by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
You already know that Portland is three hours away by car or train (www.amtrak.com), and that its comparably smaller size makes it very easy to get around in, and that its open and carefree vibe allows it to be one of the Gay-friendliest cities of either U.S. coast. What you might not know about this urban Northwest destination is that it has some of the best food anywhere - New York chefs, travel TV shows, and foodies from all corners of the country arrive in Portland to feast on everything from seafood specialties to wildly decorated doughnuts to cheap food cart meals. Eating was at the top of my list when I visited the Rose City a few months back, and while I returned with 10 new pounds, I was also fully satisfied. On your next journey to Portland, let food be the focal point of your trip.
A 10-minute walk from Union Station and feet from the Rose City's downtown shopping center is Hotel Lucia, a favorite of rock bands and hip business travelers. Its chic lobby, furnished with leather armchairs, fireplace and fluffy pillows, is the starting point to a fabulous overnight stay. The usual comforts - cozy beds, flatscreen TVs, dressers, coffeemakers, work desks - appear in each room, but unique to Hotel Lucia is its pillow and spirtitual menus - guests can choose the firmness or softness of their pillows from a varied list, just as they can select their choice of reading material, from a King James bible to the Koran. Free Wi-Fi and hard-wire computer stations (below the ground floor) are two amenities worth pointing out, and also noteworthy is the courteous staff, who give excellent recommendations and directions to local restaurants and attractions - always with a smile. Hotel Lucia is offering two seasonal packages, "Bronze Babe" and "Shape Up for Summer", as well as other special packages and deals, available on its website. For convenience and style, this is your best hotel option in downtown PDX.
You need only to peek through the windows on Broadway to know that Saucebox is where it's at - as in happening every night of the week, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. Noted filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Milk, My Own Private Idaho) served as a guest DJ here a few years back, though he isn't the only celebrity to drop by - Oscar winner Benicio del Toro and One Day at a Time star Mackenzie Phillips have also been seen here. The chic ambiance does its part to lure out of town and local scenesters, but the kitchen is undeniably the true star at Saucebox - Pan Asian dishes, like the chili and coconut braised pork shank, Korean-style baby back ribs, and the truly memorable tapioca dumplings - with an unusual explosion of sweet and spicy filling - are a few items to order off the dinner or dim sum menu. Saucebox's downtown address is prime for happy hour, and it's one of the few places I've found Sapporo on draught. Primarily a restaurant, on weekends it transcends into a popular nightclub.
Unlike other Portland neighborhoods that have gone through a glitzy makeover, the Hawthorne District remains simplified. But as in all parts of town, good restaurants are not hard to come across - case in point: Cafe Castagna. The more casual of sister establishments - Castagna, a fancier dinner-only restaurant is next door - this charming bistro has a burger on its lunch roster that merits an $11 price tag. I don't know when I'll ever afford a burger and fries combo for this amount again, but I certainly wasn't complaining the first time. House-made bangers and mash, braised pork cheeks, baked penne with gruyere, cheddar, fennel, and leek, and three types of pizza, including Italian sausage, kale, and parmesan are other midday items to choose from. Service with a smile, ample dining area and calm ambiance won me over at Cafe Castagna, an ordinary place with unordinarily good food.
H5O Bistro & Bar
Across the street from Portland's waterfront on the ground floor of Hotel Fifty is the unpretentious H50 Bistro & Bar, serving up American pub faves in a nice ambiance with affordable prices. The exception to standard bar fare here is sushi - several rolls are listed on the appetizer menu, including veggie rainbow, spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, and the PDX roll, consisting of smoked salmon, herbed cream cheese, cucumber, and toasted hazelnuts. I was tempted by the hearty, fresh tomato basil soup, which tasted as if the ingredients were just picked from a garden out back. H50 Bistro has both restaurant and bar sections that vary slightly on selections, so if you're in the mood for something really casual after a three-hour train ride, I recommend the blue cheese burger from the bar menu with a pint of locally brewed beer. From pork chops to steak, salads to BLTs, here's a place to enjoy a fine, no-frills meal and waterfront views with a touch of subtlety.
