Portland: City of Roses… or City of Donuts?

This past weekend I attended the Western Psychological Association conference in Portland, Oregon. This conference happens every year and is held somewhere in the western states. Some years it’s in an exciting destination like Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Cancun, Mexico or Vancouver, Canada. Other years we find ourselves in such lackluster destinations as  Sacramento, Reno or worse yet,  Irvine or Burlingame, California. Therefore, my students, colleagues and I are always excited when the conference is held in Portland, and thankfully this is the 3rd time in the last 10 years that Portland was chosen as the site.

Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge

I love Portland, which bears the nickname Rose City because a banker back in the city’s history planted extensive rose gardens and invited residents to pluck a bloom for themselves and additionally, the climate is perfect for growing roses. Portland is a cosmopolitan city, but everything is on a small and manageable scale. Its streets are remarkably clean and tree-lined, and since there are very few major hills to climb, it’s a wonderful place for long, leisurely walks.  Parks are adorned with beautiful flowering shrubs and flowers, babbling fountains, and statues of wildlife. The public transit system consisting of buses, streetcars and the sleek trains called MAX are quiet, comfortable and spotlessly clean; I wish I could say the same about BART, MAX’s cousin down in the San Francisco Bay Area! There is some of the west coast quirkiness in the population here, and unfortunately a very serious homelessness problem, but in general the people are mellow and polite, the downtown area amazingly quiet and manageable, and best of all, it is one of the great “foodie” capitals of the USA. On this visit I returned to several of my favorite places and got to sample some new ones as well. Thankfully, I walked everywhere, so the calories I put into my body did get burned off fairly well. At least I hope they did. I have not yet checked the scale.

Of course almost a day into my visit I realized that my camera battery was near death and I had stupidly forgotten to bring my battery charger, so if the quality of some of my photos isn’t up to speed, it’s because I was forced to rely on my horrible cell phone camera. I spent three nights in the city’s Pearl District, just north of downtown at a very comfortable and quiet Hampton Inn with a saltwater pool and a breakfast buffet featuring gourmet donuts from Sesame, one of the city’s infamous donut bakeries. Yes, given the focus on donuts in this town, I think a more apt name might be Donut City. The Pearl District is a formerly run-down area of warehouses that has been rejuvenated and is now home to galleries, boutiques, coffee houses and restaurants.

My first lunch with some of my students and colleagues was at Killer Burger, a very energetic place specializing in burgers and beer. While less adventurous folks balked at the idea, I had to order the restaurant’s signature PBPB Burger… the Peanut Butter, Pickle and Bacon Burger. Yes, the burger was topped with a thick layer of peanut butter sauce, dill pickles and bacon, and the mix of sweet and sour flavors, and smooth and crunchy textures was nothing short of spectacular; it was a “killer” burger indeed! And they serve “bottomless” and delicious fries as well.

The PBPB Burger at Killer Burger!

For dinner with colleagues we hit Mamma Mia Trattoria, a cheerfully decorated Italian restaurant located in an historic building. Here the pasta carbonara called my name and I answered, savoring homemade linguine tossed with pancetta, onions, egg yolk, peas & parmigiana Reggiano cheese. It could have held its own against similar dishes I’ve had in Rome.

One day I ran off to the very eclectic Hawthorne District, across the Williamette River east of downtown. I paid a visit to the Waffle Window, which is literally a take away window selling all kinds of both sweet and savory waffles. Trying to pace myself, I got the half order of chicken and waffles and it did not disappoint.

Waffle window
Chicken and Waffle.. Waffle Window

But let’s talk donuts, shall we? There is Sesame Donuts that I mentioned earlier, and there is Coco’s, both very good and would shine in any metropolitan area. But this is Donut City. Almost anyone who’s been to Portland raves about the legendary Voodoo Donuts, which, while it is interesting and a good place to go if you crave a fat and sugar fix at 3AM (they are open 24 hours a day!), it has never impressed me. My impression is that they make pretty  standard donuts that often strike me as a bit dry or stale and roll them in colorful candy and children’s cereal. Impressive to look at, but not my thing at all. My vote for the best donuts in town… or on this continent for that matter… is Blue Star Donuts. Totally opposite the Bohemian atmosphere of Voodoo, Blue Star is a classy, upscale place with exceptionally friendly and helpful staff. They feature about 20 varieties of donuts at any one time and most flavors come in either a traditional cake donut style or a fluffier brioche-like batter. Let your mind wander to flavors like Lemon Poppyseed, Spicy Strawberry (fresh strawberries and a hint of horseradish to give it a little zing),  Raspberry-Rosemary Buttermilk or Blueberry Bourbon Basil. They even have a Crème Brulee version that looks like a real crème brulee with a hole in the center! But my personal favorite is called Passionfruit Cocoa Nib, which features a rich passionfruit frosting, tiny nibs of cocoa beans, and a hint of Cayenne pepper that leaves a sweet and spicy aftertaste that truly works. I would be in real trouble if I lived here.

For a large group dinner I got us a giant table at Mother’s Bistro, where homemade comfort food is served in generous portions for very reasonable prices. Many of my group ordered the special of the night, chicken fried steak with country gravy on a bed of mashed potatoes and collard greens. Other offerings include chicken and dumplings, gourmet mac and cheese, salmon appetizers, and everything is served with rolls and biscuits that taste like I remember them tasting in my childhood. And there should always be room for dessert. This time I shared a key lime cheesecake with my friend Bill, but their layer cakes and bread puddings vie for my attention. I went back a couple of days later for Sunday brunch with one of my students: salmon hash and blueberry pancakes made it worth getting out of bed on a rainy morning!

Always save room for dessert at Mother’s

And perhaps one of the best eateries in the city is the Peruvian restaurant, Andina. I am not much of a drinker, but they make a cocktail here that may just be the best mixed drink I have ever tasted. It’s called Sacsayhuaman – or “Sacsay”, which our waiter pronounced sort of like “sexy.” It’s a beautiful concoction made with habanero pepper infused vodka mixed with pureed passionfruit and cane sugar, served with a sugar rim and cilantro leaf garnish. (Whoever thought up this passionfruit and pepper combination in cocktails and donuts deserves a medal!) I’ll bet you can’t drink just one…. none of us could. The food is equally impressive, and we feasted on appetizers like avocado stuffed with crabmeat, ahi tuna, ham and cheese stuffed peppers, followed by entrees of diver scallops, roast lamb, and paella. An interesting dessert was the lucuma ice cream, made from the national fruit of Peru. The waiter described the taste as something like vanilla and honey… or like a waffle. He was really pretty accurate about that and I loved every bite.

Before heading to the airport on my last day here I made a last visit to Blue Star. Another patron walked over to me and gave me a gift card. He’d used $7 of the $25 on the card and said he rarely comes to this part of the city, so he gave me the card to use! How sweet is that? Thanking him profusely I ordered yet another passionfruit and a spicy strawberry, and some coffee and then “passed it forward” by giving the remaining $12 card to the next people in line. What a nice last memory of Portland.

Alas, it was not quite my last memory. As I walked back to the hotel to get my luggage and head to the airport on MAX, a homeless woman across the street from me glared at me and started screaming, “Fat man! Fam Man! Get away from me you f”n Fat Man! You are fat and ugly! Don’t come near me! F you!” Oh well… the Lord giveth and he taketh away. I may be a little fatter after the last 4 days, but it was all worth it. I certainly hope that the United crew will not fat shame me and make me purchase a second seat on the plane home! But I sincerely hope I’ll get back to the city of roses and donuts for another visit long before the Western Psychological Association finds its way back to this charming city again.

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