It seems like lately we have been living our best lives in the Pacific Northwest, interrupted only by our work schedules back home on the East coast. At the beginning of July we road tripped from Seattle to Vancouver to watch the Women’s World Cup Final, and at the end of July, Rufio and I met in Portland (on very rare open standby flights, no less) to find out if it is as weird as the locals claim. Though we had very different itineraries and experiences in each place, one theme tied these trips together: we ate and drank like bacchanals. Here’s my weekend getaway guide to eating and drinking like a local in the Pacific Northwest.
When you think of Pacific Northwest cuisine, you almost immediately think of seafood, and heaps of it. From the frenzied fish tossing at Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market to the sleepy roadside oyster shacks along Samish Bay, the region has a love affair with the sea. We took every opportunity we could to enjoy raw oysters, delicate wild salmon and so much more.
The Oyster Bar
Our best bet for getting to Vancouver on standby was to fly into Seattle, rent a car and drive north across the border. We didn’t have much of a plan, so when we read about the scenic detour snaking along the coast, Chuckanut Drive, we decided it might be the perfect place to find a great seafood lunch. We were right.
We were looking for a variety of local oyster choices and a great view, so The Oyster Bar at mile 10 perfectly fit the bill. I called to make a reservation, requesting a patio seat, but I was warned the patio was full and seating was on a first come basis. Luckily when we arrived one tiny table had just opened, nestled in the tall evergreens with a sweeping view of Samish Bay and the low tide-exposed Taylor Shellfish Farm below.
The Oyster Bar originally functioned as a roadside oyster stand and, despite its reputation as a fine dining establishment, it retains a rustic charm. The patio is by far the premier place to sit, but both the upstairs and lower dining areas have huge windows to allow views of the beautiful coast.
The menu boasts at least a dozen local and regional oyster varieties, complete with the bay from whence they were sourced and a tasting profile. We selected oysters from Totten Inlet, Snow Creek, Malpeque and the innovative local shigokus. Each bite offered a new sensation, from seaweed and iron to salty cucumber.
For our mains we both chose salmon, Rufio the cedar roasted king salmon with morels and fiddlehead ferns and I the unorthodox in-house cured salmon pastrami sandwich with smoked sauerkraut. We are usually wary of salmon, but here the preparation showcased all that is great about this fish. We enjoyed our meals as we gazed through the tall trees and out over the bay. It was a lovely introduction to the beauty of the Pacific Northwest
On our last night in Portland I desperately wanted seafood, but was hesitant about a place with “crawfish” in the name. It brought to mind a kitschy N’awlins themed restaurant, but the reality was far different. Established in 1892, the space retains the character and atmosphere of its early days. The menu changes daily, offering the freshest local and regional seafood available. We ordered the just in-season halibut cheeks in dill beurre blanc with capers, and Dungeness crab legs sautéed with artichoke hearts, mushrooms, shallots and sherry. The presentation at Jake’s is simple and traditional, an homage to its original character. The sauces were rich, but the fish perfectly executed.
Portland takes the food truck scene to another level with food cart “pods” scattered across the city. If you have a cuisine specialty in mind, there is probably a food cart for it in Portland. I would have been happy eating every meal from carts, but with all the other great options I settled for breakfast from Spielman Bagels and Coffee Roasters. The namesake is one of the most popular Portland bagel and brew shops on the southeast side, so opening a cart in downtown was only natural. The cart offers an assortment of fresh-made bagels, leavened with wild yeasts of a sourdough starter, imbuing a uniquely Portland flavor. I ordered an everything bagel with lox, dill cream cheese and capers, and munched happily as I waited for the MAX line.
Portland and Vancouver are home to thriving Asian communities, some of the biggest in North America. I was wholly on the seafood bandwagon, considering I get my fill of authentic Asian foods in Atlanta’s enclaves, but when Pok Pok was recommended by every Portland top restaurant guide, friends and even the guy next to me on the plane, there was little choice in the matter.
Pok Pok is located on the trendy Division Street. What started as one of the ubiquitous food carts turned into a Portland institution, with such popularity that its award-winning chef opened a second, Michelin star winning, location in NYC. The setting is an unassuming converted two-story house, strung with Christmas lights. Despite the critical acclaim and the 2-hour wait, Pok Pok is a no frills, stick to its roots kind of place, evidenced by its mismatched plastic tablecloths. The menu, though expertly crafted and perfectly executed, doesn’t try to fascinate with funky fusion, the dishes are classics from North and Northeast Thailand.
Dishes are meant to be shared, so we selected the Papaya Pok Pok salad and Muu Paa Kham Waan – boar collar. I have a favorite papaya salad from a nearby restaurant in Atlanta that I obsess over, but Pok Pok’s version turned this staple on its head. Along with the traditional fish sauce, lime juice, Thai chili and tamarind flavors, dried shrimp and rice paddy crab and dry chilies were added to add extra heat and saltiness. The menu states a “buyer beware” warning that this version is very hot, fishy, salty and sour, and is it ever! The boar collar, rubbed in garlic and coriander, grilled and served with chilled mustard greens was also exceptional, and again packed the heat. We cooled off with Pok Pok’s famous “drinking vinegar” cocktails. For dessert Rufio gorged on the coconut-jackfruit ice cream served on a sweet bun with sticky rice, condensed milk and chocolate syrup, a decadent treat typically served on the street and markets in Thailand.
Note: Pok Pok doesn’t accept reservations or call-ahead waiting, so many patrons put their name on the list and head to the kitty-corner Whiskey Soda to grab a drink. I took one look at the drink menu and decided to keep walking – I just can’t trust a place that lists Jack Daniels under “Bourbon”. However, if you do want to sample some of Pok Pok’s dishes without the wait, Whiskey Soda does offer a limited menu. Instead, we grabbed a spot at the bar at B&T Oyster Bar and ordered a couple glasses of local Pinot gris and a dozen oysters for our appetizer.
