In the latest installment of “Foie Gras and Funnel Cakes,” I continue my adventures exploring the Pacific Northwest.
I’m not sure why but I’ve been wanting to take a road trip to Portland for some time now. Over the past few years, Portland has been gaining quite a reputation. Maybe this is just a West Coast thing. Since it’s been almost eight years since I left the East Coast I have no idea whether all the talk about Portland has made it across the rest of the country or if everyone in the East just thinks of Portland, Maine when they think “Portland” rather than Portland, Oregon. (Of course Portland, Maine has also had its own reputation as a refuge for hipsters for quite some time, too. So maybe, as Shakespeare might say, there’s some “what” in that name, Portland.)
Anyway, I’ve been hearing all matter of things about Portland (Oregon) for a while now and not just from watching the hilarious musings of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brown on Portlandia. Portland is also where Bay Area refugees are starting to de-camp to as our cost of living continues to climb to outrageous heights. I definitely know a handful of people who have escaped to Oregon in the last few years due to our out-of-control real estate market.
Since I’ve never been in the far northern part of California either, I thought driving to Portland would be fun because I could see that part of the state as well as a good portion of Oregon. I also wanted to see Mount Shasta and make some stops on the way to Portland. And when I road trip, I don’t make a lot of plans—I just sort of wing it and decide to stop in places that strike my fancy and driving always affords you the opportunity to take the proverbial fork in the road.
Here’s where I went—and more importantly, where I ate!
Having been an English major, it was imperative that I make a stop in Ashland and go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And I was in luck because this season they were putting on one of my all-time favorites, Much Ado About Nothing.
Being sort of a charming, super-cute tourist town, Ashland had a number of places that looked pretty good to eat. But since I rolled into town only about three hours before I needed to be at the theater, I only had so much time to check into my hotel, change out of my road clothes and get some grub before curtain time. A lot of places I looked at were also, of course, already packed to the gills with other tourists and theater goers also trying to get a meal in before seeing their performances.
Thankfully, I was able to snag a seat at the bar at Larks, a farm-to-table resto connected to a historic hotel, the Ashland Springs. Larks was hopping that night—there weren’t really any tables to be had, so being willing to sit at the bar is sometimes key. My beleaguered bartender was running all around the whole time since they were so busy. But I’d say at least half of his beleaguered state was caused by the two older women sitting next to me at the bar who were just bitching, moaning and complaining about everything the whole time they were there. Where’s my soup? How come our entrées haven’t come yet? Can we get some bread? Is that soup spicy? Then I don’t want it. Cancel my order then. They were a pain in the ass. I was sort of glad to see him dishing it right back to them with his sarcastic tone. They sort of deserved it… Thankfully a table opened up, and they were whisked away from him and from me! Entitlement is not just for millennials!
Anyway, he was totally sweet to me—because I was not a pain in the ass! Really people, do you think you’ll get great service when you’re an ass to your server? Duh! And he recommended a great Oregon Pinot from Rex Hill, which had a 92 rating from Wine Spectator. Great wine—smooth, fuller bodied Pinot, substantial legs. I’m far more familiar with California wineries than Oregone, but this is oneI would look for in the store and buy!
For my entrée, I got the Seared Rockfish with horseradish-tomato aioli, fried green tomato, corn relish and pea shoots. Unlike my pea shoot experience in Seattle, these were good and served more as a nice garnish than a string-y interruption to the composition of the rest of the dish. I have to admit that half the reason that I got this dish was not the fish but for the fried green tomatoes—which I’d never had before. Yes, I’d never had them before! The fish was done well—flaky and mild. The corn and tomatoes, which were of course fried in a cornmeal batter, made for a nice summer combo. And the horseradish aioli had a nice kick to it. And I sprang for a dessert of lemon-thyme shortbread with mixed berries and cream. Larks is recommended.
The following morning I was able to also find some good coffee in town at Case Coffee Roasters. This was a find because I didn’t do any Internet searching beforehand and Case just happens to be a Good Food Award winner. Score!! They roast in small batches, and my latte rivaled that of any good Bay Area coffee roasters’. Worth a stop.
My final food stop in Ashland was the Ashland Food Co-op for lunch. I have always been a sucker for a co-op or health food store, ever since I was a kid, and I particularly like co-ops because of the community aspect and because you know you can get great, healthy deli stuff. For lunch, I got a super classic, 70s-ish vegetarian sandwich, complete with cream cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocado, olives and, of course, alfalfa sprouts on whole grain bread. I had them hold the red onions. Yum! And this is a fun co-op to just walk around in, too. Great earthy, crunchy vibe if you dig that sort of thing, which I totally do.
After leaving Ashland, I drove up to Eugene, home of the Oregon Ducks and University of Oregon. Like co-ops, I also have a fondness for college towns. You always know there will be things going on—culture, food, bars, etc. You can also usually find cheap, good food alternatives and healthy stuff since there are always bound to be vegetarians and vegans in college towns.
