I just got back from a 10-day vacation in the Pacific Northwest filled to the brim with inspiring foodie experiences. Since I am a food blogger, my lovely hubby was my willing fellow food sleuth.
The trends we followed were farm-to-table, artisan produced, better-for-you versions of industrial food (like gourmet ice-cream, bread, and coffee), vegan and vegetarian food, local producers, and international cuisine moving into the mainstream.
If any of these trends pique your interest, then read on to learn about some worthwhile hangouts and innovative dining destinations in Seattle and Portland.
Grunge At Pike Place Market
Since Seattle was our first destination, Pike Place Market was the first place I wanted to go. I spent many years on the West Coast of Canada but had never been to the over 100-year-old Pike Place.
At first site it was even bigger than I expected, but also grungier. Some of the permanent stalls looked like they had not been renovated for 100 years. There were plenty of fascinating nooks and crannies, huge pots hanging from hooks, and restaurant tables hanging off the building’s edges over Elliot Bay.
The hodgepodge quality of the market, which accommodates hundreds of food stalls and artisans, meant you never knew what you would see next. It was unexpected to see so many speciality establishments. Piroshky Piroshky is a Russian bakery that had long lineups for their 20-odd varieties of Russian puff pastries, both savory and sweet.
Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, with locations at Pike Place and in New York, was also hugely popular. There, you could watch cheese being made onsite in giant stainless steel vats. I had never seen such a quantity of curds and whey at the same time.
Of course you could buy cheese there, but there were also cheese sandwiches, cheese crackers, and cheesy frozen food. Talk about taking a theme and running with it!
A Truly Memorable Sandwich
At Delicatus we had a memorable gourmet sandwich. The place bills itself as a Seattle Delicatessen. Now that is saying a lot when your visitor is coming from the U.S. capital of delicatessens (New York City).
Delicatus was actually a huge success in my books, and it was just one example of many stunning sandwich specimens I saw in Seattle.
Inspired by this, I found myself analyzing the perfect sandwich, and thinking about how difficult it is to achieve.
It has to start with perfectly fresh bread. Yet bread is fresh for only one day (or less), so this is hard to do consistently at home.
And then you need flavorful locally-sourced ingredients at the height of freshness to put inside. The proportions of tastes and textures need to be piled up just right, and then you’ve got something great.
Delicatus’ menu lists 29 sandwiches, and includes six vegetarian options, which is more vegetarian options than I have seen anywhere. Bravo to them!
I really wanted to try the dry rubbed BBQ jackfruit, or The Trane, which had meatless meatballs made with kidney beans, walnuts, grana, sauce verte, havarti, and Calabrian peppers on a toasted Italian roll.
But can you believe it, I actually had the Caprese, which is the classic veggie sandwich that you get anywhere. This one had roma tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil, field greens, red onions, balsamic reduction, on EVOO toasted ciabatta. It was amazing, and much better than other versions of this sandwich that I have tried.
An Insanely Meaty Plant-Based Burger
After visiting a gorgeous Japanese Garden in Seattle, we were famished. Finding that the vegetarian restaurant recommended by an enthusiastic volunteer of the garden was closed, we had "vegetarian" on the mind. My hubby picked this next place.
On arriving at Next Level Burger, inside a Whole Foods in Seattle, we discovered a menu with no less than seven different plant-based burger patties to choose from.
These were Savory Meaty Patty (whatever that is), Umami Mushroom and Quinoa Patty, Quinoa and Black Chia Seed Patty, Black Bean and Veggie Patty, Juicy Sausage Style Patty topped with Smokey Tempeh Bacon, Umami Mushroom and Quinoa Patty, and a Frankfurter-style dog with a chili ‘chz’ option.
First of all, I have never seen such a selection of patties in one place. But what really caught my eye was the Gluten Free Beyond Burger Patty. I knew about the Beyond Burger, which is the product of one of those new plant-based brands (Beyond Meat) that is attempting to make vegetables taste exactly like beef.
It is designed to sizzle while cooking like meat, bleed like meat, and, of course, taste just like meat. I was apprehensive, but the manager said if I didn’t like it, I could return it. I decided I had nothing to lose.
I don’t know how they did it! This burger’s taste was the essence of meat. And the texture was dense, just like a beef burger cooked to well done. It was pretty crazy, the craziest of my foodie experiences.
I didn’t return it, but I am also not sure I would order it again. I may serve it to meat eaters who come to my home though, and try to trick them!
Most of you likely know that Seattle is the coffee mecca of this country.
We found the preferred espresso flavor served at most of the area’s ubiquitous fine cafes was very much to our liking. It was balanced and smooth, yet rich and flavorful; definitely less acidic than in New York, and not at all burnt tasting.
For those who follow me on Instagram, you would have seen how much I loved the new Starbucks Reserve SODO cafe at Starbuck’s HQ. The exclusive menu was packed with gourmet coffee creations that you can’t get at a regular Starbucks … and I could only try one!
The cafe served food designed by Italian chef Rocco Princi, where 95 percent of the ingredients, I was told, are imported from Italy. I couldn’t get enough of it, especially the orange marmalade and European-style cultured butter enhanced to order with flake salt.
