Portland, Oregon, is quickly stealing Berkeley's mantle as the city that fresh, local, seasonal food built. Little wonder; Portland is surrounded by bounty—a mild climate allows a year-round growing season for farmers dedicated to sustainable agriculture; forested hills nearby yield wild mushrooms; small independent vineyards produce world-class wines; and the Pacific Ocean, which is just an hour away, provides succulent seafood.
There's also a passionate DIY ethic here. "Portland has excellent artisans—cheesemakers, winemakers, distillers, and dedicated organic farmers—producing incredible products, which allows us to be craft-centered in our approach as chefs. It's a sort of European, slow-food approach," says Jason French, chef/co-owner of Ned Ludd (503-288-6900), where nearly every dish is cooked in the restaurant's wood-burning oven, which lends a deliciously primal quality to standout dishes like meat pies and Moroccan-style braised lamb.
For one of the best examples of Portland's self-made spirit, check out Laurelhurst Market (503-206-3099). It's a specialty butcher shop by day and sleek meat-centric restaurant by night. Chef/owners Benjamin Dyer, Jason Owens, and David Kreifels source whole steers locally, butcher all the meat themselves, and list the daily featured cuts on a chalkboard beef diagram hung over the open kitchen. Nearly everything on the menu, from the mortadella on the charcuterie plate to the creamed Swiss chard that accompanies crisp veal sweetbreads, is house-made with keen attention to detail.
The downturn in the economy hit Portland hard (Oregon has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation), but that hasn't stopped entrepreneurs from reinventing the standard restaurant business model and starting new eateries that are micro and mobile. Along with Los Angeles, Portland is the epicenter of the food-cart craze that's currently rolling across the country. Thanks to the relative ease of getting a permit, and low overhead, approximately 440 food carts have popped up in the city, serving serious eats—from authentic Thai lemongrass chicken at Nong's Khao Man Gai (971-255-3480) to sweet-salty Korean barbecue tacos at Koi Fusion (503-997-6654), which announces its location daily via Twitter. The carts are so common that they now cluster in pods of four or more. The pod at SE 12th and Hawthorne offers up indulgences to late-night revelers—think fried fruit pies at Whiffies (503-946-6544) and cones of crisp Belgian-style fries with rosemary-tomato ketchup at a cart named Potato Champion.
In the early 1990s, Portland made a name for itself with microbrewed beers, spurred by dedicated brewers who used Pacific Northwest hops. Now, a new quaffable revolution is afoot: craft distilleries. Of the 100 or so micro distilleries in the country, 20 of them are in Oregon. The heart of the artisan libation scene can be found in an industrial neighborhood in inner Southeast Portland, where a group of 5 independent distilleries have set up shop in what is now known as Distillery Row. They're making everything from absinthe to vodka for a welcoming audience.
"Portland is very conducive to innovation, but it takes more than desire and knowledge to make great spirits; it requires a willing public," explains Lee Medoff, co-owner of House Spirits (503-235-3174), a 5-year-old distillery that concocts herby Dutch-style Aviation Gin and bracing Swedish Krogstad aquavit. "Portlanders overwhelmingly support local products, which is part and parcel to our success."
BREAKFAST: Beast or Simpatica Dining Hall
On weekends, Portlanders fuel up on large, cozy breakfasts before heading out into the great outdoors to hike, bike, or ski nearby Mount Hood. Before you join them, reserve a seat at one of the two communal tables at Beast and linger over their luxurious 4-course prix fixe brunch. The menu changes weekly but might include crepes with seasonal fruit, duck confit and chanterelle hash, baby greens with a trio of local cheeses, and a mini fruit soufflé. At Simpatica Dining Hall, shared tables and stiff coffee promote bonhomie over familiar breakfast fare with seasonal twists, like savory crepes stuffed with squash and house-cured bacon, or a frittata brimming with freshly foraged morels.
Go there: Beast, 503-841-6968; Simpatica Dining Hall (503-235-1600)
Make it at home: Frittata with Morels, Fava Beans, and Pecorino Romano Cheese recipe
LUNCH: Garden State Cart
One of Portland's healthiest choices is Garden State Cart, where ingredients like locally raised free-range chicken and vegetables direct from a partnering farm are done up Mediterranean-style. From meatball heroes made with grass-fed beef to the crispy garbanzo bean sandwiches with grilled seasonal veggies, there's something for everyone.
Go there: Garden State Cart, 503-705-5273
Make it at home: Chickpea, Bread, and Leek Soup with Harissa and Yogurt recipe
DINNER: Beaker and Flask
The buzz in the air at the stylish new bar/restaurant hybrid Beaker and Flask likely emanates from the used bourbon barrels that serve as bar tables. At the bar, mixologists do their thing with homemade bitters, infusions, and local spirits. Foodies stay for the notable fare made by Chef Ben Bettinger, formerly of the award-winning Paley's Place. Dishes like his fried razor clams and beet salad dressed with horseradish cream and house-smoked mackerel atop herby potato salad with Dungeness crab bring together some of the best ingredients Oregon has to offer.
Go there: Beaker and Flask, 503-235-8180
Make it at home: Flank Steak with Roasted Endive, Spring Onion Agrodolce, and Arugula recipe