Bo Asian Bistro
Getting your drink on in downtown Portland is never a problem, as it is loaded with a scattering of cocktail lounges, pubs, and other watering holes to suit everyone's flavor. A spot that seems agreeable to all parties is Bo Asian Bistro, located in the street level of Hotel Lucia - it's kind of trendy, but mostly a neighborhood-type bar with cool patrons and good Asian food with a kick (open-face Massaman curry sandwich, anyone?), and a surprisingly fair amount of locals, who otherwise ignore hotel lobbies altogether. It's hard to realize that Bo Asian Bistro (formerly Bo Restobar) was once a storage space, and now it's a meeting point for Portland's top trendsetters and out-on-the town visitors. Easy to locate, this is a great place to meet up with friends to begin the night's festivities.
Not that Portlanders aren't fancy people, it's just a rare occasion to find them decked out in their best dress shirts and pressed sportscoats. The French-themed Fenouil, in the cozy and very Gay-friendly Pearl District, is a perfect opportunity to whip out that pair of barely-worn khakis and button-down polo. The menu features polished versions of French classics, like steak frites and magret de canard roti (roast duck). My duo de beouf - generous portions of New York steak and braised short rib - was tres delicieux. Executive chef Jake Martin, formerly of Rosebud on Seattle's Capitol Hill, holds his own in reinventing traditional specialties, such as swordfish poached in clarified butter, needing just one word: impressive. Fenouil is an elegant, two-floor restaurant suggested for a swanky meal, though a better recommendation is to stop by for happy hour seven days a week from 4 to 6 p.m. Also, it's now open for lunch and an outdoor patio overlooking a beautiful city courtyard makes this a perfect locale for summertime mingling.
Veli Thai Food
I'm not sure when or how the food cart craze began in Portland, but thank God for it, because you can indulge in a full meal for little damage on the wallet. Among the dozens of these trailer-like dining carts is one called Veli Thai (SW 5th and Oak/Stark) which serves up a spicy, creamy green curry with large chunks of carrots, green peppers, onions, and your choice of meat atop steamed white rice for just $5 (no tax, ever). Food carts are now everywhere in Portland, not just downtown, and some - like the few in the Hawthorne district - are open until 2 or 3 in the morning. From Mexican to Korean, pulled pork sandwiches to waffles, vegan fare to grilled meat, food carts have become an institution in Portland, and for travelers on a budget, they're a blessing.
Want some bacon with that maple bar? Of course you do, and there's one place to get it in Portland. Yes, I know every travel network star and food blogger in the country has praised Voodoo Doughnut, where two dollars buys you a quirkily decorated snack at most times of the day. But seriously, the legendary Portland shop earns its title as the best doughnut that side of the Columbia River. Toppings include Captain Crunch, Fruit Loops, mini M&Ms, and Butterfinger - and for the naughty, the "Gay Bar" and "Cock and Balls" are not to be missed. Two locations are available in The Rose City, at 1501 N.E. Davis Street and the downtown spot at 22 SW 3rd Avenue. Always expect a line, and they only accept cash.
Walking from restaurant to restaurant in Portland can take its toll on your feet, earning them a trip to Bliss Spa. No relation to the Bliss chain anchored in New York, this independently owned shop refers to its female-prominent staff as "Goddesses" (e.g., the Hair Goddess). Owner and Spa Goddess Laura Hartson gives a fine massage herself, when not managing her adorable and fun boutique that attracts local men and women of every type - preppy to masculine, giddy to reserved, they come in the door one right after the other. Aside from full-body massages and pedicures, Bliss also accommodates those needing a haircut or a bit of waxing. This is a great way to end the difficult task of going on a binge-cation.
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