Portland, The Mighty Gastropolis: An Edible Tour of Portland with Authors Karen Brooks and Teri Gelber

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Portland has become one of the nation’s most iconic food cities.

karen and teri
Authors Karen Brooks and Teri Gelber. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I credit this, in part, to IFC’s Portlandia which relentlessly spoofs the city’s focus on ethical eating and eat-local mindset, but a new book by authors Karen Brooks, Teri Gelber and Gideon Bosker shows that eating in Portland is not all Portlandia. And even when it veers dangerously close to the tv show’s goofy sketches, what’s so bad about that?

Portland: The Mighty Gastropolis is a journey through what Brooks calls “America’s New Food Revolution.” It’s a revolution that is stained with pickle juice and greased with bone marrow. It’s happening on board carts, inside butcher shops and across communal tables. The Mighty Gastropolis,” Brooks says, “is really a story about passion, obsession and perseverence.”

On a recent trip to Portland I asked Brooks and Gelber to select three unique themes that identify their mighty gastropolis. Below is what they came up with:

The Ole Latte Coffee Cart in Downtown Portland.

Portland Food Carts: A Street-Smart Silicon Valley of Food

According to Brooks, all Portland food tours begin with the food carts. Unlike food trucks in other major cities, Portland food carts are stationary trailers that line parking lots all over Portland. Brooks describes them as “culinary shantytowns” and that is exactly what they look like – a hodge podge of styles, shapes and colors, all spot-welded together to create “re-imagined town squares.” Above is a photo of Ole Latte Coffee’s cart, what Brooks calls “the Rodeo Drive” of Portland food carts. Todd Edwards, the cart’s proprietor, micro-roasts single-origin espresso beans on board his 90 square foot cart.


Pork Burger at People’s Pig (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Around the corner, Cliff Allen helms the People’s Pig. At six feet, three inches tall, Allen barely fits inside his cart and admits he can’t extend his arms out straight when he’s working. But don’t let the humble digs fool you, these young chefs and artisans are creating exceptional products from minuscule spaces. For Allen’s pork burger he grinds his own pork belly and shoulder, grills the patty over mesquite, puts it on his own home baked sourdough bread and tops it with his cart made pickles.

Many describe the food carts as laboratories. Brooks explains, “For a lot of young people, the idea of obsessive cooking, artisinal cooking is their best hope for a meal ticket…it’s their way to enter the american dream machine without digging an unsightly hole in their pocket.” At $500 to $1,000 a month for rent, a food cart in the heart of Downtown Portland seems like a pretty good deal. Hear more about Portland’s food carts below:

Risk Taking: A Tenant of the Portland School of Gastronomy

greg dentonIn Portland, “no food or idea is forbidden,” says Brooks. This statement, is especially true at Ox, a restaurant in the Northeast quadrant of the city run by chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton. Brooks describes it as “a mash up of Argentine barbecue, Portland brevado and French technique.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s clear that the Dentons are having fun, and their spirit is infectious.

Hear Gelber and Brooks talk about Ox’s rule-breaking menu below.

The star of the show at Ox is the monumental wood burning oven. The design comes from a company called Grill Works out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. It resembles a medieval torture device, reaching temperatures upwards of 1,300 degrees. Standing within a few feet of the oven, it’s hard not to start sweating. Denton said that one of his employees had to take out his nipple ring during a stint manning the flames. It’s a miracle the heat doesn’t sear one’s eyebrows off.

The grill at Ox. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Listen below as Denton discusses how he manages cooking sixty menu items on just one grill.

Collaboration: How Young Food Entrepreneurs are Working Together

Community is a word you hear a lot in Portland. Rather than competing, chefs in Portland seek out collaborations. “Across the city, chefs jam like pick up bands,” says Brooks, and “Salt & Straw is maybe the epitome of bringing together local ideas to create something new.”
An ice cream flight at Salt & Straw.
An ice cream flight at Salt & Straw. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Salt & Straw is an ice cream shop located in the food-centric Alberta neighborhood. Every month, owners Kim and Tyler Malek invite a rotating cast of local chefs and artisans to collaborate on new flavors. (Greg Denton, of Ox, once made a foie gras and s’mores flavor.) The week I visited Portland, five local chocolatiers had created five new chocolate ice cream flavors. There was bean-to-bar chocolate chip, chocolate mole and black pepper and chevre ganache to name a few. Like terroir in wine, Brooks says you can find the flavors of Portland in the ice cream cones at Salt & Straw. Listen to Brooks describe the collaborative nature of Salt & Straw below.
Below is a recipe from the book for Salt & Straw’s Melon and Prosciutto Ice Cream. This flavor combination was a collaboration between Olympic Provisions and Salt & Straw. Here us an excerpt from Brooks:
How did thin sheets of Olympic Provisions charcuterie end up rippling through the frozen music of cream and canta- loupe at the flavor-romping Salt & Straw? Long before they redefined ice cream on Portland turf, drew rock-club lines, and grabbed instant national press in 2011, cousins-cum-ice cream dreamers Kim and Tyler Malek had a flash inspira- tion: to recast fresh melon and proscuitto (Italy’s contribu- tion to the sweet-salty pantheon) into local gold with fantastic meatcraft from Portland’s slow salumi lords. They cold- called the owners, with no portfolio or even a product, just an idea for a delicious collaboration. OP’s response: “Come on over . . . today.” That’s Portland, in a scoop.