If you want to see how a metropolis of the 2020s might look, head to Portland, Ore., a city two steps in front of the rest of North America that is quietly shaping the urban future in the same way that Florence once shaped the Renaissance. No idea is too far-out here, and no experiment too bizarre, a fact epitomized by Portland’s abundance of young entrepreneurs who have used clever out-of-the-box thinking to navigate the tough financial waters of the recession.
Take Charlie Wicker of Trailhead Coffee Roasters ( trailheadcoffeeroasters.com), who sells his home-roasted coffee from a specially adapted bicycle (thus saving on rent and gas), or Koi Fusion ( koifusionpdx.com), one of a growing number of mobile food carts that advertise their whereabouts on Facebook and Twitter. Larger, but no less bold, are indie coffee pathfinders Stumptown ( stumptowncoffee.com), whose geek-like obsession with quality has put some flavour back into morning cuppas, or the McMenamin brothers, pioneers of America’s craft-beer revolution, who have transformed historic buildings into charismatic hotels, theatres and brewpubs.
All this is good news for visitors. Loaded with food carts, microbreweries, bike culture and urban parks that feel more like wild forests than manicured gardens, Portland’s DIY ethos has spawned a long list of places to eat, drink and embrace the city’s unofficial motto: Keep Portland Weird.
Comfortingly, it’s a non-scary kind of weird. Eschewing the bland conformities of Anytown America, Portland is a place for esoteric pursuits rather than standard tick-lists. One of the city’s biggest “sights” is Powell’s ( powells.com), the world’s largest indie bookstore, where technology-phobes can reacquaint themselves with the gratifying art of shelf-browsing. Music is another forte with a punkish lo-fi music scene reverberating in intimate live venues such as the Doug Fir Lounge ( dougfirlounge.com). The city even hosts a bona fide museum to vacuum cleaners! Head over to Stark Vacuums at 107 NE Grand Ave. and get sucked in.
But Portland’s real temples honour gastronomy. To dig up the best in a holy trinity of food, coffee and beer, jump onto the city’s Amsterdam-size network of streetcars, light-rail vehicles and buses and head out to the peripheral neighbourhoods for cheap samples.
Gastronomic culture in Portland – rather like the produce here from ultra-fresh crops – grows from the ground up. Endowed with an exceptionally fertile hinterland, the city’s discerning locals, equipped with their highly nuanced taste buds, are more likely to quiz you about the nuttiness of their coffee than the horsepower of the latest Audi A4.
Yet, in contrast to other high-class culinary cities, delicious and inexpensive food is not an oxymoron here. The key is in the food carts ( foodcartsportland.com). Last summer, CNN nominated Portland the best city in the world for street food and, with more than 500 specialized carts, the array of choices is astounding. Far from being the greasy roach coaches of yore, demanding local palates ensure that Portland’s carts remain clean, cordial and stuffed with natural, locally grown ingredients. Taking advantage of cheap start-up costs and employing inspired guerrilla marketing techniques, innovative proprietors have so far weathered the faltering economy with a melting pot of genre-blending dishes. Highlights include stuffed Bosnian flatbreads at Ziba’s Pitas, Belgian-style frites at Potato Champion and deliciously off-beat Korean tacos at Koi Fusion. Most carts gather in pods on the peripheries of small parking lots. However, an increasing number of roving units follow the crowds to ball games and festivals, using social media to communicate with their clientele. Filling meals rarely exceed $6 (U.S.).
The coffee culture is similarly grassroots. Seattle may have been first city to tap America’s caffeine addiction in the early 1970s, but it is Portland that determines what happens next. The baton-passing can be traced to 1999 with the opening of Stumptown, but the recession has inspired newer entrepreneurs to take advantage of slashed prices on coffee equipment and start up their own micro-roasteries in small stores, garages or even bedrooms. Far from being cash-strapped students out to earn some extra beer money, new third-wave baristas, like those at Coava Coffee Roasters ( coavacoffee.com), are professional alchemists creating small miracles out of a raw material that – as any aficionado knows – is more chemically complex than wine.
Real ale connoisseurs have long proclaimed Portland to be as “beered” as it is weird. With more than 30 microbreweries covering the metro area, they’re not joking. Unsurprisingly in a city that registers more bike commuters than any other U.S. metropolis, most beer drinkers would rather sell their cars than forsake their nightly glass of handcrafted IPA. Consequently, Portland’s microbreweries have continued to thrive. The current stash includes the city’s original brewpub, Bridgeport ( bridgeportbrew.com), along with a multitude of newer brethren, all of which inspire local loyalty. Many are on the city’s plentiful cycle routes. Stay at the industrial-chic Ace Hotel ( acehotel.com/portland) and you can borrow a bike for free.
As progressive as the bike and beer culture might be, the recent recession has hit Portland much like everywhere else in the U.S. Yet, the city’s indefatigable spirit – a bold, dare-to-be-different approach – is what grabs and holds your attention.
Here’s how Matt Lounsbury of Stumptown Coffee Roasters would explore Portland.
“Portland’s personality resonates in its neighbourhoods clustered around various arterial streets. Each is different, but a good place to uncover the fabric of the city is on SE Division Street on the eastern side of the Willamette River. Here, you’ll find food cart pods, coffee bars, boutiques and microbreweries.
“One of the best ways to tap into Portland’s culture is to eat your way around the city. The food is varied and inexpensive. Start with breakfast, stop for a coffee break at a Stumptown café, rope in a food cart or two and hit a restaurant later on. A recommended dinner spot is Pok Pok [ pokpokpdx.com; 3226 SE Division St.]that specializes in Thai street food and was the recent winner of the James Beard Foundation Award.
“Microbreweries abound in Portland. A great option is Hopworks [ hopworksbeer.com; 2944 SE Powell Blvd.] a fine family-friendly microbrewery that sells organic beer and sustainable food, and features a bike bar with two stationary electricity-generating bikes.”
Special to The Globe and Mail