Pioneer Salt, Giant Pancakes, and Sexy Salads: The Two-Century-Long Story of How Portland Conquered the Food World

Here are the wild spots, rule breakers, lost treasures, and unforgettable dishes that forged our food culture.

Edited by Kelly Clarke By Karen Brooks, Tuck Woodstock, and Michael Zusman Photography by Nicolle Clemetson Styled by Ashley Marti/Local Haven August 15, 2016 Published in the September 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

Portland’s eaters are always hungry for the next great bite, from xurros to modernist pop-up feasts. But how did our city actually ripen into the food destination it is today? We dig into the wild spots, rule breakers, lost treasures, and unforgettable dishes that forged our food culture through the past century. Along the way, look out for “Hot Plate Time Machine” pitstops that note where and what locals ate through the decades.

Just want to skim the century? Jump right to the era that interests you.


Or, browse our timeline slideshow for a whirlwind tour of Portland food history.

Pre-1800s The Original Locavores

Sustained by river salmon and huckleberries plucked from the slopes of Wy’East (Mount Hood), Chinook tribes living around the area that would become Portland are the original locavores. “Those families were also eating waterfowl, as well as camas lily bulbs and [small, potato-like] wapato cooked in earth ovens, roasted until sweet,” says food historian Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Portland: A Food History. “This time of year they’d be harvesting, drying, and pounding salmon; gathering huckleberries to dry and mash with venison suet into big cakes to store for winter.”

1805 Sodium Ho!

By the time Lewis & Clark’s expedition make it to Fort Clatsop, their salt cache is gone. The explorers promptly order their men to start evaporating Pacific Ocean seawater to extract their own “excellent, fine, strong and white” sea salt. They use the briny bounty to cure elk and other wild game for charcuterie to nibble alongside wild onions, licorice root, and berries they trade with local tribes during their journey home. Yep, Lewis & Clark: the OG Jacobsen Salt Co.

1850s Oyster Fever

According to West Coast Cookbook author Helen Evans Brown, downtown’s hugely popular Keith’s Oyster House is where “the gay blades” ate oyster rarebit, “drank wine, and made whoopee and goodness knows all until 3 o’clock. (That’s a.m., mind you.) The trend had legs: “Oyster parlours [including Dan and Louis Oyster Bar] were all over downtown 100 years ago. Nowadays they’re coming back as the new hotness,” confirms Arndt Anderson. “Back then, imagine them like your favorite neighborhood bar ... with oysters.”

1890s In the Beginning... Vegetarians

Portland now makes a fair bid for vegan capital of the world but the roots of our meatless culture go deeper than you might expect: the city’s first vegetarian restaurant opened way back in the 1890s. Located on SE 60th and Belmont, the Seventh Day Adventist–owned Portland Sanitarium Food Company café touted dishes like protose, a then-popular wheat-and-peanut-based meat substitute developed by notorious healthy living guru John Harvey Kellogg (yes, the corn flakes guy). “They’re these brown nuggets in emulsified, nebulous gravy,” explains Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Portland: A Food Biography. “It’s really funny to me how a lot of that early vegetarian meat analog stuff was all gluten-based, and it was considered to be the pinnacle of healthy food.” That is, of course, until Gresham restaurateur Paul Wenner created the revolutionary Gardenburger in 1982…. —MW

Descendants: Farm Spirit, Harlow, Homegrown Smoker Vegan BBQ

1890s Best Table in Town

Portland: A Food History notes: “As Delmonico’s is to New York so is Alisky’s to Portland,” the Oregonian assures readers about the German immigrant and former ice cream slinger Charles Alisky’s First Avenue fine dining room, one of the city’s earliest restaurants on a “high plane.” “It was the big, hot-shit spot back then,” explains Portland author Arndt Anderson.

1891 Turkey Talk

Frank Huber hires chef Jim Louie, a 21-year-old Chinese immigrant with a knack for roasting turkeys; a turning point for Huber’s, now the longest-running restaurant in town. (Louie even served turkey sandos to customers in boats during PDX’s epic 1894 flood.) The picturesque restaurant is still owned by Louie’s descendants; the chef’s grand-nephew introduces tableside Spanish coffees to the menu in the 1970s.

1900 Tamales, for the Ladies

Mexican tamale parlors, imported from San Francisco and staffed primarily by gringo opportunists, are all the rage. Per Portland: The Mobile, on SW Third and Yamhill claimed its “tamales and oysters with crawfish were cooked in the best of wines,” and the restaurant offered “private dining rooms for ladies.” Portland housewives couldn’t get enough of the mildly spicy trend. As Arndt Anderson notes, in 1912, the Oregonian’s Lilian Tingle printed tamale recipes “obtained from a ‘genuine Mexican’ ... adding chopped peppers, onions, boiled eggs, and olives to the sauce and chicken mix.”

