Until my sister suggested Seattle as a family vacation for late 2011 I hadn’t really given much thought to the Pacific Northwest as a destination and having checked off myriad great meals during that trip, as well as a visit to Vancouver to catch a game at Rogers Arena the only real “bucket list” item that remained on my list north of San Francisco seemed to be a concert at The Gorge – ideally Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, or Soundgarden…or at least so I thought, until a GQ article detailing the bourgeoning Portland artisan food scene caught my eye one morning while jogging on treadmill and pollstar subsequently alerted me to a Soundgarden reunion tour.
Always one to plan…and plan…and plan a trip the following months featured a great deal of research and after much ado an agenda was hatched in the standard fashion; food first, concerts and sports second, museums and gardens third, and then the logistics of flight, cheap hotel, and car vs. public transport – the later three a ridiculous deal even before I learned of Oregon’s lack of sales tax…and was offered a free place to stay by the sister of a friend, a gracious offer I debated but eventually accepted and one that proved to be the best decision of the trip for any number of reasons including her location, knowledge of the area, love of food, and general (for lack of better word) awesomeness – a quality shared by many locals I would meet over the course of nine days and no less than 63 independent eateries, restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries – the later two to be summarized below, and a collection that in-and-of-itself is enough to bring me back sooner rather than later, especially since the rest of the food scene (to be summarized later) is even better.
Having hopped off the plane and allocated my car in record time with only a light salad and some ultra peptide whey in my system after a morning run and flight from Phoenix food was a top priority on arrival and after grabbing breakfast at The Woodsman Tavern a few steps would take me to what I’d later find out was the original Stumptown Coffee on Division Street – a space I’d visit thrice during my stay largely due to location, but also the layout as the spacious back room was never crowded while the front-and-center bar served up drink after drink and the on-site roaster sat quietly in the back. Friendly and efficient, more than happy to discuss everything from beans to grinders to roasting techniques, I additionally enjoyed the atmosphere of this location more than the location at the ACE or the one on Belmont and while the standard Hair Bender Americano was good it was the Ethiopian Nano Challa that truly wowed, an intense cup with huge top notes of berry but a finish that tasted of cocoa and spice; the second best cup of coffee I had on the trip.
Continuing the coffee-only theme, a second stop en route to OMSI on a later day would take me to Water Avenue Coffee, a very cool looking space with on-site roasting, free wi-fi, and great beans but (at least during my visit) an unfortunate staff that fancies itself as cool as the location; the sort of baristas who give the job a bad name with their holier-than-thou attitude and excruciatingly slow preparations; the pour over especially, leading to a nearly fifteen minute wait for my 12oz El Toro Americano despite there being only two people in line before me. Admittedly a very good cup of coffee – rich and smooth with a sort of smoked chocolate finish and nearly zero acidity this was one of two coffees I purchased to take home and although best served as an espresso I’ve also found it to be quite excellent via siphon; less so in a press.
Next up, Oui Presse would prove to be the low-light of the coffee-centric portion of my trip – perhaps due to the fact that I visited only an hour before closing as I was killing time before dinner at Castagna, or perhaps because I’d gotten so used to the small batch hand roasted options elsewhere, but either way there was not really much to love about the overly roasted flavor of the Americano which I believe was from Stumptown, but either old or a blend I’m not familiar with, nor the snarky attitude of the clerk when I looked at him confusedly when he told me he “couldn’t” make a 12oz Americano – only 6oz or 10oz – something I hadn’t experienced anywhere else in the city. Taking into account the ample seating, secure wi-fi, and interesting selection of (purchase only) magazines I think Oui Presse could probably be a decent space and the food menu looked interesting but considering the quality of other local spots I’d probably only return if I was a local.
Moving finally to the last of the coffee-only spots on my list, and in this case saving the best for last, there really isn’t enough that I can say about Heart and the quality of their beans, staff, and products – all well-culled and excellent, a veritable best of the best where the roaster sits in plain view – often in use – and the staff is not only educated, but more than happy to discuss the craft of their trade. Having visited the store three times over the course of four days and sampling everything from a Stereo Blend Ameircano to a Ethiopian Yukro pour over to the Colombia Perla Del Sur via Aeropress it is not only the quality of the whole beans that shows, but also the exquisite roasting – easily exampled when you purchase the beans (most roasted the day prior) and examine them at home, smaller than the average, lighter than average, and just short of dry. More expensive than the other roasters in town but not quite as pricey as some of the best in San Francisco (Ritual, Four Barrel, and Blue Bottle come to mind) a full 12oz bag of Perla Del Sur and half a bad of Yukro both returned to Phoenix with me on 2/11 and thus far brewed via drip, press, pour over, and siphon there is really no way to go wrong; the Yukro especially is one of the most complex single origins I’ve ever tasted.
