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Whatever Happened to Portland?

Portland proper — not the hipster caricature that’s come to stand in for it — is still one of the most important food cities in America, if you know where to look

The exterior of the Portland Mercado

At first glance, Ned Ludd, a restaurant open since 2008 in Portland, Oregon, seems like a museum of farm-to-table cliches. Antique shelves display old-timey jugs and glassware above panels of raw wood. On the spring 2019 menu is an illustration of a chicken perched on an ax and a Wendell Berry quote. The name, “Ned Ludd,” sounds like a frontier hero, and the folksiness continues when restaurant bills itself as an “American craft kitchen.” That phrase once had meaning; now even the burgers at McDonald’s are Signature Crafted. The phrases locally sourced and house-made, meant to suggest honesty, instead invite suspicion, and not just because corporations have co-opted them. House-made ketchup has been one long propaganda campaign for Heinz.

But Ned Ludd isn’t a museum of cliches — it’s an original. It just happens to be a long-lived restaurant in the city that popularized the entire rustic American craft-kitchen thing. Ned Ludd’s style has a depth, specificity, and self-awareness lacking in so many of its imitators. The decor spirals out into a deranged backwoods maximalism, with antique chandeliers hanging like bats and wooden barrels lurking in the rafters. Ned Ludd himself isn’t a frontier cliche — he’s the semi-mythic English hero who smashed looms in a fit of rage, the namesake of the Luddites. There’s a mural of him on the wall, inviting you to smash some machines, too.

The restaurant’s commitment to cooking only with its brick fireplace suggests what Ned Ludd would like to do to, say, a sous vide cooker, or a fast-food heat lamp. And the cooking is persuasive. A dish of wood-fired asparagus, draped in thin lardo and speckled with mustard seeds, makes good on the farm-to-table promise of evoking a specific season in a specific place, green and astringent as a cold spring morning, with a fattiness that evokes the luxury of sunshine after endless gray. This was a dish that could only be had on a spring evening in a city which taught us first to love and then to hate phrases like “American craft kitchen.”

Ned Ludd’s wood-fired asparagus tasted appropriately like spring
The menu at Ned Ludd, an “American craft kitchen”

Not so long ago, Portland was the food world’s obsession, celebrated as the incubator for the next wave of American cooking, and the template for so much of what was considered Good and Honest in urban hipster culture. Then the other side of the story hit the national consciousness: Many of these craft kitchens were in radically gentrified neighborhoods, and people of color were scarce in these lovingly designed dining rooms splashed across magazines. Craft was a rebellion for the few. All those antlers on the wall and third-wave coffee shops and chickens with names seemed not just goofy, but shameful.

But were the antlers and chickens ever what defined Portland? Or did they only embody the utopia, or dystopia, in the national imagination — the Portlandia, if you will? Even a classic example of the craft kitchen form like Ned Ludd has a wry sense of humor about the whole enterprise. And so many restaurants in Portland don’t fit the Portlandia mold at all — and don’t want to.

On a recent visit, a great deal about Portland’s food culture, arguably the most over-covered in America, surprised me: the stunning Vietnamese restaurants; the density of taquerias and taco trucks; the other Thai restaurant empire, built by Bangkok-born chef Earl Ninsom; historic businesses like the century-old Ota Tofu factory; the city’s Support Black-Owned Restaurant Week; the newly arrived elite Japanese ramen. Portland is still one of the most important food cities in America, and not just because so many of the restaurants are very good (which they are). It’s also the place where conversations about food, equity, and who 21st-century cities are for are happening most urgently.

In the late aughts and early 2010s, Portland emerged as the coolest place to eat in America. It was a land of lamb brain meat pies, old-world butchery, hyper-contextualized Thai food, freshly roasted coffee, and micro-brewed beer. The tattooed chefs worshiped foie gras and bragged about their mushroom guy, cut their teeth in underground pop-ups, or left the supposed centers of American dining to cook how they actually wanted to cook. Tiny, cramped food carts with punny names became can’t-miss destinations for everything from schnitzelwiches to khao man gai, and were avenues to business ownership for immigrants and others without startup capital. The pickles were always, always made in house.

