Saturday, March 12, 2016

Trip to Portland, Oregon - the anti-Bratislava

Not long after arriving in Portland for an extended weekend trip, I proclaimed, "Portland is the anti-Bratislava!" This is because many of Portland's neighborhoods are spilling over with interesting, hip, innovative, diverse, and sometimes genuinely great eating options. These range from empty lots covered in food trucks, to strips spanning several blocks lined with a dizzying array of independent-minded restaurants, pubs, and cafes. Choosing where to go can seem so overwhelming that in some areas you can just close your eyes, spin around a few times, and point, and the place you end up at will probably be, at the very least, interesting.

By contrast, in Bratislava, Terezia and I would probably have considerable difficulty coming up with more than five truly great restaurants (a few of which, like Liviano are honestly wonderful, however).

But Portland's appeal is not just about food. The city has become a magnet for creative, driven weirdo artist types who want to leave their mark, and this instills the town with a palpable energy. In addition to all the food, Portland's got a vibrant indie music scene, lots of artists, and a strong sense of progressive-minded activism, which adds to the energy and further sets it apart from Bratislava, where a general sense of conservatism and fitting in are much more the norm.

Of course, this also brings to Portland things that can be a little silly, like the current proliferation of what appear to be hipster barber shops catering to lanky 20-something dudes with lumberjack beards who need to keep their trendy 80s coifs immaculately shaped and sculpted.

But it also makes Portland feel incredibly inhabitable - like, you'd never really get bored if you lived there. Each time I go to Portland, I come away feeling as if I could live there and be happy. Terezia felt exactly the same way after this trip.

Portland also boasts a mind-boggling number of shops overflowing with insanely cool, used, mid-20th-century modern furniture. You could spend a couple of days trying to visit each and every one, and we only made it to about half the shops on my list. Sadly, we couldn't buy any of this stuff because we had no way of taking it back with us on the plane, but for us it's like walking through a museum of insanely cool, artful designs. Just the amount of pastel-colored, atomic patterned 50s lampshades alone is astounding. (You used to be able to find some of this stuff in the Bay Area a couple decades ago, but it was largely picked over by the early 00s, and when you come across it today, you're going to pay top dollar.)

At any rate, we decided to take a little trip somewhere to celebrate Terezia's 40th birthday. Terezia had never been to Portland, and I hadn't been since 2009, so we were clearly overdue for an excursion there.

Also, the Bay Area can feel a little isolated at times because the closest large metropolitan areas are really far away. LA is a seven-hour drive, and it takes about 12 hours to reach Portland by car (making the hour-and-a-half long flight incredibly appealing). One of the cool things about Bratislava (and Europe in general) was that we had such easy access to so many insanely cool cities (Vienna was an hour-long train ride away; Budapest about 2.5 hours; Prague was four hours, etc.). While Bay Area folks do have easy access to vast, beautiful, and extremely diverse expanses of nature, we've been pining to spend a little time in another city, and that's not as easy to do.

The forecast basically said it was going to rain the entire time we were there. We lucked out: we encountered very little rain, despite cloudy, occasionally ominous looking skies, and the only torrential downpour we were caught in barely lasted five minutes.

We stayed at a cool B&B (with lots of early 20th-century detail) in the SE, near SE Division and Caesar Chavez, nestled in a beautiful neighborhood filled with the early 20th-century bungalow style houses and narrow, lush, tree-lined streets that are typical of Portland.

That Portland's various fruit and magnolia trees were in the midst of their mid-winter bloom, with vibrant explosions of white and pink on seemingly every street, was a nice bonus.

SE Hawthorne has always kind of been Portland's Telegraph Ave or Haight Street, with a strip that contains all the things that usually attract artists and freaks. It boasts the city's best (and only truly decent, that I've seen) used record store (Crossroads Music); several used clothing stores with an array of unique and pleasantly weird stuff; numerous atmospheric cafes; funky, historic, art-house cinemas; and lots of the aforementioned eating options.