Unable to subsist on coffee alone, additional caffeine based stops also led to sampling some of Portland’s pastries; the majority sourced from local bakeries and patisseries I’d planned to visit anyhow, but one in particular doing a small bit of in-house baking truly worth going out of one’s way for – Courier Coffee, a small shop on SW Oak that could easily be missed by those not looking.
Small and compact, just a bar and a few chairs, the menu at Courier is hand-written (or painted on the store windows) and like many of Portland’s best the coffee is all hand roasted by the team, in this case a few miles away and a limited number of whole bean bags are available for purchase while all the standard drinks are made to order while you wait. Selecting a 12oz Americano – at a mere $2 one of the cheapest in town – along with both of the morning’s still-warm pastries the team was friendly and succinct, happy to chat but mindful of other customers waiting behind me, and with all seats filled I took a sip of the steaming hot brew and knew right away I’d be back for another as strong strawberry notes came across fading into a light caramel tone with a smooth and creamy body.
Moving next to the pastries, the first a canele I’d heard much about from a few trusted sources, I have to say that after a number of disappointing canele in a number cities this was the first of two superlative versions in Portland (the other being St. Jack) with a crunchy caramelized exterior giving way to an extraordinary custard sponge within. Golden and sweet with just a bit of rum and a whole lot of vanilla this was the sort of pastry where one wouldn’t suffice – a second, along with a double shot 16oz Americano, purchased the following day.
Onward to the second of two pastries, having asked how the daily muffin was and simultaneously told “amazing” by both baristas, the Local Yogurt, Oat and Blood Orange Muffin would indeed prove to be delicious and at $3 for an entirely organic muffin weighing in at probably 1/3 a pound and loaded with toothsome oats and tangy yogurt balanced by a lightly caramelized top plus the intensity of the citrus it would also prove to be quite the bargain – a pastry that could easily serve as breakfast for many and amongst the best textured muffins I’ve had in some time.
For the second of two coffee shops doing their own baking (but in this case not their own roasting) an unexpected rain storm before pizza at Apizza Scholls sent me to Common Grounds; an idea clearly shared by many as the store was chockablock full with only one open seat at the bar near the window. Procuring the space and asking an older gentleman to watch my bag while I placed my order I was greeted by a friendly young woman and having only intended to order an Americano she inquired “how about a cookie? They’re fresh and delicious,” – clearly a suggestion I’d be foolish to ignore and thus leading me to order two, the entirety of the order prepared in a few moments and carried back to my seat for a mere $5 after leaving a $1 tip in the jar.
Beginning first with the Americano, a 12oz single shot, I appreciated the nuttiness of the finish but not particularly the upfront acidity – a problem I’ve noted before with Café Vita and one mostly remedied by a packet of Splenda and immediately was thankful that there would be more to the experience than just the coffee – the first of those being a rich Molasses Cookie, still sticky from the oven and spicy but also substantially sweet…the sort of cookie one can (and I did) dunk in the coffee thereby benefitting both items.
Moving next to the larger of the two cookies, also $1, the “Cowboy Cookie” featuring the standard flour, butter, and sugar plus oats, nuts, coconut flakes, and chocolate chips would prove to be a step up from both the coffee and the Molasses in terms of both complexity and flavor – everything well balanced and although easily enough made at home a nice way to pass away some time during a rainstorm while browsing the net. Certainly not a ‘destination’ coffee house or bakery like so many others in PDX good enough in a pinch, and clearly a popular joint amongst locals.
Another day and another caffeine fix would feature the Ristretto Roasters location on North Williams Avenue, a spot I visited after breakfast at Tasty & Sons before a drive to the coast and with ample free parking in the area plus plenty of shops to browse I found the shop approximately half full on my 10:30am arrival, many of the patrons from nearby shops and the baristas not particularly hurried, happy to chat with guests both familiar and new as they prepared various beverages for a slowly trickling line.
Myself in the middle of Ristretto’s age range that day – not quite hipster and not quite the well suited older clients – I was interested to see how the servers changed up their mannerisms for each patron and greeted similar to the younger folks with a ‘what can I get ya, bro?’ I ordered up an Americano and pastries to take on my drive – the double shot of Beaumont blend in 16oz providing a huge nose of chocolate and a rich mouth feel with low acidity and a nearly vanilla finish; another great cup of coffee and one I would have purchased for home use if I did not already have three pounds from elsewhere.
