I’m not sure what gives me more of a wakeup jolt at Three Cups Coffee House, in Astoria, Oregon—the double-shot Americano fired straight into my veins or the cheery 7 am welcome as I walk in the door. It’s a friendly, airy place to sip a java in a comfy couch, pull a worn book off the shelf, smell the coffee roasting in the centre of the shop or grab a window seat and look way up to the long, long bridge and causeway that spans the mouth of the Columbia River and connects Washington and Oregon.
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.
Best Food Trucks
As if there’s any surprise, both my choices are in the mecca of Portland, Oregon, which boasts some 700 food “carts”, meaning they’re stationary. My overall winner is Wolf & Bear’s, which transforms the often throat-catching falafel into a wrap of silky beauty with hummus, caramelized onion and grilled eggplant. (Guess this one could also make my vegetarian list).
Honourable Mention: In the “how the hell does this combination work?” category, The Egg Carton takes fried egg, strawberry jam, cheddar, bacon and spicy mustard and sandwiches it between two thick, custardy slices of French toast to create something that could easily make my Best Breakfast list.
Again, many contenders, but how can you beat the story of a microbrewery whose products can pretty much only be found, at least locally, in liquor stores because of the higher alcohol content? I’m talking about that drinking hotspot of Utah, of course, where Epic Brewing is overcoming the odds and turning out a great line of rich, complex ales and lagers.
Best Happy Hours
Happy hour is the route to some great deals at often more upscale places. The big bowl of chunky guacamole and first-rate salty chips goes down nicely with a discount margarita at Phoenix’s elegant Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar, which offers happy hours an unusual seven days a week.
If you’re thinking $2.75 is no Mexican street-food bargain for tacos, head to San Diego’s South Beach Bar & Grille, where my happy hour mahi mahi and wahoo fillings are nearly the size of filets.
I spent a lot of time in 2013 in the southern U.S., so I ate my fair share of Mexican, authentic or not.
Tacos: Taqueria Pico de Gallo is a no-frills stucco taco shop in Tucson, Arizona that churns out excellent Mexican street food, like my fine fish and lengua (tongue) tacos, for a grand total of $3.75.
Chilaquiles: I have trouble pronouncing it but no problem devouring the steaming dish of toasted tortilla strips, scrambled eggs, red and green chile sauce and melted cheese at MartAnne’s Cafe, in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Enchiladas: The chicken-and-cheese filled tortillas at Santa Fe’s The Shed are great, as is the posole topping, but what blows me away is the best red chile sauce I’ve had in a busy week of New Mexican dining.
Best Middle of Nowhere Dining
The drive on Highway 12 through outstanding sandstone country to Boulder, Utah is half the journey, but dining at world-class Hell’s Backbone Grill certainly completes the experience.
Honourable Mention: Okay, it’s right beside the I-15 in southern Idaho, but you can’t tell me Malad City is in the middle of somewhere. Just take the turnoff and pull up to Spero’s House of Barbecue, where half a dozen barbecues are slow cooking ribs, pulled pork and chicken.
I created this category just so I could squeeze in elegant Seasons of Durango in Durango, Colorado, which serves me a fabulous lunch of fall-off-the-bone-tender Hoisin pork ribs.
Honourable Mention: The revelation at Crepes of Brittany, in Monterey, California, is the buckwheat galettes, slowly cooked till the crepe is a little crispy and the inner ingredients hot.
Best Food Experiences
The most memorable road-trip experiences combine great food and wonderful interactions with the people that own or run the places.
I can’t tell you the name or the hours, and the little old Mexican lady with a hairnet that runs out from a nearby house to serve me doesn’t speak English. I just pull off the I-15 at Hamer, Idaho, and find the taco stand that serves me three great tacos for just $5.
The Venezuelan fare is excellent at Viva Las Arepas, mercifully off the Las Vegas strip. But what puts things way over the top is owner Felix Arellano cooking me a couple of mesquite-fired arepas, then hauling me next door to his gelato shop and then up the street to his taco truck.
