Us: Innovative chefs. Glorious natural resources. Enterprising foragers. Food carts. Farm-to-table kitchens.
Them: The same thing.
But Karen Brooks, the definitive writer on Portland’s food scene for the past few decades, makes a mighty case that our culinary neighbors have more than a food scene, they have a revolution. In her new book, “The Mighty Gastropolis” (co-authored with Gideon Bosker and Teri Gelber), she uses chef profiles, essays and pivotal recipes to argue that Portland’s wild, “casual gastronomy” provides fine food to a mass audience in a way that no other American city does.
Brooks, who will appear at Book Larder at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 18, said in a phone interview that Portland actually benefited from its years in Seattle’s shadow, before exploding onto “the front burner” of the national food scene. Whether she’s describing Pok Pok’s chicken wings or Portlandia’s “Is It Local?” chicken episode, talking with her would make even the most boosterish Seattleite hungry for a trip south. Here’s a condensed, edited version of our conversation:
Q: What happened between Seattle and Portland when it came to food? Aren’t we the place having a national renaissance right now?
A: “I always thought that Portland got a seat at the kids table, while Seattle sat with the big boys. This was not just the food scene, this was everything — look at the music scene! … People thought there were wagon trains out here, it was so far off the radar. Seattle had more money at the end of the day, and money changes everything. For Portland, that turned out to be a gift. Portland chefs took risks, they made up the rules, they weren’t expected to compete … and in the process they produced their own food movement.”
Q: Is it going to be swallowed up by celebrity, as with Seattle’s music scene? What happens now that your chefs are opening outlets in Manhattan?
A: “We’re going to go through some growing pains, absolutely, and Portland’s being judged in a way it never was before. I do feel Portland is a think tank. It’s an incubator. Original and commitment is the currency here, and I don’t see that changing.”
Q: A Seattle food-lover is heading to Portland for the first time. Where to eat?
A: “Everything starts with coffee in Portland. I would go right to the nerve center of Portlandia, a place called Courier Coffee Roasters, where the bike-riding micro-roasting owner hand-writes his commitments on every bag of beans — literally, including his cellphone number. I love the coffee, I love the vibe of the place. Breakfast? Tasty n Sons, North African meets Southern cooking. I would grab lunch at Evoe, which is also in the book, this little house of hyperlocal worship attached to a boutique grocery store … then for dinner, I still feel Pok Pok and Le Pigeon are two iconic, defining restaurants. Go to whichever one you can get into.”
Q: If our time is limited in Portland, which food carts should we check out?
A: “The absolute must is downtown, Nong’s Khao Man Gai. It has one dish only, chicken and rice with Thai sauce. It’s completely addictive. I know people who eat there every day. Not far from there is a place called the People’s Pig, which I also really like — he grinds his own pork shoulder and pork belly and makes a patty, and he poaches it and grills it over a mesquite fire and serves it with his own pickled onions. He only has 3-4 things a day, and they’re always really good and interesting. There’s a place that I really like that’s in the book, called The Big Egg. They make the best fried egg sandwiches you’ve ever had. Each one takes about 20 minutes to make — this is not a fast-food movement. … And Sugar Cube, which is also in the book, she’s doing amazing desserts, and the best cupcakes I’ve ever eaten were out of her cart.”
Q: Tell me about deciding to name Pok Pok the restaurant of the year at the Oregonian in 2007, which helped its leap to national fame.
A: “The debate was between Pok Pok and Le Pigeon. That’s a pretty sweet conversation. Pok Pok, (at that point), was barely more than a chicken shack in the front yard of a residential neighborhood. It was a far cry from what it is today…I just felt in a gut instinct it was important. I was not thinking ‘The food world’s going to have a crush on this place and come here and Portland’s going to end up on the the front burner of conversations.”
Q: Could you have written this book back then?
A: What happened between (then) and now is a complete magnitude of difference, from having a group of sort of charming rogues and brilliant outside chefs, to now it feels like the whole city is in on it…To me, Portland now has — it’s not a traditional cuisine, but it’s sort of a bona fide what I call the Portland school of gastronomy. Come as you are, do it yourself.”
Q: All the recipes have some significance for the city, except that you asked Gabriel Rucker at Le Pigeon to create a recipe for you on the spot.
A: “I had been writing in reviews and interviews how he (works) off the cuff, so I thought as part of my reporting I wanted to see that. So I zipped over there one day and said, Ok, show me how you do it. And he literally said, ‘I just take a tub of @$#, and I go’… Off the top of his head, he said, let’s do barbecued pigeon with dirty potato salad. He loves barbecue sauce, so that was going to be part of it. (He said) barbecue sauce, let’s take some prune juice and Chinese mustard — prune juice, I’ve never done that in barbecue!..He sat there in front of me, whacking off the (squab) heads and cleaning them. I actually got kind of woozy — what a wimp. It was a little like a scene from Goodfellows, but it was fascinating to see in action how his mind worked.”
Q: Was it good?
A: “Fantastic. It was almost hard to describe. He’s able to channel, in a way that’s fusion — but a little Asian, French, New Orleans — something unlike anything you had ever tasted. He’ll double and triple flavors so that… he finds three or four different entry points to the same food, hidden in those layers.”
Q: You say everyone is welcome in the Portland food scene. Where does that come from?
A: “Low barriers to entry. There’s access to affordable space and storefronts. Essentially in Portland anyone with an idea or a dream — it could be the sous chef or the dishwasher or the guy who drops everything at age 30 and goes ‘I want to make chocolate’ — you can find a way to do that here. I don’t know what rents are in Seattle, but from what I’ve heard space is prohibitive. (In Portland) the liquor licenses cost $500, it’s among the cheapest in the U.S. … (and) there’s a culture here willing to follow as long as the ideas are good … it seems every citizen has a beehive, or they have their chickens. I feel it’s the city that defied the gods of gastronomy, and there’s a feeling that everybody is in it. Your manicurist and the mayor, everyone is asking the same question: “Have you been to Blue Star Donuts yet”?
Q: Blue Star Donuts? I haven’t heard of them.
A: They’re new. They’re very good.
Photos courtesy of Karen Brooks and Gideon Bosker