To the left is a meal I had in Portland, Oregon Sunday. It was not the best meal I had while my wife and I were there on a weekend jaunt. But it was the gayest. Behold the “Gay Bar,” a product of Portland’s trademark Voodoo Doughnuts. (Of course, it has cream filling.) Served next to a café latte from nearby Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
Now, the best meal I had was served by friends in their home. Nothing can compete with something like that. But out on the town, I found that the tourism available focused to a large extent on food. Portland, Oregon is a great place to go if you want to stimulate your taste buds. It’s very much like Italy in one facet of its identity as a foodie mecca…because like Italy, its dominant gastronomic ethic is parochialism. Where in Italy the recipes must be Italian, or at least have Italian names from the national culinary canon attached to them,* in Portland all ingredients for all foods must be sourced from within Oregon, preferably within walking distance of where the food is served. The famous “ordering the chicken” skit from Portlandia is not just fancifully silly — they’re depicting something that’s really going on in their community. Not that I found cause to complain about this while I was there, nor will you should you visit. The diversity and quality of the products of local agriculture is remarkable. Portlanders should be proud of their local producers and the resulting diet. It crosses over the line to self-parody at times, is all I’m saying.
So of course, having seen the comparison between Portland’s gastronomic preferences and Italy’s, I found myself having dinner at an Italian restaurant in Portland. Which was exquisite, and when my Portland peeps come down to L.A., I’ll be well challenged to find a competing caliber of establishment. (I’m up for the challenge, by the way.) Should you travel to Portland, dear Reader, you’ll have no trouble finding similarly good food and drink.
Craft beer is available in abundance. I sampled a dozen kinds of beer at Deschutes Brewery along with a sample platter of cheeses, about half of which were local products and the other half of which came from Europe. Every one of them was good; picking a favorite was a challenging pleasure. Oregon wine is dominated by varieties of the pinot grape, with the largest production area in the northern Williamette Valley. Pinot noir and pinot blanc are available in abundance; these varietals seem to do the best in the climate. Alas, we did not arrive at the flagship local distillery in time for a tour, so we’ll do that next time.
Scattered about the city are clusters of food stands or food trucks. A veritable United Nations of ethnic foods are available from them, a few blocks of wherever you are in the downtown region west of the river. They tend to be cash-only transactions. Pleasingly, there is no sales tax in Oregon, so there’s less change circulating around. Our favorite food cart, though, was the liquid nitrogen ice cream guy. Maybe he’s not the only guy making liquid nitrogen ice cream out there, but he’s doing it downtown on a warm summer day and it looks cool and it’s a whole lot of fun.
And then there’s Voodoo Doughnuts, which some Portlanders speak of in rhapsodic terms. Now, on the one hand, it’s a doughnut. You’ve had doughnuts before. But Voodoo sells whimsy along with its pastries. The “gay bar” pictured above, the maple bar with bacon, the Crunchberry Cap’n Cruch cereal topped glazed raised, and the trademark voodoo doll donut, shaped and painted in icing with a grotesque face, filled with raspberry jam and stabbed with a pretzel. The line looks long at times but moves fast, and you’ll see Portlanders walking about with the pink box bringing home sweet pastry goodness from downtown.
They can do this because the city’s light rail system is free within the confines of its downtown region, which brings Portlanders to their downtown in droves. This results in Portlanders actually using their city as a place to habitually congregate and co-exist. Not something I’m used to in car-centric L.A. Maybe you don’t directly interact with other people, but you are near them and overhear snippets of their conversations and sort of absorb their presence. Consequently I got to learn about something called the “lesbian dance”† while waiting for a doughnut, from one not-very-inhibited young lady sporting a Mohawk and coveralls explaining “the scene” to her similarly-coiffed companion. (Yes, as you might imagine, Portland seems to be very gay-friendly.)
Chances are, a good number of the denizens of the downtown area dress in a way that is a bit more shabby than you. Beware of your assumptions, though, as it is not always easy to distinguish between the hippies, the hipsters, and the homeless, at least at first glance. Sadly, there are a number of apparently mentally ill people hanging around downtown, doing things like shouting at no one as they stomp down the street, and homeless people can be seen sleeping in shop alcoves, particularly during the early morning hours.
There is political activism all over the place, too. Well-meaning folks wanting to provide shelter and support for the homeless are around, there is an apparently very controversial issue pending regarding fluoridation of water, and we walked through a street-corner protest at Pioneer Courthouse Square intended to gather signatures to stop organ harvesting in China which was interrupted by about a hundred people with police escorts parading down Broadway advocating the legalization of marijuana. There may not have been a lot of them, but they did have megaphones.
The Saturday market at Skidmore Fountain was overwhelming. More food carts everywhere, and lots of crafts and other products — some local, a few not. Etsy come to life. And Powell’s Books — multiple floors of real, physical books, taking up an entire city block, and packed with patrons — is a source of joy, simply to see its existence. Albeit a little bit overwhelming again. I noticed a lot of “gentleman’s cabarets,” too, although I did not patronize any of them and would likely not have had interest in doing so even had I not been accompanied by my wife. Got better things to do with my money. A club near our hotel called “Dante’s” sports a mural urging people to “Keep Portland Weird,” which seems a little bit derivative of Austin, Texas.
My wife and I joked that we should sign up on fiverr.com to travel to other cities for weekend visits, because it seems that whenever we do things like this, fantastic weather is there to greet us. On our visit to London a few years ago, there were three continuous days of clear, sunny skies and warm weather for the three days we were there — the Brits were besides themselves with joy. Same thing in Italy, Alabama, northern Virginia… and now Portland. It was warm, sunny, and beautiful the whole time. Everyone we spoke with commented on the fantastic weather. So, chambers of commerce, take note: for $5, airfare and a mid-range hotel, we will travel to your city on important weekends to make sure that you have the best possible weather for your big events!
I presume from the way the locals gushed about the great weather that it’s usually a bit more overcast and the famous Pacific Northwest morning mist is typical. Locals do not carry umbrellas, it seems; a hoodie or a hat or they just power through it. “Umbrellas are for tourists,” one advertisement read. But I’m also willing to bet that the city is still a whole lot of fun even on days when it’s overcast or foggy.
People are amazingly friendly. It’s a very walkable city. We did a lot of walking about and were glad for it. But I still gained three pounds in three days. You can too! Portland, Oregon is a great weekend jaunt whether you’re lucky enough to have friends there to visit or if you just want to stop by and check it out.
* In Tarquinia not so very long ago, I had “frutti de mare alla carbonara” that turned out to be shrimp in Hollandaise sauce served over pasta. Which was really quite good, all things considered. But if the chef had called it what it actually was, his own countrymen would never have ordered it because that’s just plain too French, and it would all have gone to waste.
† As best I could discern without being rude, the dancers stand with legs intertwined, move their torsos close together, and then grind their pelvises up against one another in approximate rhythm to the music. Which doesn’t seem like it would be particularly unique to lesbians, but I’m far too old, male, and un-hip to be able to understand such things.