They’re not kidding when they say the crab is fresh at Kelly’s Brighton Marina near Rockaway Beach, Oregon. A woman in rubber boots pulls a live one from a water bucket and cleans, cooks and delivers it in a tin to my picnic table, where I excavate the butteriest, freshest crab I’ve ever eaten.
The floors are concrete, the lighting dim, the overall ambience dingy. But the century-old Grand Central Market, in downtown Los Angeles, is dripping with character and a great place to people watch and sample just about any ethnic cuisine you can think of.
Best Meal of 2013
626 on Rood in Grand Junction, Colorado hits every detail of what makes a meal memorable. Décor? How about wine glasses turned into chandeliers, water served from repurposed wine bottles or a bathroom decked out with cloth towels and olive oil hand lotion. Complimentary appetizer? How about a fresh French baguette slathered in house-made herb butter? And the blow-me-away highlight—an apple-wood-smoked duck club sandwich, with pepper bacon, Napa cabbage and roasted garlic mayo, all squeezed between two delightful slices of challah bread. All for the ridiculously cheap lunch price of $12. Descriptive words fail me. Just look at the picture. Then get in your car.
Honourable Mention: My best experience combined with outstanding food is at San Diego’s Alforon, where co-owner Samia Salameh’s sits down at my table for a chat. And then the other-worldly, from-scratch Lebanese fare—chicken pita pies to falafel to Turkish coffee, much of it unordered—keeps arriving. This is what makes 25,000 kilometres of driving in 2013 worthwhile.
What happens when you hit a couple of hundred independent diners, cafes, coffeehouses, bakeries and breweries in the western U.S./Canada in one year? An ambulance ride to emergency? Fortunately, no. Instead, I got to discover some great places to eat and drink, run by some seriously committed, wonderful people. Here are the best of 2013, in two parts.
My best 2013 breakfast is the day’s locovore omelette at Chow in Bend, Oregon. Perfectly prepared, it features chicken-apple sausage, caramelized onions and local chanterelle mushrooms and cheese. What puts it over the top is the choice of three bottles of house-made sauce of varying intensity, so good I buy two bottles to go.
Pancakes: The pancake sandwich—bacon atop buttermilk blueberry cakes and, underneath, two over-easy eggs—at Pete’s Breakfast House in Ventura, California. Great vibe ups the ante.
Breakfast Sandwich: Sometimes, all you want for breakfast is an egg or two between two slices of a bready product. But at Tweets Cafe in tiny Edison, Washington, the breakfast sandwich is a work of art, with a mini salad on top, a slice of melon bursting with flavour and perfectly cooked eggs and ham atop a home-baked biscuit.
Off the Radar: How about a breakfast burrito of smoked turkey, avocado, egg whites and a hash patty, chased by an invigorating iced drink of protein powder, espresso, peanut butter, banana and chocolate? It’s all on the healthy menu at D’Lish Drive Thru in Scottsdale, Arizona, along with a free dose of off-the-wall friendliness.
In a year when I visit the coffee meccas of Seattle and Portland, it’s a roaster/coffeehouse in little Lethbridge, Alberta that serves my two best cups of coffee, one by Chemex, the other by Aeropress. Cupper’s Coffee & Tea‘s slightly darker roasts are so good, I’ve been ordering their shipped beans instead of just roasting my own.
Honourable Mentions: The espresso at Portland hole-in-the-wall Spella Caffee holds my tongue in a lingering, smoky embrace. My best coffee experiences are in Seattle’s also tiny Moore Coffee Shop—where I sink into a leather chair and savour a fine Americano served with a square of complimentary chocolate—and the funky vibe of Lux Central in Phoenix. I also have to include Nobrow Coffee Werks, in the coffee mecca of Salt Lake City (just joking) for the most sophisticated brewing machine, the Steampunk, I’ve ever seen.
Best Bakery/Café Santa Fe’s Clafoutis has a full-fledged menu, but it’s the ethereal croissants, brioche and baguettes, along with great coffee, that bring me back for more at this elegant, oh-so-French café.
Honourable Mentions: Last year’s pick, La Baguette, in Revelstoke, B.C., keeps knocking it out of the park with things as simple but outstanding as Healthy Bread, its take on toast. San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery & Cafe lives up to the hype with brioche bread pudding and gorgeous gougère.
