Why Portland's Food Scene is Better Than S.F.'s Right Now

John Birdsall
Hazelnut-finished pork in a sub at Tails & Trotters is a good example of PDX's democratic approach to food..
A good food festival serves up the essence of the host city's food, in 2 ½ days of dinners, tastings, and partying. A very good food festival sends you home with a deeper understanding of the food where you live.

This year's Feast Portland was a very good food festival. Last weekend in Portland, a whole bunch of people came together to taste and get drunk, to cook under impossibly hard festival conditions and to slip each other business cards. By the time I flew back to Oakland Sunday night, on a prop plane that offered the kind of view of San Francisco Bay that makes living here feel like privilege, I felt like I had an overview, not only of what makes Portland's food essential in the national conversation, but what's depressing the soul of ours.

Last Saturday at Feast, Francis Lam moderated a panel from PDX talking about why the biggest little city in Oregon figures big on the national food map. It was Portland Monthly food critic Karen Brooks, author of The Mighty Gastropolis, who talked about Portland's democracy of eating. In other cities, chefs at the best restaurants have their own back-channel networks for the good stuff. But in Portland, everybody pretty much has equal access -- sandwich shop owners, women who run food carts, home cooks, chefs on national TV. Everybody's standing in line together at the farmers' market in Portland, which means the possibility of finding amazing hazelnut-finished pork in a submarine sandwich and not exclusively on high-dollar tasting menus.

"We do fine craft cooking for the masses in a way that no other city has imagined," Brooks says.

Fine craft cooking for the masses. It's not Joshua Skenes' $40 bar-bite pigeon that Anna Roth sampled at Saison last summer, it's the $9 sandwich I got last weekend at Tails & Trotters, a butcher shop in a Portland neighborhood that sells hazelnut-finished pork (they also make a few sandwiches). A healthy craft food scene is all about the scrappy and the affordable, the geeky single-subject passion driving certain people to polish things that are tiny and unremarkable (lager or donuts or chicken wings) until they shine. In San Francisco we like to think we're all about fine craft cooking for the common man and woman -- it's part of the progressive mythology we construct for ourselves. But have SF's populist craft foods gone as extinct as the $1,500 flat?

Fine craft sandwiches off a loading dock were what gave Kitchenette its fire. The aspirations for fine craft cooking made Mission Street Food, Mission Burger at Duc Loi, and the first generation of Mission Chinese Food as dangerous and improbable as a litter of tigers under the back porch. Craft gave the Eat Real Festival its first flush of excitement, and the first seasons of Off the Grid at Fort Mason enough heat to push back the wind and the fog.

Oh, fine craft cooking for the masses exists here still -- in sandwiches from Pal's Takeaway and in bowls of Hapa's ramen, milk teas from the Boba Guys and margheritas from Pizza Del Popolo, the Zilla dog from 4505 Meats and smoky pastrami from Wise Sons, and in Georgian dumplings from Satellite Republic, when you can find them. But in the tech meritocracy that San Francisco feels like now -- where a few blocks on Valencia feel as rarefied as a Street View version of Google's cafeteria -- can we really call ourselves a food democracy?

Because, and this is something else Karen Brooks said about Portland, in order to be risk takers as food entrepreneurs -- guys like Andy Ricker, who started Pok Pok from a shack on his driveway -- you need to be in a place with cheap rents. There is no Kickstarter big enough that can insulate you from five-figure rents, even if you are the genius who comes up with the next Cronut. "When you're not paying $10,000 a month in rent, you can take chances," Brooks says.

Are rents still cheap enough in Oakland to allow chefs to take chances? As one pastry chef I know, who thought an empty space in Temescal might be cool until he found out the rent was 12K per month, they are not, unless you're willing to take a chance on East or West Oakland.

