American food. Twinkies, Big Macs and orange cheese in a can. All that food we love to hate yet quietly inhale when no one’s looking. This is followed by guilt and wheatgrass.
What about air-dried smoked hams? Pickled cactus? Unpasteurised cheese? Barrel-fermented 13% beers released in tiny numbers? These aren’t merely the new affectations of a young food culture ripping off Europe’s master artisans. This is stuff Americans have been doing for centuries. There’s rum in those hams and American-grown hops in those American oak barrels. Those cheeses have got their very own American mouldy funk. And it’s all delicious.
As my partner and I drove into Portland over one of the many lime green iron bridges that span the Willamette, our first views of this industrial port town didn’t inspire visions of a foodie paradise. But we were to be pleasantly surprised to find that this town is
overflowing with food obsessives – both producers and customers. Anyone who saw the episode of Portlandia in which a couple spent ten minutes grilling a smiling waitress on the provenance of a chicken will have some appreciation of the commitment to food in this city.
Chances are whoever serves you will be young and tattooed and they will probably have cured that ham, made that cheese or be friends with whoever did.
At the Farmers Market on Saturday morning in University Square (the largest Farmers Market in Oregon) I came across three companies specialising in cured, fermented and dried meats. They were all amazing. These folks are not dilettantes. They know what they are doing. The stall, simply named The Butcher, particularly impressed me. His fennel salami cleverly contained aniseed as well to spin out the flavour from the rich bottom end of garlic and fennel to the delicate high notes of sweet anise. And that Easter ham! Just dry enough but oh so silky. I was sceptical about his curry salami – but I’m now one of the faithful.
The striking thing about these companies is the age of the owners. No gnarled Old Masters here. They’re young, knowledgeable and completely American.
Nestled in the charming but down at the heel North Portland, a group of us found Podnah’s Pit, a Texas BBQ joint of astounding quality. It’s a big, bare room with large windows and spare wooden tables with benches for seating. Putting down our names for a table, we squeezed into the packed bar area at one end of the room. With a huge selection of local microbrews on tap and bar snacks, the wait didn’t look like it was going to be much of a chore. Delicious house made pickled sausage, pickled eggs and crunchy pickled cactus with beer for five people came to $17. I was stunned. We rounded this off with some great cocktails and then it was time for our meat fest.
Between us we covered all the meats they smoke and slow roast in their hard oak fuelled pit. Melt in your mouth brisket, giant tender ribs, smoked house-made andouille sausage and pulled pork taken to the next level with tart vinegar chilli BBQ sauce. No fancy sweet glazes here, just salt, pepper and lots of love and patience. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that their sides were as good as the meat. All of us were floored by the brussels sprouts, pan seared with apple and onion. And the skillet corn bread with butter and honey! Its crunchy crust and moist crumbly interior were a revelation to me. Until that point I didn’t really get cornbread.
Portland sits on the Willamette River in the northern end of Oregon. It rains up here all the time. Consequently there is a lot of moss. Every roof, every tree is covered in the stuff. Lining the riverside are lots of railway tracks and industrial areas - cranes and silos, dripping with rust and decay. Smack in the middle of all this industry you’ll stumble across a museum or an opera house. Funky industrial building conversions with apartments and restaurants in them sit next to the many highways leading to the nine bridges that span the river. It gives Portland a strong sense of practicality and laid back pride in their industrial, port city roots.
Pok pok, probably the most famous Thai restaurant in the US, is a strong reflection of the practical evolution of this town. Andy Ricker started a Thai food cart in front of his house in the southeast of Portland and it took off. When you stand in front of the restaurant you can see his bungalow hidden underneath all the covered, heated patios and extensions that make up the place.
I never expected to find great Thai food in a place like Portland, but the man can really cook. Roast boar collar with a fiery hot dressing is served with mustard green stems under shaved ice to cool your mouth down. Genius! Possibly the greatest pork shoulder curry I’ve ever had with melt in your mouth pork and fine fragrant top notes of fresh turmeric and ginger. He also has an amazing list of cocktails, some employing his house made drinking vinegars, so refreshing with all the fiery and fatty food. Interestingly I found a Country Women’s Cook-book from Wisconsin circa 1915 that had some recipes for drinking vinegar. Another revived American craft.
Afterwards we strolled across the road to another Portland institution, a pod of food trucks. Ice creams, biscuit sandwiches, poutine (a Canadian dish of fries, fresh cheese curds and gravy), crepes…. all for a few dollars a serve. These pods are dotted across the city, often making the most of the late night, post boozing crowd. In the middle of this ring of trucks there often sits a marquee for diners. This one sported a wood-burning stove to keep the punters warm. Stationed next to it was a young folk band, serenading the diners. By this point I was seriously considering my chances in the green card lottery.
We strolled back to the car past the grass verges planted with vegies and blooming daffodils that lined the brick garden walls and made plans for our last meal in Portland the next morning.
Some young guys at the next table to ours in Podnah’s Pit had told us about a must-visit breakfast joint called Pine State Biscuits. I will be eternally grateful to them. It’s a simple operation in a nice cosy room. You bus your own tables when you’re done and you collect your own food from the cheerful, young tattooed staff that work the counter. You see this kind of food all over the states in breakfast joints but normally the quality can break your heart. Biscuits are basically large plain scones. Imagine one split in half and filled with a large piece of fried chicken, cheese, a fried egg and a ladleful of delicious rich brown sausage gravy. It sounds a little prosaic, perhaps, but trust me; it is a beautiful way to start the day. Collard greens, fried green tomatoes, hush puppies, country ham…these dishes are common but rarely great outside mamma’s kitchen.
As we left town after breakfast, quietly taking in our last views of mossy roofs and rust-streaked metal, I realise how little frou frou we encountered in Portland. Every time we ate, all that was on the plate was dedication and love of the craft. No squiggles, no sprigs. Plenty of times we were standing up. The prices reflect that too. By keeping their overheads down and removing the expensive surroundings of traditional restaurant service, they’re pricing their culinary dreams right into your mouth. As a fellow food obsessive, this makes me very happy.
Addresses and URLs for the businesses mentioned in this article:
Portland Farmers Market
This Saturday Market is located at Portland State University in the South Park Blocks between SW Hall & SW Montgomery. A close street address to this market is 1717 SW Park Avenue.
1625 NE Killingsworth, Portland
3226 SE Division St, Portland
Food Carts Portland
Pine State Biscuits
3640 SE Belmont St, Portland