1916 Why We Crave Biscuits

Portland has been a “resource-extraction-based town for so long. For the longest time the city was populated by roughnecks and loggers and steelworkers; that informed the way we eat a lot more than we realize or accept. What was served 100 years ago in Oregon lumberjack camps is similar to [dishes found at] the Screen Door today.” —Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Portland: A Food Biography

1920s Shop, Eat, Repeat

Downtown’s Meier & Frank department store (now home to Macy’s) flaunts its Georgian Room, a lavishly appointed 10th-floor restaurant and tea room perfect for “ladies who lunch” for nearly a century. In 1946, you’d be having fried calf’s liver and crab Louie. (The revamped Georgian space is now one of Urban Farmer’s private dining areas.)

1932–1990 Henry Thiele's German Pancake

Chef Henry Thiele’s stucco-clad dining room lorded over West Burnside and 23rd Avenue for 50-plus years, serving German specialties from his Hannover childhood. The waitresses wore mustard-colored uniforms, and the dill pickles were put up in the basement. By the time the restaurateur debuted his huge menu—40 to 50 entrées, from fried Olympia oysters to Princess Charlotte pudding—he was already a culinary pillar. In 1914 the chef ran the schmancy Benson Hotel restaurant; by 1921 he conceived and managed hotel owner Simon Benson’s next project—the Columbia River Gorge Hotel. Unsurprising in a town that birthed both the Original Pancake House (1953) and Elmer’s (1960), locals seem to miss a Thiele breakfast dish most: “The German pancake was huge, dripping over the plate, crisped on the edges, eggy in the middle with a blanket of powdered sugar,” remembers chef Leather Storrs, who often stopped at Thiele’s after shopping next door in the “Husky Kid section at Youngland” with his mother in the 1980s. “It hurt your teeth, it was so sweet. I washed it down with Green River soda and shook for several hours.” Grab the recipe for yourself and soak up the nostalgia (and the sugar). —KC 

Food history grouped 1 ebsoqo

Clockwise, from top leftPortland Monthly’s recreation of a 1970s-era Henry Thiele Restaurant breakfast spread—signature German pancake and tooth-achingly sweet Green River soda included; an “Eat ‘Em Alive” menu from downtown’s Dan and Louis Oyster Bar, which opened in 1919; PoMo’s recreation of a 1950s-era buffet of Oregon seafood delights, culled from James Beard’s own recipes; the Polynesian-themed entry to the Lloyd Center Sheraton Hotel’s Kon-Tiki restaurant and lounge, a 1960s hotspot.

1950s James Beard's Oregon Seafood Buffet

Oregon’s patron saint of food spent his childhood summers on the coast, starting in 1908. James Beard’s family traveled to Gearhart, where they clammed, crabbed, picked berries, and created extravagant beachside spreads. “These days on the Oregon shore were among the most memorable in my life,” he wrote in James Beard: Delights and Prejudices (1964). “We went to the sea for our food, and it sustained us perfectly.” Beard’s locavore ethos was generally unheard of in the midcentury world in which he rose to national fame as a cookbook author and TV gourmand. But it was born here, among the chinook salmon and razor clams. We think our banquet of cold-poached salmon in aspic, stuffed oysters, and brioche-onion canapes would make him proud. (We’ll spare you the nitty-gritty of making fish-head Jell-O). His deviled crab dip, a toasty cross between crab cakes and seafood casserole, is the kind of party dish that stands the test of time. “I have maintained all my life that this is the best cooked crab I have ever known,” proclaimed Beard. What more do you need to hear? Roll up your sleeves and make it at home (the full recipe is in our "Classic Portland Recipes" feature). —BT 

1955 Hamburger Heaven

From its 1920s roots, Yaw’s Top Notch enjoys decades-long preeminence as the Hollywood ’hood drive-in where high schoolers hang out, show off, and devour legendary burgers and pie. Bonus: Legend has it that Yaw’s contracted Englebert Franz, of Portland’s Franz Bakery, to create the original seed hamburger bun. According to “In 1977, Yaw’s celebrated 51 years of service and they calculated that they had served: 28,305,000 people, 7,337,215 pounds of hamburger on 33,620,818 buns. They sold 40,623,726 cups of coffee and 26,176,270 pieces of pie.”