After wandering around the U of O campus, I decided to look for somewhere online to eat. As I was looking, my brother happened to text me the name of a local brewery and tasting room, Ninkasi Brewing Company. As luck would have it, the tasting room is open until 9 p.m. most nights, except Thursday through Saturday when they’re open until 10 p.m. They also tend to have food carts that rotate through their outdoor space on a daily basis, which is always a plus when you need to sop up some serious beer!
So I made the trek out to Ninkasi, which is located in this happnin’ little part of Eugene full of some funky restos. There was actually quite a bit going on in that neighborhood and it was sort of funky and artsy as well. Case in point—I parked near a glass blowing studio.
At Ninkasi, I decided to get a beer sampler so I could try a variety of their brews. Like many craft breweries these days, they’re known for their IPAs. Personally, I’m no longer much of a fan of IPAs. I really think American craft brewers have gone waaaaay overboard on over-hopping their beer here. It’s like they want to bludgeon you with more pine-y, Cascadian hops flavor than you can possibly handle. Not a fan. Subsequently, I find my beer tastes these days firmly placed on the far ends of the spectrum because I want to avoid too many hops. So I’ve come to have a tendency to like really light beers, like lagers, or really dark beers like porters. I asked the girl in the tasting room for guidance and she set me up with the following Ninkasi brews:
- Lux, a German style Helles Lager
- Wunderbier, a Kolsch style beer
- R&D Triple, a Belgian style
- Dawn of the Red, India Red Ale
- Oatis, an Oatmeal Stout
The stout was, of course, my favorite. I think the Kolsch and Belgian were pretty good, too. The red, while good, did tend toward the hoppy side for me but it wasn’t too bad.
To soak up the brew, I ordered a burger from a food truck, cum brick and mortar shop across the street from the tasting room, The Sandwich League. I’m not someone who tends to opt for lots of crazy toppings on a burger, so I got their most basic burger, The Abbey, which is a cheeseburger that you can order with Swiss, Muenster or cheese sauce. I opted for the sauce on the burger, which also comes with lettuce, tomato and fries for a mere $6. It was a solid burger, and I dug the cheese sauce, which seemed to have some beer in it, so it added a nice tang to the burger. They also serve pulled pork, roast beef and grilled cheese sandwich options.
Since I’m talking about Eugene now, I may as well mention that I also stopped there on the way back from Portland for another round of college town goodness. My dining choice on the way back was another place in the same ‘hood as Ninkasi and The Sandwich League, the Pizza Research Institute, an aptly named place for a college town! This place is great and has a fun vibe. You can sit inside – which is basically the inside of an old house—or outside in the backyard, where they have umbrella tables or seating inside a couple hollowed out shipping containers. I sat inside one of the shipping containers, which has flowy curtains draped over the open side to create a semi-romantic ambiance–or about as romantic as you can get inside a shipping container! They also had a three-piece jazz band performing outside, which was fun.
Pizza Research Institute offers a number of funky, West Coasty flavored type pizzas. You aren’t going to get a traditional cheese or pepperoni East Coast pie here. Of course, I failed to realize that I could order just by the slice until the couple sitting next to me ordered three slices to split between them and I’d ordered an entire small pie—and salad—for myself. I guess that’s what leftovers are for (that is, if you don’t forget them in your hotel refrigerator, dammit!).
Here’s something that’s unique about the pies at PRI—you get a base of sauce and cheese and then the toppings, which are copious and include more cheese, go on top. The pies are piled pretty high with toppings—which is probably one of the reasons they warn you on the menu that your pizza is going to take about 20 minutes to bake. No quickie 1-minute wood-fired Neopolitan things here. Which is fine because this was really good pizza worth the wait—in fact, it was one of the better pizzas I’ve ever had, which made it all the more disappointing that I frickin’ forgot my leftovers at the hotel. Anyway, I got a half pear, vegan pesto and roasted red potato and half zucchini, mushroom and smoked cheddar. These were no slouch toppings—all were cut in sizable chunks rather than the thin slices you might expect. Both types were quite yummy. Of course it was a really hot day when I was there and I was also coming down with a cold and happened to feel a bit feverish and I also have some sensitivities to raw garlic and peppers, so I was schvitzing up a storm by the time I left and mopping my brow like crazy. Even so, the pizza was really good—and I’m still bummed that I forgot those leftovers, super raw-garlicky vegan pesto aside.
Afterwards I decided I needed to cool down and make a visit to the frozen yogurt place across the street, Vanilla Jill’s. This is sort of a Paleo café, so you can get a variety of things in addition to frozen yogurt, including kefir, soft-serve, bone broth, soup and Paleo sandwiches. Honestly, it looked like it would be a great place to go in the winter to get soup or broth. The fro-yo was good, too. They make all their own stuff—including their bread—and claim to be 98% organic. I would definitely go back here, too.
(But we’ll save that for Part 2!)
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