The 19th-century Americana and DIY energy that became associated with Brooklyn dining were arguably transplanted from Portland. At Le Pigeon, one of the defining restaurants of mid-aughts Portland, bucking tradition remains pleasingly de rigeuer and unapologetically deranged. Lobster-stuffed fried chicken, a recent dish that could have merely been a dare, instead crams the luxury of lobster bisque inside of a fried hunk of chicken breast, the richness cut just enough by bright spring peas and slaw. The logic of the lobster fried chicken is a dogged quest to overload all pleasure centers in the weirdest possible way. Eating it makes you want to die, but happily.

The view from the chef’s counter at Le Pigeon

This vision of craft-culture hedonism now feels overly familiar, even absurd. Some of the reason is because Portland was too successful in remarking American cooking in its image, while still commanding tons of attention for itself. But I’d argue the playfulness rings empty these days in part because there was never a reckoning over how obsessing over restaurants run by white Gen X and millennial men left out a lot of folks, especially in a city whose hipster wonderland was built on an ugly history. In Gizmodo in 2015, Matt Novak wrote a lengthy rundown of Oregon and Portland’s explicitly racist policies and history, horrible end-to-end but also striking because, as historian and educator Walidah Imarisha said to Novak, “Oregon was bold enough to write it down.” Oregon’s state constitution, ratified in 1857 and going into effect in 1859, explicitly excluded black residents from owning property, making contracts, and other legal rights. These restrictions were de facto policy across much of the U.S., but this was the only state where it was de jure. Nonwhite residents arrived anyway, and faced harassment and violence. In Portland, this included a Klan infestation in the 1920s, a notoriously racist police force in the mid-20th century, and systemic and pernicious real estate discrimination into the present day.

In 2016, Alana Semuels wrote a widely shared Atlantic feature that, in its discussion of Oregon and Portland’s white-utopia history, focused on the gentrification of the historically black Portland neighborhood Albina, which, after being strafed by Interstate construction and urban renewal, lost nearly all of its black-owned businesses and many of its black residents as emblems of white hipsterdom took over. The election of Donald Trump only served to worsen the tensions in the city, as white supremacists recruited and rallied, and a man screaming anti-Muslim slurs on Portland’s light rail stabbed three men who tried to stop him.

These facts, and the virality of some of the pieces covering them, complicated but did not decrease the national fascination with Portland. And then there’s the TV show. A satire of the city’s twee, hipster elite, Portlandia premiered in 2011, and became the darling of twee, hipster elite across the country. In the food world, sketches like “Dream of the 1890s” and “Colin the Chicken” pointed out the absurdity of trends earnestly blanketing American cities where there were both creative people and people with money (or both). But these sketches also legitimized a niche, neurotic, expensive cuisine as the dominant mode of eating in America, and what it meant to eat in Portland.

Now, it’s hard to actually visit Portland; you keep ending up in Portlandia. It’s a scrim, an augmented reality overlaying the city, especially for someone on a visit, seeking to find what they already think they know. It’s both simple and challenging to escape.

Rose VL is located in a little strip mall set back from busy Powell Boulevard, alongside a dress shop and a realtor. On the glass front windows, stuck-on letters promise Meticulous SOUPS. It’s the second restaurant by Ha Christina Luu and William Vuong, specializing in a small, rotating number of regional Vietnamese soups, two of which are made daily from scratch.

Playground purple-and-yellow walls are decorated with soft-focus glamor shots of Vietnamese coffee service, a portrait of Vuong in his U.S. military uniform, a massive family portrait, and two framed James Beard semifinalist awards, for Luu individually and jointly with her son Peter Vuong for their smaller shop, Ha VL, which has been open since 2006. (Luu and William Vuong left Vietnam separately from their children after the end of the Vietnam War; Vuong, who worked for the American embassy in Saigon, spent 10 years in prison in Vietnam after American combat troops withdrew.) Below the massive counter, decorated with overflowing vases of flowers and trained, potted bamboo, hangs the short daily menu — on Friday it consisted of shrimp cake (bún riêu), shredded chicken (bún thang), and fermented fish (bún mam) noodle soups, plus salad rolls and a smattering of drinks, including the renowned Vietnamese coffee.

Shrimp cake and shredded chicken noodle soups at Rose VL

Is there a more perfect breakfast than noodle soup and strong, sweet coffee? The powerful, garlic-infused chicken noodle soup at Rose VL, served with thin-sliced omelet, nourished, while the bitter and rich made-to-order Vietnamese coffee revived. Oregonian critic Michael Russell opened his 2017 review by noting that diners always risk FOMO — order one soup and envy the one your companion got. My editor’s shrimp cake soup, reddened by tomato and mildly funky, made me regret my choice. She got another order to go, which was, yes, meticulously packed with noodles, fragile condiments, and broth in separate packages.

