When I attended Reed College (back in the last century), Portland, Oregon wasn’t what you’d call a food town. Our favorite dining spots ran to the likes of the “Heavy Number Taco Company” (housed in a former gas station) and our “serious” restaurants could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
How times have changed.
Today, this rainy metropolis on the Willamette River has become, perhaps, the most interesting food destination in North America, with a disproportionately high number of James Beard Award-winning chefs and the nation’s largest fleet of food trucks (and a local government with enough foresight to set aside whole square city blocks to park them). Gastro-pub strip clubs compete with world-class regional Thai restaurants (run by, who else, tattooed white guys) and each week, new artisanal bakeries, breweries, wine bars, and restaurants spring up like mushrooms after Portland’s innumerable rain storms.
And right now, Stumptown is the midst of a renaissance of wood grilling, smoking, and live fire cooking.
The moment you check into the Lucia Hotel downtown (just up the block from Mary’s, the strip joint where Courtney Love got her start), you smell smoke. The pungent scent of alder. The fragrant smoke of apple and oak. Follow your nose into the high-ceilinged, brick-walled Imperial restaurant just off the lobby and you’ll find an open kitchen with enormous Universo wood-burning grill that Portland culinary founding father Vitaly Paley imported from Florence, Italy. Vitaly’s the short haired guy in the black chef coat (with no visible tattoos) and if you spend a whole day at his new restaurant, you’ll breakfast on house-smoked pastrami hash, lunch on wood-grilled romaine salad and house-cured sausages (even the hotdogs are homemade) and dine on secreto (a prized “butcher’s cut” from the hog’s underbelly) grilled on a wine barrel stave. And wash them down with smoked vermouth Manhattans. You’ll leave smelling a bit like you’ve just sat around a campfire, which is exactly what Paley intended.
The day I arrived at Ox restaurant in Portland’s Boise-Eliot neighborhood, the Oregonian newspaper had just named it restaurant of the year. I didn’t need that endorsement: The moment I entered the brick-lined dining room (formerly a dairy, car dealership, and brothel), I saw sparks and flames shoot up from the gleaming new Grillworks Dual Architectural Asador — a split grate Argentinean-style grill fueled with alder, oak, and apple and manned by grill men in tight black T-shirts. Pay dirt. Brainchild of Greg and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton — she a striking Ecuadorian-American, he a Vermont born chef recognizable by the octopus tentacle tattoo crawling up his arm — Ox is the sort of place where carnivores go if they died and went to heaven for house-made blood sausage, imported grass-fed Uruguayan beef, and Alaskan halibut grilled on the bone. Even the pisco sours come smoked.
You won’t find a grill (at least not yet) at Tails & Trotters, a butcher shop / wholesale meat market (pictured above and at top) recently turned sandwich shop in the new Ocean complex, a Portlandia style food court. What you will find is a $30,000 high-tech Enviro-Pak smoker that farmers turned meat moguls Aaron Silverman and Mark Cockcroft use to turn out some of the best bacon in North America. They start with hogs raised on Oregon hazelnuts, smoking their brown sugar-cured bacon half a day over apple wood and pecan, then hanging it for up to six weeks (!) to age in a meat locker. However much you may want to gorge on apple wood-smoked ham and cheese sandwich or “Lil’ Havana hoagie (made with mojo roasted pork) save room for a “porkstrami” on rye of such intense smokiness, briny succulence, and porcine richness, you’ll wonder why no one thought of it earlier.
The first thing you see on entering this temple of smoke and fire (literally—the building once housed a church) is a flickering wood fire in an Old Hickory pit. The next thing is a seriously tattooed guy making hot links (homemade Texas-style beef sausage). An equally tattooed barmaid serves up local microbrew, craft cocktails, and small batch bourbons. Welcome to Podhah’s Pit, founded by former Texan Rodney Muirhead, who parlayed a pink slip from a tech company into Portland, Oregon’s top rated barbecue joint. Smoky pulled pork? Spice-crusted spare ribs of exemplary tenderness? Buttery cornbread? In Portland? Really. If the smoke ring on the brisket were any bigger, you might think you were eating pastrami. Go for broke and order the “Pitboss”: all of the aforementioned meats, plus two sides.