1956 How We Did Deli

Roses courtesy citroendork flickr ee0zmz

A vintage matchbook from Portland’s premier deli of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Opened in 1956 by Rose Naftalin, a baba from Ohio, Rose’s Delicatessen became Portland’s Jewish deli standard-bearer for the next 30 years. Its halcyon days at the corner of NW 23rd and Everett came in the late ’60s and ’70s under third owner Max Birnbach, when there was always a wait for a prime-time table laden with pickled herring, giant deli meat sandwiches, or the massive “Nosher’s Delight” platter. As recounted by his son, Gerry, Birnbach’s pre-Rose’s story looms as large as the deli’s storied, head-size cinnamon rolls. Max evaded the Nazis in pre-World War II Austria, swimming across a branch of the Rhine to Switzerland before immigrating to New York. The cash-strapped Birnbach moved to Portland after the war because, as Gerry remembers, “the train to Portland was cheaper than the train to Seattle.” Rose’s original recipes, paired with Birnbach’s hearty dinner dishes and business acumen, yielded a restaurant popular with many Portlanders, though for local Jews it also helped foster community, especially when the back room buzzed for the post-Yom Kippur break-the-fast meal. Max sold out and retired in the early-1990s; local deli culture has never entirely recovered. —MZ

Descendants: Kornblatt’s, Kenny & Zuke’s 

1960s Tiki Chic

The beehive and dinner jacket set head to the Lloyd District’s Sheraton-Portland Hotel to nibble Polynesian pupu platters, “man-sized Delmonico steaks,” and “Tropical Itch” cocktails at Steve Crane’s Kon-Tiki wonderland, which features a nine-foot waterfall, a genuine South American Indian shrunken head, and “New Guinea warrior spears with bat-wing barbs.” Bonus: “two square blocks of free parking.” The wildly decorated room is long gone, but many of Kon-Tiki’s signature pieces have found a second life at NE Portland tiki bar Hale Pele.

The Kon-Tiki was only one of a handful of Polynesian-themed spots that took Portland by storm though the 1950s and ’60s—including SW 10th and Stark’s “dine and dance” spot Bali Hai (formerly Pantley’s Pagan Hut), the Heathman Hotel’s Hawaiian-themed Aloha Room, downtown Benson Hotel’s outpost of the Trader Vic’s chain, and, of course North Interstate’s the Alibi (still going strong, since 1947). As chronicled in a 1959 Oregonian story, the tiki competition between the Benson and Sheraton hotel restaurants was so fierce it prompted a full-length feature in Business Week headlined “War of Exotic Restaurant Chains Comes to a Head in Portland.”

Food history grouped 2  fixed  xec3f9

Clockwise, from top left: Geneva’s Restaurant and Lounge co-owner Paul Knauls, in front of the North Portland lot once home to his landmark jazz spot, the Cotton ClubPoMo’s recreation of 1990s Portland “It” restaurant Zefiro’s iconic Caesar salad; influential Chinese chef Chi-Siung Chen, aka “Uncle Chen,” in October 1984, cooking at his second Portland restaurant, Chen’s Dynasty; Portland’s original Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour on NE 21st Avenue in 1966.

1960s When Portland Had Soul

Before it was gutted by civic projects and repurposed as a chic bike thoroughfare, North and Northeast Portland’s Albina area was a compact universe of black-owned businesses, anchored by the jazz clubs and soul food kitchens that lined North Williams Avenue in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. “There was Sallie Robinson’s Blue Monday, Sallie could cook. And the most popular place was Scotty’s Bar-B-Q,” remembers Paul Knauls, who owned both the legendary jazz hangout Cotton Club and Geneva’s Restaurant and Lounge along the same strip. “Scotty was so mean, like that Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. There was always a line out the door, but it was up to him if you got served.” Read our full story about the golden age of black Portland restaurants and nightlife—and how it disappeared.

1960s–80s The Serial Restaurateur

In the 1960s, Portland didn’t have celeb chefs. It had Horst Mager. The German-born chef was the city’s most enterprising restaurateur of his generation—importing global trends to our town at a breakneck pace well through the early 1980s as well as appearing regularly on two local cooking shows. His original restaurant (and the only one still standing) was NE Sandy Boulevard’s Teutonic tasting room, Der Rheinlander. Later, Mager opened Couch Street Fish House, an Old Town seafood spot where “all the power players ate creamed everything,” says local writer Byron Beck. Also: one of Portland’s first fancy French restaurants, L’Omelette, a huge hit with West Hills families and prom-night couples; a Scandinavian destination called Tivoli Garden; and even a short-lived Lake Oswego Mediterranean restaurant called The Odyssey. And that’s the short list. Former Mager employee Ross Pullen remembers the chef as “the king of the hill back then. But he also was German and angry. He was very demanding in the old-school European chef’s way.” The divisive kingpin also pioneered culinary education in Portland with his eponymous Culinary Institute, though the dubious value of a degree from Mager’s school was also the subject of a 1985 Willamette Week front-page investigative report by Karen Brooks. —MZ

Descendants In terms of international palate ambition (with arguably tastier results), look to Chefstable creator Kurt Huffman (Loyal Legion, Ox, St. Jack, Lardo, etc.).

