Feast Portland 2019: Notes from a First-Timer
“Is this your first Feast?” I’m not sure what it is about me: the wide eyes, the perpetual ring of sauce around my mouth, my insistence on finishing every dish I start—but almost everyone I've seen in the last four days has pegged me as a Dorothy on her first trip through Oz within 30 seconds of striking up a conversation.
Feast Portland, presented by Bon Appétit, returned for its eighth year this weekend, flaunting booze and cooking classes and carefully-constructed bites from culinary heavyweights near and far. The bacchanalia has a point: each year, the festival partners with nonprofits dedicated to ending hunger. It was, in fact, my first Feast (unless we count the number of times I have seen Babette’s Feast, Gabriel Axel’s 1987 ode to the well-tailored apron), and it was a doozy: a truly unique festival with exhilarating highs, rain-soaked lows, and all the sensory overload one might expect from a four-day food marathon.
After caravanning from the Hotel Lucia to the Rose Quarter commons on a party bus named Sasquatch—which, thank you for asking, did blast “Float On” by Modest Mouse through an impossibly tinny sound system—one of my press cohorts heralded in the festivities as he squinted at the weekend’s itinerary: “What’s ‘East Coast vs. West Coast?’ Well, we’ll soon find out!”
East Coast vs. West Coast, an evolution from the sandwich invitational in years past, kicked off Feast 2019, and it was a strong first showing. Vendors from the coasts churned out burgers and stews and tortas while a small panel of judges scored each dish bracket-style in an East/West faceoff. A slight complication: the chefs’ roots determined their team, not the actual location of their restaurants—Boston’s Eventide Oyster Co. and Portland’s Yonder both repped the East Coast, for example, since Yonder chef Maya Lovelace grew up in North Carolina. There were some excellent bites—Eventide’s brown butter lobster roll, an incredible oxtail stew served with a big salty plantain chip from Palomar—but that muddy East/West divide made for a confusingly Portland-heavy roster at an ostensibly-outward facing event.
On the topic of out-of-towners: Australian-born, Hong Kong-based Thai cooking superstar David Thompson made a hell of an impression at The Late, Late Show: Noodles, which ran concurrently with East v. West on Thursday night. Maybe the overlap explains why it was one of the few events that didn't sell out. More for me, I guess: it was an intimate affair, staged in a graffiti-streaked parking lot behind the Clay Creative building off SE 2nd. Thompson whipped up a deep, spicy noodles-and-fish-dumplings situation, and New York/Tokyo ramen maestro Ivan Orkin made a big, brothy impression. Toss in tiki torches, Johnnie Walker/Pok Pok drinking vinegar highballs, and a soundtrack from Don and the Quixotes (Portland’s self-described “premier 17th-century-literature and surf rock themed wedding band”), and you walk away with a festival highlight.
Thompson also stole the show at Friday’s annual Night Market (all neon signs and soul-crushing lines) with two curries—orange and yellow—that absolutely crackled with flavor. The South Waterfront location, flanked by Tilikum Crosing and the Ross Island Bridge, was quietly stunning, as were strong nibbles from Gado Gado, Smallwares, and new SE Clinton Filipino spot Magna. Props, too, to a knockout oysters-and-omelets display from Chicago’s Fat Rice. Within an hour, I was panting on a bench with a convex gut while Instagrammers swirled around me.
Saturday was day one of the two-day Big Feast, a Main Event™ transposed from Pioneer Courthouse Square to Tom McCall Waterfront Park. It was booze-heavy, a sort of wine-and-beer festival with the odd tasting counter, with a vibe my colleague nailed nicely: "Where the Ducks fans meet the foodies.” A series of fireside chats were a big draw—Bon Appétit editors and personalities sat down with chefs like Andy Ricker, recent James Beard nominee Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, and Franklin Barbecue's Aaron Franklin for some sincerely-illuminating conversation; Zepeda-Wilkins predicts that bugs are 2020’s Next Big Thing.
Festivalgoers then headed up the west side to The Fields Park which, under the Fremont bridge at dusk, felt like something close to the edge of the world. Chefs were tossing fistfuls of raw flesh on sizzling metal while sweat and fire commingled in the air for Smoked!, Feast's barbecue hour. I was too busy groaning at Sammich chef Melissa McMillan's brisket-and-Frito pie to cobble together much of a takeaway, but the general sense was, "OH my god, this Frito pie is so good," and also, "Thank god it isn't raining right now. " The forecast was bleak, but Feast dodged a bullet.
Until it didn't! Sunday brought the expected downpour, and if it didn't make everyone happy, it did feel like an appropriate release (also a welcome complement to my spirit-corroding hangover). Brunch Village at the Redd on Salmon was an intimate affair, with some decrying the monsoon while others cradled incredible tomato tarts from Tim Healea of Little T and falafel-crusted quail eggs from Oakland's Reem Assil beneath their umbrellas. The waterfront was a muddy minefield, though there was one upside: “I did get really into my disposable poncho fashion,” says Eater PDX editor Brooke Jackson-Glidden.
I ate a lot of food and went to a lot of parties this weekend. I drank wine off the hood of a BMW with The Oregonian's food critic Michael Russell and choked down something called a cheesecake tamale (we do not have to talk about it). I also watched under-the-radar heroes like chef Tony Tien from Pho Kim on SE 82nd hold their own against monoliths like David Thompson, and for all the networking and buzzwording and farm-to-tabling, I walked away feeling proud to live in a city with this much passion for food as storytelling, sustenance, and straight-up fun. It was, in fact, my first Feast. I'll be back.