Portland bursts into a Garden of Eden from June through September with its famous International Rose Garden in full blossom and its 10,000 acres of parks and natural areas at the peak of their botanical glory.
But fall also showcases another part of Portland — its unusual character and extreme creativity. "Keep Portland Weird" is not just the unofficial mandate of Oregon's largest city; it also serves as a notice for visitors that if they seek the conventional and predictable, they'd best look to a different destination.
Of course chain stores and name brands exist in Portland, but this is a city that prides itself on unique attractions, activities and businesses and keeps a resolute focus on sustainability. That means Portland encourages and celebrates everything made locally.
And when the rain clouds clear and the frequent drizzle of winter gives way to the natural bounty of Portland's summer and fall months, Portland's one-of-a kind culture — its food, shops, coffee and teahouses, its breweries and distilleries, landmarks and, of course, its people — comes out on display. Following are a few ways to participate in Portland's eccentricity.
Lined with dozens of locally owned shops, bars and eateries, this street, just two miles from downtown Portland, provides a snapshot of the city's creative and sometimes obsessive populace and their endlessly inventive inclinations. Just five years ago, boarded-up buildings and dilapidated housing lined Mississippi Avenue. Then Portland's Hawthorne Neighborhoods was the city's artisan hub. Now Mississippi Avenue has moved onto the cutting edge.
Here you will find locally designed, vintage and hard-to-find fashions. In fact, three winners of the fashion design competitive reality show, "Project Runway," hailed from Portland. Here neighborhood denizens meander the strip of do-it-yourself goods and services.
They might start with a pomegranate margarita at Por Que No?; share a morel and porcini mushrooms with Vidalia onions, taleggio and pancetta pizza at Lovely's Fifty Fifty restaurant; or indulge in a made-to-order ice cream sandwich at Ruby Jewel (flavored with all-Northwest ingredients and made from a local hormone-free dairy, of course). Or they might stop to chat with an owner at one of many uber-speciality stores.
One of the standout shops in the latter category is The Meadow, with 110 different types of salts from 29 different countries and 300 varieties of chocolate. The kicker here is that when you ask the people behind the counter about any one particular item, they seem to everything about it — from where it is harvested to how best to use it.
I found this to be true with a lot of Portland purveyors, whether they were small-batch coffee roasters, specialty cocktail creators or carnivorous plant specialists. At the south end of Mississippi resides Mississippi Marketplace, one of the gathering spots for Portland's food carts. Try the ChickPea Sandwich at Garden State Food Cart.
Hot and Cool: Pok, Pok
Much has been made of Portland's dining scene with its emphasis on locally grown and foraged ingredients and its unspoken manifesto of inventiveness. Perhaps no restaurant has received more accolades than this Thai-Asian eatery run by a very American chef, Andy Ricker, who won the 2011 James Beard award for best chef in the Northwest.
What started as a takeout Thai barbecue restaurant outside of Ricker's home eventually expanded into a full-line restaurant occupying the whole house. Through Pok Pok, Ricker introduced authentic fiery Thai street food, mostly from the north and northeast parts of Thailand. Practically every dish is a revelation and certainly sweat-inducing. Best to arm yourself with a glass of water flavored with Pandanus leaf, which has a toasted, vanilla, grassy flavor and/or one of Pok Pok's famous signature drinks.
Also, try to hit the place at off hours since lines abound. You could try Ricker's smaller Pok Pok Noi, with takeout and counter service and limited seating, or his Ping restaurant in Portland Chinatown. The Pok Pok is located at 3226 Southeast Division St., 503-232-1387
Lan Su Chinese Garden
Situated in Portland's old Chinatown, this series of traditional Chinese buildings, ponds, exhibitions and a tea house connected by traditional Chinese walkways creates an urban oasis and points to the diversity that helped create Portland's culture. The garden sponsors different monthly exhibits of Chinese artists and regular talks on Chinese methods for creating wellness: 239 Northwest Everett St., 503-228-8131.
Portland Walking Tours
Portland does a lot of things a little differently from anywhere else, so why should its walking tours be any different? The Best of Portland Walking Tour points out the quirkiest elements of downtown, including the world's smallest park (literally a small square of land with a tree and plants located in a meridian strip) and several views on the city's very low-profile yet very large (35 feet) sculpture, Portlandia, located above the entrance of the Michael Graves Portland Building.
Depicting a woman dressed in classical Greek clothing and holding a trident, the sculpture is one of the largest copper statues in the United States, second only to the Statue of Liberty. Few tourists ever see it and even most locals are unaware of its exact locale. For a grittier experience, Portland Walking Tours leads visitors through the seamier landmarks of the city's history, including the subterranean Portland Shanghai Tunnels. Flashlights are provided: www.portlandwalkingtours.com.
Portland has acquired a national reputation for its 30 different craft breweries. Lesser-known but growing and equally as distinct are Portland's hard-liquor micro distilleries. Many of these distilleries, including House Spirits, which produces the wonderful Aviation Gin, host tastings on Saturday.
The best way to safely imbibe in your sips of rum, vodka, absinthe and other spirits is by booking a pedicab distillery tour. The company provides a "passport" for tastings at five different distilleries and transportation via pedicab from place to place: www.pdxpedicab.com/Portland_Pedicab/Distillery_Row_Tour.html.
With a chef who trained at the famed Noma in Copehagen, Denmark, Castagna serves a menu that is equally creative and refined. The courses are composed from ingredients that are mostly locally grown and foraged. The dishes are artfully presented and configured for the ultimate in flavor and texture blending.
How about an entree of rockfish, variations of local onions, mussel jus and geranium? Or dessert of strawberries, black olive, licorice, almond and hibiscus? The best part is that the menu is relatively inexpensive for the quality and innovation of the food: 1752 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. , corner of 18th and S.E. Hawthorne.
WHEN YOU GO
The Nines Hotel is very Portland. Located downtown and built on the top floors of the Meier and Frank building, this stylish hotel at reasonable prices is a 331-room LEED Silver-certified destination with a luxurious decor in the rooms and public spaces that make it a hot spot.
The lobby is wide open, with great light and more secluded areas for privacy. The hotel's steakhouse uses primarily local ingredients. (Its menu credits its "foragers.") But what makes The Nines (as in "dressed to the nines") most unusual is its art, with hundreds of pieces, including sculpture, themed around fashion. Like Portland itself, The Nines is surprising sophisticated, fun and affordable: 525 S.W. Morrison, 877-229-9995 .
For general tourism information, visit www.travelportland.com.
Divina Infusino is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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