Portland restaurants and pretense

I finally got around to doing a Portland restaurant guide map with all of the various restaurants from home. Some of these were little “stumble-upons,” some were found within the pages of Bon Appetit or on the Food Network. But most were just word of mouth – and eventual discovery.

A mortadella sandwich from Lardo - another Portland classic.
A mortadella sandwich from Lardo – another Portland classic.

Portland’s food scene is drastically different from Boston’s. If I want a turkey leg at 2 a.m., I’m out of luck now. My pathetic attempt at PB&J fries in the dining hall makes me want to cry every time. Around midterm season, I daydream about taking a trip to Salt & Straw for a scoop of strawberry balsamic with cracked pepper. And don’t even get me started on Thai food.

But I noticed when I went home, I actually sort of missed the little things I can find in Boston. The queso at Lone Star Taco Bar haunts my dreams when I go home. Whenever my mother pulls out her morning Grape Nuts from the top pantry, I fantasize about the Grape Nut ice cream at Toscanini’s (similar to the cereal milk soft serve at Momofuku Milk Bar, for all you New Yorkers). There are 0.00 places in Oregon   on the West Coast outside of Boston where I can get a Double Awesome (crispy scallion pancake sandwich with a poached-then-fried egg, fresh pesto and Vermont aged cheddar: the ultimate hangover food). I even miss the nothing-special places where I order my favorite crappy takeout. Teriyaki House is no gem of a restaurant, but I know that when I order my crab rangoon, they will be perfectly greasy on the outside and gooey and warm on the inside. I know my udon noodle soup will taste sweet and and the chicken will have that tiny bit of char that makes me go nuts. I know it will be cheap and hot and yummy – maybe not creative, but unpretentious.

There’s a fad within the world of food these days: No-frills is hot new thing to be. Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit often alludes to his passion for Waffle House. The Art of Simple Food still lives on in the contemporary kitchen as a foodie bible. More and more food trucks, pop-ups, and taco stands emerge as years pass. Unpretentious is in – and Portland did it before it was cool.

But the thing is that Portland’s own awareness as a trend-setter has developed a new, worse version of arrogance. The restaurants of Portland – at least those I’ve found – all bask in their own obscurity, sustainability, originality or rusticity. Even my beloved Shut Up and Eat and their massive, beautiful grinders come off as a little self-involved.

Can a restaurant come across as self-involved? I think so. Sorrellina comes across as a little arrogant – not necessarily because of the decor, or the food, or even the staff, but just because of the atmosphere of the restaurant as a whole.

But look – Boston is not this unpretentious, honest bevy of restaurants. Portland is more than the land of hipsters.

I often hear myself enthusiastically dramatizing the drastic differences between Oregon and Massachusetts in conversations with

The chorizo taco at Lone Star Taco Bar
The chorizo taco at Lone Star Taco Bar.

my peers. I talk about Oregon Country Fair, alpha-stim, Toby’s and my hippie alternative elementary school. I describe the outfits of my high school classmates, who often traded in the Abercrombie elk logo for the dancing bears of the Grateful Dead, passed up Uggs for Birkenstocks, and rocked more tye-die than school colors. And I made it the big joke of my life – I grew up in a hippie paradise, full of self-righteous ageing activists with personal vendettas against processed foods. But what I berated over the hippies were the hipsters: The angsty young adults competing for musical obscurity points (how about the Islamic call to prayer over dubstep beats?), recognition as the most well-read in post-structuralist theory (“Foucault is kind of passe now”), or the title of Master Thrifter (“By the pound is really the only way to go. It’s just as corporate as Forever 21 if you go to a Goodwill”). Pretense drives me nuts – but what really gets me mad is the people who are pretentious but think they’re quietly and humbly saving the world.

Going to Boston was the first time I fully realized that the United States is drastically diverse. Friends from South Carolina and Georgia shocked me with stories of culturally accepted racism and moonshine (which I always thought disappeared after the ’40s). My friends from Oakland talked about friends who died in gang violence. And I wish I could forget what I’ve heard about West Virginia.

So I guess a little pretense is the better end of the deal. I am lucky, growing up where I did – and I’m not allowed to forget it.

But I’m still looking for the humble restaurants of Portland. My list is far from complete. So please – reach out to me. Find me a Portland Teriyaki House. My twitter is @bufoodist – tweet at me. Comment on this post. Send me a message on Facebook. And if you ever need to find good, no-frills food in Boston, always reach out or check out my map.

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