The search for America's best food cities: Portland, Ore. – Washington Post
Along with Greg Higgins of Higgins restaurant, Schreiber and Paley “set the table” for the area by establishing a grower-connected network and forming strong relationships with farmers, foragers and fishermen, says Brooks, also the author of the captivating “The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland.”
The bench deepened a decade or so ago, when another wave of talent emerged, including Naomi Pomeroy — best known for her supper-clubby Beast and later appearance on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Masters” — and a slew of proteges who went on to open restaurants that lured food critics onto planes to taste them. Witness Tommy Habetz (Bunk Sandwiches), Troy MacLarty (Bollywood Theater), Gabriel Rucker (the nose-to-tail Le Pigeon, followed by Little Bird).
World-class ingredients draw chefs to the area and keep them there. So do low rents, cheap liquor licenses and loose regulations, says Marc Hinton, author of “A History of Pacific Northwest Cuisine: Mastodons to Molecular Gastronomy.” The Portland-based blogger says, “You can be really small and make a whole lot of noise across the country.”
Or simply across the dining room, as at Pok Pok, where my cab driver at PDX dropped me off for a reunion with smoky, succulent game hen and funky, fiery ground duck liver — Thai food by enthusiast Andy Ricker that’s every bit as exciting as I remember it from my first meal at the outsize shack five years ago. (Like its residents, restaurant interiors here tend not to be flashy. The spotlight is reserved for the food.)
Jose Chesa, the Barcelona native behind two-year-old Ataula, one of the best Spanish kitchens on the West Coast, says he was drawn to Portland from Puerto Rico by a “small-town feeling” where “everyone takes care of everyone” and his profession is “all about the farmers, the ingredients.” Greg Denton met his wife and co-chef, Gabrielle, while the two were cooking at the destination Terra in Napa Valley. The couple moved on to Hawaii but traded island life for the Pacific Northwest, where they opened the Argentine-inspired Ox in 2012. “We’ve never felt as settled as we do in Portland,” Denton says. Unlike their previous locales, says the chef, Portland seemed like a blank canvas: “There are no real restrictions, no cuisine you need to stick by.” (By way of example, the commonplace pad Thai is intentionally absent from the list at Pok Pok.)
“We’re the Wild West of food,” says Brooks. “People here channel the traditions they love, often European or Asian, and make them their own.” Enter Bollywood Theater, a celebration of Indian street food; Langbaan, a speak-easy of a restaurant whose tasting menu transports diners to Thailand; and Nodoguru, a pop-up turned permanent Japanese feast — in a grocery store. “The pioneering spirit is still alive and well,” says Paley, whose empire has grown to three places to eat plus a once-a-month Russian pop-up.
Every chef I spoke with credited an open and appreciative audience, diners with a keen interest in knowing where their food comes from, for spurring them on. “When you can look out your window and see Mount Hood and the Columbia River, people feel connected to the land,” says Schreiber, now a cooking instructor with the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Portland. While Pomeroy laments all the “pork-bellying” she sees in her back yard, she, too, applauds a “willing and excited” clientele.
For sure. Small-town Portland supports such niche concepts as Alma, an-all chocolate boutique created after its owner became frustrated with the choices available for filling her son’s Easter basket, and the Meadow, a curated selection of salt, bitters and chocolate from around the world. Portlanders can get CSA deliveries of ice cream, and coffee in waves. Stumptown set the bar high when it helped introduce farm-direct coffee bean sourcing and artisanal roasting in 1999, and unlike a certain competitor to the north, its coffee shops and wholesale accounts remain mostly local.