Turning to the pastries, in this case all outsourced, my selection was a quartet with the first two from Bake Shop and the latter two from Tonalli’s Donuts. Beginning with those from Bake Shop, a store I unfortunately missed during my Portland trip as they were closed when I tried to visit, their oft raved Figgy Buckwheat Scone would prove to be decent, though not as good as I’d have hoped largely because of my expectations of what a scone should be; those lovely pockets of butter juxtaposing crunchy sugar when instead this was more like a biscuit in texture with a curl of dense fig preserves rolled in like a cinnamon roll. Rich and textural and savory over sweet it is definitely worth trying for those who fancy fig, but at least for me not as inspiring in execution as it is in concept.
Up next, the “Sweet and Salty” Cookie would prove to be another good-but-not-great option with rich notes of chocolate in the toothsome batter, but living in Phoenix and comparing this to La Grande Orange’s Chocolate Chip Sea salt cookie left me feeling a bit flat, though the roasted salty peanuts were admittedly a nice touch.
Onward to the donuts, obviously not as hot as they would have been (and would prove to be later) direct from the source, I opted for two of my all-time favorite old fashioned options and was pleased to find the blueberry cake option as good as those I remember from my childhood while the buttermilk bar was without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted – a better cake donut than the buttermilk stack (and 1/2 the price) at Doughnut Vault or The Donut Man, loaded with a slight tang from the buttermilk and pillowy soft despite being a cake donut…it was so good that I ordered a second approximately a week later when I visited Tonalli’s flagship and that time requesting one of the fresh warm ones from it proved even better; a seemingly impossible task but one I’d suggest anyone check out for themselves – or simply get to Ristritto early enough in the morning to get one fresh there…the lady at Tonalli’s tells me they deliver them just before the store opens at 6:30am.
…and speaking of Tonalli’s, a brief interlude before I get back to the coffee part of this blog (and before I cover the rest of the donuts,) I will simply say a few brief words about the small mom n’ pop shop on Alberta. #1) The prices are ridiculously low compared to similar spots in Portland and other major cities. #2) The servers are smiling, friendly, and astoundingly efficient even when the lines are long. #3) As previously mentioned, the buttermilk bar is a reference standard example… #4) The Blueberry fritter is even better, a crispy lacquered shell of glaze over toasty fried bits bursting with blueberries and soft wisps of dough within. Tonalli’s was my last taste of Portland (for now,) and although the coffee is acrid and weak while the ice cream seems rather pedestrian, that shouldn’t stop anyone who loves cake donuts from stopping by for their fix – particularly as a quick walk down the street can land you are Barista for an Americano and Salt & Straw for some of the best ice cream in America within minutes.
And finally, having mentioned Barista above, the last but not least amongst the coffee-first places on my list would be the location on Alberta – a large, bohemian looking sort of coffee house featuring heavy woods, animal heads, and both beans and brewing equipment from some of the country’s best – not to mention an ample morning selection of pastries from Nuvrei downtown. A surprisingly boisterous space at most times of the day, particularly early morning (I visited twice,) both of my visits consisted of me first browsing the fresh roasted beans from roasters such as Heart, Verve, Stumptown, and Kochere and then ordering a 12oz Americano brewed with Verve’s Ethiopian “The Sermon,” a rich blend with a lot of jam and a bit of chocolate that, although not a local roaster (California,) was still excellent.
With coffee ordered twice, it was only during my first visit – an early Sunday morning while waiting for Ned Ludd to open – that I decided to indulge in the pastries and with half a dozen selections available I opted for two, my standard almond croissant and a wild berry brioche, both from Nuvrei – the former a lackluster and soft sugarbomb loaded with far too much frangipane and powdered sugar that was only saved from the wastebasket by the richness of the coffee while the later was actually quite excellent, the only truly impressive option I’d taste from Nuvrei with a dense egg bread with a crisp and golden exterior holding a custard-like center loaded with subtle intrinsic sweetness and ripe, bursting berries bleeding deep into the core; excellent in flavor and in texture, though probably best shared given its heft. All-in-all a trendy place to be sure – hipster even – Barista is a decent enough shop, but for my money I’d sooner support a true local roaster and a place serving better pastry; Ristretto with Tonalli’s and Bake Shop, Courier with their Canele, and Stumptown with Little T all come to mind…and if you want Heart beans they are $1 cheaper per 12oz bag at the flagship.
Noting my previous experience with Nuvrei while at Barista on Alberta it was with mixed feelings that I entered their far-too-cutesy shop downtown and having already enjoyed a nice brunch and other quality pastries with substantial plans for dinner I decided to let my first few selections dictate whether I would order more – a good choice on my part both for the sake of cost and capacity but also for quality as my choice of two Macarons and a canele would prove to be average at best, the “Framboise – Oregon Raspberry” option featuring a gummy shell with an admittedly wonderful raspberry jam within and the “Caramel au beurre sale with fleur de sel” a nice blend of sweet and salty flavors but again lacking any crackle to the shell while the interior was almost “Sugar Daddy” sticky.
