Gluten-Free Travel - Portland, OR
Ok, for those of you who are fans of IFC's Portlandia, let me just say the dream of the 90s IS alive in Portland, but so is the dream of gluten freedom.
During a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, the fam and I went to Portland to visit friends and check it out. I had never been to Oregon before and had no idea what to expect. What I discovered in Portland was a laid back city totally focused on enjoying life and food. Something about Portland makes you feel relaxed and sedate, which is almost a dichotomy since one of their claims to fame is coffee, Stumptown Coffee Roasters to be exact.
Food carts reign supreme in the city. You can't sneeze without running into one and there are food carts to satisfy even the most specific cravings. Want an organic bowl of rice and veggies? You can have it at The Whole Bowl. If the line I witnessed outside of the tiny truck is any indication, you can be sure that you will enjoy your rice bowl.
Grilled cheese sandwich? Yup, there's a truck for that too where the tot picked up a sandwich for herself and I was almost tempted to get one as well since they offered gluten-free bread and non-dairy cheese. In fact, almost every place we ate at in Portland either had a gluten-free menu or could accommodate a gluten-free restriction with no problem at all. I live in NYC and while gluten-free options are becoming more popular, as a whole there is still a long way to go in New York.
The first order of business when we arrived in Portland was, of course, food. We stayed at The Nines and figured it would be easiest to grab a quite bite at one of their restaurants Urban Farmer. The space is amazing and full of light, and while the food was good, it didn't quite titillate me the way I hoped. I chalked it up to being typical of most hotel restaurants and didn't let it cloud the rest of the trip.
image of Pork Adobo via Urban Spoon
At Tasty n Sons, it's a shared dining experience amongst the table, so we ordered a ridiculous amount of food and got to try a bit of everything. Our server was knowledgeable about gluten-freedom and let me know which of the dishes we ordered were safe for me to eat and which to stay away from. We ate so much that I can't remember all of the dishes we tried, except for the Adobo Pork shank, which was insanely good. The steak was also a strong contender and was perfectly prepared. I left Tasty's full and a bit more than slightly inebriated (too much pink wine). I was ready to collapse in bed so I could rest up and be strong for the next day of eating.
Waking up refreshed and ready to eat, we decided to check out the Tin Shed for brunch. I didn't realize how popular it was with the breakfast crowd and by the time we got there we had an hour wait in front of us. Not sure where else to go, we grabbed a complimentary cup of their drip coffee which they have available to everyone and waited to order. The first thing I noticed, aside from the free coffee, was the doggie area they have outside for patrons who want to bring Fido along to eat. They also have a doggie menu to choose from for your furry friends. They are also, of course, sensitive to gluten-free eaters and have a variety of breakfast options to choose from including pancakes and gluten-free bread.
After waiting for an hour for our takeout order (ugh), we made our way to a local park to have an impromptu picnic. I ordered pancakes and the Belly Teaser, although "belly teasing” was the last thing I wanted after a night of drinking. I tried the pancakes first and thought they were good, although a little dry. It could have been a product of ordering them for takeout, or maybe I didn't really want pancakes, either way, I didn't eat too much of them although I did lay waste to the bacon on the side – ah pork. The thing I found surprisingly good was the Belly Teaser, a breakfasty rice pudding made with coconut milk. It was warm, sweet and reminded me of Cream of Rice in a way, but chunkier. The fresh blueberries they add to mix in really set it off. I could only eat half because it was quite filling and became sweeter the more you ate, not really ideal for a hungover belly. I’d try Tin Shed again, but I’d go way earlier next time to avoid the lines and I’d give some heartier options on their menu a try.
Portland is rather spread out as a city, with a ton of bridges that span the river at several locations. We found ourselves driving over the bridge to leave the downtown area pretty often, not because it wasn't awesome, but because all of the restaurants we wanted to eat at were in other neighborhoods.
Around lunchtime, we took a walk to check out a "pod" aka "a cluster of food carts” that we noticed near our hotel. I spotted a Pho cart in the mix earlier and wanted to try it out. The pod lined the sidewalks of a city block and we walked around the entire thing taking in all of the different types of carts and food options. The little one really wanted a grilled cheese sandwich and wouldn't you know it, there was a cart dedicated to grilled cheese. As I looked at the menu, I saw that they also offer vegan cheese options and GLUTEN-FREE bread. I don't know why it continued to surprise me to see gluten-free options on menus as Portland is just way more progressive than a lot of others when it comes to food. I wasn't in the mood for a grilled cheese, so we made our way over to the pho cart called Mai Pho after getting the little one something to eat.
