Escape from Seattle: Food Picks in Portland

by on September 22, 2010

Today may be the last day of summer, but fall is a fine season for taking culinary-related trips outside of Seattle. Having previously reported on an “Escape from Seattle” to Whistler, it’s now time to head south to Portland and then loop up through parts of central Washington to discover good eats (and drinks), as I did this past summer.

Let’s start with Portland. You’re probably thinking: Oh, not another article about how Portland’s food is better than Seattle’s. Maybe not better, but different. And when traveling, aren’t we usually looking for something different? I’ll offer a few examples, but by no means an exhaustive list.

Portland’s got a different food vibe than Seattle. As local food writer Lorna Yee recently remarked about Portland in a SunBreak interview, “the food is a little gutsier, and the scene a little grittier.”

The dining spaces are certainly different. It seems Portland chefs and restaurateurs are more creative with their kitchens and dining rooms, as you can eat at carts, strip clubs, and converted industrial spaces. There’s the usual glitz and glamor of downtown eateries, but in general, I find the better eats to be on the east side of the Willamette River. (Even if you take the train to Portland—a fun way to travel—you can easily head east by bus and foot. I’ve done it, and you get to discover more of the city this way.)

What better place to start than breakfast? If you’re tired of the typical menus full of eggs Benedict and the like, I recommend Tasty n Sons—the new hot spot from John Gorham of Toro Bravo fame.

As always, I like to sidle up to a seat at the counter and watch the cooks do their thing in the open kitchen. They do breakfast daily, and have just started serving up dinner service, too.

Asian food fan that I am, the Burmese red pork stew (with eggs two ways) was right up my alley. A hearty, heavenly breakfast.

If it’s eggs you ache for, the much-heralded shakshuka (red pepper and tomato stew with baked eggs, plus our addition of merguez sausage—recipe here) was also delicious with bright flavor, and radicchio salad was a perfect, crunchy counter to both dishes. And how could I resist a chocolate potato doughnut as a last bite?

(As alternative breakfast picks, I recommend aebleskivers at Broder, or soup at HA+VL, further east, which unlike anything in Seattle, prepares a different Vietnamese soup—or two—every day of the week.)

Also east is the ever-popular Pok Pok. I continually complain that Thai food in Seattle is too uniform in its offerings. Pok Pok is proof that a more diverse menu can amaze the masses. With its indoor and outdoor seating, and cooking areas scattered about the place when the grills are going, eating at Pok Pok feels like a visit to Thailand. This is definitely a place to go to with a group to experience as much of the menu as possible.

Pok Pok was one of my top picks during my feeding frenzy in Portland last summer. A group of us enjoyed dishes like crispy broken crepe with mussels, eggs, garlic chives and bean sprouts (hoi thawt), and boar collar meat rubbed with garlic, coriander root and black pepper, glazed with soy and sugar, grilled and served with chilled mustard greens and chili-lime-garlic sauce (muu paa kham waan).

The food quality slipped during this summer’s feeding frenzy, but maybe it was an off-night? I’ll want to give it another chance, but at least Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings remained a winning dish. Best thing is that if you don’t want to wait it out an hour or longer at Pok Pok (I told you the restaurant’s popular!), you can also go to the Whiskey Soda Lounge (recently relocated across the street).

There, enjoy an easy chance to have an order of those wings, perhaps as I did along with other interesting street food like fresh tamarind pods (makham waan, with chile salt and sugar dip) and a Pok Pok Bloody Mary (with Thai chilies and aromatics pounded in a mortar and pestle). And if dining solo, you can enjoy those wings without having to worry about sharing with others.

Should you prefer to stay in the downtown area, Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a food cart that’s an offspring of Pok Pok. (Nong worked at Pok Pok prior to opening her place.) To say that chicken is also the best dish here will ultimately prove obvious, as chicken and rice is the only dish Nong makes. Nong’s epitomizes what a food cart business should be: specialization.

While most of Seattle’s food trucks have been, at least at the start, spins on typical “fast foods” like hot dogs and pizza and tacos (even our Thai truck serves up the same old pad Thai), Portland’s carts, found clustered in pods, branch out with special and unique offerings. Oatmeal? Check. Fried pie? Check. Bosnian food? Check.