1963 Why We Extoll Excess

If Portland and ice cream seem as tightly bonded as Snow and White, it’s nothing new. More than 50 years ago, an entrepreneurial East Coast transplant named Bob Farrell opened the first of a soon-to-be national chain of turn-of-the-century-themed ice cream parlors at NW 21st and Burnside. Later Portland locations of Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant sprang up at NE 122nd and Halsey, near Lloyd Center, and in Raleigh Hills: If you were a grade schooler with a birthday, Farrell’s was where you clamored to go for your blowout. Above all, the red-and-white-striped spot boasted the “The Portland Zoo”: a massive bowl locals hazily recall boasting 30-plus scoops of ice cream, bananas, toppings and little plastic animals, priced at $6.50 circa 1966. Every Zoo arrived via a Keystone Cop–style double-time parade around the restaurant on a custom-outfitted gurney, accompanied by the clanging of bells, beating of drums, and wail of a siren, before landing at the party table to a round of “Happy Birthday.” Farrell went on to become a sought-after motivational speaker and customer service guru. He died in 2015 at age 87, but his taste for happy excess cut a XXL path for the Voodoos, Blue Stars, and Salt and Straws that have since conquered Portland … and are currently exporting the city’s outsize tastes to Austin, LA, Tokyo, and beyond. —MZ

Descendant: “The Real McCall” sundae (10 scoops, four toppings, Amarena cherries, nuts—no fanfare) at Cool Moon

1969 The Man Who Taught Us to Dine "Finely"

A pothead, and a Harvard grad. The son of a Hollywood director. A gifted gabber, who could recite stats on every boxing champion in history. A man who would laugh at the fact that you’ve probably never heard of him. Yet make no mistake: if you eat out in today’s Portland, you know Michael Vidor, even though he died in 2000. The prolific restaurateur is soaked into the DNA of our food city: he replaced “fine dining” with a bohemian vision of come-as-you-are excellence, curiosity, and rigor. Read our full story about Portland’s foremost food trend prognosticator here.

1973 The Woman Who Turned the Tables 

Communal tables. Cult brunches. Weekend-only tasting menus. Eccentric, obsessive, and proudly inauthentic. Those buzzwords aren’t from a recent Eater post; that was Indigene in the mid-1970s. As other restaurants served pasta primavera and fondue, Portland’s food revolution simmered on a lonely stretch near SE 37th Avenue and Division Street, where today’s fascination for hard-to-land seats and fanatically detailed menu planning took shape in embryonic form. Inspired by love and politics, Millie Howe served artistic seven-course dinners and one amazing Sunday breakfast, where diners squeezed around a big table to devour playful omelets and sourdough cinnamon rolls as big as your head. Howe was many things: an avowed Marxist, a former radical economist at Reed College, a daring cook, local seafood evangelist, Indian food lover, and a James Beard acolyte who made everything from scratch. And that means everything: the bagels, the lox, and the cream cheese. But Indigene’s quarter century run, which ended in 1999, is best remembered for its limited seats, some secured a year in advance.

Cancellations were unheard of, and Indigene reservations were awarded in at least one divorce settlement. (He got the Blazers tickets; she got the table for two.) Take that, Langbaan! —KB

Descendants: Sweedeedee meets Smallwares

1978 The Chinese Revolutionary 

Though Portland had one of the nation’s largest early-20th-century Chinese populations, by 1970s our eaters gravitated to bland, Americanized Cantonese food, offered at no-frills Old Town standards like the Republic Café and Hung Far Low. Then, Uncle Chen—more accurately, Chi-Siung Chen—arrived in 1978 to demolish the dominant paradigm. Lured from New York by Chamber Music Northwest cofounder Sergiu Luca, an Israeli violinist with a passion for Asian cuisine, he and Luca created one of the city's most sophisticated restaurants, Chinese or otherwise, on SW Third Avenue. Roger Porter, a dean of local food writers, recounts that “Uncle Chen’s was gorgeous, featuring a giant red fabric dragon that stretched along the exposed brick walls of its [six-story-tall] atrium. There was no linoleum or kitsch. And the food was superb, with a focus on fiery Sichuanese dishes the likes of which Portland had never tasted.” At his Chen’s Dynasty*, opened in 1984, the chef’s menu went even further, specifying eclectic, never-before-tasted dishes by region—Hunan to Shanghai and Fukien. Later, the chef returned to China with horrific results. As reported by Phil Stanford and Richard Read in the Oregonian: in August of 1994, 57-year-old Chen was “fatally beaten by a man who entered his room at the Milky Way Hotel in Chongqing, China, reportedly carrying a hammer hidden in a white plastic bucket of carnations.” Still, his cooking left a legacy of elegance, piquancy, and cultural adventurousness many Portlanders today take for granted. —MZ

Descendants: Pure Spice, Langbaan, Ping (while it lasted) 

*The current incarnation of Chen’s Dynasty carries on the legacy at 1025 NE Broadway.

