Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Food Tour of Portland - N. Mississippi Avenue

Yesterday my wife Kat and I had the opportunity to go on a tour of local restaurants in the Mississippi neighborhood in North Portland. I had encountered Forktown Food Tours through an offer on the internet and thought it would be a good way of sampling some of the many restaurants in the Portland area that I might not get a chance to try otherwise.

The tour was scheduled to take about 3 hours and we were warned to come with our appetites because we would be eating quite a lot as the tour went on. We met up with our guide and 6 other "tourists" at The ReBuilding Center on N. Mississippi Avenue at around 2:00. After brief introductions and a little history of the neighborhood from our tour guide Jessica, we began our walk to the first restaurant.

Cheese Plate at Sidecar 11.
The first stop was Sidecar 11, a quaint little spot that specializes in prohibition-era drinks with a modern twist. The menu consists mainly of smaller, tapas style dishes. The atmosphere was wonderful, the owners going for more of a speakeasy feel. They started us off with samples from their cocktail menu. First a traditional whiskey sour, shaken with egg white to create a frothy head. This was followed by a delicious drink called a Gin & Gin, containing gin and ginger. This one was my favorite. About this time they brought out a plate of local Oregon cheeses, all of which were fantastic! We were each then treated to their house recipe Sangria. We really enjoyed our experience at Sidecar 11. It's a great date bar or place to go for appetizers before heading out to other places. Thumbs up!

Garden State: Portland style Italian street food.
Next, we headed further up the street to N. Mississippi's famous food cart pod. Here we had an opportunity to try one of the top rated food carts in the entire city (which says quite a lot - there are currently over 600 food carts in the city of Portland!), Garden State. Run by Chef Kevin Sandri, Garden State bills itself as "Italian Street Food from Oregon's Willamette Valley" and features wonderful local meats and vegetables. Most of the recipes are from the chef's Sicilian family, however our food was a bit more fusion. We were brought a large platter of grilled basa (catfish) sandwiches with a generous side of chick pea fries. I don't even know where to begin in describing this dish. The sandwich was amazing! The catfish was cooked perfectly, each topped with cabbage, caperberries and an orange slice which turned out the be the ideal flavor compliment. This is one of the tastiest sandwiches I've had in a while! What added to its incredible flavor were the fries, not made of potato, but of finely ground chick peas. They were like hummus fries, if such a thing can be imagined. They were actually creamy when you bit into them! They were a bit more fragile than a regular french fry. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we were all given samples of their Italian ice. Made by Oregon Iceworks, this is pure fruity, icy yumminess! I cannot recommend Garden State highly enough. This was the high point of the tour and I will make every effort to return. 
Grilled Basa on Ciabatta with Chick Pea Fries.

Following our feast at Garden State, it was time to walk off the of the food we had gorged on. This part of the tour took us through the local neighborhood where we had a chance to see some of the historic houses that are so common in this part of Portland. Many of the buildings are on the National Historic Register and there are several wonderful examples of Victorian architecture throughout the neighborhood.

Eventually we wound our way to N. Williams Avenue. It was a beautiful day in Portland and by the time we got there, we were hot and thirsty. It was a perfect time to stop at Sidebar (not to be confused with our first stop, Sidecar 11. Just a coincidence.). Sidebar is the official specialty tasting room for Lompoc Brewery and is only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Often times the beers and ales found at the Sidebar are brewed in very limited quantities and are available nowhere else. We were offered samples of a few of their current choices, my favorite being a dark ale based on a recipe by Benjamin Franklin called Cider Plank. It had delicious molasses undertones, with hints of coffee and even tobacco. It was a little sweet but not too much and lighter on the hops.

Pix Patisserie
Our next treat came to us courtesy Pix Patisserie. With a team of pastry chefs, Pix makes some of the sweetest and most incredible desserts in town. Seriously, check out their website if you don't believe me! We got to try the pistachio macarons. Unrelated to macaroons, which have coconut, French macarons are an experience for the mouth! Made with ground almonds, they are simultaneously light and fluffy and creamy and crunchy and chewy. Pure happiness!

From here, we walked back through the neighborhood to Mississippi and made our way to the next stop on the tour, Mr. Green Beans. This place is a haven for those who wish to roast their own coffee beans, make their own cheese, learn how to make soap, and many other DIY projects. In other words, this was a store they had to drag me out of! We sampled some of their house roasted coffees, which were delicious.
The Wall of Salt at The Meadow.
Our next stop was a specialty boutique called The Meadow. This store specializes in wine, chocolate and salt. Mainly salt, and they have the largest selection of salts harvested from locations around the world that you are apt to find anywhere. A whole wall of salts of different colors, different mineral makeup and different flavors if your palate is sensitive enough. This was one of the more exotic stops on the tour but also, I felt, the low point. Nothing against the store itself, which was interesting and a great place to stop if you happen to be in the area. I felt, however, that as we were out to sample local cuisine we should have stuck to that. Pointing out the place as we passed as a spot to check out after the tour would have been more appropriate.

Tour guide Jessica serves up ice cream sandwiches.
Our final stop on the tour was the Ruby Jewel Scoop Shop, serving small batch artisan ice cream cones, sundaes and (best of all) ice cream sandwiches - all made fresh with local ingredients. We sampled some of the ice cream sandwiches, each made with homemade cookies. This was the perfect way to finish the tour! Ruby Jewel's ice cream is not only damn tasty, but their recipes are bold and, some might even say, cutting edge. Kat tried a sample of their apricot ginger ice cream which she said packed a punch on the taste buds! I tried a sample of the lavender honey ice cream which was subtle and smooth and left me wanting much, much more!

It was a great day and Kat and I had lots of fun. Out tour guide Jessica was knowledgeable and friendly and did an excellent job of leading the tour. I didn't feel it was the greatest value however, and the stop at two boutique shops in a row definitely detracted from the tour. I was also surprised at the amount of alcohol served. Personally, I enjoyed it but there were people on the tour who did not partake and ended up missing out on quite a bit. We got our tickets at half price and I don't think I would have wanted to pay more for them. But then, we live here and can go do this stuff anytime we like. I would recommend Forktown Tours if you're coming to Portland and would like to sample some of the incredible cuisine this town has to offer. I give Forktown Tours 3-1/2 stars out of 5.

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