Tag Archives: Portland

Wet-Coast Food Fight

Chomping down on a seared-tuna tacone at  Go Fish in Vancouver, one of four great west-coast food cities

Chomping down on a seared-tuna tacone at Go Fish in Vancouver, one of four great west-coast food cities

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.

Like many San Francisco cafes, Four Barrel has the aesthetic nailed

Like many San Francisco cafes, Four Barrel has the aesthetic nailed

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.

The incredibly rich food-cart scene pushes Portland to the top of my west-coast food list

The incredibly rich food-cart scene pushes Portland to the top of my west-coast food list

An elegant dish of succulent clams at Little Bird

An elegant dish of succulent clams at 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.

Fabulous charcoal miso ramen at Motomachi Shokudo

Fabulous charcoal miso ramen at Motomachi Shokudo

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

The beach, the ocean, the mountains. You just can't beat Vancouver on a sunny day

The beach, the ocean, the mountains. You just can’t beat Vancouver on a sunny day

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.

San Francisco's Mission district is certainly steeped in character

San Francisco’s Mission district is certainly steeped in character

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

There's no contest on the architecture front

There’s no contest on the architecture front

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.

Elliott's Oyster House is a great place to sample fresh oysters, especially during oyster happy hour

Elliott’s Oyster House is a great place to sample fresh oysters, especially during oyster happy hour

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

Sure it's overcrowded. But there's no market quite like the one in Pike Place

Sure it’s overcrowded. But there’s no market quite like the one in Pike Place

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.

The 4 Best New Things I Ate in 2013

The greatest thing since sliced pizza: the garlic knot at Milo & Olive

The greatest thing since sliced pizza: the garlic knot at Milo & Olive in Santa Monica, California

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.

Hanging out with some excellent hangtown fry at Brenda's French Soul Food in San Francisco

Hanging out with some excellent hangtown fry at Brenda’s French Soul Food in San Francisco

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.

Mind-blowingly good "healthy bread" toast at La Baguette in Revelstoke, B.C.

Mind-blowingly good “healthy bread” toast at La Baguette in Revelstoke, B.C.

La Baguette
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…

Fantastic, monster chicken wings with an Asian twist at Pok Pok

Fantastic, monster chicken wings with an Asian twist at Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon

Pok Pok
3226 SE Division Street, Portland, Oregon
Daily 11:30 am-10 pm

How Do You Spell Portland’s Best Coffee Shop?

Portland could well challenge Seattle for the title of Coffeetown, USA

Portland could well challenge Seattle for the title of Coffeetown, USA

It’s hard throwing a pound of fair-trade, organic beans in Portland without hitting a coffeehouse. In many parts of town, they’re on every street corner, often with a few more squeezed in between. For all I know, Portland might rival Seattle as Coffeetown, U.S.A.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters is the local heavyweight, with a vast bean empire and some half dozen cafes in town, closely followed by Ristretto Roasters. There are too many independent, often one-off, places to mention. Suffice to say, the expectation levels are such that many food carts offer pots of French-press coffee, sourced from local micro roasters.

Minimalism is in at Ristretto Roasters in Portland

Minimalism is in at Ristretto Roasters in Portland

But I might just have to side with the mighty New York Times in naming tiny downtown *Spella Caffè as the top espresso puller in Portland. I walk into this jewel—no bigger than an oversized closet—and am greeted by three uniformed people. Now, this is what I call service. While waiting for the barista to prepare my macchiato, another guy describes their affogato, a gelato drenched in two shots of espresso. I also talk to owner Andrea Spella, who moved to this shoehorn location after the usual burst pipes and overheating persuaded him to abandon his coffee cart. The batches at his southeast Portland roastery are equally tiny, weighing in at 11 pounds.

Don't let the small size fool you. Spella Caffe's espresso packs a heavyweight punch

Don’t let the small size fool you. Spella Caffe’s espresso packs a heavyweight punch

My macchiato to go or to stand (really, there’s no place to sit) is served in a tiny cardboard cup. But boy, does it pack a punch. None of that thinly roasted, sour-tasting stuff here. The thick, full-bodied taste lingers on my tongue long after I’ve taken a pound of roasted beans to go.

Spella Caffe
520 SW 5 Avenue, Portland
Weekdays 7:30 am-3:30 pm. Closed Saturday and Sunday
Spella Caffe on Urbanspoon