Food history grouped 3  fixed  lkmuoy

Clockwise, from top left: PoMo’s rendition of the sticky chicken bits that have ruled Portland since 2005—Pok Pok’s Ike’s Fish Sauce Wings; Portland kitchen trailblazers Cory Schreiber, Philippe Boulot, Cathy Whims, Greg Higgins, and Vitaly Paley, photographed July 2016; food cart pod pioneer Potato Champion’s signature poutine; the city’s original “celebrity chef” Horst Mager, circa 1980s.

1978 Why We Like a Little 'Tude With Our China

As the story goes, Michael and Rose-Marie Quinn met as coworkers at the United Nations in Vienna then moved to Portland. In 1978 the couple set out to re-create what they loved about Europe: great Bordeaux, opera music played at Led Zeppelin levels, and simple food. They called it The Vat and Tonsure—and it became a haven for Portland's cultural stars and oddballs for decades. Get the full Vat experience, from its cry of  "No Hens" to memories from its imfamous "moody bastard" waiters in our full story. —KB

Descendants: Expatriate (for cosmophilia) or Janis Martin’s Tanuki (for unrepentant attitude with your omakase and splatter flicks)

1979 Family Circus

Antsy small children and OHSU docs jam the tables for grilled-to-order burgers and orange sherbet-buttermilk shakes at the Carnival, a quirky café at the base of “Pill Hill” with a loaded condiment bar and a pond out back where raccoons prowled for leftovers.

1983 The Suds Brothers

Brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin start pulling pints (including, by 1985, their own super-hopped Hillsdale Ale) at their very first pub: the “tie-dyed” and dark wood lined Barley Mill Pub, still located on SE Hawthorne Boulevard. Nowadays the historically minded empire spans 54 locales throughout the Northwest.

1983 Night Owl Central

The red neon sign of The Market Club, housed in the Belmont space where the original Montage would later sling mac and oyster shooters, lures drunk creatives with house-made hash browns with eggs: “It was like Quality Pie East, [an all-night] dive for drag queens and off-duty cops. We used to stumble in after drinking to excess following performing on stage,” says former Willamette Week theater critic Steffen Silvis.

1984 "Eat, Drink, and be Mary"

The waitresses were saucy and the burgers hefty at Hamburger Mary’s, a flamboyant LGBT-friendly haunt once located where Fox Tower now looms. To an 8-year-old lunchtime regular, its slogan of “Eat Drink and Be Mary” seemed like a life goal. 

1985 Greek Life

An Old Town spot hosted by the brothers Pappas, George and Bill, Johnny’s Greek Villa is the place for the very best hearty, rustic Greek specialties, from taramosalata and tzatziki served with thick slabs of fresh whole wheat bread to sublime weekend-only lamb on the spit ... all washed down with a bracing shot (or three) of fiery ouzo. 

1985 One Cookie to Rule Them All

Heaven is a criminally chocolaty Black Angus cookie from Ron Paul Catering & Charcuterie, created by eventual city hall insider and Portland Public Market booster Ron Paul. The recipe is still top secret. 

1987 Pho Real

Per then-Oregonian columnist Karen Brooks: Saigon Express delivers “visionary Vietnamese, prepared by owner-chef Kim Mai Hong, a sometime painter, philosopher and former boat person…. Her ‘Loving Mother Hen at Nest,’ a noodle nest holding roasted quails and quail’s eggs, may be the best dish of the decade.”

1989 Two Seats, One Lunch

The most coveted reservation in town? Table for Two at Briggs and Crampton’s Northwest Portland catering kitchen, a converted Victorian where chefs Nancy Briggs and Juanita Crampton serve a lunchtime delights of wild mushrooms, Dungeness crab, and veggies plucked from the raised bed out back for two diners per day—that’s it. “It was so posh. You had to wait months for a reservation,” remembers local

gossip Byron Beck. “I never ate there because I could never get in.”

1990 The Place That Changed Everything

Zefiro, the most mythical of Portland restaurants, landed on the corner of NW 21st and Glisan like an undiscovered planet, where diners put on party clothes and ate Caesar salad with their hands. Menus changed every two weeks, each new dish a ticket to someplace fabulous, Tuscany, Morocco, the French countryside, gliding from textbook gnocchi to crisp Algerian chicken. Everything was sexy: the Sade on the sound system, the waiters, the plates, and, suddenly, us. Helping fuel the buzz were pre-fame Pink Martini’s lounge-y midnight dining room sets, complete with a piano-playing Thomas Lauderdale decked out in a Betsey Johnson dress. Read the full inside scoop on this game-changing spot, from epic gnocchi to kitchen kerfuffles, from the crew that lived it, plus nab a recipe for its signature Caesar salad in our "Classic Portland Recipes" feature.

