Feasting On PDX
A Little Texas in Portland
Feast Portland, an enormous four day culinary event, was held this past weekend in Portland, Oregon. The main purpose of the event was to highlight the bounty of culinary talent in the area and to showcase food producers from the Northwest. The organizers certainly met their goal. I came away knowing that I can eat as well in and around Portland as I can almost anywhere else in the country.
Whether it was the famous chicken wings at Pok Pok or a mid-afternoon snack of parmesan-bacon popcorn at Chris DiMinno’s Clyde Common, there were memorable food moments on nearly every corner. Walking around the energetic downtown core, it was as if destination restaurants just appeared. An itinerary was unnecessary, which in my case led to lack of restraint. A maple-bacon donut called my name from Blue Star Donuts just a block from my hotel, but a short walk later I noticed Kenny & Zuke’s deli and knew that a house-made pastrami sandwich was necessary. The thick-cut layers of cured and smoked brisket made me forget I’d be eating again in an hour. That’s the thing about Feast Portland. You’re never more than an hour away from your next meal.
I actually found it hard to find a full hour without food. There was one point late at night at one of the after-after parties when the food was running low. Luckily, Tillamook cheese had provided me with a Tillaphone which enabled me to order a grilled cheese sandwich anywhere in downtown Portland before 3:00 am. They delivered a hot grilled cheese sandwich to the back of a downtown bar within thirty minutes. That’s just what I needed right before going to bed.
With so many events packed into four days, that itinerary that I mentioned became helpful after all. The final night featured the High Comfort event, where big name chefs from all over the country set up shop in a couple of very large rooms. They offered one or two bites of a signature item, all washed down with an endless array of booze. It’s a great setting to learn if Andrew Carmellini’s foie gras hot dog pairs well with a Willamette Valley Vineyards pinot noir (it does), or if a flute of Nicolas Feuilatte champagne accompanies the seafood sausage from April Bloomfield nicely (ditto). It was a whirlwind of tastes that came at such a rapid-fire pace it was tough to keep up. Seeing so many options from so many well-respected names in the food world was pleasantly dizzying. The irony of it all is that I nearly missed the entire event because I was eating queso on the other side of town.
Queso isn’t something you find on many Portland menus, at least not queso like how we imagine it in Texas. You can’t get Velveeta at the farmers market, so this processed cheese food that is essential for Tex-Mex queso is frowned upon. Well, it’s frowned upon unless it’s served in a piping hot bowl and topped with pico, guacamole and a half-pound of chopped Franklin Barbecue brisket. That was Aaron Franklin’s version of Bob Armstrong dip, which he and Rodney Muirhead served at their dual Feast Portland dinner at La Taq. La Taq is the new taqueria from Muirhead, who also runs the Texas-style barbecue joint Podnah’s Pit next door. Their other collaborations included smoked brisket tamales and a simple pairing of cheese enchiladas and a slice of Franklin brisket. The real showstopper was a crispy taco filled with a weighty amount of chopped beef short rib. This belongs on a permanent menu somewhere.
I was two bites into that taco when I realized how well the people around me were enjoying what Texas had to offer. In the middle of what is by and large a bi-coastal showcase, it was gratifying to see Texas so well-represented. It wasn’t just barbecue either. On the first night of Feast, Austin’s own Paul Qui competed in the sandwich invitational contest with a version of his already-famous “rabbit seven ways.” A banh mi style roll was stuffed with rabbit pate and rabbit sausage (and presumably five other types of rabbit) with a papaya and carrot slaw.
Qui was also a judge at the annual Whole Foods Fishmonger Faceoff. Whole Foods takes meat cutting pretty seriously, and their fishmongers and butchers from across the country compete in several rounds to be able to come to the annual competition. Aaron “The Colonel” Sanders from Dallas was one of the fishmonger finalists. After Florida’s Frank “The Italian Slayer” Ficarra (yes, they all have nicknames) cut his way to a trophy, it was time for the butchers.
Reece “Reece Lightning” Lagunas is an Austin-based butcher. He was in the finals last year, and had a large fan contingent this year. His rise has been rapid at the contest given his six years of experience. Out of the eleven competitors, the next-most junior butcher had fifteen years of meat cutting behind him.
I’ve followed Reece since he started a butchering blog with detailed instructions on breaking down all varieties of animals. Here I got to watch him work live. All the competitors started with a rear quarter of pork. Reece and three other competitors, including eventual winner Hector “El Jefe” Yedra, made it to the finals. Huge beef hindquarters were revealed. With a boyish face and a gladiator’s stare, Reece held it above his head to the roar of the crowd. They all worked furiously to get through the massive piece of beef (see Reece’s blog post on breaking down a steamship round here). In the end, the judging panel, which included Aaron Franklin, named Yedra the winner. At least Reece has plenty more year’s worth of butcher competitions ahead of him.
It seems that Aaron Franklin will likely have an open invitation to Feast Portland for years to come as well. He sliced and plated 994 servings of Snake River Farms wagyu brisket (pictured above) at Friday evening’s Night Market. I know talking about the lines at Franklin Barbecue gets old, but I can say first-hand that his was the longest at the event. It’s one thing to line up at the restaurant for a meal, but these were food professionals from all over the country with at least two dozen options for shorter lines with world-class food, and they chose to wait for a few bites of brisket from a Texan. Afterwards, Eater revealed Franklin’s secret as “unicorn lard.”
It wasn’t quite Franklin good, but the brisket at Podnah’s Pit BBQ wasn’t too shabby. It’s Texas-style barbecue in the middle of Portland. Everyone I asked about local barbecue told me to go here, and none of them offered a second option with confidence. I had to try it. They’ve got all that you’d expect from a Texas barbecue menu, but it was lamb ribs that were on special the evening I visited. They were incredible. The gaminess had been tamed by the smoke, and the meat was tender. The brisket was properly sliced from the fatty end as requested. A nice black crust enveloped smoky and tender beef. This was brisket that could hold up in Texas, but the spare ribs would outright shine. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper, they had lots of smoke and good bite. It wasn’t much of a surprise to learn that owner/pitmaster Muirhead is from Waxahachie.
The folks in Portland were also interested enough in Texas barbecue to fill a room to hear me speak. Alright, they may have been coming to “The American Experience Through Food” to see renowned chefs Christopher Kostow, Naomi Pomeroy and Hugh Acheson. But I got a few words in too. I was just pleased that Feast chose to include the admittedly narrow field of barbecue to be represented on a panel discussion concerning the much wider tent of American food. That they chose someone from Texas to talk about barbecue wasn’t much of a surprise.