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Playing Tourist in Portlandia

I’m sure you’ve been to Portland just like I’m sure you’ve heard of—or even watched—“Portlandia”, the hit TV series that satirizes Oregon’s most populated city. I certainly had done all of the above. But to be honest, I’d never just played tourist there. So one weekend, I decided to join a couple of friends who were thinking about moving from Denver and spend a couple of days discovering the city behind the parody.

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My friends had warned me not to “get all happy-dancing” at the possibility of their trading Denver for Portland due to the latter’s drippy weather. I get it. The city’s souvenirs include a Portland rain globe instead of the more traditional snow globe. But the weather couldn’t have been lovelier. We took full advantage.

Immediately upon our arrival, we settled ourselves in Pok Pok’s open-air dining area on SE Division Street for authentic Thai food that’s garnered a James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence and coverage on HGTV’s Food Network. A quick glance at 4x4 studs bolted into a cement pad made me realize that we had just been seated in a driveway on which a corrugated metal structure had been erected. Loved that. I was less crazy about the service, which could only be described as atrocious.

Ironically, we returned to SE Division Street for dinner that night. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. So far all we’ve done is eat. But this is Portland, one of the country’s culinary showcases. And Ava Gene’s, our dining destination, is one of its gems. High ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, wood beams, pendant lighting and an open kitchen set the rustic meets modern mood, which the food would replicate. After nibbling on warm spiced olives while spying on our neighbors and coveting their burrata (think rich, gooey mozzarella) pizza bianco, we settled on four dishes to share. My favorite was the one I was initially least interested in—flat bread with fava beans, mint and Mopsy’s Best (sheep milk cheese according to the glossary on the bottom right corner of the menu).


“How did those ingredients create this dish?” I marveled. I still don’t know.


The next morning we headed directly to the Portland Saturday Market, the country’s largest continuously operated outdoor market. Before I continue, let me clear up a couple of misnomers. First, despite the name, the Portland Saturday Market is also open on Sunday. Second, it may run continuously but that’s continuously from the beginning of March through Christmas Eve.


There’s nothing that screams Portland more than this huge cooperative arts-and-crafts market located in Waterfront Park. Drumming and belly dancers greeted us as we approached. We turned right and immediately stumbled on a booth selling hand-crafted glass sculptures of dangling jellyfish. I bought two before heading past the mime whose skin and clothes had been spray painted gold toward a live band at the back of the market. Along the way, we coveted countless items handmade by local artisans manning the booths (a market requirement). Not to be missed: Aaron Voronoff Trotter’s illustrated playing cards decks with his pen-and-ink sketches that portray Portland landmarks, breweries and city secrets.


Finally out of self-defense, I headed back to the car to grab my dogs and we set off on a stroll along the water front. Most months of the year, walking along the 1.5-mile-long waterside park is a fairly peaceful affair that involves gazing at the boats along the Willamette River, visiting the geese who seem to be holding court, and dodging oncoming inline skaters. However starting Memorial Day weekend and for the following four weeks, you’ll also be privy to the carnival rides that are erected every year as part of the Portland Rose Festival.  Other festival activities and events include three parades, numerous musical concerts, fireworks, Fleet Week, Dragon boat races on the Willamette, historic home tours and more.


Having worked up an appetite after all that retail therapy and strolling, we headed to Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, which has been in operation since 1907. Located on Ankeny Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets, this family-owned restaurant knows its fresh-shucked oysters, a fact that was reinforced by our sampler of some of the Northwest’s finest.


Insider Tip: On Monday and Tuesday all oysters at Dan & Louis Oyster Bar are available for happy hour pricing all day long.


A bucket of steamers with leeks, lemon and white wine and a lemony-Caesar salad with extra anchovies were equally good.


After lunch, we witnessed a man wearing a clown nose driving a minivan that had been bedazzled with at least three dozen large knick-knacks gilded in gold like the van. As he drove, the stuffed monkey in his lap, which was the size of a small dog, did flips. “Keep Portland Weird,” read more and more bumper stickers. Clearly this guy is doing his part. We would see him twice more that day—once in just a few minutes after he had circled the block and later as we walked toward the watering hole we had set our sights on.


Yes, it was already time for beverages at McMenamins Ringlers Pub by the Crystal Ballroom, where my Denver friends would be seeing one of their favorite British bands in concert later that evening. Unable to curb the decadence, we grazed on deliciously trendy Blue Star brioche donuts (think blueberry bourbon basil and lemon poppy seed). I don’t know how they compare to the city’s famous Voodoo Donuts since I wasn’t prepared to stand in line for more than an hour for fried dough. I can tell you that donuts and cocktails are scarily complementary. 


That night, ready for more, we headed to the Pearl. We had hoped to get into Andina, renowned for its novo Peruvian cuisine. It, like most of the Pearl, was packed with bustling energy.  We ended up at Paragon. The meal as a whole was imminently forgettable, but the appetizers were great and I loved the industrial-meets-art vibe. Next time I’d stop in for a nibble and a glass wine and skip the rest.


On Sunday, my friend Deb and I opted to share brunch with my friends who had housed my teardrop trailer, but my Denver chums recommended the “222” breakfast at Kenny & Zuke’s Deli (two eggs, two potato latkas, two slices of pastrami). 


Later that morning, we headed to the Sellwood Riverfront Park, a fabulous off-leash dog park where pups can run free and then slink or bound into the river on a hot day.


Insider Tip: To reach the dog park, just drive over the Sellwood Bridge and take your first left. Take another left at the stop sign and head down toward the water.


Knowing that my pups can be as happy as I am in Portland means only one thing. I’ll be back to eat and play in Portland. Stay tuned for the next installment.

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