In a city where the unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird,” it’s no surprise that one of the most famous foods is the bacon maple bar, a raised yeast doughnut topped with maple frosting and bacon, from Voodoo Doughnut. The culinary style in PDX (Portland’s airport code and local nickname) blends fresh, Pacific Northwest ingredients with the city’s signature quirkiness. Some of the most inventive dishes are prepared in Portland’s ubiquitous food carts, most clustered in pods throughout the city.
By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett
Photograph by Lean Nash, The New York Times/Redux
North Portland's nickname is NoPo, which, aside from the obvious shorthand, makes sense since this is a great place to "know Portland." Located east and north of downtown across the Willamette River, NoPo is an eclectic mix of culturally diverse neighborhoods. Start by visiting the locally owned shops, eateries, and art spaces on buzzy Mississippi Avenue and in the Alberta Arts District. Then, discover retro NoPo, including the twin-palm neon masterpiece outside The Palms Motel, by driving north along North Interstate Avenue. Finish your tour by snapping an Instagram shot of NoPo's iconic Paul Bunyan statue, a 31-foot-tall concrete-and-metal lumberjack standing at the intersection of North Interstate and North Denver Avenues.
Trendy food option: You won't have time to hit the hundreds of PDX food carts in one visit, but on North Mississippi you can sample the wares of up to nine carts at Mississippi Marketplace. Opened in 2009, the mini-city of mobile eateries is Portland's original purpose-built food truck pod. Newer grazing options include burgers and thick shakes (try the Nutter But the Best Shake made with Nutter Butter cookies) at 503 Burger Company, opened in summer 2015. The Marketplace is open daily; however, cart owners set their own hours. Check the website for a current schedule.
Classic food option: After basking in the glow of the Palms's sign on North Interstate, visit an equally old-school (and neon-lit) NoPo institution, the Alibi, a tiki and karaoke bar. The dimly lit Polynesian restaurant and lounge oozes faux-Hawaiian vintage: plastic bamboo and palm trees, seashell lamp shades, neon tiki torches, and a 3-D dancing hula girl mural. Embrace the vintage charm by splitting a Hawaiian appetizer platter—including coconut shrimp, pot stickers, and chicken egg rolls—and a potent Punch of the Tiki, a four-straw, fruity rum concoction sure to build up your courage for karaoke.
Unexpected food option: For a next-generation North Interstate experience, head to Pinky's Pizzeria. The artisanal pizza parlor, which offers gluten-free and vegan options, stocks a mind-boggling collection of 232 whiskeys—and counting. Ask the bartender to suggest a spirit from the whiskeys, aged rums, botanical gins, cognacs, vodkas, more than 30 tequilas, and other craft spirits to pair with your pie. Topping options range from a basic Margherita (marinara, mozzarella, and basil) to Pinky's originals such as the John Goodman (mozzarella, deep applewood smoked bacon, roasted potato, medium Tillamook cheddar, green onion, and fresh ground black pepper). Pinky's is open Tuesday to Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
Mount Tabor Park
Photograph by Mark Downey, Corbis
The centerpiece of this beloved city park (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) is a dormant volcano, 643-foot Mount Tabor. Eastside residents head here for the grassy picnic areas, walking and biking routes, and recreational facilities, including basketball courts, a playground, and dog park. For out-of-towners, the biggest draws are the views of downtown and Mount Hood from the Mount Tabor summit. Getting to the top can be a walk in the park or a heart-pumping workout. For the latter, try climbing the 282-step Mount Tabor Summit Stairway from Southeast 69th Avenue up 171 feet to Southeast Tabor Summit Drive.
Classic food option: Located about a mile northwest of Mount Tabor Park, the Observatory is a neighborhood restaurant that serves as a gathering spot for the artsy, hip Montavilla locals. Opened by two culinary couples in 2008, the cozy eatery has a comfy vibe—homey touches include pillows on the bench seats and picnic-table seating out front—and a separate, backroom sports bar, complete with pinball and pool, called Over and Out. Fresh seafood (try the mussels) and creative comfort foods, such as andouille sausage macaroni and cheese, are staples on the lunch, dinner, and happy hour menus. Whatever you order, add the oregano fry bread, served with basil crème fraiche and tomato puree dipping sauces.