1990s–00s The Beard Supremacy

If the national food scene has an equivalent to the Oscars, it’s the James Beard Awards—the regional and national prizes bestowed by the foundation named for the Portland-born “dean of American cuisine.” Beard, reared in a hotel kitchen and Oregonian to the core when it came to seafood and farm produce, introduced generations of Americans to culinary culture through his books and TV shows. Find out which five Portland chefs embody his mission—inspiring (and training) the next generation to follow our original locavore in our full story. —KB

Food history grouped 4 qnnhmb

Clockwise, from top left: a mural from the McMenamins Brothers’s first brewpub, SE Hawthorne’s Barley Mill, which opened in 1983; a risque giveaway postcard from Fellini, Old Town’s punk club Satyricon’s sister restaurant (“yes, that’s definitely the staff pictured on the card,” laughs former staffer Dayna McErlean); Gregg Abbott of Whiffie’s Pie Cart, one of Cartopia’s founding carts in the late-2000s; the back patio of the quirky Carnival family restaurant at the base of Pill Hill back in the 1970s and 1980s.

1992 Where We Got the Good Stuff

In the early 1990s, a tall, slender Reedie named Craig Mosbaek, along with a couple cohorts, created an urban farmers market to connect city dwellers with close-by farmers. Mosbaek had long romanticized the roadside fruit sellers of his Maryland youth, and took note of nascent markets in Beaverton, Vancouver, and Gresham. Damned if Mosbaek’s side gig (his day job was in criminal justice policy research) didn’t turn out to be the biggest success in the history of Portland food retailing. The Portland Farmers Market debuted on June 20, 1992, with a spartan assemblage of perhaps a dozen vendors and a few dozen more curious customers, in the Albers Mill parking lot at the west end of the Broadway Bridge. Even Mosbaek has trouble remembering who the original vendors were, though one was definitely Lars “the mushroom guy” Norgren. Mosbaek stepped away as the PFM rocketed forward in the decades since, moving to its current site on the Portland State campus in 1998, amassing vendors (now more than 200), and neighborhood satellite markets. But much of the credit for creating this world-class urban amenity tracks back to Mosbaek—who now earns his fresh produce pocket money at OHSU’s Center for Evidence-Based Policy. —MZ

1995 Rock Eats

Late-night calamari and margaritas are the order at Old Town’s Fellini, a metallic-Naugahyde-boothed rock spot soundtracked by the thunderous squeals of grunge titans playing at adjacent cult punk club Satyricon. “Rock stars and music fans hung out together,” marvels longtime local politico Marshall Runkel. “It was like the coolest house party ever, transported downtown.”

1996 The Chic Spot

You’re sipping a sake cocktail and nibbling Javanese roasted salmon at Bruce Carey’s slick Asian fusion boîte Saucebox; worrying over the looming specter of the Y2K bug.

1998 Next Level Mole

Sister act Shawna and chef Claire Archibald’s Cafe Azul first lured diners to McMinnville with “exquisitely made, but simple, authentic Mexican home cooking.” In 1998, they move to town and conquer the Pearl District. “Their manchamanteles, a sweet fruit mole, was probably the first mole I truly loved. “[My restaurant] may never have existed had I not eaten it,” remembers Mi Mero Mole owner Nick Zukin. “They also did a great, simple cheese quesadilla that I copy on occasion for regulars and friends [at MMM] when I’m not busy. It’s just a cheese quesadilla where you let the cheese melt out and brown on the comal, leaving a halo of crusty cheese, or “chicharron de queso,” as they call it in Mexico. So good.”

1999 Buzzed

Starbucks is soo over. You’re enjoying meticulously sourced joe at the SE Division Street Stumptown Coffee Roasters, the blueprint for bean evangelist Duane Sorenson’s ever expanding indie caffeine empire. Word is, there’s plenty of cheap real estate to be had farther west on this street, but, come on, who’d ever wanna eat out on Division?

1999 The Cooking School Jedi

One of the most influential local chefs in recent memory never ran his own Portland restaurant. Instead, Robert Reynolds, a former San Francisco restaurateur with a biting wit and an outsize heart, taught everybody—ER nurses, marketing VPs, pro chefs—how to fall in love with cooking. Simply, respectfully, and unabashedly.

From the late-1990s on, Reynolds’s classes, ultimately conducted at his own Chef Studio behind Ken’s Artisan Pizza, became legend. Powered by rigorous French technique, flutes of Champagne, and esoteric conversation, his sessions were a catalyst for projects like John Taboada’s Navarre and pastry wunderkind Kristen Murray’s Maurice. One of his students, Portland Meat Collective creator and former Portland Monthly staffer Camas Davis, captured the Francophile’s charisma in a 2007 profile for the magazine, titled “Kitchen Existential”: “Take what the pot gives you from this point on,” he calmly instructs his students. “You’ll know what to expect from these ingredients now, because you’ll remember what they did for you the last time.”

