Portland is no stranger to the national spotlight. Mention our green initiatives, music scene or world-class public transit system, and we'll blush and demurely bat our eyelashes. But bring up our food, and we'll get downright boastful. When it comes to the quality of what ends up on our plates, we don't mess around.
Food lovers in the Rose City get a unique opportunity that's not readily available in other places: to meet the farmers and artisans responsible for creating the ingredients that make up our meals. Portland is home to a world-class farmers market, a famously thriving food-cart scene, and an abundance of successful small food businesses fueled by a do-it-yourself culinary culture.
Liz Crain has written a guide to these establishments that make Portland such a special place to eat. More than just a restaurant guide, The Food Lover's Guide to Portland contains profiles and interviews with the folks who are getting their hands dirty producing the high-quality ingredients that are largely responsible for putting this little foodie mecca on the map.
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Megan Zabel: What is your food background?
Liz Crain: I've worked in food service since I could first work, when I was 16. My first job was at Cincinnati's version of Coney Island. The Coney Island there is sort of similar to New York's, with the amusement park and the water rides. I worked in the employee kitchen and from there I moved up to working at a mall food court. And from there I've done all sorts of catering and restaurant work. When I first moved to Portland, I waited tables at the Art Museum Café and at Alameda Café and different spots around town. And that sort of naturally came together with my other passion, which is writing. I loved my English teachers in high school and we did a lot of poetry and short stories. And then I went on to Vassar College and I majored in English. So I took the writing and the food and put them together in Portland.
Megan: How did you get involved with the local producers and purveyors, the businesses that you focused on in the book?
Crain: I've always been most interested in the growing and cultivating of ingredients and how they're crafted into specialty foods. I think writing-wise, that came together when I began writing food stories about local farmers and ranchers for the Portland Tribune. They were always a half page to a page long, so I got to dig into the background of the growers — like how a corn farmer got started near Troutdale and how long his family had been in that area. That was just one of the stories I did.
Megan: Was that article about Winters Farms, by chance?
Crain: It was, yes.
Megan: I worked for them at the Portland Farmers Market for four years.
Crain: Nuh-uh! What a weird connection. That's great. How funny that I wrote so many stories for the Tribune and that just happens to be the one that I decided to talk about with you! Those stories were such a gift for me. I would choose a seasonal ingredient for the in-season stories and I'd find a local farm or a food entrepreneur who was using the ingredient to make something value-added. That's how I got really interested in writing behind-the-scenes stories.
Megan: What do you think the Food Lover's Guide to Portland offers that other food guides don't?
Crain: My favorite part of the book is the many quotes, essays, and interviews. If you just want to quickly get the hours or address for a business or some recommendations for seafood restaurants, you can use it that way. But it's mostly profiles of people and their businesses. So it's a little longer — most of the listings are anywhere from one to six paragraphs. And as much as I could, I conducted first-person interviews and hung out in the kitchens. I think that most guidebooks offer less. They dig less deeply; you just get an overview of businesses. Whereas I give the overview, but I want the backgrounds included.
Megan: You write in the intro to the book about how we've been blessed by geography in Portland and the role that that plays in having such a rich food culture. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Crain: I just think it's pretty stunning how many diverse growing regions we have here. I mean you have the central and eastern Oregon high desert cattle ranches such as Wilson Ranches Retreat, which is one of my favorite places in the state; the coastal fisheries and cranberry and wasabi farms; and, of course you have the Willamette Valley, where Portland lies, with everything from locally grown hazelnuts, burdock, and quince to daikon, persimmon, wine grapes, and then some. And it's all really accessible and easy to get to.
We have those who came before us to thank for the great urban growth boundaries that we have here. We have farmland that just is so close to the city. And you need hardly get out of town — there's some in town really. It's nice because you have all of these creative chefs and food entrepreneurs who are taking ingredients and putting them on the menu or crafting local food products to put on the shelves here. "Buy local" is so vibrant. I mean you really can survive on a 100 percent local diet here in Oregon. You can't say that about a lot of states.