Best Sandwich The sandwich is a road-trip lunch staple, but it’s rarely raised to an art form like the Oxacan— shredded mole chicken, avocado, goat cheese and apple, served on lovely seed-crusted ciabatta—that I’m served at the fantastic Curious Kumquat, way out in Silver City, New Mexico.
Honourable Mentions: My steak sandwich at Longview Steakhouse, in the ranch country of Longview, Alberta, is really a huge, superb strip loin on an overwhelmed single piece of bread, though the latter does soak up all the juices. In the heavyweight sandwich battle, my mortadella with all the fixings at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey Bay, California, reaches a sleep-inducing draw with the turkey-bacon monster at Sandwich Spot, in Palm Springs, California.
A tie: Bobcat Bite has left its character-filled old adobe building and morphed into Santa Fe Bite, but it’s still pumping out its signature green chile cheeseburgers. Diablo Burger sources its natural, lean meats from open-range ranches near Flagstaff, Arizona. Both places offer their thick patties medium-rare.
Honourable Mentions: In the Asian fusion category, my fine wagyu burger at Bachi Burger in Las Vegas is edged by the Loco Moco—a Kobe patty over rice and Japanese mushrooms and topped with a sunny-side egg—at Carino Bistro in Calgary, Alberta.
Yes, I probably eat more burgers than salads on the road, but I’m by no means averse to vegetarian or even vegan so long as it’s tasty. It’s no surprise that in the running capital of Eugene, Oregon, healthy folks head to Morning Glory Cafe for tofu scrambles, black-bean burgers or my baked squash mounded with chanterelle mushrooms, brown rice and goat feta.
Among the many contenders, my top pick is Pizzeria Seven Twelve, in Orem, Utah, where the focus is on fresh and simple but creative ingredients like hand-pulled mozzarella, house-made sausage, roasted fennel and a thin, bubbly crust with a nice tangy flavour from the sourdough starter.
Honourable Mention: At neighbourhood pub The Flying Goat, in Spokane, Washington, my Kiernan pie is layered with Italian sausage, heavy cream, an over-medium egg and some truffle-oil tossed arugula.
Salt Lake City’s gorgeous Finca creates a work-of-art beet salad, with a velvety house ricotta base, a ring of beet chunks and a middle tower of argula topped by macerated strawberries and toasted almonds.
There are plenty of mouth-watering distractions at Milo & Olive in Santa Monica, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. But I’m here for only one reason: something called a garlic knot. It features plentiful whole cloves of garlic roasted in confit fat, wrapped in pizza dough and then cooked in a wood-fired oven till slightly blistered. I tear this trussed treat apart with my hands, dipping chunks of the soft bread in the warm extra-virgin olive oil and a little dish of fresh tomato sauce they give me to try. Oh, my God, is this good, and only $7 for one of the best new things I’ve eaten in a long time.
Milo & Olive
2723 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica, California
Daily, bakery opens at 7 am, restaurant 8 am-11 pm
The name alone, Hangtown Fry, makes me want to put it on this list. A celebratory dish for California gold miners in the late 1800s, it remains a signature San Francisco breakfast: a mixture of oysters, eggs and bacon cooked in a skillet. Brenda’s French Soul Food does an outstanding version, the crispy oysters blending wonderfully with the other ingredients and accompanied by some grits and a feathery biscuit.
Brenda’s French Soul Food
652 Polk Street, San Francisco
Monday-Tuesday 8 am-3 pm, Wednesday to Saturday 8 am-10 pm, Sunday 8 am-8 pm
The name, Healthy Bread, isn’t particularly inspired and scarcely prepares me for what is to come at Revelstoke B.C.’s outstanding La Baguette. Likewise, the ingredient list—including kamut flour, flax, coconut and dates—elicits more curiosity than excitement. Still, I’m in the mood for something light, and a $3.50 sandwich of toasted bread with melted cream or three-berry jam in the middle sounds about right. But the first bite blows me away, the wonderfully soft middle offset by the slight crunch of the oat-flake topping. And the flavours! I don’t know if I can ever go back to ordinary toast again.
