Prior to the invention of modern, industrial agriculture, all cuisine was farm-to-table cuisine. But the idea of cooking only what is fresh and local has emerged in recent years as a fundamental value for many chefs throughout the U.S, and Portland, Oregon is as responsible as anyone for re-introducing that idea to the American public and making it popular. But in Portland what began with a few pioneering chefs in the 1990’s is no longer a niche concept for fine dining establishments. Every menu in the city, including those printed on chalkboards or displayed in faux neon, is anxious to report they use only the freshest ingredients from local farmers. Hyper-localism defines the Portland food scene even more so that the ubiquitous food trucks.
But the paradox is that Portland and more generally the Pacific Northwest doesn’t really have a regional cuisine if we mean by that a collection of dishes or ingredients unique to a region and developed over many years, authentic versions of which you can find only in that location. Perhaps planked salmon was invented here by indigenous Native Americans but that is now available throughout the U.S. Nearby Willamette Valley is responsible for growing most of the hazelnuts consumed in the U.S. and local chefs use them to good effect in their dishes, but again you can find them anywhere. The only ingredient unique to the region is the marionberry, a genetic variant of blackberries with a more complex flavor, but only a perceptive connoisseur could distinguish them.
So what is a food-obsessed city to do if they lack a singular food tradition? Scavenge traditions for ideas and let the imagination run wild. Portland is a food circus, a culinary mash-up where the strangest of flavor partners can be married, divorced, and recombined while remaining blissfully ignorant of the dictates of convention—foie gras profiteroles anyone? This “break-the-rules” mentality has attracted a critical mass of young, talented chefs striving to create the next munchy merger to go viral. Happily, all this creativity is not concentrated in high-end restaurants. Funky, hole-in-wall, neighborhood bistros are just as likely as white tablecloth establishments to serve you something your parents wouldn’t consider food. Portland is the “punk-rock” underbelly of the food revolution—but with the freshest ingredients of course. After all there has to be something sacred—right?
With only a few hours in Portland, I scoured menus for dishes that would exemplify Portland’s anarchic food scene. Being a fennel freak I could not resist this dish on the breakfast menu of Meat Cheese Bread: two slices of firm, maple-currant bread pudding, grilled golden-brown, form a sandwich stuffed with a house-made sausage patty, melted, spiced cheddar cheese, and smothered in a pile of thinly sliced, crisp fennel. And they will put a fried-egg on top if you want. I know, I know. It sounds like a mess. But it works. Think a new take on pancakes with maple syrup and sausage but with the sweetness of the currants singing harmony with the fennel, which provides textural contrast as well, all held together by the cheese. A really inspired dish. And even the coffee to go is brewed in a French press. It’s a dumpy little place with a few tables, no table service, and lots of to-go traffic, serving one of the better dishes I’ve had this year. And where else will you find pulled pork and banh mi on the same menu?
Emboldened by that success, I decided to try the Donut Burger sliders, made famous by the more upscale downtown “dinerant”, The Original. Hmmmm. Some ideas are better left untried. A good restaurant overall, with outstanding poutine, a flakey-crusted chicken pot-pie that was spot-on, and a very competent steelhead trout sandwich with remoulade. But the donut burger sliders? The glazed donuts are house-made and appropriately sized with a pleasing crunchy exterior, sweet but not excessively so. The meat was of high quality, cooked just under medium, and topped with a good cheddar cheese. But there was no synergy, no savory-sweet lovemaking. It was a donut and a burger, Ginger Rogers dancing with Michael Jackson.
So it’s not quite right to say that Portland has no distinctive cuisine. What it lacks in tradition, it makes up for with a style that is relentlessly eclectic, creative to a fault, democratic, and very much aware of its mission.
And you will never get bored eating in Portland.