But Hawthorne's got some competition. SE Division, closer to where we were staying, is becoming increasingly interesting, and up in the North East (NE) area you've got several blocks of Alberta lined with a vast array of cool shops and restaurants, as well as a few-block stretch on Mississippi, not to mention many smaller pockets sprinkled around the city.

The Food

For lunch Friday we ended up at a sandwich place on SE Hawthorne that I'd read about called Lardo. Lardo specializes in pork stuff, and I have to say, Portland seems to have been hit with a deluge of pork products, to the point where the place is at risk of cheesily being referred to as Porkland. In fact, it seems that if you're vegan/gluten-free, or super obsessed with pork, Portland is the city for you.

At any rate, Lardo had a long line, requisite hipster staff, and pretty darn tasty sandwiches. We ordered the pork meatball banh mi, which was extremely good, and a smoked pork shoulder thing that was fine, but gave off a slight aftertaste of artificial smoked flavor. The banh mi was totally worth it, though.

For dinner Friday night we went to the super trendy Pok Pok, Portland's most popular Thai restaurant. Pok Pok eschews all the usual Thai curries, soups, and noodle dishes in favor of what's purported to be authentic Thai street food. I'd been there once before in 2009 and I liked it enough to want to come back.

Pok Pok doesn't take reservations for parties with fewer than five people, and the wait to get in is notoriously long if you show up after 6:00. We got there closer to 5:00 and were seated right away!

We started with the spicy chicken wings, one of their signature apps. Tender wings were slathered in a spicy, flavorful, sweet/savory sauce that was layered, rich, and tasty.

For the mains we had the pork belly/shoulder curry, and a dish consisting of ground duck meat and liver served with heaps of cilantro and other herbs. The pork curry was insanely good, with awesomely tender and flavorful pork and a uniquely sweet curry sauce. The duck thing was good, but if the menu hadn't said that the ground meat was duck, we'd have had no idea what it was. Still, the meal was genuinely great and I appreciate their innovative approach to the cuisine. Of course, if I were living in Portland, I'd still want to find a great Thai joint that does the usual curries and noodle dishes too, since Pok Pok is not the place to go when you're in the mood for that kind of thing.

Afterwards, we walked off the meal by strolling from SE Division to Hawthorne, then headed several blocks east up Hawthorne, before rounding back to the B&B. Portland's picturesque SE area is perfect for aimless wandering, and taking advantage of the weirdly cooperative weather seemed like a no-brainer.

Since we gorged on pork Friday, we were craving something light and green the next day, so for lunch we went to some brunch/lunch place on Hawthorne that had salads on the menu, which were decent.

For dinner we met up with an ex of mine who I hadn't seen in years at a southern comfort food place called Screen Door, over on SE Burnside. My ex relocated to Portland last year and we got to hear all about her move, her super cool job, and how she's been adjusting after living in San Diego for nearly a decade.

I've been told that many restaurants in Portland, for whatever reason, just don't take reservations. Unless it's a chi-chi kind of joint, any good restaurant will have a line out the door that starts quickly expanding soon after it opens. You know that Portlandia episode about the trendy, new breakfast place with the line to get in that snakes all over town? That's not too far off the mark! I mean, sure, you can encounter lines in Berkeley/Oakland/SF, but they're still less common and easier to avoid.

At any rate, we met at Screen Door at 6:00 and we were told when putting our name on the list that we had an hour-long wait ahead of us.

Since we were busy catching up and being social, Terezia and I didn't scrutinize the food as closely, and I neglected to take any photos. The dishes were a filling and tasty take on southern cuisine, not unlike Angeline's in Berkeley. My plate of shrimp and grits was certainly satisfying. Terezia enjoyed a plate that included some tasty fried chicken liver.

On Sunday night, we hit up Little Bird, a French-inspired restaurant in the heart of downtown. Little Bird has won the James Beard award and it's been making quite a buzz. Most of the food we had definitely justified the fuss. The highlight of the evening was the seared foie gras, an intensely flavorful and richly complex appetizer. A seriously good radicchio salad was surprisingly well balanced and not bitter, accompanied as it was by pistachios and orange wedges.

