Food carts. Portland Food Tour

Food Carts, Portland.

The Oregon ‘Silicon Forest’ is home to the Nike and Intel campuses. There are stunning views of the Columbia Gorge, Mount Hood and verdant coastline villages. The hip and quirky citizenry is legendary.  It all pales to Portland’s reverence for its culinary accomplishments. When you visit, a Portland food tour is the way to tap into the heart of the city.
Why is the food so good?
One theory is it’s the weather. My proof is subjective after spending several years in Seattle, Portland and Juneau. In Juneau it rains for months. There are a few weeks of terrifying wind storms, a few bouts with black ice, but mostly it’s wet. A wet world drives our communal spirits inward. We seek company in our challenge to stay warm. I was never as social, or ate and cooked as well as in that rainforest clime.
A wet world drives our communal spirits inward.
Portland is much milder and yet the months of mist and precipitation turn neighbor to neighbor for commiseration, fill restaurants, the arts flourish, and sports events sell out. When I returned for a few days, it was easy to follow up on a friend’s recommendation that I take one of the Portland Walking Tours and their Epicurean Experience sounded perfect.
Public Domain, downtown, Portland walking tour

Public Domain, downtown Portland

On the day of the tour, I showed up early at the Pioneer Square office. The staff assured me there was time to get coffee, then they pointed me to Public Domain, two blocks away. My Americano was smooth and perfectly paired with a buckwheat and fig scone, neither overly sweet or too dry. The day was off to a good start.
Back at the office, I met Joe, our guide, and a fellow writer with a gaggle of locals. One family was celebrating a teenage daughters birthday with a few of her friends (such good taste) and my other companions were a couple who’d been living in the area for several years but wanted to explore the food scene more.
Cacao served three ways. Portland food tour.

Cacao served three ways. Photo: Yoko Omi via Trover

Highlights from the Epicurean Excursion Portland Food Tour.

The Cacao Drink Chocolate Shop

In the shiny, petite corner shop, Cacao roasts Cacao beans and serves them, as Aztecs once did, ground with nuts, peppers and water into a kind of porridge. The Spanish and Portuguese made theirs originally with flour or potato starch, so ‘a Churro could stand up in it.’ We sipped a French style brew made with 72% cacao from small cups. In Europe chocolate needs to be 30% cacao but in the U.S. it’s only 10%. Our guide, Joe, joked that U.S. chocolate merely had to be “in same room as a cacao bean at some point.” Flavors can run fruity, to sandalwood or saddle leather, rosemary and mushroom. Theobromain is the stimulant in cacao with more caffeine yet a gentler peak and longer high than coffee.
Taste test at the Flying Elephant Deli
At the base of Fox Tower we entered the Elephant Deli. Our task was a test to determine what was in the orange soup. While the surprise ingredient, orange, was published in the Oregonian newspaper, its still a hard recipe to duplicate. There are several Elephant Delis based working with local ingredients and a green mission since 1979. Given good weather, one day I look forward to carrying one of their lunches down to the riverfront for picnic. Parking’s no problem downtown with six stories of underground parking in the square across the street.
Benson Bubbler Fountain, Portland food tour.

Benson Bubbler Fountain. Photo Frank Byzinski via Trover

Simon Benson’s Bubblers
As we walked through town we passed several bronze, drinking faucets. Joe told us about their origin. Simon Benson owned several factories in the area and believed that alcohol made his workers less efficient. In his day you couldn’t order water in a saloon, you had to order a drink first, and then request water. Workers came back from lunch drunk! Vincent created twenty water fountains for the public. Today there are fifty-two including one in Portland’s sister city, Sapporo. Download a map of all the Portland Bubblers.
Dumpling from Kari Gogo, Portland Walking Tour

Dumpling from Kargi Gogo Portland

Food cart mania
You can hardly cross a Portland street without seeing a food cart. There are over 700 in the city. We stopped the largest POD at 10th and Alder streets with over 50 carts.
The Aybla Grill has five locations and is owned by Said from Syria. We were served the most delicious Falafel ball ever. It was warm and crunchy on the outside but nearly pudding inside. Said was a Hilton Hotel chef and quit to start his first food cart.

Our second stop was even more exotic. The food at Kargi Gogo is from Russia’s Georgian region. From the cart window we were handed a small dish filled with one, fist-sized Khinkali – a boiled, twisted dumpling. It was bliss to bite into the thick noodle to flavorful broth and succulent stewed meat. I can see how they were one of the top ten food carts of 2013.

Stumptown Coffee Roaster
Joe described the three waves of coffee drinking in the U.S.
1. I grew up with the first – canned coffee delivery systems. My Mom was a fan of percolated Folgers and Maxwell House ground coffees.
2. Peets and Starbucks – Their drink delivery systems normalized coffee as a culinary item to sip and enjoy.
3. Unadorned coffee – This third wave is about the beans and coffee itself. Each variety tastes good and is like wine in descriptions – bright, citrusy, spicey, etc. If it’s burnt or bitter the beans have been poorly roasted. There’s much more to coffee history from around the world but I won’t forget the pour over from Stumptown. The Salmon Street headquarters has been serving since 2012 in the former lumber factory building.
The Simpsons at Kenny and Zukes
On the window at Kenny and Zukes Deli, adjacent to Stumptown, is a cartoon signed by Matt Groenig. Portland is his home base and there are references to the Simpsons all around town. Joe told us that Lincoln High School, Groenig’s alma mater, has his book, High School is Hell, in the trophy case.
Pearl Bakery, Portland Food Tour

Pearl Bakery, Portland Food Tour

Hairnets and whole grains
Joe handed each of us a folded tissue paper just before we entered the Pearl Bakery.  If we wanted to slip ‘backstage’ we had to wear hairnets. Most of their breads and confections are made in large batches. Every flour and ingredient is measured for consistency. The Pearl uses local ingredients as much as possible, like Shepard’s Grain from Spokane. Julia Child once gave her stamp of approval to their baguettes, which we dipped into with olive oil and a tray of sweet breads that included a dry chocolate, their signature French roll and a croissant.
You’d think we’d reached our limit but as the day was warm and we were a small group, Joe steered us away from the MAX line shuttle and we strode on to visit three more venues. You’ll just have to sign up to find out what else is on the menu when you take a food tour of Portland.
The Portland Walking Tours Epicurean Excursion lasted about 3 and a half hours. It departs most days at 10am from Pioneer Square and is only one of many tours they host daily. You can check the schedule and purchase tickets online or at the box office.
Portland food tour highlight links:

Share this post on Pinterest:

Portland Food Tour

Byways Cafe photo by K2 via Trover
Many thanks to Alexa Meisler for the referral and to Portland Walking Tours for hosting me. As always every bite and description is my own. As they say on the infomercials, results may vary.