Porland, Oregon: one of my favorite cities. The home of Powell’s, the famed “City of Books,” it’s also a City of Coffee, City of Parks, and City of Food, with restaurants, butchers, bakeries, and bars serving up every kind of delicious delicacy the mind (and the stomach) can desire.
Pearl District, Portland
A few times a year, we roll down I-5 to get our fill of book browsing, urban wandering, eating and drinking in the City of Roses. On this trip, we decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day a little early with a quick overnight stay, no agenda, and a rough plan to try to hit as many new spots and old favorites as our time and appetites would allow.
Our first stop after rolling into town was an early lunch at Pok Pok, James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Ricker’s original outpost of Thai street food. I’d been wanting to eat here for ages. Prepared for a crowd (Portlanders seem to enjoy waiting in line even more than Seattleites),we timed our drive to arrive right as the doors opened and were rewarded with a two-top near the bar in the tiny main dining room.
After settling in with refreshing, fruit-infused drinking vinegars, we ordered several specialties of the house including Kai Yaang, game hen stuffed with lemongrass and spices and roasted over one of the restaurant’s charcoal-fueled outdoor rotisseries; green Papaya Pok Pok salad; spicy fish sauce-glazed chicken wings; and coconut milk-basted pork loin skewers served with peanut sauce and, interestingly, hunks of grilled bread.
We were not disappointed. The green papaya salad was crisp, crunchy, sweet, salty, and spicy at once, a perfect pairing for the fragrant and mild game hen. And those chicken wings . . . it’s easy to see why they are among Ricker’s most famed and beloved menu items. Marinated in fish sauce and sugar, then caramelized to a peppery, lip-burning crunch. A plate of those and a cold Singha beer could be the happy ending to many great nights.
Bubbly and chocolate cookies at the Hotel Deluxe
After lunch we headed across town to check in to the Hotel Deluxe, our favorite home base while in town. Located in an old hotel building in spitting distance of both the Pearl District and Nob Hill, the Deluxe exemplifies mid-century glamour. From the oversized black and white portraits of classic movie stars in every hallway to the incredibly helpful, violet-clad front desk staff, from the plushly elegant lobby to the chiff0n-draped rooms, a stay at the Deluxe feels like a journey to a more civilized time.
On this visit, we took the pampering a step further and booked the “My Chocolate Valentine” package, which included, among other sweet treats, a gift certificate for a hot chocolate tasting at Cacao, a very cool little chocolate shop on the edge of the Pearl District. We tried a trio of rich, frothy drinking chocolates – cinnamon, dark chocolate, and a smoky spicy dark chocolate – and browsed the chocolate offerings sourced from around the world before heading back out into the cold sunny day.
Drinking chocolate trio at Cacao
Portland’s Pearl District is a great place to amble away an afternoon. After checking out cards and stationary from local artists at Oblation Papers & Press and picking up some spices at Penzey’s, we headed a few blocks north to Tanner Springs Park, one of the network of open spaces developed along with the Pearl – originally the site of a wetlands and lake, and later tanneries and warehouses – in the 1990s.
Walkways through the marsh at Tanner Springs Park
The park features a large marsh area, which serves as a habitat for waterfowl and native plants and is crisscrossed by raised walkways, benches for contemplation, and public art. The entire square block park is surrounded by the modern highrise condos of the present-day Pearl District, creating a unique urban oasis and a great place for a chat, picnic, or stroll.
An urban oasis at Tanner Springs Park
Of course, no visit to Portland, no matter how short, would be complete without a lengthy visit to Powell‘s, one of America’s greatest bookstores. Stepping through those doors, into the throng of people of all ages clutching stacks of books, renews my faith in us as a society of readers every time.
On this visit, we ventured for the first time to the top floor Rare Books Room, home to treasures including several books from the personal library of Anne Rice (including a copy of “The Last Temptation of Christ” complete with snarky margin notes) and a ten-volume, white leather and gold-leaf bound set of L. Ron Hubbard’s “Mission Earth” series, housed in its own white laquer bookcase with glass doors.
Overwhelmed, we decided it was time for a drink, and headed back down the block to the bar at Oven & Shaker, where bartender “Cool Hand” Luke poured us the hot spot’s two most popular cocktails. The Pineapple Trainwreck, a tropical storm of rum, ginger, pineapple, and bitters, perked me right up, while the combination of rye whiskey, lemon, ginger syrup and soda in The Presbyterian worked wonders on Carl.
Pineapple Trainwreck at Oven and Shaker
From there, we strolled downtown and had a quick Alpine-scented cocktail at Gruner before heading back to the Deluxe to finish off the night at my favorite bar in Portland, The Driftwood Room.
Nestled away in off the hotel lobby, the dark and cozy Driftwood Room harkens back to the days of the Rat Pack and “Mad Men,” and I always feel like I should enter wearing a cocktail dress and long gloves. The curving bar is the perfect place to nurse one of the Room’s signature champagne cocktails or Manhattans, and the intimate back tables are ideal spots for a late night rendezvous. In the past, I’ve really enjoyed (and re-created at home) the Portland ’85, a blend of locally produced Clear Creek pear brandy and Pear liqueur topped with bubbly, as well as the Springtime in Paris, a heady tipple of sparkling wine, St. Germain, and rhubarb bitters. On this visit, our favorite bartender Mike, who has taken care of us on every visit since we began coming to the Deluxe and the Driftwood Room three years ago, tried us on two new drinks. The Frieda Kahlo showcases barrel-aged bitters and cassis in a tequila, orange, and grapefruit juice concoction, and tasted of sunny drives across the Southwest desert in spring. My favorite, though, was a special cocktail created for the Portland International Film Festival, which was being held that week in town. The rosy-hued Roman Holiday, a mix of hibiscus tea-infused simple syrup, Campari, and grapefruit juice topped with sparkling wine, was as fresh and exciting as its name implied, and a perfect way to end a long and enjoyable winter day in the City of Roses. Stay tuned for Part Two: Brunch at Beast!