Rose VL has a typical Portland story, about culinary ambition in scrappy circumstances, captured in an extensive 2019 profile in the Oregonian. When they opened their first restaurant, Ha VL, Luu and Vuong took a risk in serving just two daily soups made entirely from scratch by Luu, who is the chef. The rotating selection inspired at least one fan blog (now defunct) to track the options. After turning Ha VL over to Peter, who shops his way across Portland’s Asian markets daily for the best ingredients, Luu and Vuong came out of retirement to open their second restaurant, where they introduced their take on cao lau, a signature noodle dish from the port city Hoi An, which Vuong and Luu fell in love with while visiting Vietnam in 2014. Now, they are in the process of building a family-run empire.

Ha VL and Rose VL are institutions in Portland. Local critic Karen Brooks praised their artisanal approach in a 2008 review. Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker is such a mega-fan he broke the news about their second restaurant. Rose VL is a standby on the Portland Eater 38, and many locals suggested I go there for great soups — but no one urged me to go because it’s one of the best restaurants in Portland, period. Rose VL epitomizes the creativity and rigorous focus on quality that defines the best of the city. Why doesn’t it have the profile of, say, the nationally recognized Kachka? Or Nong’s Khao Man Gai, famously the first place you should go when you land in Portland, which serves an equally focused menu? Is it too far out from the city center? Is Luu a chef too disconnected from the more powerful nodes of the city’s kitchens? (Early press about Nong Poonsukwattana emphasized that she was a Ricker protege.)

When recommending Ha VL or Rose VL to me, a few folks also insisted they couldn’t possibly be as good as the Vietnamese restaurants in Los Angeles. But it’s only recently that outsiders have considered Los Angeles a Vietnamese-food destination — and without the work of the late Jonathan Gold, it’s possible the narrative of vapid Hollywood power dining might still reign supreme. LA’s success as a great restaurant city is tied directly to expanding ideas about what makes a great restaurant. The James Beard nominations for the non-Portlandia but extremely Portland chefs of Ha VL suggest that process might be underway in Portland, too. And not just by accident — the dedicated work of local writers and activists in town have set the stage for a new kind of national reckoning over what American food is.

When I asked people in Portland about a defining food moment from the past few years, a number answered with something that surprised me: Burritogate. The controversy, which boiled over into the national media in 2017, comes down to this: Two women from Portland took a road trip to Puerto Nuevo, a beach town just south of Tijuana known for its (mega-touristy) Lobster Village, where they were smitten with the handmade tortillas served alongside their lobsters. Back in Portland, they opened a weekend burrito pop-up called Kooks inside a taco truck, and told Willamette Week that, “[The women cooking] wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look.”

In other words, two non-Mexican women framed their restaurant as inspired by a brief trip to the tourist zone of another country, where they attempted to pick up culinary techniques without permission, or at least not much of an attempt to determine if they had permission. Then, they got coverage in a local paper for making such wonderful tortillas. There’s a ton of murky issues around white chefs, with cultural and often monetary capital, cooking food from cultures not their own. But rarely do these chefs describe so specifically where their ideas came from, and where they failed to connect.

Immediately, the story received pushback online, and other publications picked it up as an example of Portland’s careless whiteness run amok — or its tedious wokeness putting two women out of business, since the Kooks owners closed up shop in the face of what they claimed were death threats. In Bitch, M.L. Moreno wrote about the massive disconnect between how Mexican food cooked by Mexican people is often dismissed in America, and how projects like Kooks are celebrated. Writing for the OC Weekly, Gustavo Arellano argued that appropriating Mexican food wasn’t worth the amount of ire it had generated online, because Mexicans did so intra-culturally all the time — though he also noted that closing up shop wasn’t the right response. He writes, “The gabachas knew exactly what they were doing, so [why] didn’t they stand by it? Real gumption there, pendejas.”

From the outside, the story grew so distorted it was difficult to parse, but within Portland, it was a key part of a larger conversation that had been put off for too long, about who was benefiting from the food boom, and who was being left out. Both Willamette Week and the Oregonian published chefs’ roundtables on the subject, which allowed a rare depth of conversation about race in the local restaurant scene. If the original online controversy had become distorted by virality, it also seems to have sparked a larger and more careful reckoning in Portland.