Moving next to the canele, and having already had a superlative version at Courier, I found myself with mixed feelings of the version at Nuvrei largely because it was a bit overcooked – both the shell and the first few centimeters of the interior holding up admirably to the tooth while only the dead-center was the expected custard sponge. Sweeter than the average and seemingly lacking any rum, instead focusing on fresh notes of vanilla I couldn’t help but think of this as an “Americanized” take on the Bordeaux classic – a suspicion that, in retrospect, seemed to plague all of Nuvrei’s overly sweet and off-textured options (save for the berry brioche – something I guess I never really saw in Paris either, but definitely loved at Nuvrei.)
Keeping with the French theme and starting with Little T, as mentioned with regard to their selection at Stumptown, another morning would take me past their spacious shop while window shopping (and shopping) the stores between Broder and Pok-Pok and without hesitation the smell of butter and vanilla drew me in. A nice space, all straight lines, light woods, and steel counters with a staff of at least four doing everything from bussing tables to making lattes to doling out baked goods while the bakers worked fervently in the kitchen.
Stepping up to the counter and greeted by the only employee who seemed less-than-thrilled with her job and browsing the selections I received largely one-word answers and after asking a question about proofing the croissants that she clearly had no answer to I simply ordered; 4 selections and only one a ‘traditional’ pastry in the French formal sense, that one without a doubt the best kouign amann I tasted in Portland – the shattering shell and hundreds of buttery layers all delicately sweet yet also tinged with a slight saltiness that reminded me of the versions in Paris; a high standard only to be surpassed a few days later at Seattle’s Crumble and Flake – the best kouign amann I’ve had anywhere.
Moving on to the French influenced American options and American touched French options, the former was listed as a Baked Currant Donut and as much as I like donuts and currants (and even baked donuts such as those at LA’s ‘fonuts’) I just could not get past the bready texture of this option; a mouthfeel like chewing on a 99 cent for six hamburger bun that was a couple days old. Slightly less disappointing, and entirely different, would be the chocolate praline croissant – essentially a butter roll in without any crackle to the shell but a decent wispiness to the interior and a lot of high quality chocolate with light nutty tones beneath. Decent, but texturally akin to the croissant you’d buy as a “croissanwich” somewhere and a conundrum for me since the crackle of the kouign amann had turned out so well.
Moving last to perhaps the most ‘interesting’ option on the Little T menu, an item titled ‘Chocolate Hazelnut Roll’ would turn the tables back in favor of a possible return visit to the bakery – the light spiral bun something like a bearclaw in texture with bright cocoa notes melding seamlessly with a thick house-ground sweetened hazelnut paste. Difficult to describe as it clearly pulls together a number of influences yet easy to love it was essentially portable baked Nutella; a must order alongside the kouign amann.
Another day, this one the morning of my road trip to Seattle, would see me at St. Honore on Thurman Street and with French Flags flying both outside and within I entered the boulangerie with high hopes – hopes bolstered by a space nearly full to capacity despite the time being 9:00am on a Wednesday. Large and rustic with granite tables, woven seats, and wood beams exposed plus bakers dressed in white aprons and caps similar to those seen in Parisian patisseries overseeing the production of an ample selection of breads, sandwiches, entrements, and pastries it seemed at first glance that St. Honore would be the sort of place I’d love and yet from my first encounter with the monotone server to the part where I had to wait fifteen minutes for their signature pastry to be plucked from a case and placed in a box the experience was less than ideal.
Moving past service issues and the dreadful logistics of parking, the four selections from St. Honore ranged from decent to exemplary and beginning low working towards high this started with another lackluster Almond Croissant – something I found quite common in Portland – this one with an excellent crunch to the shell but enough frangipane that it essentially constituted frosting, turning the interior into a sort of sweet pudding and negating any semblance of nuance; something I hope the local pigeons didn’t mind when I left more than half on the street.
Moving next to a pair of my favorites, both decent but neither astounding, a canele de Bordeaux would prove to be a bit too soggy, though nicely flavored, while the kouign amann was actually textbook in texture – the layers all nicely separated and shattering to the tooth – but a bit too sweet, thus hiding the butter tones of an otherwise fine attempt.
Finally, and perhaps most appropriately, the last bites of St. Honore would come in the form of a picture perfect St. Honore – each of the lacquered choux balls filled with creamy custard, the base layer flaky and topped with fresh whipped cream, and buttery tones deftly balanced against the sweetness. Texturally compelling and one of the best I’ve had stateside this is a ‘destination’ pastry for a trip to Portland even if there are better (much better) versions of the rest of their goods to be found elsewhere in town.
