Great PDXpectations: Snapshots From Portland
Sprudge.com Lead Writer Jordan Michelman recently spent a long weekend in Portland. These are his notes, bites, sips and jokes from the City of Roses.
This is not a coffee crawl.
Formal coffee crawl write ups of Portland, and elsewhere, have been done already, by people perhaps a bit more qualified than I. What I’m aiming for here instead is a holistic kind of snapshot of where I went, who I met, what I tried, and all the fun I had along the way. It’s so hard to duck in and out of a scene for a weekend and claim any kind of authority…but if what you’re looking for is remarkable coffee, food and people, you’d be hard pressed to find any city in the world as lovely and delicious as Portland.
Driving down from Seattle for the long weekend, I make the pre-requisite stop at Olympia Coffee Roasting and EspressoParts. I mean “pre-requisite” in the most literal way; anyone traveling points north or south on the Washington I-5 should be required to visit OCR, try some coffee, and take a walk down the strolling mobile freak-out that *is* Olympia’s 4th Avenue. I had a chance to talk at length with Oliver Stormshack, who recently became the outright owner of Olympia Coffee Roasters. Soft-spoken and intelligent, Oliver is a walking encyclopedia on Central and Latin American origin sources, and he graciously let me pick his brain about his recent experiences in Bolivia, one of the most challenging countries to work with in the region. It’s awesome to see someone work their way up through a company and be rewarded with the reigns, and Oliver and Co. seem uniquely suited for the task. Also, their coffee is unequivocally dope; Big Truck is one of our favorite espresso blends, and the Clover of DT Colombia Finca La Florida I tried was startlingly clean and sweet. My only qualm with OCR is how low-profile they remain, despite offering a collection of DT and organic coffees up to par with any other roaster in the world. When you’re in the Northwest, make the stop, go see this shop and meet the people there. They’re up to something really special in Olympia.
And then it’s down, down the interstate into Oregon. My traveling companion and I part ways at Powell’s World Of Books, and I head off to the Mississippi neighborhood for dinner. This weekend in Portland would turn out to be unseasonably cold, and so it’s only fitting that my first stop serves me one of the better Hot Toddies I’ve ever had. Liberty Glass is tucked into a little pink house right on the Mississippi industrial divide, where they’re quietly serving the neighborhood nook niche with Northwest comfort food (think vegan Dagwood sandwiches with sweet tomato jam) and a bar list evenly split between class and crass (the aforementioned Hot Toddy followed by a $1.50 tallboy of Vitamin R). The top floor empties out with joyously drunk patrons just as we arrive, headed up the street for late night tacos at Porque No. It’s the perfect place to start the weekend.
Friday dawns cold and sharp, and I’m out early to try and catch Billy Wilson at his recently-opened Barista location on Alberta. No really, it’s cold outside, but there’s possibly no place better to hide out from the gray than Billy’s neo-hunt club cathedral to specialty coffee. Laila Ghambari is on bar, and though I come in planning on doing a little work on the laptop, I’m more than happy to lose myself at the bar in a shot of Sight Glass Ethiopia Guji (downright spicy red pepper notes), a Counter Culture Apollo 2.1 americano (perfectly balanced and soft), and endless brunch recommendations from Billy. Barista 2 is a visual delight as much anything else, the space almost overwhelmed with aesthetic quirks and little details; newspapers tied up in vintage umbrella holders along the back wall, countless pieces of taxidermy, the opulent, imposing. multi-leveled merch rack that greets you upon entry (proudly carrying the very best coffees from the very best roasters). You could come here to work, but good luck staying on task.
Next is The Red E, a boutique gallery cafe on Killingsworth serving Coava and Intelligentsia coffees. Owners Mindy and Keith are gracious, chatty and advisedly bumping an early Cure best-of out into their early mid-day space. Mindy pulls me a short, bright shot of Coava El Limon and weighs in with travel advice for the rest of my day: “go here, not here, go here first, see this, or this place, it’s kind of a scene”. I’d heard wonderful things about the Red E from friends, and it was way worth my time to stop in and see it. Great art on the walls!
From there, after a brief stop at the Koi Fusion taco truck (featuring a truly fantastic Korean Bulgogi taco – sorry, Nick), it’s on to Coava. I’m lucky enough to catch grand poobah Keith Gehrke in the shop on his day off, and he’s engaging enough to keep me from going into shock and catatonia over the gorgeousness of Coava’s space. This might be the most beautiful cafe I’ve ever seen, on par with Penny University (RIP). High vaulted ceilings, a stunning soft curve bamboo bar, minimal disconnect between barista and customer, and an overall vibe bordering on the ethereal. There’s tons to talk with Keith about, but I mostly just picked his brain on the Coava Kone, one of the most buzzed about new products of 2010. He tossed off some in-house parameters to try out at home and I had a chance to try their own roast of Honduras El Cielito “David Mancia” (sweet tea, blueberries, thin and distinctive). Everyone in Coava was really sweet, my shot from Allie was the capper, and I left dying, born again, resurrected and imbued with the need to take people to this coffee shop, to proselytize on how gorgeous and unique and utterly correct their space felt to me. A total highlight.