I kept going back and ordering more things to eat, and I am glad I did. The last item was the best. The apparent simplicity of this chocolate tart with chocolate hazelnut crust was misleading because it was truly sublime.
The mirror glaze on this tart was so shiny it could not be photographed due to the glare. Its balanced bittersweet chocolate flavor could only have come from superior ingredients and techniques.
Everything at this cafe tasted better than normal, and this was super inspiring to me! I haven’t been to Europe, but I know their food culture is more refined. They tend to care more about where stuff is grown and how it is produced, and they make great efforts to preserve these treasures.
Update: I just saw the news that Starbucks has opened its first standalone Princi bakery in Seattle, and it has plans for 1.000 locations across the U.S. Locations are planned for New York and Chicago this fall! This is great news. If you go there, let me know what you think.
For our last Seattle stop, we visited a weekly farmer’s market which was incredibly laid-back compared to New York’s, and literally overflowing with locally-grown peaches, cherries, and berries.
Go Washington State! We noticed that blackberries, salmonberries, thimbleberries, and black raspberries were everywhere, at the market and in the wild. The cherries we bought were sweeter and redder than anything I have tried before.
An Inspired Cinnamon Bun
After arriving in Portland, I dreamed of living at Ken’s Artisan Bakery, where finely made sourdough breads stack alongside pastries and buns on rustic wooden shelves.
Everything there is filled with care and attention to detail, and how do I know? I have Ken’s book, where he describes his journey of learning to make bread and teaches his process.
Making good bread is so involved that I have now missed two winters without trying it due to the steep learning curve, despite my good intentions. Hopefully it will happen during the upcoming winter. I know that I will not be able to learn it easily. Good breadmaking is an art, and mastery will take time.
At Ken’s I discovered the ultimate cinnamon bun. Cinnamon buns are one of my all-time favorite things to eat. So I ate three of them. On different days of course! Eating each bun felt like a journey, especially the first time.
This is not the doughy type of bun you usually get. Instead, the brioche-style bun was fresh and flaky, and the entire thing was coated in a very thin caramel sugar glaze, with chopped pecans inside for crunch, and so much cinnamon it felt like medicine.
I suspect it was very fresh cinnamon, because it had punch. Eating away from home, someone like me starves for spices, and the effect of eating Ken’s cinnamon bun was like breathing fresh air, except I was eating it.
Scoop Shops That Draw Crowds
Ice cream is another big thing in Portland. I tried the most amazing Lavender Mint Chip at Fifty Licks, and my hubby had Chocolate AF, described as “super duper dark chocolate with house-made ganache.” His was the most chocolate flavor in an ice cream I have tasted by far, and super yum.
We were also amazed by Salt & Straw, which wins the award for busiest ice cream shop. After we managed to wend our way through the 100 person-plus lineup at 10 p.m. one evening, I finally understood why.
The shop with its mysterious flavors—like Pear and Blue Cheese, or Oregon Wasabi and Raspberry Sorbet—had eluded us for days. You have to be in the right mood, and have the appetite, for such flavorful experiments.
The first thing I noticed about this shop was the giant ice cream scoops coming out of the shop on tall waffle cones, trailed by the waffling scent of fresh waffles. I thought to myself, who doesn’t love a mega cone? Of course that’s why they come!
The next thing was the amount of chunky bits Salt & Straw crams into a single bite.
I had innocently asked for a taste of Coava Coffee & Cloudforest Craque. The coffee was intriguing to me, yet here I was crunching down hard on my bite. Feeling a little surprised, I asked what the Cloudforest Craque part was. For our information, “Craque” is handmade, candied, single-origin cacao nibs by Cloudforest Chocolates, a Portland-based chocolate shop.
I immediately decided to go for the much milder Honey Lavender flavor and a child’s scoop. The child’s scoop is a great tradition Portland must have pioneered to counter its penchant for tennis ball-sized scoops, which is a lot of ice cream. My husband had Freckled Woodblock Chocolate. Are you spotting the theme here? Mrs. Lavender and Mr. Chocolate.
The Pacific Ocean Sea Salt That Chefs Adore
A highlight was our visit to the Jacobsen Salt Co. store in Portland, where I tasted about 25 different salts and flavored salts, 10 honeys, and 1 salted caramel.
Until now, I never fully appreciated how salt can have such different and nuanced flavors. I love that Jacobsen sells three textures of its plain sea salt, including its famous pyramid-shaped flake salt, but that it is also madly experimenting with flavored salts. These are not the flavored salts you buy at an average store. These are powerful, fresh and herbaceous, or acidic, or spicy, or whatever the flavor is suppose to be
Jacobsen’s salt is made from Pacific Ocean seawater harvested at Netarts Bay on the Oregon coast about 1 hour 45 minutes west of Portland. So as part of our ocean love-affair day trip down the coast, we went to Netarts in search of salt. We were incredibly fortunate to see Jacobsen’s salt production up close at sunset. I will have an article for you on the whole experience soon.