Trendy food option: Continue the day's relaxation theme by chilling at the Tannery, a North Tabor whiskey and craft spirit bar housed in a cinder block building. (An adjacent garden patio and grass picnic area opens in summer 2016.) Ask the bartender to recommend a curated cocktail, such as Old Habits (their take on an old-fashioned made with high-proof bourbon and herbal bitters). Sip slowly while savoring a steak or fried chicken and the old-school sounds of the vinyl records spinning on the turntables. Finish up with a slice of chocolate Fernet Branca cream pie and a Tannery White Russian mixed with house-made coffee liqueur.
Unexpected food option: Play in the park until 5 p.m., because that's when Bete-Lukas opens its doors. The tiny Ethiopian restaurant is tucked up on the second floor of a nondescript apartment building (use the stairs on the right). There are meat and vegetarian options—including Misser Wot, red lentils cooked in onion and traditional spicy, red berbere sauce. Many dishes are under ten dollars, and most include a salad and plenty ofinjera (spongy bread) for scooping and sopping. The restaurant is closed Mondays.
Powell's City of Books and the Pearl District
Photograph by Danita Delimont, Alamy
Powell's City of Books and the Pearl District live up to their names. The former stocks over one million books in a city block–size store, billed as the world's largest new and used bookstore. The second is a former industrial zone, polished and reborn as an upscale retail and dining district. Stroll north to south through the Pearl before settling in for some serious browsing among Powell's more than 3,500 sections.
Classic food option: After exploring the stacks at Powell's, you'll be ready for some fresh air and a slice of fresh-baked pie at Lauretta Jean's original downtown location. Pastry chef–owner Kate McMillen makes an all-butter crust from a recipe passed down from her grandmother, the aforementioned Lauretta Jean. There's always a wide selection of pies—such as classic tart cherry, chocolate chess, and seasonal specialties like heirloom apple—to choose from. Or, order something hearty like a peanut butter-and-jelly biscuit (a freshly baked buttermilk biscuit topped with house-whipped peanut butter and strawberry jam) for breakfast or a beef stew potpie (when available) for lunch. Lauretta Jean's is open weekdays 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. and closed on weekends, although two other locations have different hours.
Trendy food option: Plan ahead and reserve a table for dinner at the Saucebox, located downtown on Broadway near Burnside. The überhip, Pan-Asian fusion restaurant and dance club—there's a live DJ spinning vinyl behind the bar—celebrates its 21st anniversary in 2016. Drink in the Saucebox vibe by ordering a Poolside With David Hasselhoff, a signature cocktail mixed with house-infused watermelon vodka, house-made cucumber puree, citrus, cranberry (for color), and a sugar rim. If you want a full sit-down meal, head to the quieter dining room in the back. On the way, you'll see the communal coed bathroom sink, located in a mirrored hallway outside the restrooms. The Saucebox is closed Sundays and Mondays.
Unexpected food option: Ignore the dive-bar exterior at Santeria, a hole-in-the-wall lunch, dinner, and late-night place that lives up to its promise of serving "wicked good Mexican food." The massive menu includes the expected tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, but you'll be missing out if you skip over signature dishes such as cochinita (slow-cooked pork spiced with achiote, bitter orange, and lime, topped with house-made pickled red onions). If you have kids in tow, Santeria is a no-go. It's 21-and-up all day, in part because the restaurant shares restrooms with the strip club next door.
East Burnside and Southeast Portland
Photograph by Michael Shay, Polara Studio
After spending the day in NoPo, head south to hear live music in Southeast Portland. The neighborhoods located east of downtown—across the Willamette River—from East Burnside south have experienced a music-led metamorphosis over the past decade. Check out who's performing at the Doug Fir Lounge, housed in the restored, mid-century Jupiter Motel, where national acts such as Alabama Shakes, The Shins, and Sleater-Kinney regularly take the stage. Nearby Rontoms hosts live music Sunday Sessions (8:30-11:30 p.m.). One of the newest venues, Revolution Hall opened in 2015, is located in one of Southeast Portland's oldest buildings, the former Washington High School, rebuilt in 1924. Other popular Southeast places to hear live tunes include the Goodfoot Pub and Lounge and the Aladdin Theater, a former vaudeville house (Jack Benny played here) built in 1928.