With St. Honore my last stop before departing Portland for Seattle the first stop on my return would be an unplanned visit to Pearl Bakery, a visit prompted by a text message from the young lady with whom I was staying suggesting that the small shop’s bouchon was “the most lovely and amazing breakfast food I know…a dense but oddly light and crumbly (though not dry) rich chocolate muffin/pastry/cake/treat” – tough words to argue with; particularly from anyone suggesting that the riff on Thomas Keller’s classic pastry was a ‘breakfast food’ and even moreso after a three hour drive on the I-5.
Clearly a spot that I’d read about (like most of Portland, actually) yet one that for whatever reason had missed the final cut, our arrival at Pearl Bakery began by allocating parking and having had trouble with that aspect of the Pearl District in the past we were fortunate to find a spot just down the block and subsequently making our way into the wood and tile space I knew right away that the story would not begin and end with a Bouchon – the eventual order constituting a quintet of selections varying from interesting to good to excellent; the bouchon every bit as good as the versions in Yountville, New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas…and possibly even better given the larger size and rough cut chocolate with a bit higher moisture content than I recall forcing me to wonder if they are using something other than Valrhona.
Moving on to the other options, a selection running the gamut from sweet to savory and Italian and French to American the oft raved Gibassier would prove to be the only dud of the late morning not because it was poorly done, but largely because it simply didn’t fit either of our palates – the sugared bread a sort of focaccia texture rife with anise and orange peel – and leaving half of this to the birds we moved onto the crunchy-gives-way-to-sweet Sicilian fig cookie, a dense and buttery cinnamon bun, and finally an impressively subtle pistachio croissant that defiantly managed to be more savory than sweet by utilizing toasted pistachios and a bit of salt with minimal sugar to highlight the crispy choux without overwhelming the intrinsic yeasty notes; a great accomplishment that may not fit every palate but for myself the best croissant I found in PDX and reason enough, along with the bouchon, to warrant a visit to Pearl Bakery.
Another well regarded space with French pastry at its core was visited the day following Pearl (incidentally a few days after a less-than-impressive visit to the equally eponymous pizzeria) and although the line was long, parking hellacious, and seating 75% full Ken’s Artisan Bakery proved to be quite average in every aspect save for two things; the over-inflated prices and one unique and truly delicious item.
Beginning first with the location, a corner spot on NW 21st, just assume that you’ll be driving in circles for a while unless you want to walk, something I did from 5 blocks away – and once you’re in the shop expect to be rushed through your decisions as there is a single line, a single clerk, a single cashier, and not nearly enough room thus leading to you handing the cashier your money and getting out of the way until your order is readied. Not a fan of crowded or pushy spaces and taking some items home to share with my friend I think I spent a total of 5 minutes inside Ken’s before landing back on the street with my bag of five items walking back to the car.
At this point still looking for a high quality almond croissant in Portland I’d again meet with no luck at Ken’s – a $3 waste of calories and cash with decent exterior crunch yet enough pasty almond filling to qualify as a twinkie and following this up with the worst canele of the trip – a texture more cupcake than crunch with an interior more sponge than custard – it was only reasonable that things would get better with what followed.
Having returned to my friend’s place with the rest of the bounty, including half of the almond cream puff…er…croissant, further tastes of Ken’s would feature a decent Salted Caramel Coffee Macaron with a crisp shell but slightly gummy filling whose flavor approximated a caramel macchiato followed by a tightly wound and densely glazed pecan cinnamon roll that made up for what it lacked in yeasty rise with plenty of sweetness and a pleasant texture added by what can best be described as a smoky pralines between the layers.
Saving the best *by far* for last, Ken’s celebrated “Oregon Croissant” proved to be every bit as good as some have said – the amalgam of Marionberries and hazelnuts in a creamy layer poured atop the flaky pastry prior to baking and thus bubbling up like a Danish with a base like a croissant. Somehow far less ‘doughy’ than the almond croissant despite the creamy topping and speckled with pearl sugar for extra crunch this was yet another example of a Portland bakery doing one thing very right (much like the St. Honore at St. Honore, or the Wildberry Brioche at Nuvrei) while everything else lagged far behind – a trend I saw time and again in varying degrees until the very last day of my trip…
…at St. Jack, a pre-brunch stop I’d originally targeted as a dinner (and will certainly visit during my next trip to PDX,) where I arrived at only a few minutes after they opened the doors to the patisserie and instantly fell in love with the elegant space, the lovely service, and most of all the fresh morning pastries arriving warm from the kitchen; each of three options I ordered a spot on translation of the versions being served in France and the first, a double baked almond croissant, the only good almond croissant I found during this trip with a perfect crunch, subtle sweetness, and the almond a glossy topping rather than an overwhelmingly sweet paste or filling.
