm for women’s sports.
Throughout the duration of the game, the entire stadium was focused on the action on the field…and for good reason – between the two teams, there were fifteen U.S. national team players, including Kelley O’Hara, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. The remarkable skill and sportsmanship of the players was nothing short of impressive.
The Thorns fan club, affectionately called the “Rose City Riveters,” complete with a full band, held court in the end zone, constantly leading fans in cheers and keeping the excitement level up (they literally never sat down). And whenever the Thorns scored, the Riveters sent up a red cloud of celebratory pixie dust, as the crowd went wild.
It was an exceptional way to spend a late September afternoon and one that I would recommend to any sports enthusiast. And to make it even more appealing, the local craft beers on tap are a welcome bonus…not to mention the extremely reasonable ticket prices. The same lower level midfield seats that we had for the Thorns game ($35 each) list for more than 4 times that price for Timbers games, despite the fact that the Thorns were runners-up in last year’s championship game and are on track for making the play-offs again this year.
After an exhilarating day of soccer, we returned to the house to kick back and watch the Ducks v Cal game on TV. We decided to stay in for dinner and go fridge-diving for leftovers, knowing that in the morning, we had a date with Slappy Cakes.
Our daughter, Ashton, loves breakfast. Let me rephrase that, she LOVES pancakes! So, when I read about Slappy Cakes (4246 SE Belmont St.) and their table-side griddles, I knew that we had to take her there for DIY pancakes.
Let me preface this by saying that brunch in Portland is huge. As a result of the city’s extraordinarily vibrant and diverse restaurant scene, many locals are unable to keep up with all of the ever-changing dining options. Therefore, they often use brunch as a means of trying restaurants they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get into or afford for dinner. As such, I expected that there would be a wait at Slappy Cakes (there are lines at almost all of the brunch restaurants on a Sunday morning), but I was unprepared for the hour and fifteen minute wait that we were quoted. Regardless, we remained resolute and agreed to wait it out at the tiny coffee shop across the street, cunningly named Never Coffee. This better be worth it, we were silently thinking to ourselves and hoping that the wait would be less than they estimated. It wasn’t. But upon being seated at our own personal griddle table and presented with a couple of very tasty Bloody Marys, all was forgotten.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Slappy Cakes is a concept imported from Asia. Think about it…Benihana-style cooking, but for breakfast. Brilliant, right? What surprised me, however, was that such a liability (a searing hot griddle in the middle of the table) would be allowed in a U.S. restaurant that caters to small children. Regardless, we were beyond intrigued and anxious to get started making our own pancake creations. The way it works is this: 1) you select a batter (buttermilk, chocolate, peanut butter or seasonal – in this case, pumpkin spice, of course) 2) then you choose from a long list of sweet and savory fixin’s (from fresh coconut, blueberries and pecans to bacon, chorizo and cheddar cheese) 3) and finally you select a topping, such as maple syrup, lavender honey, lemon curd, PB, Nutella, and so on. Ashton opted for chocolate chips, bananas and whipped cream — a mighty good combo, if you ask me. Within minutes, our server arrived with a squeeze bottle of batter and the edible embellishments. The griddle had already been pre-heated and it was ready to get cookin’. Let the games begin!
The other surprising aspect of the whole experience was that Slappy Cakes is actually less of a novelty and more of a really legit restaurant with unexpectedly good food! Ashton, a self-proclaimed pancake connoisseur, asserted that their pancakes were some of the best she has ever had and almost as good as the ones I make her at home (wink, wink). Feeling obligated to taste test for myself, I had to agree that the homemade buttermilk batter was indeed impressive. And furthermore, Slappy Cakes doesn’t limit its culinary competency solely to pancakes. The Forest Mushroom Scramble (below, right) with bacon, spinach and goat cheese was really quite good, and Mike’s Steak-and-Onion Hash with poached eggs (below, left) was very well-executed and downright delicious.
What an unexpected bonus — a trendy concept restaurant with legitimately good food! We all agreed that we would be back to Slappy Cakes. And next time, I plan to try one of Never Coffee‘s signature drinks as I wait. Will it be the “Hug” with cacao, smoked chiles and cinnamon or the “Oregon” with hops, dulce de leche and sea salt. Only time will tell.
Stay tuned for the fifth and final installment of “Day-By-Day in PDX.” And if you missed the first three posts in this ongoing chronicle of our two weeks in Portland, you can catch up on them here: