Let’s have some fun. What’s the best food city for road trippers in the Pacific Northwest? Heck, let’s throw San Francisco into the mix, though leave out Los Angeles, a beast of its own.
These ratings are subjective, the research somewhat sketchy. It’s primarily based on a recent road trip I took down the west coast. I spent only a few days in each of Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. But I ate and drank like a trencherman, sufficient, I trust, to gain a “gut” feel for what these cities offer the car traveller seeking good, independent and affordable fare. Remember, I’m not talking about high-end cuisine in this blog.
If you disagree strenuously with my assessments, please leave a reply.
Before we dive into the cuisine, I’d like to acknowledge the west coast is the epicentre of North America’s coffee culture. But for me, none of the four cities really stands out, maybe because I’m not all that partial to the lightly roasted beans au courant at so many hip cafes.
1) Portland: The Little City That Could
In my mind, the clear-cut winner. In fact, it’s the only one of these four cities that I’d go to just for the food. It’s that good. The biggest reason is the some 700 food carts (i.e. stationary trucks), spread throughout the city and doing more innovative things than most brick-and-mortar restaurants. Not that Portland’s regular restaurants are shabby, with top-rate, affordable joints like Pok Pok and Little Bird.
Bonus points: Because the city proper has less than 600,00 people, it’s the easiest of the four to get around, with lots of free streetside parking outside downtown. Plenty of good, innovative microbreweries, too
Cons: Lots of greenery but not the mountain views or oceanside locations of other west coast contenders
Quirks: You can’t fill your own gas tank in Oregon
2) Vancouver: The Jewel of the Pacific Northwest
All those Hong Kong investors may have pushed Vancouver real estate prices through the stratosphere. But the resulting influx of immigrants has also led to an invasion of Asian cuisine. That’s what propels it to my second spot. The suburb of Richmond may well be the Chinese food capital of North America. The city itself has lots of good fresh noodle places, matched by great Japanese ramen and izakaya joints. Throw in some great breakfast diners and vegetarian restaurants to round out the mix.
Bonus points: It can be miserably gray and wet during long stretches of winter (mind you, so can Seattle and Portland). But when it clears to reveal stunning views across the water to nearby mountains, this may be the world’s most glorious city
Cons: Undoubtedly the smuggest city in Canada
3) San Francisco: No doubt shocked it’s not number one
San Fran doesn’t make it easy for the road tripper to love. It starts with the toll bridge into the city and the near impossibility of finding streetside parking downtown. The good news is that once you find your way into the Mission district, you can walk to a lot of good eateries—so long as you don’t mind a little harassment, filth and noise. Hey, it’s the big city.
I might be shot for saying this, but the Chinese food is a notch below Vancouver’s, though Mission Chinese Food is certainly pushing the creative boundaries. And the StrEatfood Park is a pale imitation of the food-cart scene in Portland. If it’s any consolation, there’s way more good Mexican choices than the other three cities combined. And where else can you get that Gold Rush classic, the oyster-laden hangtown fry?
Bonus Points: Hard to beat that S.F. aesthetic: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Embarcadero, the steep hills, the iconic architecture
Cons: If you hear a basketball bouncing down the streets of the Mission district, it could soon be smashing through your parked car window
4) Seattle: Super Bowl champ doesn’t make it to the culinary finals
Seattle certainly has a vibrant food scene, and there’s the presumed dominance of its coffee world. But someone has to finish fourth, and there was no single food culture here that bowled me over. The Tom Douglas restaurant empire reigns supreme, though many of the star chef’s joints stretch the boundaries of affordable. This is the place for an oyster or Dungeness crab feed.
Bonus points: You can’t ignore Pike Place Market, even though it’s overrun by tourists. There are lots of more down-to-earth farmers’ markets throughout the city
Cons: My dining choices seemed to be really spread out, requiring lots of driving
Quirks: Those funny little parking meter stickers you have to attach to side windows. All those residential streets with little, vegetated peninsulas and circles that give your driving forearms a good workout
To give Seattle its proper due, I’ll be devoting the next couple of weeks to posts from some of its finer road-trip eateries.