Next up, a canele, in this case still piping hot as if just released from the mold, my tastebuds were met with a great exterior crunch with just a light touch of butter followed by a creamy interior loaded with notes of dark rum and rich vanilla – a taste that necessitated purchasing a second and one that I would love to taste blindly alongside that from Courier to see if I could distinguish a ‘winner,’ though both trump any that I’ve had elsewhere except perhaps B.Patisserie in San Francisco.
Last but not least – and in this case truly baked to order – my last bites of St. Jack would be a $4 bag of a dozen Madelines, each small and dainty, faintly lemon and just a bit sweet…better than those served at the end of many Michelin Starred meals and every bit worth the wait, particularly given the cosy environs and other options to sample while you wait; I can only assume Proust would have been happy; I know I was…and if I lived locally I know I’d be back for more soon.
From French influenced to the creativity of Belgium sporting ‘a Portland twist’ a quick stop at The Waffle Window – yes indeed, a window that serves Liege waffles – would prove to be another inspired decision during my visit to Rip City. Small and shockingly without a line during my visit despite the warm weather I approached the window not exactly sure what to expect but greeted by a friendly gentleman who handed me a menu I stepped back and perused the option for a moment, allowing a mother and her children to place their order, and taking their cue I opted for the same toppings as two of the three and stepped to the side chatting with the woman while we all waited a few minutes for our selections to arrive.
Having chosen the “Bananarumba,” a $4.50 choice described to me as their most popular item, what arrived to me in a Styrofoam clamshell would prove to be an impressive deal as the dense Liege Waffle – caramelized, yeasty, and perfect – was topped with a whole ripe banana, house made banana infused caramel, local granola, and fresh whipped cream. Sweet and rich yet neither cloying nor heavy I’d go so far as to say this was a nearly perfect dish – the only thing that may have made it better was ice cream – and had I more time and a less aggressive eating agenda I’d have loved to return to try the seasonal apple pie version or the blueberry cheesecake option.
Taking a decidedly American turn for the rest of my Portland baked goods, a “just because it was there” stop one morning took me to Lauretta Jeans…okay, that is a lie, what took me there was the smell of apples and cinnamon permeating the air as I walked by just after 8am en route to Broder having dropped off my car near Pok-Pok as I’d be dining there for lunch. A small shop I’d come across in my research I figured it certainly wouldn’t hurt to stop in and look, though obviously in the back of my mind I knew there was a good chance I’d end up buying something – or a few somethings – though I just as easily could have tried a dozen options and skipped Broder all together as everything at Lauretta Jeans looked impressive – and who am I to reject pie for breakfast when all the cool kids in Chicago and New York are doing it?
Greeted by a friendly young man who seemed a bit bored when I arrived and who was happy to chat about the ingredients and baking at LJ’s it would not be long before I found myself placing an order for a duo of items – the first presented right away and the other suggested to be better warm, a couple minutes wait as I took my Blueberry scone to the window to enjoy the mellow pockets of butter, sweet chunks of sugar, and intense swirl of fresh berries; a textbook scone that needed no cream at all, and a sign of things to come moments later in the form of a $4 slice of Heirloom Apple Pie with a rich, buttery double crust housing crispy apples and plenty of cinnamon with no starch or filler and minimal sugar; a nearly savory apple pie that rivals those served in Amish country…my only regret being that I didn’t order it with cheese…something I’d have most certainly done if it were 8pm instead of twelve hours earlier.
Another pie stop would occur under equally serendipitous circumstances nearly five days and thirteen hours after my visit to Lauretta Jeans when I was again walking, this time back to my friend’s home from dinner at Castagna, and again smelled cinnamon and apples in the air…and in this case it was not from a place I’d heard of, nor anyplace brick n’ mortar but rather a food truck set up across from Lardo entitled “Whiffies Pies” where fried hand pies are the order of the day and two choices spoke to me immediately, each $4 and served by a girl no older than twenty who was studying from a thick textbook as I approached.