103, 607 Victoria Road, Revelstoke, B.C.
Daily 6:30 am-7 pm
Chicken wings? Really? Well, when they’re a Vietnamese take on the standard bar food and they’re the biggest, juiciest, messiest, best wings I’ve ever tasted, then yes. At Portland’s legendary Pok Pok, the wings are marinated in fish sauce and sugar, deep fried and then tossed with garlic, more fish sauce and my choice of spicy chile flakes. Pok Pok has a lot of other northern Thai choices that could make this new food list: charcoal-grilled eggplant salad, pork belly curry, lemongrass-stuffed game hen…
3226 SE Division Street, Portland, Oregon
Daily 11:30 am-10 pm
When I’m road-trip dining or drinking, it sometimes takes a sizable leap of faith to order something completely off the tastebud charts. But such adventures often lead to memorable culinary discoveries. Here are five that stood out in 2013.
For me, spam conjures up long-repressed memories of canned luncheon meats from when something healthier like, say, baloney was unavailable. So I’m curious to see what noted chef Dean Shinagawa can do with an updated version, called spam musubi, at his new, *Kama’aina Grindz in Everett, Washington. And I’m floored to find it, dare I say, delicious, the soy-marinated “meat” crisply grilled, perched atop rice and wrapped in seaweed—a 1960s’ sushi square if you will from this Hawaiian-Asian master. Needless to say, this spam dish is beautifully presented and a $5 bargain appetizer. The only thing I can ask, Dean, is where were you 40 years ago?
2933 Colby Avenue, Everett, Washington
Monday to Thursday 11 am- 7 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-8 pm. Closed Sunday
I’ve heard of blackened fish and blackened chicken. But blackened soup? Or bamboo charcoal dark miso ramen, to be more precise. In Asian cultures, charcoal powder is considered a tonic for digestion, skin problems and aging. But the flavour? At Motomachi Shokudo, a top Japanese ramen house in the west end of downtown Vancouver, the soup is delightful—beautifully presented in a large ceramic bowl, with curled noodles, a soft-boiled egg and barbecued pork. But the revelation is the dark, pungent broth, highlighted by the smoky charcoal powder.
A lot of culinary innovation is happening on the food-truck scene. So it’s no surprise that Portland, with some 700 stationary food “carts”, is at the forefront. Of the many interesting cart creations I sampled on a recent Portland visit, perhaps nothing overcame my “not bloody likely” reflex quite like PBJ’s Grilled, which you may have deduced stands for grilled peanut butter and jam sandwiches. In my case, it’s the award-winning grilled Oregonian—a medley of challah bread, Oregon hazelnut butter, Rogue Creamery blue cheese and house-made marion berry jam (duck is an add on). Don’t know why, but it lives up to the cart’s motto: “Deliciously addictive.”
SE 12 Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard (also at 919 NW 23 Street), Portland
Tuesday to Sunday opens at 11 am. Closed Monday
I’ve had chiles added to chocolate. So it was probably just a matter of time before they showed up in one of my beers. It’s actually on a Portland sidewalk, where I encounter Burnside Brewing brewmaster Jason McAdam grilling some Scotch bonnet peppers and peach halves on a little Weber charcoal grill. They’re being used to dry hop a version of the brewery’s Sweet Heat Ale, which when sampled definitely has some citrus notes, along with a searing punch to the back of my throat.
701 East Burnside Street, Portland
Monday to Thursday opens at 3 pm, Friday to Sunday at noon
Talk about fusion, or maybe confusion. How about some booze and barbecue added to breakfast? At The Red Wagon Restaurant in Vancouver, it’s the stack of pancakes layered with pulled pork and topped with, get this, Jack Daniels maple syrup. The result is filling and unique—the salty, moist pulled pork nicely complemented by the sweet bourbon syrup. I’m just hoping the alcohol has evaporated before I hit the mid-morning streets.
The Red Wagon Restaurant
2296 East Hastings Street, Vancouver
Weekdays 8 am-9 pm, weekends 9 am-9 pm