Doughnuts might not immediately come to mind as a regional specialty, but the sweet treat actually has a long-ingrained history in these parts as a lumberjack staple, and today the doughnut game is taken seriously.
Blue Star Donuts
Voodoo Donuts is renowned as one of the best doughnut shops in the nation, maybe the world, for their brazen rock-n-roll approach to making these fried delights, but a recent contender for best Portlandia doughnut maker goes to Blue Star Donuts. Blue Star uses a classic French brioche method, producing a lighter counterpart to the traditional cake doughnut, and sources all ingredients locally. Their flavors are inventive, but noticeably more refined than the eccentric Voodoo flavors. These are “donuts for grownups”, and these grownups thoroughly enjoyed their hard apple cider fritter, blueberry bourbon basil and maple bacon options.
The morning after the amazing Women’s World Cup final, we were up with the sun (and the smoke) to make our way back to Seattle in hopes of catching the morning flight home. After we breezed past the border thanks to our Global Entry perks, we were in desperate need of food and coffee. Ever the doughnut enthusiast, Rufio set the destination on our GPS to Rocket Donuts in Bellingham, Washington.
Rocket doesn’t just offer fanciful donuts made with locally sourced ingredients, they also boast an authentic sic-fi movie memorabilia collection, including a giant rocket situated out front. How’s that for kitsch?
I feel like our entire weekend in Portland was spent bouncing between restaurants, food carts and drinking establishments. We did whole-heartedly attempt to throw a hike in, but that iconic Pacific Northwest rain set in, and as Rufio so eloquently put it, “when it rains we pour wine”.
While we did eat well, the real reason for our trip to Portland was to spend a day in Willamette Valley. We first learned about this Pinot-centric region in a monthly wine tasting we participated in a few years ago. Since then we’ve been dreaming of visiting the region, so when the opportunity presented itself, we ran with it.
The valley is home to more than 300 wineries, situated within 6 distinct sub-appelations. Based on some very minimal research and a recommendation from a friend, we decided to spend our day in the McMinnville AVA, just over an hour from downtown Portland. There are about a dozen wineries in region, most offering tastings on Saturdays from 12-4.
Our first stop was The Eyrie, in part because it had a few good reviews, but mostly because we Game of Thrones nerds liked the name. When we arrived at the downtown McMinnville winery, we were mildly disappointed. We expected to sip wines overlooking a sloping vineyard, but what we found was a rustic building nestled into a nostalgic post-industrial square.
We thought we may have been lost, but we stepped in to find a small, warm tasting room filled with visitors. We purchased a flight and listened as the sommelier recounted the story of David Lett, the first man to plant Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot gris in the Willamette Valley. Suddenly we realized we came to the right place. The story behind the downtown winery and tasting room was that in the early days of his radical business plan, the bank wouldn’t loan Lett enough money to establish the winery at the vineyard, but he did get enough to buy an old poultry plant on the outskirts of McMinnville. Though today the Eyrie estate has expanded immensely, wines are still produced across the street from the tasting room, and as a result of the influence Lett had in the region, many artisanal wineries opened in the same industrial area, creating an enclave of passionate wine enthusiasts. We sampled their Chasselas, Pinot gris, rose of Pinot noir and finally the Pinot noir, learning about the vintages and the effects of recent weather patterns on each one.
At the recommendation of the Eyrie sommelier, we sauntered down to the end of the street to the Remy winery. The industrial exterior hid a very hip and artsy tasting room, where we sipped on (spoiler alert) our favorite wines of the day. Winemaker Remy Drabkin is a bit of a Willamette rebel, producing the only Italian varietals in the region. Production is small, but the wines are brave, unique and expertly crafted. The sommeliers are well-versed and passionate about her single vineyard Barbera, Sangiovese and Dolcetto varietals. We were so impressed after our tasting that we purchased two bottles, and stuck around chatting with the sommelier much longer than we planned.
With little time to spare, we set out to find a tasting room that actually overlooked a vineyard, settling on Domaine Serene. Domaine Serene’s estate is exquisite, but the vibe was unabashedly more pretentious than the hip Remy or old-fashioned Eyrie wineries. Despite the stuffiness, the property is beautiful and the wines are a beautiful reflection of Willamette terroir. We did think the bottle prices were a bit inflated, but that was to be expected given the fine elegance of Domaine Serene. Pinkies up!
The Pinot is great, but Portland is known as a craft beer town. The city boasts more than 60 microbreweries, more than any other city in the country. What better way to follow an afternoon of wine tasting than an evening of craft beer tasting? I can’t think of any.
On the way to Hopworks Urban Brewery the previous night, our Uber driver recommended checking out “that beer festival under the bridge”. We love beer festivals, but his description made it sound like there might be a handful of local beers showcased at a farmer’s market, or something to that extent. It was, in fact, the Oregon Brewer’s Festival, one of the nation’s longest running and well known craft beer festivals, offering 90 craft beers from the U.S. and an additional 15 from New Zealand and the Netherlands. When we arrived back in Portland from wine country, we immediately found our way to the festival, purchased a tasting glass and tokens and switched our brains from terroir and tannins to hops and barley. We even sampled a “mushroom ale”, much to Rufio’s displeasure. The festival happens on the last weekend in July every year, and in addition to great beer offers live music, and even a kid-friendly root beer tent!
The tastes of the Pacific Northwest are many and varied, but suffice to say a weekend away in Portland, Seattle or Vancouver is a foodie’s dream.
What are your favorite restaurants, wineries and breweries from the Pacific Northwest? Leave a comment!