How Portland Became One of America's Best Food Cities
People just get behind each other and really support one another.
All photos courtesy of Feast PDX
Portland doesn't do what the rest of the country does. It does its own thing.
Portland is really transitioning into becoming a much bigger city. If you haven't been here in three years and you were to come back, you would probably be really surprised. A lot of people are moving here from New York and San Francisco because Portland offers a really good quality of life. This is definitely changing, but as it grows, it has still maintained a great sense of community within the restaurant scene.
This spirit of collaboration is why Feast Portland has been so successful. People just get behind each other and really support one another. For example, this well-loved farmer recently passed away and 50 chefs from around the city just got together to host a fundraiser for his family.
Portland was known to be this really incredible place that was sort of this cocktail of creative talent, incredible ingredients, and cheap real estate. I think you don't really have as much of the affordability or cheap real estate now. However, what you're seeing now are people doing smaller, really, really focused concepts—instead of really big ones.
You are seeing restaurants downsize to food carts, instead of the other way around. Or a concept like Pine Street Market, where you have nine restauranteurs working under the same roof and doing things like chef-driven soft serve. I think Portland is a place to watch right now for the what the future of the American restaurant scene can look like. Case in point is Nong's Khao Man Gai. I would say that this has been the most influential restaurant in Portland in the last few years. It is a food cart and it only does one dish: chicken and rice. Now, she has several locations and a brick-and-mortar that is always super busy.
On one hand, people look at that story and say, "Here's an example of a food cart that became a mini-empire." I say empire with a lowercase "e," since it is still a relatively small operation with about 30 employees. What this really showed is that you can build an empire nonetheless, on just one dish. If you look at the evolution of Thai restaurants, a lot of the families behind them cooked food according to what they think Americans wanted to eat. This means really sweet pad Thai and the same things that you used to see in every single Thai restaurant. Then came Andy Ricker with Pok Pok and his focus on Northern Thai street food, but really he was like, "I love this food! I think other people will like it too."
This opened up people's eyes. Nong worked at Pok Pok before opening up her cart, too. The concepts we are seeing now are opening up around town in this same model. If anything is going to survive here, it has to have its own point of view.
Going back to the community thing, you have places like Lardo. Its chef has worked in a lot of important restaurants around the country and then decided to open up a great sandwich shop here. They do this thing called the "chefwich," where they team up with a different chef every month and feature a sandwich designed by them on the Lardo menu. They'll also donate a portion of the proceeds to charity. They've donated thousands of dollars this way. It really is remarkable. I've worked in a lot of cities—at least ten different markets—because outside of Feast, I consult at other festivals. There is just nowhere like Portland. Everyone here is just so absurdly collaborative. I think there is this sense—and it is really part of the culture here—that everyone is in this thing together.
Portland is not a city where people typically move to with dreams of making it big. You go to New York or San Francisco because you want to find an amazing career. People still move to Portland just to be here. This has a really interesting effect when it comes to food. The economy has gotten much better, so there are more opportunities than ever. It is almost like there is this unspoken language. If you do something that people feel is a benefit to the community, people just get behind it. I've lived in a lot of cities and I've never experienced something quite like Portland.
I think because everything Portland has historically done has always been in the name of maintaining a good quality of life, Portland has become a place where people really love their lives. Anyone who moves here from other places catches on to this pretty quickly.
We have incredible wineries with beautiful wines. We're high up there when it comes to the production of seafood. There are more breweries per capita in Portland than any other city in the world. One could easily make the argument that Portland is the epicenter of craft beer. A lot of the breweries—like Deschutes and Widmer Brothers Brewing—helped shape the nationwide craft beer movement. The same thing can be said for the third-wave coffee movement. The rest of the country was a little later to this game.
One of our first years doing Feast, a really well-known chef told me after the weekend was over, "I love this town because it reminds me of why I started cooking in the first place." That was really powerful. If you come here looking for Michelin stars, or crazy over-the-top high cuisine, you're not going to find much of that. If you just want to find really great food and coffee at neighborhood restaurants, you will definitely find a lot of that. A lot of them are restaurants that people outside of Portland might not even know about.
Food culture is not just something that you go out and do on Saturdays. It is just what people do here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
As told to Javier Cabral
Mike Thelin is the co-founder, along with Carrie Welch, of Feast Portland. For more information on this annual food festival that celebrates all things food-related in Portland, Oregon, visit the event's website.