Megan: What has the response been to the book since it came out?
Crain: It's been great. I think that people are appreciative of the fact that I didn't focus so much on restaurants. And I think that for most people who pick it up there are a lot of discoveries to be made. I've already found about 40 places in Portland that I wish I could have included. It's just so diverse here. But it's been a good response.
Megan: What are some of your favorite spots you discovered while researching the book?
Crain: Some of my favorites: Boedecker Cellars was really interesting to me. They're over in industrial Northwest and kind of close to Pyramid.
Crain: I think I can actually see them from where I'm sitting.
Crain: Yeah, that's their tasting room in the front. And then they have the barrel room on the south side. On the north side is where they produce. It was really interesting to learn about them. Friends of Family Farmers is a great organization that I had kind of heard about, but I had never attended any of their events. They're a great local nonprofit working on sustainable ag issues.
Megan: The New York Times seems to be particularly enamored with Portland's food cart scene. Do you have a favorite?
Crain: Let me think about that one. I eat at them a lot, because I work downtown. The closest pod that I go to regularly is at Alder and 10th, near the art museum and the library. That one is huge. It seems like every week there's a new cart, but I really like the Frying Scotsman.
Megan: I've heard good things about him.
Crain: He has really nice seafood. He does a great haddock and chips, fries that are delicious, and he has good tartar sauce. And nice batter that stays on. He's also doing all sorts of wacky things right now, I've heard. I guess he's going to start doing fried haggis. His specialty is fried Mars Bars.
Megan: Sounds like the Minnesota State Fair.
Crain: Yeah. He imports Mars bars from England, which I think is really odd. But he says that the dairy there is better, so he wants to have those to deep fry.
Megan: The Portland Farmers Market has served as an incubator for a lot of the businesses that you feature in the book. What do you think that says about our community?
Crain: There are so many businesses. Pix Patiserrie, Alma Chocolate...
Megan: Pine State Biscuits.
Crain: Yep, and Two Tarts, and Baker and Spice. I think that it says a bunch of things. It says that we are very supportive of local start-ups and passionate food businesses. I also think that it shows how creative we are as Portlanders, that you can start with this tiny booth at a farmers market and you have five things, maybe 10 things tops on your menu. It's a great incubator, because if your line is really long one week and you have these 10 things and then you take one of them off and the line is short the next week, that's a good barometer. I think it shows that we're really supportive of great local businesses and passions. So if you find something at the farmers market that you love and then these people open in brick and mortar a few months later, the fact that the community will make the trek, find the new spot, and support it is pretty fantastic. I think it's great.
Megan: Besides the usual suspects like New York and San Francisco, what other cities do you think foodies should be keeping an eye on?
Crain: That's a good question. I think Vancouver, B.C., is a great food town. I love to go there. They have the Granville Island Public Market and you can take the ferry over. That's just so inspiring. I hope that one day we make the James Beard Public Market happen in Portland — a year-round, covered, indoor/outdoor market like Granville. Vancouver also has so much great dim sum and, of course, Vij's Restaurant, which is one of my favorites. I love their cookbook.
Megan: What's your perfect last meal? You have to eat it in Portland.
Crain: Wow, that's really hard. How about smoked black cod or sablefish, from Newman's Fish. I'd have that with some Pearl Bakery bread. And then I'd go to Cheese Bar and I'd have some nice sheep and goat cheeses from there, fresh and aged. Then I'd have a glass of Pinot Blanc from Boedecker Cellars, and then I'd go to Evoe on Hawthorne and I'd get a grilled octopus salad. And then some hamachi tataki and spicy pickled quail eggs from Tanuki, and I'd finish it off with some some blueberries and kiwis from my yard.
I spoke to Liz Crain by phone on August 3, 2010.