“He was a teacher first and a chef second—the Leonard Cohen of chefs,” says Feast Portland cofounder Mike Thelin, another Reynolds student. “He didn’t care about press or the game. He cared about making a beautiful genoise cake.” When Roberts died in 2012 at age 70, he left behind a constellation of intimate, idiosyncratic food operations he had inspired. “It’s not like all of [his students] went out and became chefs, but he taught us all to look at food in a different way,” Thelin says. “Food was a way to connect with community, with nature. An excuse for people to be together.” —KC

Marginalia: Find Robert Reynolds’s recipe for genoise cake.

Food history grouped 5 tzobu4

Clockwise, from top left: Local cooking school teacher and restaurant inspiration Robert Reynolds; a vintage matchbook from Portland’s drag institution Darcelle’s, which opened in 1967; a postcard from the original outpost of national breakfast chain Elmer’s, founded on NE 82nd Avenue in 1960.

2000 How the Eastside Became King

“When I was a kid, you crossed the river to the east side for Blazers games and the airport. That’s it,” remembers Noble Rot chef and Oregon native Leather Storrs of fine dining in the 1980s and ’90s. A nice meal meant a reservation at the west side’s Heathman Hotel or Ringside steak house. That is, until 2000, when a cluster of low-rent storefronts along 28th Avenue near East Burnside triggered a decisive shift in the city’s dining geography. Upstart chefs traded traditional, rank-and-file gigs in downtown’s big kitchens for their own grittier “shoestring” operations—and dragged the epicenter of PDX dining across the Willamette.

First came Taqueria Nueve* in 2000, a funky, fusion-free Mexican spot from Paley’s Place alum Billy Schumaker at 28 NE 28th Ave. Neighbors wolfed wild boar tacos and sipped margaritas bright with actual fresh-squeezed limes (!). In 2002, three doors down, Navarre redefined “local” eating with a checklist of inspired European small plates conjured from chef John Taboada’s weekly farm box. Then, a block or so south, a boisterous little wine cave with a roll-up garage door dubbed Noble Rot** delivered the coup de grace to west side supremacy. Owners Kimberly Bernosky and Courtney Storrs took the staid wine bar concept out at the knees, with seriously eclectic wine flights and Leather Storrs’s comfort roster of onion tarts and fancy mac.

“Back then, you had ‘Cheap Eats’ spots or ‘Restaurant of the Year’ style finer dining. The west-side was places like Tapeo and Bluehour. Open a restaurant there and you were catering to that [fine dining] crowd,” says Schumaker. “Myself and John and Leather, I think we wanted to cater to our peers a bit more. I was hoping to hit the quality and consistency that I had learned coming up the ranks but make it affordable and fun for all walks of life. The eastside just fit that.”

Today, East 28th Avenue Restaurant Row’s disruptive vision of intimate dining surrounded by concrete grit and house pickles is the city’s default. “Because rents were cheaper and we were on the east side, it allowed us to be freer and not feel like we needed to ape Paley’s or Zefiro,” says Leather. “It was like, ‘What the hell, let’s just do it.’ We just caught lightning.” —KC

*After closing in 2008, T9 reopened on SE Washington Street in 2014.
**Noble Rot moved to its current location on East Burnside in 2009.

2000 Why We Can Really Pickle That

Decades before the pickle became a Portlandia punch line and a seemingly mandatory aspect of every restaurant kitchen, it was a subcultural cause in a town rife with collective living and back-to-the-land experiments. No prime pickler marks the intersection between food and economic theory quite like Harriet Fasenfest. A cook, author, and teacher, Fasenfest helped nurture “radical homemaking” and urban gardening in the early 2000s with Groundswell, her politically minded Alberta-area café, and Preserve, the culinary rabble-rouser’s hub for canning, pickling, and gardening classes aimed at subverting the market economy. “At Preserve, I’d be going off about the history of pectin and yelling about the industrial complex while [my business partner] Marjory Braker would be telling the class how to chop strawberries,” Fasenfest remembers.

Bronx-born Fasenfest first won over locals in the 1980s with scratch cooking and East Coast attitude at her beloved Sellwood diner Bertie Lou’s and, later, her second café Harriet’s Eat Now (tongue in cheek motto: “The customer is never right.”). “Back then, I was the only person serving real maple syrup, so I was a rock star,” she laughs.

“Somewhere along the line I realized that the roots of civilization—seed and water—were being privatized, which makes learning how to sow, grow, and stow your own food (or work directly with farmers) no damn joke,” says Fasenfest, who still teaches classes at her Northeast Portland home. “This is not just about fucking jam.” —KC

Food history grouped 7 owv4yx

Clockwise, from top left: Rabble-rousing cook and preserver Harriet Fasenfest; PoMo’s recreation of early 2000s cocktail bar Mint’s signature fruit- and herb-laden drinks, including bartender Lucy Brennan’s cilantro-smacked “Ad Lib”; the Heathman Hotel’s 1950s era Hawaiian-theme Aloha Room lounge.

