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Back to the ‘land

For his new show about Portland, comedian Fred Armisen indulges in the foodie scene.

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Local flavor: Portland, Oregon
By Layla Schlack

ON THE FIRST episode of Fred Armisen’s new sketch comedy show, IFC’s Portlandia, there’s a bit about a couple going to a restaurant and inquiring about the provenance of the chicken—not an altogether unusual request in Oregon’s most haute city. The server tells them that should they order the free-range chicken, they’ll be served Collin, who roamed four acres of woodland 30 miles south of the city. Not convinced that Collin lived a good enough life, the pair heads to the farm just to make sure.

Armisen, a Saturday Night Live veteran and frequent Portland visitor, may have created Portlandia to poke gentle fun at the Rose City’s hyper-conscientious, locavore- obsessed, über-politically-correct culture, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to eat well when he’s in town. “Whatever I’m eating, I want it to be fresh, and I want it to be good.” And Portland is good for that. “I also like to eat very quickly, so the food carts are perfect for me,” he says. “There’s a cluster of them near the Jupiter Hotel. One of them, Slow & Low, serves really good barbecue. They’ve only got a few things on the menu, and they’re all good. I love that.”

In addition to shooting Portlandia there, Armisen says he visits the city about once a year. If you want to catch him, “I always eat at Clyde Common,” he says. “It’s centrally located next to the Ace Hotel, and it’s got really, really good food.” A hotspot among the city’s hipsters, the restaurant has communal seating and such quirky takes on classic bar foods as pimenton popcorn and harissa french fries. No word on where its chicken is from.

Lord of the Wings

Chef Andy Ricker’s southeast Asian take on an American bar classic has turned Portland on to a new type of Thai food. // By Jay Cheshes

STEEP ASCENT
After founding (and selling) big-label teas Stash and Tazo, Portland’s Steven Smith has a go at small-batch blends.

“I couldn’t find things I really wanted to drink,” says Steven Smith when asked how he got into the tea business. After the natural food store he co-owned closed, Smith started Stash Tea in 1972, which he sold to a Japanese tea company in 1993. His next venture was Tazo, which he sold to Starbucks after five years. After dabbling in early retirement, Smith got restless and founded Steven Smith Teamaker in 2009. This venture is a labor of love, and Smith is fanatical about the quality of his product. “We only make what we think we’re going to sell in three to four weeks,” he says. “We also encourage people not to buy very much, so they can enjoy it while it’s fresh.”

If you’re in Portland, you can stop by Smith’s shop for a tasting. Don’t miss the Bungalow Darjeeling brew. “I’m pretty enamored with it,” Smith says. —LAYLA SCHLACK

WHY IS CHEF Andy Ricker buying every package of pig intestine in an Asian supermarket? “We had a distributor selling us chitlins,” he says, “but the quality was crap.” He tosses a few packages of pigs’ ears into the cart (“We stew them, slice them and fry them”) and takes big slabs of beef liver (“for our tom saep, spicy sour soup”).

With offbeat ingredients slipped into so many dishes, diners rarely know exactly what they’re getting at Pok Pok, Ricker’s Thai restaurant. “If you go into detail, people will stay away,” he says. Maintaining some mystery has helped the place become Portland’s hottest destination and has earned Ricker a James Beard nomination.

He first warmed to Thai cuisine in the late ’80s while bumming around Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the food Ricker discovered in Chiang Mai would define his career.

He opened Pok Pok in 2005 as a takeout shack in front of his house. There were only eight things on the menu, including green papaya salad made with a wooden mortar and pestle, and lemongrass-scented game hens cooked in an upright rotisserie he’d imported. Within weeks of opening he had lines down the block. Ricker transformed the shack into a full-service restaurant, which eventually subsumed his whole house.

Now with three restaurants open and a fourth in the works, Ricker pushes crispy fried pig stomachs and fermented black crabs on an increasingly adventurous public. But while the edgiest dishes helped build a daredevil following, his real claim to fame is a Southeast Asian riff on a classic American bar treat. Portland diners can’t get enough of his chicken wings with fish sauce and hot chilies. “Off the hook,” swooned Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. “The wings paid for my condo,” says Ricker. “They paid for my car. I can’t complain.”

Though he would never call his food authentic—the word, he says, is too loaded—Ricker is obsessive about details. He adds limestone paste to his sticky rice to mimic the hard water in Thailand; he brought a coconut press back to squeeze his own milk; and the drinking water at his restaurants is often perfumed with pandanus leaf, as it would be in Chiang Mai. At Pok Pok, cooks are pressing fresh sugar cane for cocktails, and a heap of wings glistens sticky-sweet. “We have a crew of people in here from eight a.m. until midnight every day,” says the chef. “We bend over backward to get this stuff right. There’s no other way to do it.”

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