Nong’s is a great concept with well-executed food. The chicken is surprisingly moist, and the rice, cooked in broth, is flavorful. Customization is basically limited to a side of livers or a side of fried skins (which I liked better). And while the food isn’t quite as bold as I typically crave, I appreciate quality, and would recommend Nong’s to anyone. But go early. Nong’s is only open until she sells out, which is usually early afternoon, making this a prime lunch pick.

For dinner, I recommend Tanuki, in the Nob Hill district. This past summer trip, as with the previous, Tanuki came in as one of my top three favorite meals. Or is it a drinking experience? Chef Janis Martin will tell you that Tanuki is a bar, not a restaurant. (Tanuki is truly an izakaya.) This woman knows sake, so let her choose some pairings for you.

And, by the way, let her choose your food. Just say “omakase” and you’re in for an amazing and affordable ride. (IF one were to see the kitchen, one would be astounded at the quality of the food that comes out of it.

Let’s just say that Martin makes magic back there.) The food is bold; there might be a moment of “hmm, that didn’t quite work,” but nearly all of it does, with impressive flavor combinations.

I can best describe it as Japanese food with Korean and southeast Asian twists, such as oysters with kimchi shaved ice, a beautifully boxed mushroom and duck salad, halibut cheeks with braised pig tail, and wild boar steamed rice dumplings (“rags”).

Note that this is unconventional food coming from an unconventional chef (priding herself on being politically incorrect) in an unconventional setting. A sign at the entry says “No sushi, no kids,” and the Japanese slasher porn-like flicks on the television can be a bit distracting. (Okay, I admit: They’re captivating in a fun, albeit disturbing way.) But the food is memorable, made special by Martin who, politics aside, works hard, plays hard, and takes pride in her product.

How about one more pick—a wild card? Looking at my eating itinerary, I would have never guessed that lunch at Fenouil would be one of the best meals of the summer trip. With my love of big, bold flavors, I was surprised to find myself appreciating the subtlety of Fenouil’s food – but that’s the point of the experience.

All of the dishes were executed perfectly. The succotash sang spring (my trip was actually at the very start of summer), the fries were captivatingly crisp, and the risotto creamy with the peas prominent. And a dish I’d never think of ordering, especially with an understated title of “Roasted Natural Chicken,” was a highlight. This was the moistest white meat I’ve ever eaten, and the skin was expertly crisped, with the acidity of the artichokes and olives playing perfectly in the dish.

Finally, at Fenouil, I found a pastry chef doing fantastic finishes. Black pepper cheesecake was the best bite of the entire Portland trip, and of all my eating experiences in recent memory. Upon request, Kristen Murray sent out a list of ingredients that blew my mind, making me realize how she achieved the wonderful taste and texture of the dessert. These included sweet pea blossoms, thyme, wild rose petals, three kinds of mint (apple, pepper, and chocolate), lemon balm, and candied fennel–savory elements that contributed to a sweet ending of this amazing meal.

Murray also invited me back for a dessert tasting two days later, which further impressed me. Enough to say that I liked her desserts better than any I’ve had here in Seattle. But following the big surprise came big news: Murray recently left Fenouil. Status in doubt, she just resurfaced at Paley’s Place.

A proper excuse to soon make another trip to Portland….

Filed under Food, Restaurant, Travel

7 thoughts on “Escape from Seattle: Food Picks in Portland

  1. When I was in Portland for a long weekend this summer, I used your posts at Gastrolust as a guide (hence an inexpensive omakase dinner at Tanuki where we ate like kings). Thanks for the recs!

  2. Based on my in-depth internet study, Audrey, ‘Tanuki’ is either:

    1) the Magical Raccoon-like Dog with Shape-Shifting Powers
    or…
    2) Modern-Day God of Gluttony, Boozing, and Restaurateurs

    Which did you encounter?

  3. Just saying, Portland is good. It is all of the good stuff you might find in other cities, but greener, more feminism, more eco-consicousness, and less self-aware pretension than most places, probably much less than Seattle. The food is more larger servings generally than most restarants in New York, and even San Francisco. There is a blugrass scene like SF. There is other musical stuff. All around it is way better than Seattle I would think.