2001 Mint/820 Cocktails

While microbrews boomed and Oregon wines garnered cachet, cocktail culture in late-1990s Portland remained a blur of rum-and-Cokes and sugary cosmos. Then Zefiro and Saucebox bar veteran Lucy Brennan started poking around the kitchen for inspiration: “I put an avocado in a daiquiri,” she remembers of her silky-sweet signature drink. “Everybody thought I was absolutely cuckoo.” Or not. When she opened her restaurant Mint in 2001 (and, shortly after, the adjoining bar 820), drinkers packed the N Russell Street space for her perfectly balanced cocktails—from an earthy, beet-infused dirty martini dubbed "Ruby" to the cilantro-smacked "Ad Lib" lemon drop. A well-received cocktail book and packed roster of classes followed—kicking off our current landscape of intense boozy experimentation. “[With her] use of fresh ingredients, herbs, and dramatic presentations, Lucy began to drag Portland into the next evolution of our craft,” says Oven & Shaker co-owner and bar guru Ryan Magarian. After a quarter-century in the biz, Brennan sold Mint in 2015. Now she teaches home cocktail classes around the city. Get the recipes for a trio of her signature cocktails in our "Classic Portland Recipes" feature. —KC

2002 The Kids Who Killed the Restaurant (Before Everybody Else Did)

In 2002, I noticed the ground shifting in Portland’s restaurant scene, as restless young cooks bristled at the old-world restaurant order. No one better articulated the coming seismic shift than Michael Hebb and chef Naomi Pomeroy. The pair’s ripe food empire—a collection of proto-pop-up dinners, catering, and unorthodox restaurant projects—is still impacting this town. “What was unique about their point of view became the identity of what Portland’s food scene is now,” says Mike Thelin, cofounder of the Feast food festival. Now, read our full story on the Ripe empire.

2004 Sweet Spot

Nab another teeny-tiny bite of French dessert heaven, pear rosemary tarts to chocolate mousse domes sided with triple crème cheese, at Dim Sum Yum Yum at the original, Amélie-esque Pix Patisserie on … SE Division Street.

2005 Pok Pok Ike's Fish Sauce Wings

Yes, there’s Voodoos maple bacon bar. Nong’s chicken and rice. But the emblem of Portland’s past decade as a burgeoning food city is, without a doubt, Pok Pok’s fish sauce wings. During a time when Northwest chefs embraced the land and eschewed foreign flavors, owner/chef Andy Ricker was in Thailand, gleaning the secrets of Southeast Asian cooking with manic fervor. The success of these sticky-sweet wings (which Ricker says “basically pay our mortgage”), stippled with bites of caramelized garlic, marked the birth of Portland’s modern identity as a serious national food destination. As we warned when we first published this recipe in 2013, there are no shortcuts—but the intricacies are what make Pok Pok’s wings exceptional. Get the full recipe for the wings in our "Classic Portland Recipes" feature. —BT 

Food history grouped 6 igeiab

Clockwise, from top left: Think Stumptown’s airport is chic now? Here’s how travelers dined at the Portland International Airport in the 1960s and 1970s; a matchbook from NE 42nd Avenue’s beloved Spare Room bar, back when it was still attached to a bowling alley; a midcentury scene from downtown Portland’s SW Broadway strip; a vintage matchbook from Jake’s Famous Crawfish, which has been serving seafood to hungry Portlanders for more than a century.

2008 The Invasion of the (Food Cart) Pod People

An excerpt from Karen Brooks’s 2012 book The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland, with Gideon Bosker:

In cash-strapped 2008, the lure of food trucks seemed irresistible to Portlanders hoping to enter the American Dream machine. Gregg Abbott, a sometime musician and professional slacker, was out in the cold. He drifted up to Mike McKinnon’s Potato Champion, a rocking house of Belgian frites holding vigil until three a.m., drawing ecstatic club kids. “Mike wasn’t just one of those guys who stands around doing nothing. He was building something. I felt empowered.” 

By April 2009, the Cartopia “pod” at SE 12th and Hawthorne [also home to Abbott’s Whiffies Fried Pies and  Dustin Knox’s sassy-theatrical Perierra Crêperie, and others] spurred spontaneous dance parties and Twittersphere buzz. That July 4, nearly 1,000 eaters showed up: black kids and goth girls, gay couples, teachers. Even the police came ... to eat. Find out how food carts took over Portland...and what happened next in our full excerpt from Karen Brooks's The Mighty Gastropolis.

Show Comments