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Eat your way around Portland, Ore., and revel in variety

Scott McMurren
Looking north to Portland’s downtown district. On the right, the Willamette River. The sun catches a shadow of the tram which connects the hilltop campus of Oregon Health Sciences University(OHSU) and the waterfront.
Scott McMurren photo
It was hard to make a decision at Portland’s Salt and Straw Ice Cream. On top: Honey Balsamic Strawberry with cracked pepper. Scoop #2: Sea salt ice cream with caramel!
Scott McMurren photo
A longer shot of Herb’s food truck….
Scott McMurren photo
One of TriMet’s “MAX” light rail trains approaches the station in northwest Portland.
Scott McMurren photo

PORTLAND -- There’s lots going on in Portland these days. And that matters to Alaskan travelers because fares from Anchorage to the Rose City have dipped below those to Seattle several times this year. That means Oregon’s largest city gets a turn at being the least-expensive gateway to the Lower 48. 

Portland is a great city. I grew up there, but things have changed quite a bit since I left 35 years ago. 

Some things are still the same: The Oregon Zoo, complete with elephants, giraffes, snakes, hippos and polar bears. OMSI (the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) is located on the banks of the Willamette River these days. Look for the submarine, the USS Blueback, which is docked alongside OMSI. It’s a “must-see” attraction. And don’t miss the International Rose Test Gardens in Washington Park. It’s next to the zoo and features more than 500 varieties of roses. Plus, the gardens boast a stunning view of downtown Portland, with Mount Hood in the background. 

One of the jewels in Portland’s crown is its mass transit system, TriMet. The “Red Line” train comes directly to the airport and gets you downtown in about 30 minutes. Between the trains, the buses and a few streetcars, visitors can get to any of the city’s landmark neighborhoods or attractions with ease. A day pass is $5. 

If you get hungry as you’re exploring Portland, you’ve come to the right place. There is an incredible variety of restaurants and food trucks scattered around the city.

For breakfast, we started with the Bijou Cafe at 132 SW 3rd Ave. They have a good variety of locally-sourced eggs and your choice of bacon and sausage. But if you’re really hungry, opt for one of the “hash” dishes. I picked the cauliflower and black kale hash. It included sheep milk feta cheese and olives, too. I was stuffed.

Note: The Bijou Cafe doesn’t take reservations — and it can get busy. Some folks stepped next door to Stumptown Coffee (a local roastery). Other folks walked 50 more steps to Portland’s landmark donut shop: Voodoo Doughnuts. Here’s the thing: I’ve had better doughnuts. But I have NEVER seen anyone having more fun putting these contraptions together: bacon maple bars, Fruit Loop doughnuts and Portland Cream doughnuts, among others. 

For lunch, we decided on a strategy to work off some breakfast with a bike tour. Portland is the definition of a bicycle-friendly city. There are designated bike lanes everywhere. And outside of the downtown core, there are even “bike boulevards” — quiet streets that offer bikers a straight shot between neighborhoods. There are bike paths on the bridges over the Willamette River and bike routes on both sides of the river. About 7 percent of Portlanders list “bicycle” as their primary transportation. 

Right around the corner from the Bijou Cafe is Pedal Bike Tours. They offer tours, bike rentals and sales. We opted for the “Food Cart Crawl”, which highlights the booming food cart movement in Portland. Our guide, Sam Haffner, grabbed a couple of bikes and quickly adjusted them to the right height. Then, we were fitted with helmets and we went outside for our “safety briefing.” Sam knows his bikes and gave us a quick tutorial on bike etiquette in Portland. Then we headed off for a ride along the Willamette River. 

There are several “Food Cart Pods” in the downtown district. But our tour offered tastes at some “pods” on the other side of the river. To get there, we biked over the Hawthorne Bridge, one of eight bridges that span the Willamette in the downtown area. 

Dubbed “Cart-opia,” the pod at S.E. 12th Avenue and Hawthorn Boulevard featured PBJ’s Grilled. And yes, the sandwiches feature grilled peanut butter, jelly and a whole lot more. I got the “Smoking Goat”, made on olive bread, with almond butter, bacon, goat cheese and apricot jam. But I got a taste of a real winner, “Joy”: almond butter, coconut filling and a chocolate spread, served on grilled Challah bread. 

Sam coaxed us back on the bikes and we headed east to a “pod” dubbed “Good Food Here” in the Belmont District. At S.E. 43rd Avenue, this section of Portland is more residential. Accordingly, food trucks stay open later to accommodate the dinner crowd — whereas the downtown pods close up after 4 p.m. We got a “sampler” plate from Namu, a combination of Korean and Hawaiian dishes. Yes, there was some kimchee, but it was served up with some spicy garlic beans, a cucumber salad and some sesame spinach. The “Vegan Bowl” is just $5. 

I wandered off to try something different and found Herb’s Mac + Cheese, where I ordered a helping served with bacon and broccoli. I did my best to finish it, but had to push back and let my tour mates help. 

The third “pod” on our tour also was on the east side, at S.E. 28th Ave. and Ankeny St. At the Grilled Cheese Grill, they take comfort food to the next level. I was still full from the mac + cheese, but The Kelsey sandwich looked good: Tillamook Cheddar cheese with some basil pesto. It’s served up on multigrain wheat bread from Portland French Bakery. 

The finishing touch at this pod was the beer truck: Captured by Porches. These brewers started as a homebrew club, then slowly started serving their craft beers at food cart pods. The local favorite? That would be Punctured by Corpses Undead Porter. 

We pushed off from the third and final “pod” and made our way back to the Willamette River. We did a quick tour of the bike trails on the east side, then crossed the Steel Bridge to the west side for a good view of Portland’s port area. 

Truthfully, we weren’t hungry for dinner, but succumbed to the call of Salt and Straw, one of Portland’s premier ice cream shops, at 838 NW 23rd Ave. 

I still cannot believe the flavors: Pumpkin custard and spiced chevre, for example. I picked the honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper. But here’s the bonus: before you make up your mind you can taste any number of flavors! And the folks are generous with their tastes. And for my second scoop (how can you have just one??), I picked sea salt ice cream with a caramel ribbon. 

The next day, we were motivated to work off our indulgences. So we set out on the 4T trail (train, trail, tram and trolley). We started downtown, where we caught the train up to the Oregon Zoo. After a couple of hours checking out the critters, we picked up the trail through the woods up to Council Crest. This is a steep climb — but the trail is well-maintained with steps along the way. 

At Council Crest, the highest point in Portland, you can get some great shots of the river and the city. Then, it’s down into the woods again. The trail leads to the hilltop campus of Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU). Follow the signs to the tram, which takes you down to the river. Along the way you’ll get some great shots looking north to the downtown district. Note: You must purchase a TriMet bus pass to ride the train up to the zoo and the trolley along the waterfront. 

At the bottom of the tram, pick up the Portland Trolley for the ride back to town. 

Chances are good most Alaskans will arrive in Portland by air. But once you get there, you can choose to ride the train, hike or bike all over town. And rest assured, there’s plenty to eat and drink while you’re there. 

Online resources:

Travel Portland: Good tips and resources from the local visitors bureau. They have a kiosk right downtown at the Pioneer Courthouse Square. 

TriMet: Learn about the light rail/streetcar/bus system in Portland. I bought a week-long pass for $25. 

Food Carts Portland: A current listing of many food carts throughout the city.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com.