Hey, more coffee. Right around the block from Coava, Matt Miletto, Tom Pikaart and the gang are doing really awesome stuff at Water Avenue Coffee / American Barista School. The Water Ave space is visually deceptive; you walk through the door and into what seems like a very conventional cafe space, fairly small and self-contained, lovely but almost too angular and tight. And then you start to look around, past the pastry case, around the side of the bar, and you see the early 70s 20k Sumica Probat roaster/time travel device, the back hallway leading to the Barista School, the competition Nuova Simonelli, the bags and bags of House Blend, El Sal Buena Vista, Brazil “Yellow” Eppe… it take a second for it all to set in. Water Ave is the coffee shop equivalent of a Magic Eye puzzle; relax yourself, soak in the surroundings, and a much bigger picture is revealed. No trip to Water Ave would be complete without checking out the goings and doings ’round back at the American Barista School. During my visit, Matt and Tom were deep in work with 12 students from all around the world, including a nice lady I met from Mexico City, and a big “Boss Hogg” style Texan picking Tom’s brain on cafe design. You only get this at Water Ave.
Do I need more coffee? Yes, yes I do. It’s back across the Burnside Bridge to NW Portland, home to CoffeehouseNW and Sterling Coffee Roasters. I stop at Coffeehouse first, greeted by the caps lock ADORABLE duo of Ashley and Charlotte, with whom I once shared a very drunk Intelli party USBC bus ride. They direct me to run over to Sterling before they close up shop, then come back for a hot chocolate. I follow their instructions and am greatly rewarded. Sterling should be a serious point of interest on anyone’s PDX must-see list. Make the trip, carve out the time, walk past the space twice trying to find the damn thing, pull up the GPS feature on your iPhone… yes, it’s right in front of the flower shop. No, it’s not a mirage. You are actually seeing that much class, sophistication and ridiculously good coffee packed into an outdoor kiosk. There’s been so much made over the visual presentation of Sterling, from the vintage wall paper to the wool sweaters and suspenders, but uh, I don’t know if it was the roast, the Yirg Grade 2 itself, the cold temperature, or the warmed snifter of armagnac Eric and Adam handed me upon arrival, but Sterling served me the hands-down best shot of espresso I had all weekend. Velvet texture, sweet, just ridiculously soft on the palate, sort of like a forkful of red velvet cake…subtle and sugary. Sterling, I’ll be back. I want more, please.
I’m skipping, hopping, jumping with caffeinated happiness, back across Glisan and up the block to Coffeehouse NW, where Charlotte and Ashley make me the aforementioned hot chocolate, chat with me, and send me on my way back over to Mississippi. From there it’s drinks and lovely company with Sarah Allen of BMag, then dinner at Miho Izakaya, where the scene is Japanese “pub food” expertly coursed by Michael Carruthers, Miho’s co-owner and dining room bon vivant. White miso asparagus, glazed eggplant, fall-apart Japanese short ribs, delicious beer, organic sake…highly, highly recommended, and I give all credit to Sprudgie Award winner Stephen Vick for his spot-on suggestion.
Brunch the next day is at Ned Ludd, another A+ suggestion, this time courtesy of Billy, Laila, and the informal brunch committee gathered around the bar at Barista 2. Immaculately sourced autumn produce, great Bloody Mary’s, Heart coffee on tap, lovely service…my understanding is that Ned Ludd is generally considered a dinner destination, but their brunch was all I could ask for. From there, the Japanese Gardens, a stop at the Stumptown Annex to meet Sprudge pal Talon Wood and enjoy a lovely Tumticha pour over, then a cheap movie at the Laurelhurst Theater…punctuated by a brief but eventful visit to the original Barista location, in the Pearl. My friend was teasing me about if or how I was going to write about this…but, well, here’s what happened: in an attempt to reach across the bar and shake hands with a Barista barista, I inadvertently grazed the top of a siphon pot, smashing it to smithereens. To their credit, the Barista staff were gracious and concerned with my well-being, but uh, you’d have to send away to NASA to properly calculate my embarrassment. I owe all of you a drink the next time I’m in town. Sorry, my bad, d’oh, whoops, glegh. The shot of Apollo you pulled me was delicious…
A quiet dinner of bar food and beers at The Red Fox (another Stephen Vick suggestion), and it’s Sunday morning already. My last stop is Fresh Pot, to enjoy a little Hairbender and a chat with Alex Pond on my way out of town. Alex is getting ready to head off to New York, and perhaps Sweden after that, so our talk turns into musing on optimism for the future, the international nature of This Thing of Ours, all the good times coming our way. My Hairbender rules, Alex is a sweetheart, all is well with the world. I’m not quite ready to leave, but I guess I have to…
Portland, you were awesome. You have incredible coffee, amazing cafes, and sweet, kind humans. I’ll be back, next time for longer. To mark my next visit in months instead of days would be the sweetest way of all to appreciate what you have to offer. You’re a keeper, Portland. See you real soon.