Dispatches from Portland's Sweet Zone
My morning routine: watch the news, scroll my Twittter feed, figure we're all going to die. Then I muster up the full-throated, laugh-voice of Laurence Fishburne, in full King of the Bowery mode, bellowing “Get That Girl A Treat.” Because right now, what else can make the heart smile?
In case you missed it, Portland bakers are making noise in their scaled-back kitchen bunkers. We’re witnessing an unstoppable parade of handhewn baked goods, intriguing pastries, and gorgeous breads handed over in makeshift windows and doorway tables. These eight standouts only scratch the surface of the possibilities across the the city. Support them. And take note: websites, mostly outdated, still exist for the prehistorics among us; the new world of information is strictly Instagram.
Kim Boyce was known as an exacting pro and a grain-baking pioneer when she moved here from Los Angeles in 2010. But instead of creating a destination shop as expected, she concentrated on wholesale coffee-shop accounts. It was a fine life and a good living, and now it's gone. In late June, after a three-month pandemic hiatus, Boyce returned to a scorched wholesale landscape. She grieved hard, then embraced starting over. Now, ideas and experiments are spilling out of her Eastside shop with help from a new mill. Boyce, who speaks like a poet baker laureate, aims to not just not to merely grind grains into fresh flours, but to find “the visual and olfactory beauty in each one.” Now, the fresh funky grass of rye and the warm, buttery sunshine of kamut shoots through a new slate of cobblers, tarts, and muffins. Also in the mix: crazy-delicious burnt Basque cheesecake (whole or slices); granola that is a marvel of dark crunch that reminds me of what granola would taste if it was fried; and the Michael Jordan of almond croissants, the one the vanquishes all others, clad in a force field of almonds. 5351 NE Sandy Blvd., pre-orders only for weekend window pickup, bakeshoppdx.com or Instagram @bakeshoppdx
Anjelica Hayes is on to something. Life got you down? Eat a cupcake. At last count, this trio of Black-owned bakeshops offers a dozen different ways to do just that. One boasts pink champagne cake; another hides a tiny peanut butter cup in the center. You can have them as regulars, minis or, for some flavors, a jumbo Fat Cupcake that feeds eight. If this alone does not make you forget the headlines for a few blissful moments, pulling up to the SE Portland outpost will do the trick. Where else are you going to find a clawfoot bathtub, dangling Christmas tree baubles, an ancient ship's clock, a ceramic poodle, and a parade of faux cakes in a bakery window? Growing up, Hayes was her family's de facto baker, not to mention the friend who always brought desserts to the party. She's never stopped, never looked back, not even for a virus. The goal, she says, has never changed: “To make a cupcake that represents joy.” Right now, she's concentrating on her classics, like the Suit & Tie, which drizzles caramel and sea salt over marble cake—to me, the perfect cupcake. 6011 SE 72 (also locations in Oregon City and Happy Valley), walk in shop Mon–Sat, fatcupcake.com or Instagram @fatcupcakeor
Grano Breads and Market
If you're looking to bust out of your house, if you like the challenge of hard choices made on the spot, this is your place. Flaky fruit crostata or rustic chocolate chip cookie or the esteemed country sourdough? It won't be easy. Grano is an inside favorite of local bakers for a reason. Baker Ulises Alvarez is all about the sourdough quest, the chase of the robust crust, the hard art of the creamy-rich texture. Grano leaves no doubt: even in a crowded bread world, Alvarez has something to say about ancient grains and whole grains in a shop co-owned with wife Ava Mikolavich, the house “idea maker.” Given the turmoil and scaled-back staff, the focus is just breads, pastries, and coffee. But don't slack. Regulars might fight you for the last Vollkornbrot, a handsome block of country sourdough that looks like it was designed by Esquire magazine. Insiders watch for manitas or “little hands,” mashed with green chiles, cheese, and roasted potatoes, as well as playful pimento bialys paired with harissa-spiked house cream cheese. If we have to pick one thing? Confesses Mikolavich: “Honestly, I fall asleep dreaming about our morning buns, rolled around cinnamon sugar and orange zest, then baked to get the hard-cracked sugar on the bottom.” Set your destination in Google Maps. 1500 Washington St., Oregon City, order online or walk in shop Wed-Sun, Instagram @grano_breads
While most of Portland's food scene went dark this spring, master chocolatier Jin Caldwell and expert baker Kyurim Lee stayed open and doubled down at their year-old gem—no stinting, no compromises. Yes, the neighborhood dogs, Jinju's most loyal fans, would still get their handmade, hand-out treats. You can't let down the dogs. For the rest of us, finding an oven-hot croissant, with just the right shatter and unbridled butter content, in a shuttered, grief-filled world, will live on as one of those Portland bucket-list moments. The usual outsized collection is still here: four kinds of croissants, savory tarts, beautiful cake slices, eye-popping (and affordable) desserts, artistic bon bons. Somehow, the Korea-born couple also finds time for terrific specials, like mojito chocolates, scented with mint from their yard, or super silky yuzu panna cotta beneath a trio of berries hand-picked on a day off. Do they ever sleep? Meanwhile, I'm calling it here: the new Q’een Amann is destined for cult status, because Lee, known as “Q,” has put a blob of Nutella where the gods meant it to be, on top of a classic Breton kouign-amman pastry (think muffin-shaped caramelized croissant). She goes the distance, embedding the thick, sweet evil substance with dark chocolate cookie pearls. I ate it with sheer animal fever, ripping it apart and chomping right into the center. That's where we are these days. 4063 N Williams Ave., pre-order or walk in shop, Thur-Sun, jinjupatisserie.com or Instagram @jinjupatisserie
