The Leggy Redhead and I had been talking about taking a food-oriented road trip for a very very very long time. Well, we finally booked off the first weekend in May a few months in advance and decided that we would drive to much-hyped culinary destination, the city of Portland. A move (for me) and busy times at work for both of us meant some slight hesitation and talks of postponing, but in the end we decided to stick to our guns and drive down on the Friday afternoon. We are both GIANT food and travel nerds that like to research, but with limited time set aside to plan and schedule, we instead reached out to friends (and facebook/twitter friends) for recommendations on the best things to see/eat/do in Portland. We were bombarded with awesome-sounding recommendations and the main challenge was narrowing down our “must do’s” and priorities for our very first visit.
After a 8-9 hour drive, with hungry bellies, fatigue, and low blood sugar, we checked into our hotel and headed to one of my top pick places to get a bite to eat and a drink: Lardo. I thought we were heading to the Lardo food cart in a pod, but instead we arrived at a Lardo brick and mortar joint. Lardo began as a food cart in the autumn of 2010 as the meaty baby of chef Rick Gencarelli.
This restaurant sits across from the Cartopia in the Southeast neighbourhood of the city. Its not a huge place, mainly kitchen and bar with some indoor seating and a huge outdoor pation filled with picnic tables (covered and heated.) As the name would imply, Lardo specializes in meat creations, especially pork ones.
When I looked at the sandwich menu and extensive beer list on the written chalkboard, I started to drool. Everything sounded delicious. We asked the uber-friendly server at the counter for some recommendations and ordered their Pork Meatball Banh Mi and the Pork Belly, Egg and Cheese; a beer for me and a glass of red for TLR. The décor is rustic meets modern with big blocky wood furniture and an awesome light up sign “PIG OUT.” About 10 minutes later, our sandwiches arrived looking pretty simple (served on wooden cutting board paddles) but awesome. We also were lucky enough that the friendly bartender server brought us a complimentary grapefruit margarita (a drink he had screwed up for another customer by accidentally salting the rim when they didn’t want it; we totally appreciated the gesture!). This drink was made from freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and mescal. It was so refreshing with a nice bite that wasn’t too sweet.
First, we split the Pork Belly, Egg and Cheese; with local egg, arugula, caper mayo ($8). This sandwich literally melted any travel stress, fatigue, and any general worries about the world away. It was that good. Sandwich perfection. It was served on a soft roll which held up structurally, allowed for an effortless bite, and let the ingredients inside shine.
The arugula and caper mayo added an acidity, saltiness, and fresh bite to cut through the greasy richness of the pork, cheese and egg. This egg was magnificent; cooked to runny magnificent perfection that oozed throughout the sandwich melding all of the elements together. Melt in your mouth. After half of this sandwich, I was blissed out and happy to be in Portland.
Next up, we split the Pork Meatball Banh Mi; with sriracha mayo, pickled vegetables, and cilantro ($9). Our server at the counter told us this was their top selling sandwich and he swayed between recommending this sandwich or the staff favourite with mortadella.
This was a damn fine sandwich served on a light and crispy ciabatta loaf. The meatballs were tender, moist, huge, and flavourful. The pickled carrots, cabbage, daikon and chopped cilantro added a vinegar-y bite and freshness. I didn’t get enough heat from their sriracha mayo…but that problem was easily solved by experimenting with their extensive hotsauce selection. My favourite by far was Secret Aardvark habanero hotsauce.
This was the perfect “Welcome to Portland” meal and with fully bellies we wandered across the street to explore the Cartopia pod but were too full to eat more.
As we started to drive back to the hotel, through a residential neighbourhood, we drove passed a weird looking property with a crowd of people. We weren’t sure what it was, but we decided to check it out. It was a bar called Roadside Attraction. You walk right off the street, through a gate, get ID’d by an older hippie type gentleman and you are instantly into what feels like someone’s weird hoarder backyard. This area is fenced and covered with an outside firepit, tables, hubcaps, license plates, and collectors signs of all kinds. Inside, they still keep it weird with a sweet jukebox, unique furniture, and décor that makes you go “huh?” Totally worth stopping here for a beer; a great place to meet the locals and have random bizarre conversations.
The next morning we headed to Downtown/ Old Town to explore. One of the first places we found was Voodoo Doughnuts, which had an epic looking line up wrapped around the corner. Voodoo Doughnut in known to locals, tourists, and even celebrities as a world “class” institution for donuts. There are two Voodoo Doughnut store fronts in Portland specializing in the most outrageous, provocative, politically incorrect and absolutely hilarious doughnuts that people from all over the world just love. All donuts are handmade into odd shapes and sizes (such as a Voodoo doll), with random toppings (such as Captain Crunch and bacon) and controversial names to follow (such as Old Dirty Bastard).
