Imagine, if you will, a world where your every move is voluptuously narrated by Maya Rudolph (a woman who holds an Emmy predicated on her pronunciation of the words “bubble bath” alone). Imagine also that you are Karen Brooks, Portland Monthly’s James Beard Award-winning food critic, who has been covering Portland’s restaurant scene for decades. Sounds like a pretty good time to me.
Brooks appears in the first segment of the first episode of Eater’s Guide to the World, a new Rudolph-narrated Hulu series that drops November 11 and spans from the Pacific Northwest to Casablanca and beyond. In it, Brooks explores solo dining in Portland, zeroing in on three of her favorite spots: Courier Coffee, whose proximity to the PoMo offices made her a regular in the bygone days of in-office work; Eem, her pick for Portland’s best new restaurant in 2019; and Han Oak, her 2017 pick for the same title.
“A lot of these places have super personal meaning for me. Some of them I’ve covered since the day they opened,” she says. “I think that comes through.”
Her trip to Courier is of special note. For years, Karen has safeguarded the secret of the closet-sized downtown coffee spot’s small-batch chocolate chip cookies, declaring “a fatwah” on anyone who dares reveal the intel in print. She describes the cookies as “her daily vitamin,” and with good reason—they’re small, cheap, and incredible, swirled with rich Ecuadorian chocolate, dusted with salt, balancing crispness and ooze in perfect harmony. (Her evangelism has made converts of most Portland Monthly staffers.)
The only reason I am not currently seeking a slot in a witness protection program after writing that is that Karen orders one of these cookies on television, flaunting her high standards for Eater’s camera crew. A Courier employee plates a cookie, says, “I kind of like this one,” and Karen stares him down. “Which one’s the one?” she insists while my jaw dropped to indescribable depths.
“I don’t keep many restaurant secrets. I always feel like, even if you have a favorite place, you have to tell the world about it because you want to help that business,” she says. “But for me it was like, ‘Coffee is for closers.’ Cookies are for the regulars. I always felt if I wrote a piece and said, ‘Best chocolate chip cookie in Portland’ … you’d come in for your cookie and they’d say, ‘There aren’t any, someone just took 10 for their office,’ and you’d think, well, shoot.”
Her other stops, at Eem and Han Oak’s chef’s counters, are less shocking but equally fun, especially as narrated by Rudolph. “Guess what? Karen don’t care about rolling up without a plus one,” she says at one point. "Atta girl, Karen," she says later, while my beloved colleague twists a trail of noodles on chopsticks she's clutching through her signature fingerless gloves.
In fact, there's a lot of on-camera eating in this episode of television, a fact that Brooks admits she somehow did not anticipate. She knew there'd be walking, per a pretape briefing, and watched lots of Anthony Bourdain to get her swagger straight. She wrote a vegetarian cookbook as a sophomore in college that earned her an appearance on the Today Show, so she's no stranger to the camera. But chowing down on Thai barbecue at Eem or spice-dusted fried chicken at Han Oak?
"That. Was. Terrifying," she admits. "This is stock and trade. If you stop to think about [food shows], what do people do? They dig in and eat food and then they go, 'Mmmmm.' ... But when I eat, I can sometimes look like a kid." For what it's worth: to this biased viewer's eyes, the entire episode is pretty much crumb-free.
After Karen's segment, the episode detours briefly to Seattle, before returning to Portland for a look at Division dive Reel M Inn's world-famous fried chicken, Kennedy School's Detention Bar, and the fish sandwich at Suttle Lodge in Sisters. Everything was shot toward the beginning of the year, prepandemic, with the expectation that the show would drop in summer. Now it reads like an elegy for nights when you could pony up to a counter and eat a sandwich while life happened around you.
"I hope people see that Portland is a passionate food place. Every one of these spots could be somewhere between a sitcom and its own food show. I have friends calling me saying Portland looks like this scary place. I say to them, no. You don't know," Brooks says. "Portland is such a beautiful, amazing, fun, magical place. I feel like I am very much like the people I'm most attracted to writing about.... I hope [people will] take away something about me being sort of an ambassador for Portland."
There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment four and a half minutes into the episode that captures her passion best. While Karen talks in voiceover about her own obsessiveness, a quick-cut montage settles on the filing cabinet in her office, which brims with color-coded folders.
Karen's colleagues know all about her filing cabinets: they're filled with notes, menus, and story outlines that span decades of Portland's restaurant history. She writes everything out longhand and never throws anything away. When a spot closes, she moves its file to her top-drawer "restaurant morgue." In their totality, the files represent likely the most comprehensive survey of this city's food scene, from modest to interesting to so acclaimed it can open a TV series about the entire world.
"It's history. There's something about having the tactile piece of paper ... notes on the backs of napkins, scribbled thoughts from friends. I'm old school that way," Brooks says. "It's like having vinyl in a way. Maybe if I'm ever in another TV show, the files will really get their moment." HBO, if you're listening: consider this an official pitch for The Karen Brooks Files.
All seven episodes of Eater's Guide to the World premiere November 11 on Hulu.