For the main, I ordered the duck confit, which had a sublimely crispy skin, with tender, juicy meat underneath, and came served over a bed of rice mixed with crisp little squares of pastrami and chestnuts.

Terezia ordered what was actually a loose, playful, Japanese-inspired interpretation of coq-au-vin - kind of misleadingly so, actually, as none of the Japanese accents were even hinted at in the menu description. First off, the chicken was fried, but rather than deep fried, it was done tempura style, and it came in a sauce - the "vin" - that had a sweet/sour Japanese flavor. The whole thing sat on a bed of mashed potatoes with an array of mushrooms. Overall, really nicely done, and we'd both go back.

Other excursions, stray thoughts, and random observations

We did a few touristy things like visit the Japanese Tea Garden and the Rose Garden, both of which are actually worth seeing, in part because of their extremely green setting in Washington Park.

We also went to Powell's, one of the most sprawling and massive bookstores in the country. Their cooking selection alone is big enough to be its own bookstore. Terezia was overwhelmed. If we lived in Portland we'd be coming here all the time. Getting totally lost in Powell's is a must for any visitor to Portland who likes to read.

Sunday we met up with my old friend and former musical partner Wade and his girlfriend Helen. Wade moved to Portland nearly 10 years ago and he seems happy there. After piddling around a bit on the hip stretch of Mississippi and stopping for lunch and some very good ice cream there, Wade drove us over to the Skidmore bluffs, a field at the top of a steep hill that overlooks the railroad yard, and the Willamette river and downtown Portland and Forest Park beyond it. This is a place where hippies apparently like to go and get stoned while watching the sunset on nice evenings.

Even though we flew to Portland, we rented a car for getting around town. Portlanders tell me their public transit system is great, but navigating Portland by car is super easy. Plus, things are really spread out, and I do kind of question whether Portland's public transportation could whisk one around as efficiently as, say, the Paris metro. Portland is a pretty bike-friendly city too, and you see lots of cyclists out, even in shitty weather. Much of Portland on the eastern side of the river is quite flat, making it even more conducive to getting around on bike.

Portland's rental market is, by all accounts, insane. It's not as expensive as Oakland or San Francisco, but the city is still having a hard time meeting demand due to the never-ending influx of newcomers, so finding a decent, affordable one-bedroom apartment in a cooler part of town is insanely difficult and time consuming. Some say it's easier to buy in Portland than to rent, but home prices are steadily rising there as well, though they're still nowhere near as bonkers as the Bay Area. It seems the era of Portland being an affordable but hip alternative to the Bay Area is eventually going to come to an end.

Portland's most significant point deduction, however, comes from its relative lack of ethnic diversity. While Portland is definitely more diverse than, say, Bratislava, it's still much whiter than San Francisco or LA. One of my Portland friends once said that Portland is probably the most non-diverse city that badly wants to be diverse. But it's all relative. I mean, on any given day, you will definitely see more minorities walking around Portland than in Bratislava. Portland also has a staggering number of ethnic restaurants (especially Thai – it's as if the city passed a local ordinance requiring every block to have at least two Thai restaurants). So, yes, it's a pretty white city overall, but it has enough going on culturally to keep things interesting, and it's still much better off than Bratislava!

Finding work in Portland can also be difficult. Aside from a handful of big companies, there's just not a lot going on, and compared to SF and Seattle, there's apparently not much of a tech industry there (not yet, anyway). This means that some people who move to Portland end up waiting tables or doing similar work that likely pays a lot less than whatever they did wherever they were living before. It used to be that people could make this work because Portland was so affordable, but now the Portland dream is becoming less attainable.

Would we live in Portland? Sure! Will we go back? Definitely. I've actually lost a number of friends to Portland, and we only got to see a few of them on this trip (to those of you we didn't see this time, I apologize profusely! Next time, I promise!) I hope we make it back in the not-too-distant future.

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