Interviewing Scott Dolich for this issue, on the 10th anniversary of his Park Kitchen, caused me to stop and realize that it was exactly 10 years ago that I first stepped foot in this city.
That year, I was on the second of two summer-long cross-country journeys with my sons and had no designs on leaving Connecticut. But after an unplanned spiritual experience one morning on Bandon beach, and two days in Portland, my world changed. I only got a taste of this just-hatching food scene then (from my journal): “Among all the tempting choices was a place called Muu-Muu’s World Diner. I sampled Karate Rolls, which were simply smoked salmon wrapped around alfalfa sprouts with a dollop of some kind of sauce on them, that were to be dipped in wasabi oil. As odd as that might sound, they were light and delicious, and we returned the next day for lunch. The kids had one of their favorite meals of the trip, which was a smashed burger. Basically, the fries were already stuck in with the burger on a long sub roll. I had some incredible halibut in a red chile sauce.” (I had no idea how “odd” would one day become my norm.)
I came back a year later to try to find reasons NOT to move here. The concierge at the Fifth Avenue Suites, when asked about interesting, local restaurants, suggested three: Jake’s, Ruth’s Chris, and Mother’s. (Think about that list now.) I asked him what was on the other side of that “Willa-Mette” River. “Oh, you don’t want to go there. There’s nothing, and you’ll just get lost.” Without the help of the concierge, I found my way to the Tuscany Grill on NW 21st. I returned the next two nights. The owners, Pat and Colleen, befriended me and made me feel so welcome, and so comfortable. That kind of friendliness wasn’t something I had experienced from restaurateurs in Connecticut.
I was in the midst of sleeping on the idea of the move over the winter, when on a single-digit cold New England January day, during the 19th snowstorm of the season, I called a realtor. Five months later, I was an Oregon resident. And I haven’t regretted that for a moment.
It took me a few months, maybe even a year, to land on a fantastic website run by some mystery guy called “Food Dude.” I read his incredible reviews and made lists. Lo and behold, there were many reasons to explore the east side. There WAS life over there. I landed in unusual places like Navarre and couldn’t stop going back. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. And it wasn’t only the food and the chef and the quirky ordering system. I met people at the counter there and was extending Portland evenings at bars with the people I’d just met.
I learned that there was a chef who had recently left Wildwood and was opening up a new spot called Country Cat, serving food from his roots in the Ozarks. I could eat that, and be in Portland? That place was nothing short of energetic with its bustling, open kitchen, and one could sit at the chef’s counter and watch them pan fry the fried chicken (and follow the ensuing debates about it on forums online). Chef Adam Sappington, in overalls, would banter with me and give me tastes of stuff he’d seen my eyes salivating over. Watching him work and talking to him was the one moment I can identify that caused me to fall hopelessly in love with Portland’s food culture. I found myself exploring more and more.
And surprise—I wasn’t the only one doing that. But there weren’t quite as many of us then. Now, it’s a whole new world. 10 years. They’re coming from everywhere to one of the most talked about food, and beverage, cities in the world. Right place. Right time.
Thanks for luring me, Oregon.