Back before New York Times food writers continually stalked Rose City eateries like college basketball recruiters, local restaurant critic Karen Brooks was chronicling, critiquing, and helping shape our local dining scene. For the last 28 years, first at Willamette Week and then at the Oregonian, Karen has always been first to try the latest dish or new venue and quickest to fearlessly deliver a judgment—whether the meal was served on the white linen of a downtown dining room or atop the chipped Formica of an 82nd Avenue Asian joint. On the history and currents of Portland’s food world, there simply is no greater authority than she. And so it has been with enormous pride that Portland Monthly recently welcomed Karen as our staff food editor, restaurant critic, and chief tastemaker for our annual Best Restaurants issue.
Karen was my first editor when I arrived in town 21 years ago as a budding journalist and critic. In the countless articles we crafted together, she taught me many tricks of the trade. But far more important was the example she set. The difference between a great critic and a hack, I saw, is measured by the depth of your love for the subject. When the wannabes far outnumber the talents, love keeps you hunting for the next breakthrough. When everyone else is seduced by a fad, love steels your resolve to write about what matters. And, years later, when you happen on something you wrote, love shapes the difference between the passages that induce a wince and those that offer some brief comfort that, “Hey, I was pretty good.”
A good summation of Karen’s passion for this region and its food is her 1993 book, Oregon’s Cuisine of the Rain. Back then, restaurants like L’Auberge, Café des Amis, Indigine, and Genoa were just beginning to explore a “new” Northwest cuisine. The Portland Farmers Market was a year-old smattering of stalls in a parking lot. The Oregon wine and beer industries were, at best, fledgling. Yet, Cuisine of the Rain opens with an alphabetical list—47 pages long—of ingredients grown, raised, distilled, and foraged for between the coast and the shoulders of the Cascades, followed by 150 recipes—from McKenzie Creek trout with fennel pear butter to Sandy River raspberry-rhubarb pie—from city’s most gifted chefs and home cooks.
You can now find a farmers market in the city every day. Some of our wines stand with the world’s best. We are Beervana. And as the many writers and chefs who visited for last spring’s International Association of Culinary Professionals conference confirmed, we are the nation’s top food destination. And, not surprisingly, Karen Brooks is under contract for another book about how and why.
With Karen’s guidance, Portland Monthly is revamping its entire food coverage, from our new e-newsletter and revamped blog, Eat Beat, to the 50 top restaurants listed on our new iPad app launching with this issue. In December, Karen will debut a regular monthly restaurant review.
Pardon my giddiness. Given the herd of critics chasing Portland’s food scene, it feels good to measure Portland Monthly’s distance from the pack, in love, for sure, but also in experience and wisdom.
Editor in Chief