So I’m not above admitting it: GQ’s Alan Richman is a seasoned and savvy commentator on dining, so I was a little put out when he wrote in the November GQ that he long ago foresaw the Northwest’s culinary ascendancy—only he thought it would happen in Seattle. Dang, Richman. 

“How did Portland, at best second-tier and certainly worse where food was concerned, ascend to its status as the most fascinating gastronomic city in America?” Richman wrote. What nonsense, I thought: Seattle has the same proximity to perfect ingredients Portland does. We have world-class restaurants like Spinasse and Altura. We got zany ice cream flavors, we got alt pop-ups. We got tripe and octopus and headcheese, sometimes on the same plate. We even have food carts now. How could he think Portland had bested us?

Unfortunately Karen Brooks, the restaurant critic at our sister publication Portland Monthly and that city’s premiere gastronista, has just come out with the definitive answer. In The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland: A Journey Through the Center of America’s New Food Revolution, Brooks (with Gideon Bosker and Teri Gelber) peels back the delectable underbelly of Portland’s irreverent scene, in recipes from and voraciously readable profiles of the chefs and foragers, the coffee roasters and portable oven porters, the meat slayers and food cart rebels and culinary bohemians whose “don’t give a fuck” attitude created a scene unlike anything else in America.

Why did that happen? “Seattle had a place at the table with the grown-ups,” Brooks explained by phone last month. “Portland was always at the kids’ table.” Traveling rock shows would fly from San Francisco to Seattle, hopping right over Stumptown—leaving that city with a red-haired-stepchild sense of inferiority that turned out to be, to Brooks’s mind, its greatest gift. “While the world put pressure on Seattle to be the Next Big Thing, Portland said, ‘Hey, let’s do whatever we want!’”

“Whatever we want” turned out to be French restaurants serving barbecued ribs and screening movies. Joints freestyling dishes like chorizo doughnuts, or malted banana shakes with bacon swizzle sticks, or foie gras ice cream with veal fudge chocolate sauce. “Eat spots” like Navarre, whose proprietor built all the furniture and gets all his produce from a single urban farm in Southeast Portland. Many of these are ideas with zero sales value—and indeed which appear to have been dreamed up as fodder for Portlandia writers—but they begat a punk-rock community of culinary pirates and pioneers whose driving impulse was artistic, not commercial.

Brooks has a whole lot more to say about the Portland food scene: about the unusual camaraderie of its restaurateurs, about their obsessive devotion to sourcing, about how chefs who serve food out of trucks necessarily rely on freshest ingredients if only because they have no storage. (Oh, and how if Seattle’s restaurant scene is Uma Thurman, Portland’s is Sarah Silverman.) 

You can ask Brooks about that and more at her reading at Book Larder Friday, January 18 starting at 6:30. Rumor is she’ll have nibbles on hand from some of the recipes in her book. Perhaps they’ll soften the blow.

Karen Brooks
Book Larder, Jan 18 at 6:30pm


Published: January 2013