The “other Portland.” Hip, indie and arty, Portland, Oregon, is a biking city straddling the twin banks of the Willamette River. This Northwest nirvana has more than enough natural beauty for outdoor buffs, plus more than its share of urban cool.
Though the West Coast Portland outgrew its East Coast namesake long ago, the two cities share striking similarities: an emphasis on locally sourced farm-fresh fare, a boisterous bar and brewery scene, vibrant arts community and most strikingly, an emphasis on green technology and sustainability.
In the 1840s it was a clearing on the west bank of the Willamette River used by travelers between Oregon and Washington. When it came time to name the new city, Francis Pettygrove of Portland, Maine, and Asa Lovejoy of Boston, Massachusetts, both wanted to name it after his own home town. They flipped a coin to decide. Pettygrove won the toss, and the city of Portland, Oregon, was named after Portland, Maine.
The city is renowned for its serious coffee culture and bold embrace of sustainable practices. Portland is home to a collection of independent coffee shops, diners, and cafes all contributing to its jovial, caffeinated ambiance. City stalwarts include Stumptown, Boyd’s, the city’s oldest, or Stepping Stone where robust local joe is served with a plate of “Mancakes.” Salt & Straw is a Portland ice-cream phenomenon with lines snaking around the block. Their coffee ice cream, made with Stumptown Ethiopian, gets a kick from hand-roasted Woodblock Chocolate cocoa nibs. And if you’re into tea, Portland has flavorful brews by Steven Smith, purveyor of artisanal full-leaf small-batch teas.
Known as the “City of Roses,” roses bloom everywhere in the other Portland – along highways, city streets and bike paths. They climb stone walls and adorn almost every private garden. The city actually has a rose test garden in an elegant corner of the 400-acre Washington Park, where we see rose species with names like “Baby Boomer,” and in colors like in apricot, yellow, and purple. Some are streaked with red like peonies – gorgeous. The views of Mount Hood aren’t bad, either.
Arts & Crafts
Walk to the Pearl District and pop into galleries as diverse as Bullseye, Blue Sky, and Church of Elvis. Keep going to the Museum of Contemporary Craft, home to over 1,000 works in clay, fiber, glass, metal and wood. Their current show, “Object Focus: The Bowl,” thrusts a commonplace object into the limelight with fascinating results. A new take on an old object, this smart exhibition could have you looking at your breakfast cereal in a whole new light.
Okay, there’s a line for fish tacos at the Alder Street Pod, but it moves quickly. This maze of food carts fills a whole city block where almost any country’s cuisine can be found. There is plenty of great Indian and Asian fare, plus eclectic bites at “Eurotrash” (try the piri-piri chicken), and more. We found this Pod in a sunny, walkable southwest corner near Pioneer Courthouse Square, but there are plenty more scattered around the city. We graze three pods during our stay, and one free-range hotdog stand, Franks-a-Lot, “a doggone good deal.” We attempt to walk it off along the Eastbank, an esplanade waterfront park on the Willamette River with gritty bridge and city views. Almost as nice as our own Back Cove walking trail. Almost.
Vibrant urban farmers markets are held throughout Portland connecting the area’s rich agricultural abundance with residents and visitors. Inspired? Grab some colorful beets and artichokes and make yourself a feast. Or become acquainted with the marionberry, an indigenous blackberry not to be confused with the infamous 1970s mayor of D.C. Wine Country
May is Wine Month here in Pinot Noir country, with 250 wineries from White Rose to Elk City. Like its little sister on the East Coast, this Portland embraces the sipping scene. West Coast pairings trend toward the surprising, with savory cured meats, escargot, or buffalo tenderloin. I’m sure you can find a traditional wine-and-chocolate pairing somewhere – but if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in the wrong Portland. Sample regional Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, an interesting whole-cluster (stems and all) Pinot Noir, or a Tempranillo – it’s all here. My favorite is a simple dry rosé, refreshing as a Maine sea breeze.
They’re everywhere – breweries, pubs and bars featuring hoppy artisanal brews. Among the loading docks, cobblestones and warehouses of the Pearl District, we check out Rogue Brewery. Rogue’s influence is national, with Dead Guy Ale served from Portland to Philadelphia. The bar features a poster-size photo of the former owner posing nude in her bathtub. She will remain over the bar for the life of the pub. Artisanal beers are sold at brew trucks in food pods, and served in mason jars – of course. Ah, Portlandia.
Don’t let the sun set without seeing Powell’s City of Books. The largest bookstore in the world, Powell’s occupies an entire city block, and stocks more than a million new and used books in nine amazing color-coded rooms. There is even a nifty iPhone app to help you navigate from obscure and out-of-print to contemporary best-sellers.
If you find a downtown block of books daunting, try the smaller, indie bookshops like Ampersand and Monograph, with their eclectic array of art, type, and photography books, plus art and vintage postcards. Definitely off the beaten track, these little shops around the corner give Portland its bookish character – “where all the hot girls wear glasses.”
Portland has earned many “bicycle-friendly city” awards, with a world class network of bike boulevards featuring a combination of street markings, signs, and signals – impressive. We spotted the boisterous Brew Cycle pedaling its way to the pubs and breweries in the Pearl neighborhood. It’s a crazy, human-powered, 10-15-person cycle pedaled from pub-to-pub in a cooperative effort – nifty, novel and best of all, relatively safe. Portland, Maine definitely has some catching up to do, bike-wise, but we’re on our way.
Wood Fired Wonderful
Another beloved wood-fired bistro is Ned Ludd, whose culinary craft is the brainchild of Portland, Maine native-son and chef Jason French. We indulge in a charcuterie board with house cured salumi and artisanal cheeses native to Oregon and the Left Coast. His roasted asparagus hits a high note as does his incredible whole roasted trout stuffed with fennel fronds. Jason’s woodsy “other Portland” aesthetic feels like home.
Oven & Shaker showcases the skill of James Beard winner Cathy Whims, whose wood-fired pizza and creative cocktails kept us coming back for more, more. Her lightly charred thin-crust anchovy pizza was the best ever, and the fennel sausage a revelation. Keep the 2:30 Happy Hour as “Plan B,” because at lunchtime you may not find a seat. And for off-the-beaten-track wood fired pizza, try Ken’s. One word: Amazing. Don’t miss his oven roasted squid in spicy tomato sauce. Heaven.
Olympic Provisions, also off the beaten track, caters to Left Coast appetites with American charcuterie so good that it regularly makes the best-of lists, locally and nationally. Both a New Yorker magazine and Oprah Winfrey favorite, Olympic’s tagline, “Meat Here,” says it all – a great taste of the other Portland.
No tale of the other Portland would be complete without a mention of the cultural phenomenon that is Voodoo Doughnuts. Across the street from the iconic “Keep Portland Weird” sign, the crowded spot features flavors like Bacon Maple Bar and Portland Creme topped with two eyeballs. Far-out doughnut flavors get even better up the street at Blue Star Donuts. Made with brioche flour, scrumptious flavors include an incredible Meyer lemon, and a berry-filled doughnut dusted with peanut butter powder – peanut butter and jelly’s star turn. Don’t miss the signature blueberry-basil-bourbon doughnut.
With the eponymous TV satire poking fun at its sophisticated aesthetic, progressive social values and easygoing, unprickly West Coast vibe, I was prepared to find our Left Coast sister city self-conscious and maybe even a little pretentious. But I left the “the other” Portland thoroughly charmed. In fact, I am already planning my next trip to the Left Coast. •