Why Portland Is America's New Food Eden

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Clyde Common

The bar at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore.

When I found myself heading to Seattle for business recently, all I could think about was Portland. The Oregon city is America's new food Eden, a confluence of every fertile trend in contemporary gastronomy. Locavorism, the New Naturalism, food trucks and so on — they're all there. I had the sense that if I went to Portland and ate around, I might get in on the ground floor of something great, the culinary equivalent of such local musical heroes as Elliott Smith or Modest Mouse. (Hell, I would settle for the food version of the Decemberists.) My guide, Kaie Wellman, who created and writes the city's eat.shop guide, saw to it that I got the Portland essence.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that I caught the city's whole spirit and range in 36 hours. That would be stupid. I can, however, make some observations.

Portland Is a Small Town
The main motive I had in visiting was to eat at Beast, Naomi Pomeroy's meat-centric tasting-menu restaurant. I met this good lady at Food & Wine's Best New Chefs banquet last year and, after hearing of her culinary feats with beef and pork, determined that I would one day make the trek to her restaurant. But Portland is not a big place, and the chefs all seem to know each other, or have worked for each other or are partners in some way. The guy at the pork truck turns out to be a cook at Nostrana, whose pork entrées he implores me to try later that night; Elias Cairo, the charcuterie master at Olympic Provisions, turns out to be partners with the chef from the wonderful restaurant in my hotel. More importantly, they all seem to like each other. Unlike New York City, where the winds of reputation stoke the fires of resentment, Portland is supremely communal and laid-back. This doesn't necessarily translate into better food, but it makes for a better atmosphere.

Portland Loves Meat, Especially Pig Meat
Every one of the seven restaurants I ate at could be said on some level to fetishize pork. I stayed at the Ace Hotel, home of Clyde Common, a big, noisy, low-key restaurant that reminded me a lot of Publican in Chicago, with its spartan, old-timey menu and big, rough-hewn, urbane proteins (I had pan-seared sturgeon over forbidden rice, a Portuguese pork and squid-ink stew, and a hamburger). I began the next day at the Country Cat, a magnificent lardcore establishment where you can get chicken fried in beef tallow — for breakfast. The chicken-fried steak, bacon and meat loaf were great, too, as were the biscuits. (At night, the Cat's idealistic chef, Adam Sappington, does a whole-hog dinner.) Around midday I had a remarkable Cuban pork sandwich, made of dense and vinegary stewed duroc pig, at the People's Pig, one of Portland's innumerable trucks. I also ate some of the best saucisson sec, chorizo and pancetta of my life at Olympic Provisions, along with a towering meat-filled bread pudding that I dreamed of even as I writhed in pain later that night. Writhing in pain? Really? Yes.

The Food in Portland Is So Good It Will Literally Make You Sick
I hadn't reckoned with the level of craft at Olympic Provisions, the smell of the curing sausages, the siren song of its tremendous sandwiches. So I ate them. Likewise, the various food trucks, which sit next to each other in small trailer-park-like pods, seem too good not to at least try. But I really got in trouble when I stumbled into Bunk, the city's sandwich capital. Bunk is so good that its reputation has spread nationally, and it was impossible not to at least sample its legendary meatball sandwich, its pork-belly banh mi, or (best of all) a pork-shoulder sandwich with mustard greens and Gruyère. I was reeling from the crunchiness of the bread and the succulence of the pork — but, sacrificing my well-being to its greatness, took a final step into the abyss and paid for it for most of the night.

Welcome to the Jungle
The most striking thing about Portland, for someone headed in from out of town, is how raw the area is, how natural. You're surrounded by mountains and forests, pine trees 1,000 ft. tall. Gray, hazy mists float by, interspersed with sudden delicate rainfalls. Kaie took me up to an old-school burger joint called Skyline Restaurant, and while the hamburger was just so-so, the surrounding scenery, which she seemed barely to notice, was awe-inspiring. (I even tweeted the moment, my own version of the "Double rainbow, man!" meme.) To be this close to such primeval forest keeps you from getting too wrapped up in blogger feuds, I think.

Lo-Fi Gastronomy
As I ate my way around town, I kept thinking about Smith, the city's music hero. The late singer-songwriter was famous for his pared-down lo-fi style, which was typically produced by his playing all the instruments into a four-track recorder, often in his kitchen or bedroom. Portland isn't a big-bucks city; there are hardly any big fine-dining restaurants. So young chefs work in small kitchens with minimal equipment and staff. (One restaurant, Ned Ludd, doesn't even have a stove.) I like this approach; I think it forces the chefs to cook better. It seemed to fit the spirit of the place, as much as I could discern it. Portland, even the small amount that I had seen, was marked by big appetites, broad strokes, an improvisational mood, and the bliss of simple expectations. There is none of the hype of New York City, the sanctimony of San Francisco or the monotony of Los Angeles. This is food for foodies by foodies, made well and in very large portions. I like it a lot.

My only regret was that I had to cancel my tasting dinner at Beast. I blame Bunk. I'm sorry, Naomi! But I know I'll be back soon.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award—winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.