Barbecue pork steak at Eem, the latest restaurant by local empire builder Earl Ninsom
The fried chicken and roti plate at Ninsom’s Hat Yai
Fried chicken and catfish take center stage at Maya Lovelace’s counter-service spot Yonder.

Even before Burritogate, these conversations about food and race in Portland were happening on the podcast Racist Sandwich, co-founded by writers Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed. In the beginning, the podcast focused on Portland chefs and food-world people of color, and quickly rose to national prominence. In an interview, Janmohamed, who lived in Portland from 2015 to 2017, told me that the podcast was always intended to address previously under-examined tensions in Portland. One of the things that struck him was how the largely white city had a real enthusiasm for food from other cultures, unlike other small cities he’d lived in. But that eagerness did not always translate to welcoming the actual people. “There was a really healthy appetite for Japanese food or Mexican food, but maybe not so much for Mexican residents,” Janmohamed said. “Somalis were having trouble finding housing, but then a Somali pop-up dinner would sell out immediately — and that to me was fascinating.”

The podcast started after Janmohamed and Ho met in a group for Portland creatives of color, which was formed to offer support to people who had arrived in Portland to experience the coolness they’d heard so much about, but encountered a sense of alienation instead.

Ho, who is now the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, lived in Portland in 2015 and 2016 and remembers moving there with a sense of excitement. “People were free to do whatever the hell they wanted, that was my perception,” she said in an interview. But her time working in kitchens there revealed “a lot of layers and a lot of hierarchies — boys’ club type relationships. It was very homogenous, even if it was serving food that was diverse. There were a lot of people with restaurants that were interesting, and they were pushed out to the margins.”

Racist Sandwich focused on who was being left out of Portland’s story. Their early guests included Bertony Faustin, the first black winemaker in the region, Han Ly Hwang of the food truck Kim Jong Grillin’, and Abel Hernandez and Jaime Soltero Jr. of local Mexican restaurant Tamale Boy. The show’s audience grew rapidly in part because the questions Ho and Janmohamed were tackling were even more vital to the American food world than any new techniques or aesthetics chefs in Portland had popularized before. “It’s one of the big questions of the day: What are you going to do about your home?” Ho says. “How do you make a new home without displacing other people, and is this even a question of individual action?”

Celeste Noche, a Portland resident who moved there in 2014 and who founded the photo series Portland in Color, thinks about the problems of who is and isn’t included in the story of Portland partly in aesthetic terms. She says the rustic, beautiful design Portland is known for also has the effect of keeping visitors away from the less tricked-out dining rooms across town. “People who have social media followings don’t want to go to more mom-and-pop [places].”

Portland locals are designing better and more equitable ways forward as the city tries to weather the dual, entwined challenges of rising real estate values and shakier restaurant fortunes. The boldest and most comprehensive vision is championed by Rukaiyah Adams, the chief investment officer of the Meyer Memorial Trust and a fourth-generation black Portlander. She’s the chair of the Albina Vision Trust, a group that has put forward an ambitious proposal for redeveloping the Rose Quarter, a historically black neighborhood wiped out by urban renewal. The trust seeks to create a community that is accessible to people of all income levels, down to the businesses that would exist there. “We want affordable living,” Adams told the Portland Business Review, “and by affordable we mean not just a few mandated units of housing in a community where people who live in those units can’t afford to eat or get their hair cut in their own neighborhood.” A Portland Monthly feature on the predevelopment process notes that, “When a sketch of a riverside beer garden seemed too hipster, the rendering became a teeming family-friendly park under a bosk of trees.”

The Portland Mercado is another business fighting back against the forces of displacement. It was created by community members and stakeholders to serve as a hub for Latino culture in the city. With ample shade for outdoor dining, carts serving regional cuisines from Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, and more park outside the market. At Tierra del Sol, a Oaxacan food truck located at the Mercado, an artisanal approach is evident even in a seemingly simple dish like a tetela, a folded masa pocket stuffed with beans. Owner Amalia Sierra makes the blue corn masa and tortillas from a family recipe, and the beans are cooked from scratch to a thick, pleasingly spicy paste. Sierra’s moles and tlayudas are renowned in Portland, all of them cooked with decades of experience and practice, as she told Cristina Baez for Eater PDX.