Two Innovative Indian Restaurants Run By Westerners
In Portland we also explored two fascinating Indian restaurants, both run by non-Indian chefs. Now that was a real foodie experience. It played with my mind to see white people cooking such great Indian food and introducing the world to the cuisine in exciting ways.
The first restaurant was Bollywood Theater, started by Troy MacLarty, who says he is saving people a plane ticket to India when they come to his restaurant. It is true. The decor was very India: chaotic, dilapidated, and colorful.
Troy has some great videos of India on his website. Here’s one of them you might enjoy. I also love their idea of putting samples of all the spices and pulses on a table and labelling them so folks can learn.
Bollywood Theater’s food was fairly authentic, and it was served on small plates. We tried some vibrant thinly-sliced fried okra with raita, lentil dal (of course), saffron-scented basmati rice, paratha (flatbread), and pav bhaji, which is a Mumbai specialty of grilled ghee-soaked bread with a spicy vegetable stew for dipping. Overall, it was super satisfying to the tongue.
Tiffin Asha was the second restaurant that we made a point of trying. The menu is quite creative and reminiscent of fine dining.
I learned from chef Elizabeth Golay that my favorite Indian chutney, made from ground lentils and spices, has another name: gunpowder.
Tiffin Asha features four varieties of gunpowders: dried red chilis with peanut, toasted lentils, curry leaf, and black sesame. Each is a different color, making for a stunning presentation with steamed idli for dipping.
The highlight at Tiffin Asha is the dosa, which is made from soaked, ground, and fermented rice and lentils that are cooked on a grill into a very thin pancake. The pancake can be seasoned, or wrapped, with a filling inside. It is served with a tangy and spicy lentil stew, and more chutney. Yummy, yum, yum. All around us were non-Indians exploring this cuisine with glee.
An Exploration Of Mediterranean Small Plates
The Mediterranean Exploration Company came highly recommended by my hubby’s colleagues, so we went. The place was packed, and the waiting line was an hour long, but it was worth it.
We loved the Israeli pita that came puffed up with steam. We dipped pita in Muhammara (made from roasted red peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses) and warm Usul Hummus, which was served with tahina, egg, and onion.
What you see in the photo above is the Israeli Street Corn, a summer special dish served covered in rose petal harissa yogurt, feta, and dill.
The flavor on the corn was crazy good, and the experience all around, including the eye-opening roasted summer squash salad, was incredible. Clean flavors, beautiful presentation, and good simple Mediterranean food.
Epif, A Vegan Upscale Restaurant
Epif was an epiphany for its unique menu of vegan South American cuisine. The dishes we ordered were like nothing I have ever tried before.
Restauranteurs Pepe and Nicolle pride themselves on taking traditional meat-centric South American dishes and making them vegan, using local organic ingredients, fresh herbs, and accents of vegetable powders.
The dish you see in the photo above is a mashed potato roll filled with vegan cream cheese, bell pepper, asparagus, and chives, served with a Kalamata olive sauce.
It was balanced, fresh, exciting, and satisfying all at once, not to mention beautiful. When I looked up the dish, which is called Causa, I learned it is Peruvian. The googled images look strikingly similar to what we got, except that the layers are typically stacked, with a filling of chicken or tuna.
Food Trucks That Don’t Move
In Portland they are known as food-cart pods. These are collections of food trucks that live side by side in a designated area. You could call it an outdoor food court of sorts.
The 600-plus food truck scene in Portland is legendary. I had certainly never before seen the concept of a food truck that doesn’t move. In New York you see them on the street, but they have to be mobile and drive back to a parking spot for the night. I would suspect this limits the breadth of what you can do in a small space.
Obviously, this is a great way for Portlanders to get into the restaurant business on the cheap, and many have graduated to brick and mortar store fronts after building a following, which helps Portland to generate new and exciting food spots.
The food-carts are also great for those of us who love the option of choosing from a wide variety of tasty cuisines at affordable prices. This is my best case scenario!
Conclusion Of My Foodie Experiences
Overall, the locals we talked to were proud of their culinary scene. Portland—where chefs received 17 nominations for the celebrated James Beard awards this year—is undoubtably a foodie mecca.
I think the awesomest thing about our culinary adventures in the Pacific Northwest is how accessible the foodie experiences were. Getting places felt like a breeze due to the lower population density.
I also could not believe how friendly everyone was. Simply walking down the street people would smile at you left, right, and center. And staff at the various restaurants and shops we visited acted as if they were genuinely happy and passionate about their work.
I wonder, was it the incredible weather that elicited so many smiles? It was hot, but without humidity. With cool breezes rolling off the Oregon Coast Range mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the air felt deeply nourishing, especially in the mornings.
I used to live on the West Coast of Canada, so this whole journey felt like returning home. My hubby likes to tease me that moving to New York was like leaving paradise and coming down to earth. Hahah.
Oh yes! From breathtaking natural beauty to culinary adventure, this was one heck of an enjoyable vacation.
Have I convinced you to put Seattle and Portland on your destination wish list? If not, what are you waiting for?
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