Between the chill vibe and the outstanding culinary scene, I ended up gaining about eight pounds when I visited Portland, Ore. for the first time about a year ago. Now, I’m fiending to return to the food carts, microbreweries, and farm-to-table restaurants that made me feel like I was in an adult amusement park for indulgence and it just so happens that right now couldn’t be a better time to go. The reason: March is Dining Month in Rip City, and that means $29 three-course dinners are there to be savored at every hot-spot in town.
It might be two weeks into the month, but I’m a glass-half-full type of guy.
Here are some of Portland Dining Month’s mouthwatering highlights:
2014 marks the 20th anniversary of Greg Higgins’ namesake eatery, where he won a James Beard Award in 2002 for Best Chef Northwest/Hawaii with his organically focused, regional food. I’m sure you’d never dine alone, but just in case you were thinking of going solo, don’t. It’s too tough to choose between the selections being offered for each of the first two courses, so bring a date, order everything and dine smorgasbord-style. The first course features a warm beet salad with Alsea Acres chevre, beet greens, and walnut vinaigrette, or Alsatian country-style terrine with pork and duck, dried cherries and hazelnuts. The second course has risotto with nettles, leeks, and pecorino romano vying for supremacy against a citrus- and coriander-grilled thick-cut pork chop with braised greens, crushed potatoes, and pan juices. For dessert, Higgins makes it easy: everyone gets the Clear Creek pear brandy-infused crème brûlée. Local Portland fare at its finest.
For a three-course meal that shuns dessert in favor of a savory trifecta of small plates of “inauthentic Asian cuisine,” head to this 40-seater in Portland’s northeast quadrant. An open kitchen ensures you’ll work up an appetite before anything arrives at your table. The drinks from the connected bar, dubbed Barwares, such as local wines from Willamette Valley and expertly curated sakes will ease you into the ethereal experience. The first course is scallop sashimi with den miso, yuzu kosho (a Japanese condiment consisting of a fermented blend of chili peppers, yuzu peel and salt with a pasty consistency — FYI, yuzu is a citrus fruit popular in Japan that is thought to be a cross between sour mandarin and ichang papeda, two other Asian citruses), pickled shallots, and puffed rice; second course is mixed greens with charred lemon boquerone vinaigrette, nori croutons, avocado, and kochukaru (a spicy Korean red chili powder); and for third course, you have to choose between these contenders: spicy tofu noodles with Thai basil, pickled pineapple and salted black bean, or braised pork shoulder with squash purée, roasted mushrooms, smoked honey and Chinese mustard. It’s inspired, open-minded Asian fusion from one of Portland’s exciting new players.
Helmed by Vitaly Paley, another James Beard Award winning chef, this downtown restaurant focuses on simple, seasonal food highlighted by flavor imbued by a local hardwood- and fruitwood-burning grill and rotisserie. Supposedly, the food is pretty healthy too. Here are the Dining Month dishes that, miraculously, won’t add any inches to your waist: First course is a salad of butter lettuce, radishes, and croutons with buttermilk-tarragon dressing; second-course is braised lamb shoulder with cauliflower “couscous,” preserved lemon, olives, and curried cashew brittle; and for the finishing touch, an almond torte with marmalade and honey-yogurt cream is rewarded to those who saved room.
Don’t hold us to that.
This Northwest Portland brewery is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to 1986, and it always has at least 12 beers on tap. The beauty of the three courses offered for Dining Month is that each is complemented by a six-ounce pour of specially paired suds. Courses include a house salad served with spring seasonal ale; baked wild salmon with herbed Dijon butter, baby potatoes and sautéed greens (matched with MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale); or house-smoked St. Louis ribs with apple-IPA barbecue sauce, grilled polenta, and sautéed greens (coupled with hoppy IPA); and for dessert, the Nanaimo Bar — a triple threat of cookie, cream, and chocolate layered together and topped with salted caramel sauce (and made even better with a glass of dark specialty brew). Cheers to local beers!
And these picks make up only a miniscule percentage of the participating restaurants. There are plenty of others serving up cuisines from every corner of the world, as well as innumerable food carts nestled together in outdoor lots across the city — some of which serve up eats as satisfying as what you’ll get at the establishments with cushioned seats, white tablecloths, and, well, roofs. I fondly remember driving across town at 2 a.m. from my hotel to the food carts at Hawthorne Blvd. and SE 12 Ave. to get amazing poutine with squeaky cheddar cheese curds from the illustrious Potato Champion (when you hear the squeak of the curds as you chew, that means it’s legitimate poutine; you can ask any Canadian or Google for verification). In a week and a half, my lady and I did this three times. Then there’s the must-visit, cash-only Voodoo Doughnut, from which we killed an entire box of grape ape, triple-chocolate penetration doughnuts, and multiple maple–bacon bars, including the monstrous treat you see me chowing down on in that handsome thumbnail photo.
Oh, Portland: you have no shortage of cool places to pig out.
Even if you don’t make it there for Dining Month, that’s okay: Portland has gastronomic events going on throughout the year like June’s North American Organic Brewers Festival, July’s Portland International Beer Festival, the Oregon Brewers Festival, and September’s Feast Portland, an epic epicurean event that includes star chefs from around the world cooking with awesome Oregon ingredients. You’ll always be able to plan a remarkable culinary vacation in this fine city. Just remember to pack an umbrella. Don’t worry if you forget, it’s not such a big deal because there’s no sales tax in Portland, which adds another alluring element to its intrigue.
Maybe you’ll even want to plan a wardrobe update and pack an empty suitcase; with excellent meals at every turn, you might be wearing a different size by the time you’re ready to fly home. (I kid, I kid!)