While we waited for our pho to be prepared, I noticed an insane line at The Whole Bowl which specializes in one thing - a rice bowl with red and black beans, fresh avocado, salsa, black olives, sour cream, Tillamook cheddar, cilantro, and Tali Sauce. I didn't try it, but with the amount of people waiting, it is definitely on my "need to try" list for next time.
I'm not a big fan of take-out pho in general because it just never tastes the same way that it does when it comes in one of those huge pho bowls at a sit down restaurant. Mai Pho's pho was good, but a little peppery for my taste and different from the usual Southern Vietnamese pho I personally like which has a bit of a sweeter flavor.
By the time lunch was done, the little one was ready to explode with unspent energy, so we took her to PDX Playdate, which for the moms out there, is a must-visit. It's a huge indoor play area complete with ball pit, slides and hours of distraction for your kids. There is a bar, with booze for parents, food for parents and kids, and of course, gluten-free snacks. The bar alone was a winner for me and the kiddo was on cloud 9 for a couple of hours, running through the labyrinth of heavily padded play areas.
I wanted a sweet treat after that and read that there was a gluten-free bakery in town called Tula's, so we hopped back into the car and went over the bridge to check it out. I was impressed by the size of Tula's. It's one of the biggest gluten-free bakeries I've seen and has several seating areas, including a small area for kids. The bakery itself is very bright, modern and inviting. The owner was lovely and super nice to speak with. I didn't know what I wanted to get so I walked out with a huge Double Chocolate Chip and Walnut cookie and a small Chocolate Coffee bundt cake.
The cookie was awesome, and reminded me of a flourless cookie. I wasn't a big fan of the cake; it was a little dry and had a little bit of a strange taste I couldn't pinpoint. There were so many other items I wanted to try, like the breads and the pizza, but I was beyond full at that point and wanted to save myself for dinner.
After a short siesta, we went to dinner at The Woodsman Tavern, one of the most highly rated restaurants in Portland. The Woodsman felt very much like a neighborhood joint, but definitely classy enough to be just at home in New York City. The menu focuses on the “less is more” concept, but the food delivers a flavorful punch that had us mmm-ing and omg-ing throughout the dinner.
The Woodsman was the first restaurant I'd been to in Portland that didn't overtly cater to a gluten-free customer. In fact, many of the dishes had bread as a major component. After a little haggling and begging for alterations, we settled on the Crispy Pork Shank and the Roasted Half Chicken, both of which were altered to suit a gluten-free eater.
I can't even describe the deliciousness of both of these dishes. The chicken was juicy, lemony and crispy. It was so simple, but flavorful and well executed. The pork shank was perfection; crispy and full of umami goodness. We raved to the server about how incredible everything was and left The Woodsman totally happy.
I was pretty damn full by this point, having eaten not so small meals throughout the day, but the little one REALLY wanted ice cream, so we walked up to a small pod a few blocks away to check out an ice cream cart called Scoop. I don't know how Scoop has been flying under the radar because it's freaking awesome. All of the ice cream is homemade and there are several standard and inventive flavors to choose from as well as lots of toppings to suit your heart’s desire. The proprietor also serves a vegan option, which is Luna and Larry's Coconut Bliss and you guessed it, gluten-free ice cream cones. What started out as a treat for the little one quickly became a family dessert, with all of us getting ice cream cones and sitting at one of the little picnic tables to enjoy them.
I was sad to be leaving Portland the next day, but excited to try one last restaurant - Pambiche. I'm half Cuban, so finding a Cuban restaurant clear across the country tickled me in all the right ways. Finding a Cuban restaurant that clearly marks the gluten-free items on the menu pretty much floored me. We stopped into Pambiche in the morning to fill up on a hearty breakfast before hitting the road to drive up to Seattle.
I couldn't decide what to eat, but finally settled on an avocado salad and picadillo with fried eggs. The portions at Pambiche are not shy, and you will leave full, if not a little overfull. The avocado salad was tangy, just the way I like it, but the real star was the picadillo. I make a pretty good picadillo already, but the authentic Cuban picadillo is different and special in its own way. Served over rice and topped with a fried egg and a side of beans, I was in protein/carb bliss and finished every last bite. The only thing that could have made Pambiche even better, was if they offered some gluten-free options of their incredible looking pastries.
We piled into the car groaning and perhaps 5 pounds heavier after our breakfast, but utterly content. Seattle was the next stop for us on our trip, but I found myself thinking back often to Portland during the drive and still do. It's a city that has the best aspects of many cities, but still maintains a personality of its own. Long story short; I can’t wait to go back.