Portland Flights of Fancy (and Beer, and Tea)

Great Notion BeerWell, we did it – after over a year and a half of living in Seattle, we finally made it to Portland.  I admit I had lowered my expectations somewhat – could the beer really be that good? As an old, jaded beer nerd (not to mention one who has been thoroughly spoiled by having lived within walking distance of Tired Hands), I’m used to finding things that I’ve heard mentioned in either hushed reverence or wild enthusiasm to actually fit somewhere between ‘it’s not bad’ and ‘did we really need another 12% barrel aged sour?’  Or worse – ‘does it have a high BeerAdvocate and/or Untappd rating simply because it’s so alcoholic/hoppy/sour/hard to find as to be nearly undrinkable?’ And the much-maligned Portlandia-is-real hipster food scene – surely it would be quite similar: lots of dishes that were perfectly nice, but probably little worth braving Amtrak for (or – spoiler alert – your replacement bus that is required when Amtrak is sidelined by a landslide). After all, Portland is much smaller than Seattle, and I’ve found Seattle’s food and beer to be pleasant, though not nearly as good as what we had in Philly, and certainly nothing like our old Brooklyn stomping grounds, though that’s always an unfair comparison.

I am quite happy to report that I was wrong: it really is that good, and you can get tasting flights of absolutely everything: beer, spirits, ice cream, tea – you name it – and we did. Portland breweries, bars and restaurants also seemed to be much more comfortable with well-behaved children than their Seattle counterparts; we only encountered one place that wouldn’t let them in, and they were incredibly apologetic and said they are working on getting their license revised. Most of the places we visited, and I’ll highlight a few standouts in a moment, welcomed them with toys and great real food in smaller portions (though if you are my tween, he really only wants a place to plug in his phone so he can stream 1990s television and ignore us while we eat, though he does appreciate the food). Here are a few places we will definitely want to try again the next time we visit:

Ex Novo Brewing
Something billing itself as ‘the nation’s first nonprofit brewery’ sounds like a Portland cliché, right? But absolutely everything about it – the welcome, the food, the beer, the fact that they donate their net profits to the local community and beyond – was fabulous. It was outstanding across the board: the kids had milkshakes of a quality I’ve not had in years (so good it stopped a travel-induced tantrum), I had possibly the best taco I’ve ever eaten, and we got bacon for the table. The beers were uniformly fantastic, from Cactus Wins the Lottery, a Berliner Weisse made with prickly pear cactus, to Where the Mild Things Are, a great – you guessed it – mild. I loved this place so much I started looking at local real estate prices.

Great Notion Brewing
This was on my ‘try if in the neighborhood’ list, rather than a must-do, but it was so good I had the ‘what are the local house prices’ reaction again. I admit I was a bit skeptical after my first glance at the menu; quite a few sour beers, and I’ve had so many mediocre sour beers of late – some clearly accidental, some just not nearly as good as their makers suggested.  But thoughts of bad beer were banished quickly – the Key Lime Pie and Blueberry Muffin beers were both wonderful; tart and refreshing, nice fruit character, but never cloying or perfume-y as is so often the case. Juice, Jr. was a fabulous IPA and as with Ex Novo (with whom they also collaborated on Best Budz – not a hipster pot beer, as you might fear, but a successful New England-style IPA, as we are calling them now), the food and service were both great. There was a welcome toy box and even the children’s menu was made with top-quality ingredients; I would be tempted to order off that menu for myself.

Deschutes Brewery
Deschutes has always reminded me of Victory, our previous local stalwart when we lived in Pennsylvania – they’ve been around much longer than most of the smaller (and often weirder, in both good and bad ways) breweries, and to some they sit in that awkward ‘uncool’ space between the upstarts and the mega-brewers, but both have continued to thrive by offering a consistently high-quality product line, as well as careful expansion and innovation. Their Portland brewpub offered a good range of interesting food and tasting flights that backed up their reputation. Everything was lovely, but the Altbierior Motive stood out as a new-to-me offering.

Steven Smith TeamakerNot Beer
I’m not generally a huge ice cream fan, but it would have been churlish to go to Portland and not at least try Salt & Straw, even though it seems their frozen empire is slowing moving up and down this coast, and it was well worth the trip. We actually skipped the tasting flight simply because the line was long and this time the tween, rather than the toddler, was fussy, but we did swap around a few times to good effect. We returned to tasting flights when visiting the fine local distilleries, but my favorite non-beer sampling session came at Steven Smith Teamaker. Both of their locations are in nicely-restored buildings, and we very much enjoyed the beautifully-presented custom tasting flights, each complete with a card detailing the tea’s origin and properties.  We went home with a lot of tea.

Putting aside a few minor quibbles – one much-talked-of brewery that had excellent food but only ‘meh’ beers, a ghost/history tour of highly questionable historicity (not to mention the poorly-constructed ghost stories – there are formulas for this, people!) – Portland also impressed with its largely-thoughtful historic reuse. For a relatively young city by global standards, there is a large collection of older buildings and walkable neighborhoods that sit comfortably next to their new additions, providing a lot more character and visual interest than you get in much of Seattle. And, of course, there was Powell’s Books – that certainly lived up to and exceeded expectations. My major disappointment in visiting Vancouver was the absence of a great independent bookstore (though, to be fair, the ghost tour was pretty good – yes, I judge cities by their bookstores and ghost tours), so Powell’s, with their detailed categorization and (actual) curation, makes Portland a much more attractive destination for us bookish types; the transit and odd specialty shoe stores were also very much to my specifically-weird liking.

In short, we can’t wait to go back – if someone could send a beer and taco truck from Portland to Seattle in the meantime, I’d be most grateful.

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