We decided not to wait in line but had a great time checking it out and people watching. The donuts really did look pretty epic.
After checking out the Saturday market (which we weren’t too wowed by), we started a general exploration stroll just as TLR started getting famished. Luckily, after some confusion, we ended up right in front of Bunk Sandwiches, which was recommended by quite a few friends. The operation was small and simple, very limited seating (maybe 2-4 seats inside), with no frills. This is a hole in the wall. With my limited food nerd research, I recommended that she order the Pork Belly Cubano (with ham, swiss, pickles, mustard and a side of kettle chips for $9).
She let me have a bite and WOW. The bread was perfect, a slightly crunchy baguette, pressed flat on the grill. Ooey gooey pungent Tillamook swiss, tart mustard, brine-y pickles, and smoky ham all combined with the fatty pork belly for a succulent sandwich.
We continued to wander around and then found some food cart pods with carts we recognized from TV appearance and our recommended eats lists.
Brunch Box, SW 5th and Stark/ Oak St
*famous for “original burger creations” – just reading the menu makes you drool and get the meat sweats, this place makes sandwiches and burgers fun. For example, they have the Redonkadonk ($10) an OMG Burger (patty with American cheese, bacon, ham, spam & an egg with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard and mayo) with two texas-toast grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a bun.
We met a woman in front of the cart says she comes once a week for their Black and Blue $5; Patty seasoned with Cajun spice covered in bleu cheese with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard and mayo.
Downtown, SW Washington
Putting a “trashy” American spin on European street food with menu items like “Fishy Chips” (lightly breaded and fried anchovies), “Jessica Albacore” tuna sandwich, “Foie Gras on Nah-Nah Chips.”
Found this cart famous for serving up Czech Cuisine in the form of an EPIC schnitzelwich, but sadly it wasn’t open….
*The cart/truck I was looking for but didn’t find!
I had my heart set on eating either a Spicy Tofu Koi Rice Bowl or Bulgogi Beef tacos topped with Kimchi at this cart and I searched desperately while walking around the downtown pods but I couldn’t find it. I chatted with a friendly local who told me that Koi seems like it’s always moving around and the best way to track them is through Twitter. Next time ;)
I was actually overwhelmed by all of the delicious options at these food carts and ended up wandering around in a low blood sugar, high conflicted daze because I was so torn on what to eat. Crazy!!!!
After wandering, we wanted to hit a brewery, so we headed to Deschutes Brewery to check out the scene and sample some beers. This is a huge space with high ceilings that was totally packed on a sunny Saturday and we weren’t able to get seating on their patio. I hear their burger is AMAZING but stuck to a beer sample paddle and tried 8 beers.
My favourites were their Chainbreaker White IPA and their Mirror Pond Pale Ale.
Almost everyone who gave us recommendations of where to eat in Portland suggested Pok Pok. One prolific friend wrote “Portland’s restaurant jewel is Pok Pok.”
And every recommendation came with a warning for wait times up to 3 hours to be seated because this restaurant is just sooo good and sooo popular. According to The Oregonian, the restaurant "has emerged as one of those quintessentially Portland institutions, a sort of rags-to-riches story of the street cart that became a restaurant that became a legend.”
Pok Pok is set up in converted house in a mainly residential neighbourhood. It has both inside and outside seating. Due to demand and immense popularity, the man behind Pok Pok, a James Beard award winning chef, Andy Ricker has added other restaurants to his growing culinary empire, including a Pok Pok in New York and Whiskey Lounge and Ping in Portland.
Amazingly, when we showed up around 5pm with fingers crossed for luck, but prepared to endure a multi-hour wait, we were seated right away. It was “the first summer weather weekend” in Portland according to our server and Cinco de Mayo weekend, so she figured most people were staying outside.
This Thai eatery is not fancy, but its modern, clean, cozy, classy, with tasteful décor. The servers/hosts are casually dressed in Pok Pok tees and jeans, and it felt like we were sitting in the converted basement rec room.
We both had heard amazing things about their drinking vinegars. TLR got a cocktail with a vinegar and I had a non-alcoholic drink with their ginger drinking vinegar and soda water. So refreshing and heavenly- not too sweet with a slight bite.