Ho, Janmohamed, and Noche all agree that supporting restaurants and businesses owned by people of color in Portland is vital. Racist Sandwich’s map of POC-owned restaurants and food businesses is robust and compelling — an entirely different view of essential dining in the city. Danny Chau’s James Beard Award-nominated food diary in the Ringer does similar work for a national audience. And an awareness of the city’s ugly history around race will not, on its own, repair the harm: In 2016, some black community leaders expressed concern that all this obsession over gentrification was erasing the black businesses that were still there.

Janmohamed, who is currently a fiction MFA student at the University of Michigan, says Racist Sandwich could only have happened in Portland, fueled by the city’s DIY culture. “In writing, you talk about negative capability. You can love and hate a thing at the same time,” he says. “I love Portland. I wish there were more structural changes to help people of color, not just attitude shifts. I can’t wait to see what Portland is like in 20 years.”

That next Portland might look like Stoopid Burger, a food truck darling gone brick and mortar, and one of the city’s most prominent black-owned restaurants. Co-owners John Hunt and Danny Moore, both Portland natives, got their start with a food cart that went on to win the people’s choice for best burger from the Oregonian. In an interview, Moore says he started working in restaurants at the age of nine, when he helped out at Nelson’s Barbecue, a local restaurant owned by a family friend. Later, he split his time between culinary school and local kitchens; he and Hunt hatched a plan to open their own food truck during a brief stint at a Buffalo Wild Wings. “We’re the Voodoo Doughnut of burgers,” Moore says, referencing the hole-in-the-wall doughnut shop that’s since become a national chain.

The restaurant’s namesake, the Stoopid Burger, is topped with ham, bacon, a hot link, egg, and cheese. Moore says that burger, minus their signature Stoopid sauce, is a Portland classic, once available at restaurants like Cleo’s, Mr. Burger, and other neighborhood staples that are now all gone. “Keeping the legacy alive means a lot,” Moore says. “We’re both Portland natives, born in Portland and raised in Portland, all of our families are from Portland. Our role is very significant in our community because there’s not a lot of black-owned restaurants as dominant as Stoopid Burger. It means a lot for our younger generation looking up to us to know that there’s more than just white-owned businesses that can be successful.”

The “Wicked Burger” comes topped with bacon, cheese, peanut butter, and pineapple habanero chutney at Stoopid Burger

On a sunny weekday lunch, the restaurant’s facade was open to the nice weather, overlooking a shared patio space in one fashionable restaurant block. Every burger seeks to outdo the last — the Ignorant Burger, a social media darling, is a towering three-story pile of meat, including steak. You can order a Boring Burger, if you can stand to be so timid. I went with the Wicked Burger, topped with bacon, cheese, pickles, pineapple habanero salsa, and peanut butter. Like the lobster fried chicken at Le Pigeon, it could have just been a weird concept with no pleasure beyond its weirdness. And like the lobster fried chicken at Le Pigeon, it instead overloaded so many inputs at once, the only solution was to take another bite. The tart pickles, fatty bacon, hot chutney, and sticky-sweet peanut butter crunch was just crazy enough to be genius.

Portland’s commitment to a daring, perfectionist hedonism is still the city’s strongest culinary unifier. At Hat Yai, the casual southern-Thai restaurant from local empire-builder Ninsom, fried chicken comes as a set with curry and roti, and its thin, spiced crust shatters over meat seasoned to the bone. At the newly opened Yonder, chef Maya Lovelace’s counter-service ode to her North Carolina childhood, the spicy, tender fried catfish demanded not just enjoyment but gluttony. Dinner at Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast on Tuesday nights is a throwback four-course menu meant to evoke its supper club origins, serving utterly of-the-moment morel and asparagus pastas and a hunter’s chicken made with last summer’s preserved tomatoes. The 19-course tasting menu at Erizo, run by Eater Young Gun Jacob Harth, ends with a massive halibut collar and a raft of Parker House rolls. It’s sort of useless to consider whether any of these meals are Honest, but you can’t deny they are Good.

About that Wendell Berry quote on the Ned Ludd menu: Beneath the chicken on an ax, it reads, “A significant part of the pleasure of eating is on one’s own accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which the food comes.” Ten years ago, that meant knowing the chicken’s name and the chef’s nickname for his mushroom guy. Now dining culture is moving (or being dragged) to the fuller vision: the farm workers, the bussers, and the community that’s been there for decades — who’s in the dining room and who isn’t. We have a more accurate consciousness. Now, it’s time to do what the best part of craft culture invites us to do: Turn off the simulation, and enjoy what’s really there.

Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.
Edited by Erin DeJesus