Paying the modest tab plus a $2 tip largely because I cannot fathom how boring it must be to sit in a food-truck all night and told it would be “a few minutes” before things were ready I took to wandering the food-truck lot and although spots like Potato Champion caught my interest I showed restraint (there is always next time) and returning to Whiffies I found my pies ready to go, piping hot and wrapped in foil – the aforementioned apple version a good balance of crispy Granny Smiths packed into a dough that reminded me of childhood apple pies at McDonalds in terms of texture yet far less greasy with a nice balance of flaky and salty to compliment the apples, but not quite sweet enough to satisfy my craving thus making the second choice an admittedly gluttonous choice, but a great one as well as the pairing of Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chips was essentially the flavor of melted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups packed in a flaky shell – the molten mass too hot to eat for nearly the first mile of my walk but afterwards truly satisfying in that ‘late-night-junk/drunk-food’ kind of way.
Shifting finally to the most American of all the pastries on this tour – yes, more American than Apple Pie – three more stops in addition to Toranni’s (and Mighty O and The Original Bakery in Seattle) for deep fried dough would start at perhaps Portland’s most well-known food stop – the controversially famous Voodoo Doughnuts; home of the Pink Box, long lines, and twenty-four hours of bizarre treats, tourists, drunks, locals, and vagrants alike – for a city that wears “Keep Portland Weird!” as a badge of honor there is perhaps no place (save for Tanuki and the 24-hour Church of Elvis) that fits the mantra so well.
Having mentioned the ‘controversy’ of their fame, what I’m referring to is a sort of divide amongst ‘foodies’ and ‘gourmands’ – tourists and locals, some acting as though these donuts transcend simple fried sugar and flour while others deem them simply a case of good marketing and while I personally spent enough time wandering 3rd Street to skip the place when there was a line I’ll start off saying there is some truth to both sides of the coin…no, these are not worth waiting thirty minutes to an hour for, but at the same time I did visit twice during my stay and both times found the products to be enjoyable if not life altering.
Bearing in mind my visits, one at 7:00am and one around 2:00pm, were both on weekdays when the space was largely unpopulated I’ll start off by saying the staff was uniformly pleasant, though equally pierced and inked, and given the size of the menu they were happy to await my order provided I did not obstruct traffic – the first time selecting a half dozen options and the second a pair; plus another one ten minutes later when I returned with a partially eaten “Ain’t That a Peach Fritter” with a raw interior that was easily exchanged for an alternative. Nine donuts in total and only one (…because really, aside from being undercooked even the peach was good) less than good while four were actually quite impressive my selections ran the gamut from raised to cake and filled to fritter while my sharing of selections ranged from a pair of vagrants to new friends in Seattle as well as the one I was staying with in Portland.
Starting off with the only donut that was really not good at all, the signature “Voodoo Doll” was indeed as clever as it seems but with far too much frosting and a filling rife with high fructose corn syrup I was happy to share this one with a young homeless man in a Dinosaur Jr. shirt outside the store and although the equally famous Maple Bacon Bar was far superior to the Doll, it was no better than versions elsewhere (and not even close to the one at Blue Star just down the street or Nord’s in St. Louis) and thus this one was shared with the same fellow as well.
Moving next to two of the more obscure selections purchased during my first visit, the last of my raised selections was the “ODB” – a yeasty donut with thick chocolate frosting, crushed Oreo’s, and a drizzle of peanut butter that I polished off quickly and moving next to the “Memphis Mafia” I’ll simply say that this fritter alone should be enough to silence the haters as the nearly 1lb combination of fried dough, sugar, cinnamon, bananas, peanut butter, chocolate icing, peanuts, and chocolate chips is about as close as an item has ever come to being ‘over the top’ yet deliriously enjoyable in my experience…right up there with Martin Picard’s Plogue à Champlain at Au Pied de Cochon in terms of both audacity and taste (and probably calories as well.)
Next up, two cake options would both prove to be good – the first a standard Blueberry Cake doughnut with great texture, light glaze, and plenty of berries – then the “Tangfastic,” a veritable creamsicle disguised as a donut featuring a dense cake doughnut with an excellent toothsomeness topped with rich vanilla frosting, a dusting of tang, and a trio of marshmallows; nothing upscale, just delicious in the same manner as those Flinstones Push-Pops of my childhood, or perhaps those orange Hostess cupcakes that everyone hated, but I loved.
Rounding out the list, a trio of fritters including the aforementioned Peach topped with cream cheese frosting, its replacement in the form of a Pumpkin Chocolate Fritter, and a traditional Apple Fritter would all prove to be quite good, save for the undercooked part, and while the flavor profile was probably tilted a bit too far towards the sweet on all three each was packed with fruit and easily shared amongst two or three – a pro or a con depending on how you look at it, and all but the Apple version was something I’d never seen before so points for creativity are also due even if they were not quite on par with the superlative fritter at Blue Star (or The Donut Man, or Old Fashioned for those keeping tabs on my ever growing mental list.)