Unexpected food option: It's not open right before or after concerts, but if you're wandering around earlier in the day check out the unpretentious Pepper Box Café, neighbor to the popular music venues in the area. Originally a food cart hawking New Mexican specialties such as carne adovada (pork chili), the cozy café on Southeast Morrison serves Southwest-inspired breakfast and lunch items daily. Arrive early (it opens at 8 a.m.) to snag a table. If you get your order to go, grab extra napkins: The servings are humongous and most, including the scrambled egg breakfast taco platters, require a fork. Be prepared for the spicy kick of both red and green chilies in pretty much every dish, including the macaroni and cheese.
Classic food option: Steps away from Revolution Hall is Meat Cheese Bread and its adjacent tavern, the aptly named Beer. Don't let the simple name fool you. The sandwich-makers here are artisans crafting concoctions such as the Bacon and Apples—thick-sliced Nueske's applewood smoked bacon, apple chunks, shaved sweet onion, mixed greens, apple and rosemary vinaigrette, and Geitost (Norwegian caramelized goat cheese) spread packed inside a toasted ciabatta roll. Most sandwiches can be prepared as salads. If you're not in the mood for either, breakfast is served all day—create your own burrito by choosing add-ons.
Trendy food option: Green Dragon Bistro and Pub is all about the craft brews. Daily pour options include ales, lagers, stouts, ciders, and draft cocktails from more than 55 rotating taps. Less touted—but equally creative—is the Green Dragon pub grub. Split an order of the chorizo tacos—white corn tortillas stuffed with local Sheridan Farms green chorizo, Napa cabbage, Cotija cheese, pickled red onion, and avocado crema. Or, try one of their sandwich offerings—such as root beer pulled pork sliders—served with house-cut fries. Stop in on Wednesday, when the Green Dragon Brew Crew releases a new beer, or on Thursday for a weekly "Meet the Brewer" session.
Pioneer Courthouse Square
Photograph courtesy Departure Restaurant
Chances are a free outdoor concert, festival, or farmers market (Mondays, June to October) will draw you into Portland's "living room," Pioneer Courthouse Square. The public plaza hosts more than 300 events each year and is home to the Travel Portland Visitor Information Center, where you can pick up free maps and get directions. Artisans from the granddaddy of Portland open-air, arts-and-crafts markets, the Portland Saturday Market (open Saturdays and Sundays, March to Christmas Eve), regularly sell works at Pioneer Courthouse Square fairs. To visit the actual Portland Saturday Market, hop on a MAX Red Line light-rail train for the six-minute ride from Pioneer Square Station to Skidmore Fountain Station. From there, it's about a four-minute walk.
Classic food option: If you do venture over to the Saturday farmers market, put your name in first at the nearby Mother's Bistro & Bar. Executive chef–owner Lisa Schroeder and her team whip up your favorite comfort foods, including pot roast, chicken and dumplings, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and pulled pork. They also serve breakfast starting at 7 a.m. weekdays (closed Mondays) and 8 a.m. weekends. Don't miss the nachos, a deliciously messy mound of roasted red potatoes, bacon, and onions topped with melted cheddar cheese and sour cream. Another option is to start here and then stroll around the Saturday Market before heading over to Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Trendy food option: For a bird's-eye perspective on the scene, walk across the street from the square's namesake Pioneer Courthouse to the historic Meier and Frank building. Ride the elevator up 15 floors to the rooftop Departure Restaurant and Lounge and garden. Located in the Nines—Portland's swankiest hotel—Departure serves Pan-Asian creations from Chef Gregory Gourdet. Share a couple of house specialties, such as hot and spicy bibimbap (Koshihikari short-grain rice, Wagyu beef, egg, and kimchi topped with pungent gochujang red chili paste) and the flavor-packed shaved collards. Time your visit to catch the sunset views of downtown and the Willamette River from Departure's two rooftop decks, weather permitting.
Unexpected food option: If the weather cooperates, pair a Pioneer Courthouse Square visit with a picnic lunch at Waterfront Park. Pick up a meat-free sandwich (the faux-Philly cheesesteak will completely fool any carnivore's taste buds) on the way at the DC Vegetarian food truck. Located about six blocks northeast of the square, the popular take-out spot (named in honor of its owners' Washington, D.C., roots and their nicknames, Damo and Chubbs) is a quick three-block walk from the midpoint of the linear park. The compact menu features vegetarian and vegan re-creations of popular comfort sandwiches, such as grilled cheese and Italian subs. Call in your order to have it ready when you walk by on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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