Looking for restaurants in Portland? Want to know where to eat in Central Eastside? Food and travel writer Lucy Gillmore takes us on a foodie road trip though Portland, stopping off at kombucha taprooms, farm-to-fork restaurants and gourmet doughnut stores.
Cult comedy sketch show Portlandia shamelessly sends up Portland’s hippy image – it’s the place “where young people go to retire”, grow things, brew beer and join communes. This kooky corner of Oregon can seem almost horizontally laidback but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of creative drive. You don’t become one of the culinary capitals of the USA by sitting around sipping ethically sourced, single-origin coffee.
This one-time blue-collar town in the Pacific Northwest has been riding the wave of a foodie revolution for the past two decades. There’s now an artisan roaster on every corner, bean-to-bar chocolate makers and gourmet doughnut stores, grain-to-glass craft distillers, a slew of microbreweries, kombucha taprooms, and acres of farmers’ markets and food cart ‘pods’. It’s also home to more food festivals than you can shake a wooden spoon at, from the annual Cider Summit to the grandaddy of them all, Feast Portland, which takes place in September.
Feast isn’t just a festival, it’s a self-proclaimed movement, an incubator of ideas with chefs, farmers, winemakers, brewers, artisan producers and restaurateurs coming together to celebrate and, this being Portland, raise money to help end hunger. Portland is a city with heart-and-soul food in spades.
It’s also begun to attract similarly aligned brands from further afield as it veers from hippy to hipster. This autumn, Icelandic boutique hostel KEX will open its second property in Portland, while UK hotel group The Hoxton converted the city’s dilapidated 1906 Grove Hotel into a hip hangout last year.
The Hoxton’s interiors are peppered with potted plants, exposed brickwork, low-slung velvet and leather seating, and artworks. Rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows and eclectically curated, well-thumbed tomes chosen by local artists and bookworms (the world’s largest indie bookstore, Powell’s City of Books, is just a few blocks away).
The food has been farmed out to Submarine, the group behind Portland stalwart Ava Gene’s and the hottest brunch spot in town, Tusk, where chef Sam Smith mixes up Middle Eastern cuisine with seasonal produce, his signature hummus, light as gossamer, served beneath a giant artwork of Keith Richards floating in a pool.
At the Hoxton, the all-day dining at La Neta is Mexican-themed, while rooftop bar and taqueria, Tope (all verdant greenery, white tiles and panoramic Portland views), is street-food inspired. Later, as the sun sinks behind the hills, I sip a smoky mezcal cocktail, Carrot On My Wayward Son (Banhez mezcal, carrot, sweet potato, lime, mole bitters and egg white).
Each morning a “Little Breakfast” (a yogurt and granola pot, orange juice and piece of fruit) is hung on your door in case you wake up peckish. But just across the Burnside Bridge, in the Central Eastside, I’ve heard that Cup & Bar, the city’s first small-batch coffee and chocolate-tasting room and café, does a mean avocado toast. It lives up to the hype: ripe avocado on lemon-drizzled, ricotta-smeared sourdough.
Portland is a city of five “quadrants”, divided into northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest and north. The Central Eastside is the city’s industrial heartland, its warehouses now reimagined by entrepreneurial producers. Northwest is home to Nob Hill’s boutiques and clapboard houses, the Dandy Warhols’ wine-bar-cum-recording-studio, The Old Portland and a female-owned gin distillery and cocktail bar, Freeland Spirits.
In the southeast, leafy Division Street promises a gastronomic graze-athon. It’s home to Ava Gene’s, legendary Southeast Asian street-food restaurant Pok Pok, ice-cream parlour Salt and Straw, whose spruce tips and huckleberry crisp flavour has been likened to a walk in a forest, and to Blue Star Donuts and its forest-fruit-themed favourite, blueberry, bourbon and basil. Urban winery The Southeast Wine Collective is also here, selling biodynamic, organic wines on tap alongside dishes such as sugar snap peas with garlic breadcrumbs, strawberries, sheep’s cheese and edible flowers.
