October 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
I used to bring home souvenirs when I traveled to new and fantastic places—a miniature Eiffel Tower, magnets decorated with state names and state flowers, guidebooks, or T-shirts. Now, for the most part, what I collect usually doesn’t make it on the airplane. Except in the form of recipes or the memory of that first sweet/savory bite. I’ve been on the prowl as of late for really good food.
My recent trip to Portland definitely served its purpose in that regard. Visiting my uncle and aunt (lovers of a good meal themselves) gave me the culinary insight I was looking for. At least, all that I could fit into 5 days. All our stops were local, which is the only way to go. Yes, I do love a Cracker Barrel or a Chipotle Mexican Grill, but when traveling, really exploring demands that you go native, I think.
My hastily scrawled list of places to try in hand, I set out. As I boarded the plane, the one thought in my mind was hmm, I haven’t had Thai food in too long. After landing, I barely said the word Thai when both my uncle and aunt responded: Pok Pok. Interestingly enough, a friend had just recommended them to me as well. And come to find out, just about every food magazine had written them up, too.
Happily, I trailed behind my obviously smitten relatives, knowing that I was in for a good meal. The reverent look of meals previously savored that passed over their faces was the giveaway. It was too dark to take any pictures inside (and I don’t have a digital camera anyway), so I took mental ones instead. After reading the menu top to bottom and back again, I settled on the Tam Kai Yaang, an open-up-your-nasal-passageway concoction of Thai chilies, chicken, peanuts, tomatoes, green beans, cilantro, and a few other ingredients. In between bites, I sampled my uncle’s fish dish and my aunt’s Khai Soi Kai, a curried noodle soup with chicken that helped soothe my taste buds. Ah, the fresh coconut milk and the warm, enveloping flavor of curry, especially the red kind. Our fish sauce wing appetizer made me like chicken wings, probably for the first time.
The experience at Pok Pok had followed an already blissful visit to one of the many food cart stands around the city. There were several to choose from, but once I saw Perierra Creperie; it was over. Nutella crepes, jam crepes, mushroom and spinach crepes, and the one I chose: fig, proscuitto, honey, and Chevre. The wait was long, with it being a Saturday and right at the lunch hour, but the warm, airy, oversized pocket square of batter I received made me forget all that. The crepe griddles (??) were as big around as a hubcap so I was surprised when my uncle ordered two. (He said he didn’t realize their size. Plus, he’d already biked off 1500 calories that morning.) The crepe was crisp in the right places and chewy in others. The flavor combination was like nothing I’d ever tried before, but definitely something I want to have again. All my friends were there to greet me—tangy, sweet, salty, fresh—in one handheld package. A stop on the way back home to Mio Gelato for some amaretto gelato solidified that day as one of my favorites of all time.
Not to be outdone, the next day took us for brunch to Tasty n Sons, a new place my aunt had been wanting to try. And try we did. The family-style menu lent itself to sharing which suited us just fine. Roasted apple with lardons and cheddar, French toast with peach-maple and whipped cream, a cast iron frittata, polenta and sausage ragu with mozzarella and fried egg…the plates were shuffled around the bar in front of us with barely words exchanged. When you can’t even or don’t want to talk over a meal, you’re eating something good. I couldn’t wait for a before picture. All I have is the aftermath.
From our vantage point, I could also see just about everything the chefs were making. Watching them work together, around, over each other was like a study in choreography.
After such extravagance, the rest of my meals while in Portland were some of the best, the home-cooked variety. Grilled flank steak with a mess of eggplant and peppers and potatoes, local salmon dressed with maple syrup-soy sauce glaze, and plenty of breakfast scrambles.
I did squeeze in a couple more sweet stops before it was all over, to Voodoo Doughnut and Pix Chocolates. But, those deserve their own post, I think.