Ken's Artisan Bakery
In late May, the giant wood-framed windows flew open again, releasing pent-up fumes of toasty yeast rising off of rustic breads. Northwest's iconic Ken's Artisan Bakery was back, and suddenly Portland felt a little more on its axis. For 19 years, Ken Forkish's breads have stood as a badge of honor in the city's best restaurants, and it's hard to imagine life without these monuments of crag and crust, some baked to a state of brown-black-crisp normally reserved for toasted marshmallows. Alas, no spelt croissants, raspberry-glazed “escargot” pastries, or other wild experiments from Forkish's shuttered eastside Trifecta Annex made the journey here. The mode is old-school Ken's: classics done right. Nothing wrong with the incomparable boules, the divine pecan-raisin bread (toast it!) or any number of house croissants, berry-laden or pocked with goat cheese and leeks. As Forkish puts it, “I'm going back to the things I love, the things I've missed.” 338 NW 21st Ave., walk-up window only Wed-Sun, kensartisan.com or Instagram @kensartisan
Chef Carlo Lamagna can surprise you. I learned this in a recent phone call when we suddenly went deep on John Wick and Lamagna penciled me, Wick-style, with his knowledge. Turns out he's a former martial arts instructor. Also: the chef behind last year's breakout Filipino restaurant has always dreamed of opening a bakery. It took a pandemic to make it happen, on a small but beautiful scale. Magna Kusina reopened in May with a new dinner plan—three courses to go, $25. But recently, during the day, a table appeared just inside the door, lined with domed pastry plates of rotating treats, traditional to modern. For those venturing out in the world, it's a must try. Among the finds: delicate mango-peach hand pies that pay homage to Lamagna's misspent youth at Jollibee, the McDonald's of the Philippines. Also: a giant, purple, pandan-iced cookie made with ube, a bright, earthy purple yam. The whole thing tasted like Fruit Loops. I mention this to Lamagna, asking, “Am I hallucinating?” “No,” he laughs, “that's ube.” Now I'm stalking his Instagram account, waiting for Lamagna to drop his take on burnt Basque cheesecake, pandan-infused and carpeted with polvorones cookies for a little left-field crunch. “Nothing too crazy,” he insists. “ I'm not Pierre Hermé or anything. Just flavors from my childhood, simple things to make people happy. That's why we got in the business.” 2525 SE Clinton St., walk ups Tues-Saturday, Instagram: @magnapdx.com
By the time Kirsten Murray reopened her quirky, critically acclaimed pastry luncheonette in late May, downtown Portland had changed dramatically. The boarded-up storefronts; the nightly protests and police clashes. Now, her new reality includes just three people, to prep a labor-intensive pre-order-only pick-up menu. To meet her rigorous safety protocols, Murray even takes off her shoes off at the door. Just surviving, she says, is brutal. But Murray, known as a cook's cook, is looking forward, not backward: “I hope we'll become somewhat of a jewel box, like Rose Bakery in Paris, a takeaway place for beautiful salads and tarts and jams and ice creams; no more service.” Clearly, Maurice is on the way with ambitious eat-now or heat-later options, along with an elaborate food lover's pantry stocked with Ayer's Creek farm staples and baker's sugar. Signature desserts remain, including the vaunted Meyer lemon soufflé pudding cake, which no less than Ruth Reichl once called “a citrus cloud, one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten.” Who would argue with Ruth? 921 SW Oak St., advance orders only for Fri-Sat, mauricepdx.com or Instagram @maurice_pdx
Soro Soro Coffee & Dessert
One dessert ruled Portland last year, and no one saw it coming: Soro Soro's cotton candy affogato, a mountainous tuft of fresh-spun sugar plunked on top of ice cream, then disintegrated before our eyes, as we poured on hot espresso from a tiny saucer like mad scientists. With this, Portland was plunged into Korean coffee shop culture, complete with bear-art lattes and Instagram-ready desserts, via Portland newcomers Tae Kim and Bobae Choi. Were it not for the pandemic, says Tae, the couple would be opening a Westside location right now. But without foot traffic or Soro Soro's animated indoor scene, sales have plummeted. Yet Soro Soro is soaring: more daring, more ambitious. Every day seems to bring something fun or elegant—perhaps a cheerfully demented rainbow cake beneath a “flower”of whipped cream petals and a yellow smiley face cookie, or an elegant soufflé cheesecake etched with seasonal berries. Also new: a mondo soft-boiled egg sandwich, clad in shokupan bread and holding a total of five—five!—eggs. Even the affogato had a new spin-off—a towering, frothy mashup of the original concept and Soro's Soro's Vietnamese iced coffee slushy. Understandably, it's “not available for delivery.” 2250 E Burnside St., open daily, walk-in shop, sorosoropdx.com or Instagram @cafe_sorosoro