I dig deeper into the Central Eastside on a culinary walking tour with The Big Foody and meet founder Laura Morgan at Steven Smith Teamaker, an industrial building on the side of the rail tracks. From the outside it’s unassuming but inside there’s a sleek store selling dainty teaware plus a tasting counter, teahouse and blending room. Pulling up a stool as a train clatters past, tasting tutor Nicole guides me through a four-tea flight. Portland Breakfast, a rich, black tea, has notes of malt, leather and spice. White Petal is a delicate white tea blended with chamomile petals and osmanthus flowers, with a subtle creaminess and apricot aromas. It also serves teas on tap, a nitro chai with a Guinness-style creamy top, and kombucha. Kombucha is king in Portland, the fermented tea sold on tap in bars and teahouses.
After the craft brewing craze exploded across Portland, New Deal founder, Tom Burkleaux, had a light-bulb moment, wondering “why can’t we do that with distilling?”. So, in 2004, he rented a garage and bought a still. New Deal’s signature grain-to-glass vodka is made with soft white winter wheat from Oregon and has a surprisingly smooth, silky sweetness with vanilla notes (whisky-making classes are also offered).
Of Portland’s 70 or so microbreweries (it’s not nicknamed Beervana for nothing), one of the most experimental is Gigantic Brewing, known for its Fantastic Voyage, a brett saison with an earthy, kombucha-style flavour profile, or Most Most Premium, a bourbon-barrel-aged Russian imperial stout, with aromas of chocolate, burnt caramel, vanilla and oak.
Wandering through the wide, warehouse-lined streets, Laura explains that this area used to be called Produce Row because boats and trains would deliver goods here during the late 19th century. At the time, the port of Portland was bigger than Seattle. Today, the buildings are daubed with street art, littered with vintage home stores and play host to a vibrant night market every three months. More regular farmers’ markets can be found at five locations around the city on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. The Saturday edition is the largest, with 170 stalls scattered around the city’s university campus.
Grazing my way around its stalls, I stop at plant-based, dairy-free Kate’s Ice Cream, scooping up salted peanut butter brittle made with coconut and cashew milk, and retro mint chocolate fudge before hunting out more kombucha. At the Soma stall I sample marionberry, its fermented fizz tart and tangy.
At Eva’s Herbucha I go further, buying a kombucha starter kit with a scoby. Eva Sippl is a German health practitioner and flavours her kombuchas with medicinal herbs: Rose City’s botanicals are passionflower and oat straw to combat anxiety.
The city’s farm-to-fork chefs also shop here, of course, including Aaron Adams, the founder of high-end, plant-based restaurant Farm Spirit. The original dining space, built around a communal table, is now called Fermenter, an area where Aaron and chef Scott Winegard plan to hold classes, ferment and develop recipes.
The new restaurant, one street over, is a sleek space decked out with plant installations. I perch at the chef’s counter here for a Cascadian tasting menu showcasing the bounty of Oregon’s forests, farms and fields. Almost everything is sourced within 100 miles. It can be a challenge, Aaron tells me, but it’s one they’ve risen to.
The wildly inventive menu displays fantastical culinary acrobatics. The “butter” served with sourdough? “We played around with the water we’d used to cook chickpeas.” A creamy white hazelnut gazpacho created with tomato and cucumber water, dotted with fig leaf oil and shaved hazelnuts, is summer in a bowl. Ceviche of cactus and zucchini plays with compressed courgette, the burnt cucumber skin and chamomile sauce’s sweetness tempered by pickled red onion powder, topped with coriander and marigold flowers.
“Peas, radishes, flowers” – purple and white daikon, kohlrabi, snow peas and radish flowers, dressed with flower vinegar – is paired with a Spanish-style cider from Columbia River Gorge. The temperance flight features house-made hopped lemon balm kefir, and rose petal and black pepper kombucha.
Kombucha gets the last word. I make a final pilgrimage to Townshend’s Teahouse and order a glass of Brew Dr yuzu and lovage kombucha with clear celery notes. As I grab a seat among the retro green sofas and scuffed wooden tables, Gandalf walks in – all long white hair and floppy cheesecloth cut-offs – and orders a pot of tea. Sinking into an armchair, oblivious, he kicks off his shoes, revealing holey socks, and opens a laptop. It could be a scene straight out of Portlandia.
For more information visit travelportland.com
Words by Lucy Gillmore, September 2019
Photos by Jamie Francis and Lucy Gillmore