Of course we still have pop-ups, and a couple of food business incubators like La Cocina. But a community of chefs and passionate amateurs able to rent cheap storefront space to take a risk on goat sausages or pulque or Korean roasted corn tea, that isn't likely to happen here in any near future I can imagine. On the other hand, young chefs and amateur food geeks tend to be very resourceful. Maybe when today's tech bubble goes the way of the last one, and the white-linen four-tops disappear from Valencia Street, maybe then San Francisco will get the populist craft cooking a lot of us want to thrive here. Until then, hey: Fares to Portland really aren't that bad.

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31 comments
clercmilan
clercmilan

As a SF restaurant professional and sommelier, I can tell you that Portland has a vastly superior scene for daily dining. There may be nothing like Coi or Michael Mina, or even a Beretta or La Ciccia. But where you'd be hard pressed to get out of La Ciccia for less than $60 a person, you can go to Produce Row in Portland and leave happy for $35, up your game slightly to Tasty and Alder and your out for $50 with tip. Let's not even get started on the lunch possibilities of Portland. I dread trying to find lunch here that's not a burrito ( I mean really, if your going to compare burritos, get of the food page, you don't know food anyway) for less than $40. The excellent $20 lunch in Portland is par for the course. 

I've been here, SF, for 15 years. The food is getting boring or too esoteric, and way overpriced. Four trips to Portland in the last year, and I'm beginning to see the light.

chriswiseowl
chriswiseowl

Right now? As if what? you're gonna catch up? It has been for a while. This is the reason people at a well known NY newspaper send reporters every year to Portland to drool over the diversity and art of the Portland food scene, and not SF. Sorry about that. 

meatsack
meatsack

"The best Burrito place in Portland"

An old joke of ex-Portland people is to mention the worst burrito place in the Bay Area and point out it would be the best one in Portland.



Beezling
Beezling

Bullshit. This is just an out so that people who are having a fantastic meal in one of the best restaurants in the city who have to have something to complain about or be hipper-than-thou can say, "Yeah, you know, this ahi tataki carpaccio with the soy-balsamic reduction is oKAY... but there's this one place? Up in Portland? Oh, nobody's ever heard of it but their carpaccio is ... ungh. To dee aye eee for."

GreatAP
GreatAP

Portland is great for cheap eats but it doesn't have the same level or number of top tier restaurants. SF's scene compares to NYC or LA at that level not Portland.

Luis-rey Velasco
Luis-rey Velasco

. . . but do they have better burittos than San Francisco?

Shane Eric-Eugene Hensinger
Shane Eric-Eugene Hensinger

Bullshit. There's no comparison with that third-rate bigger-version-of-Spokane small town called "Portland."

Dan Tolson
Dan Tolson

Portland is good for only one thing; stripclubs

Michael Echols
Michael Echols

I know there are more douchebags there, is that why?

Patrick Brown
Patrick Brown

"Why A Good Food Scene Is Not Going to Make Portland Any Less Boring To Live In"

Adam Sawyer
Adam Sawyer

and you show a half eaten dry ass lookin sammich as your image?? Haaa

MrsNonof Yobizness
MrsNonof Yobizness

Alethea Boyer-Mularski, so interesting! But I know sf is the only place that make sourdough bread the best bec of the weather! Portland is too wet for yeast to make sourdough bread..I learned that in my class.

Hannah Cherkassky
Hannah Cherkassky

Whoa, an SF publication actually admitting another city has something better than theirs?

Lionel Vargas
Lionel Vargas

Marissa Patrice Leitman take me to portland :(

chriswiseowl
chriswiseowl

@GreatAP The New York Times food critics disagree with your assessment, bro--like EVERY year for, like, the past 10 years. Check it out. Google is right up ahead.

extramsg
extramsg

@Luis-rey Velasco yes -- at least as good --, if by "burrito" you don't mean something made exactly like at El Farolito or La Taqueria.

Beezling
Beezling

@Katie Presley Because some people are smug enough to live in San Francisco, but petulant enough to need reasons not to like it.

meatsack
meatsack

@Hannah Cherkassky  

Oakland has better crime.

chrisrochelle
chrisrochelle

@extramsg  

el farolito has not been good for 12 years. worst salsa on planet. verde salsa is no different than green salt water.

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