Now, I’m not a wing woman. I pretty much never order wings at bars or even eat them at potluck dinner parties. They just don’t appeal to me. BUT pretty much everyone, including our server, recommended their house specialty, Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings; Half dozen fresh whole natural chicken wings marinated in fish sauce and sugar, deep fried, tossed in caramelized Phy Quoc fish sauce and garlic and served with Vietnamese table salad ($13.95). This was a stand out, etched in my memory forever, a truly delicious taste experience worthy of their reputation. I still am not a wing woman, because these babies are on a whole different spectrum. They are served whole, and these wings aren’t crispy, their skin has more of a chew than a crunch. These babies are savoury, slightly spicy, super sticky caramelized skin, juicy, and absolutely exploding with a beautiful, complex (umami from fish sauce) balance of flavour. The sauce stuck to my teeth and my fingers and I actually said “These wings are making me feel really happy right now.”
We also ordered Het Paa Naam Tok; Spicy forest mushroom salad with soy sauce, lime and chili powder dressing, shallots, lemongrass, mint, cilantro and toasted rice salad ($12.50).Forest Mushroom Salad. This was a simple (despite its long ingredients list), beautiful, fresh Thai dish; sour, spicy, salty, and slightly sweet. This vegetarian dish was super satisfying with an intense mixture of spices, fresh herbs, and meaty mushrooms. To accompany the salad, we ordered a side of Sticky Rice ($1.95). I loved the presentation in the woven leaf cup.
Another fantastic dish was the Kung Op Wun Sen; wild caught gulf prawns baked in a clay pot over charcoal with pork belly, lao jin, soy, ginger, cilantro root, black pepper, Chinese celery and bean thread noodles ($14.50). I loved the thin bean thread noodles which soaked up the sauce nicely. It came with several large prawns and succulent pork belly. We followed our servers instructions and made sure to really scrape the bottom of the clay pot to capture and mix in the deep caramelized flavour.
For breakfast on Sunday morning, I had one priority… Pine State Biscuits (SE Belmont Location). This place is another success story, they startedas a stall at the local Farmer’s Market in 2006, and still is, has expanded to two store front locations just by the success of word of mouth advertising, loyal fans, and all around positive buzz.We got there at around 9:30 am hoping to avoid crazy line ups (again I’d heard an hour plus for typical wait time), and we waited only about 20 minutes to order and another 15 min for our food to be served up.
This place has a cozy, country, bustling neighbourhood feel- it’s not gourmet or high end. After ordering, it was awesome to just sit at the bar and watch the boys behind the counter operate like a well-oiled (well-buttered?) machine, cranking out plate after plate of delicious, guilty pleasure, heart stopping plate.
At Pine State, everything is made in house with fresh and local ingredients. TLR and I split a Reggie; Fried chicken, bacon and cheese topped with gravy ($7) and a side of Fried Green Tomatoes ($3). We ordered the gravy on the side because neither of us is a big gravy fan and added a side of apple butter so we could also try to get the taste of their Chatfield biscuit sandwich, which substitutes gravy for apple butter.
This is one glorious, gut busting, heart attack inducing, biscuit sandwich!!!! Splitting it was great because as delicious as it was, I worry about how my body would react to a full one. On second thoughts, screw it… I could’ve handled a full Reggie. These biscuits are FANTASTIC. They are fluffy, moist, soft, tender, doughy, and full of buttery flavour. It was a thick piece of chicken breast and the batter was well seasoned with salt and pepper. TLR remarked that she found the chicken a wee bit dry. The crisp bacon added a nice kick of additional salty flavour. Although we were both a bit wary/intimidated by the gravy….it looked pretty gross actually but Holy moly, it was amazing- rich, peppery, and more complex in flavour than I ever would’ve expected. This was a magical sauce that really tied the elements of the sandwich together. The apple butter was like an apple sauce meets chutney and tasted a bit like caramel apples. It was okay, but didn’t hold a candle to the gravy in the sauce department. The Fried Green tomatoes were….just okay. We were both really excited to see these on the menu and knew we had to order a side. Sadly, we were both imagining the cornmeal-lightly-battered-and-pan-friend that we had both tried before on other occasion. These were quite heavily battered and took a trip in the deep fryer. They were okay- but the batter, deep fried flavour overwhelmed the tomato.
After Pine State, we wandered through a nearby Farmer’s Market with beautiful fresh produce and plenty of tasty samples (rhubarb crisp, Mexican pizza, artisan kimchi…), hit up Olympic Provisions so TLR could pick up some special cured meats, then stopped at a huge glorious Trader Joe’s to pick up some unique groceries before hitting the o-so-unique McMennamin’s Kennedy School (an old school that has been transformed into a hotel; complete with a bar “Detention Room”), then hitting the road back to Vancouver. As much as we saw and ate, The Leggy Redhead and I agreed we had only scratched the surface on the delicious and cool offerings of Portland. Looking forward to heading back!