Another day and another donut, the last fried rounds of my trip would take me to Coco Donuts – the NE Broadway location, and apparently the newest of three locations. A cute shop with a lot of pink, reclaimed wood, news papers, and plenty of seating it seemed almost like a cupcake shop more than a donut store but nonetheless selling both raised and cake options as well as fritters and filled I perused the options before a very pleasant middle aged gentleman finished helping another customer and provided me with his opinions; a man of my own tastes suggesting I sample “a variety,” but particularly the house-favorite Cinnamon Crumble – a very well crafted cake donut topped with buttery cinnamon streusel that far outshined its humble ingredients in taste and texture, particularly as it was served warm.
Continuing with the rest, my other four choices from Coco would consist of the standards, though each would fall a bit short for one reason or another, the raised and glazed a bit too doughy, the buttermilk bar excellent in texture but deplete in the expected sour notes, and the apple fritter not really anything like a fritter in terms of texture – instead more like a raised yeast donut with a light compliment of apples and cinnamon; wispy and without any crunch it was admittedly only $1.50 but even at that price a goodly amount went unfinished; an offering to the pigeons saving room for other things…basically the apple and blueberry fritters at Tonalli’s later that day.
…and saving the best for last, let me just say that while I’m by no means an “expert” I have traveled enough and – given my substantial sweet tooth – tried enough donuts to know what I like…and I absolutely loved Blue Star Donuts; a relatively new spot on Washington Street downtown; as a matter of fact I loved it so much that I made nearly half a dozen visits during my seven days in Portland.
A large and open space where every aspect of production can be witnessed both inside the store and through the floor to ceiling windows from the street Blue Star is the brainchild of Chef Stephanie Donlan as well as owner Katie Camden and featuring a rich brioche dough recipe as opposed to traditional cake or yeast-raised options more commonly found in the United States each of the selections at Blue Star is dense and flavorful even before the addition of toppings or fillings; for those familiar the beignets at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon or the doughnuts at Dough in Brooklyn are about as close an approximation as I can muster but all things being equal neither of them are even close to Blue Star in terms of pillowy texture…or quality of toppings.
Noting my frequent visits to Blue Star the main reason for this was not solely the quality of the donuts, but rather the rotating list of options – some staples available all the time and some only appearing once during my stay – and beginning first with the most simple, a Raised Glazed option on the first day of my visit proved plenty an impetus to influence my frequent returns; the rich and eggy dough puffed into a sort of wispy pillow lightly sweetened and yeasty – a perfect delivery system for the light glaze, a sort of rice milk flavored lacquer that was neither bland nor overly sweet. Great on its own and even better as a backdrop to perhaps Blue Star’s most talked about selection, the Fried Chicken Donut (complete with forks and hot sauce,) the only ‘plain’ donut I’ve found that rivals Blue Star is at Chicago’s Doughnut Vault.
Continuing towards more creative options, three filled options featured at Blue Star included Crème Brulee, Peanut Butter and Jelly, and finally Valrhona Chocolate Crunch and although I’d be hard pressed to decide which was ‘best,’ I’d suggest that all three are well worth the cost and calories; the first two featuring a caramelized glaze – one truly crème brulee in flavor and the other grape overlying light peanut butter cream – while the third is topped with crunchy chocolate spheres that serve an impressive textural counterpoint to the rich, creamy interior.
Largely ignoring an unmemorable slice of Banana Bread Pudding that was decent, albeit a bit bland and too homogenous in texture aside from the crunchy caramel top, and getting back to the donut side of things a quartet of raised brioche offerings would follow with flavors including Blueberry/Bourbon/Basil, Real Maple and Bacon, Dulce De Leche with Hazelnut, and finally S’Mores – each featuring the same excellent texture as the raised glazed option but each with a distinctive topping serving notice that this was not your typical donut. From the fruity herbal balance of the blueberry selection and the intense sweetness of the maple and briny bacon to the nearly peanut brittle flavor of the dulce de leche and rich chocolate smokiness of the chocolate and toasted marshmallows the key to each selection was balance – the flavors all there, but none overwhelming the others…
…and yet none of these options, save perhaps for the Peanut Butter and Jelly, comes close to the ‘wow’ factor of the fritter; in this case a “Hard Apple Cider” Fritter with the exterior crunchy and sweet while the innards were rife with apples and cinnamon plus that slightly fermented taste of fall. All pull-apart delicious, just as a good fritter should be, and literally melting in the mouth due to the butter content of both the brioche and the cooked apples this is a fritter to rival the best of them, and at $2.50 I even threw in two quarters to pick up some house made “doggie donuts” for my friend’s pet, a cute touch from what I firmly believe to be one of the best donut shops in the country and hands down the best in Portland.