By Trip Styler, on March 30, 2015

Portland fresh

There are conversations you overhear as a travel writer that cause you to grin and thank the heavens you were lucky enough to be within earshot of something so quotable. One such conversation, in Portland, was so perfect, I decided right then and there it would open this tale of the city’s fascination with fresh food (and my preoccupation with packing the right pants).

”Do they sell stretchy pants in Portland?” the guy behind me in the restaurant queue jokingly-yet-seriously quipped. Chortling, his friend replied, “By the weekend’s end, we’ll just want to go pantless.” I laughed out loud and exchanged knowing glances with the chaps because when in the Pacific Northwest’s nosh-central, I purposely pack jeans with a little stretch. It’s survival of the foodie-est.

Oregonians are not obsessed with food because it’s cool to post pretty pictures of plates with artfully arranged fare, or to brag about their culinary institutions that are sweeping the nation. For them, it’s about substance. It doesn’t matter how en vogue eateries or ingredients such as kale or bacon have become; if it’s not good or fresh, it won’t fly.

This fresh-is-best mantra is brilliantly spoofed in the Emmy Award-winning series, Portlandia, when Fred Armisen (of SNL fame) and Carrie Brownstein (musician, actress, and Portland local) order chicken at a Stumptown restaurant. Before digging in, they ask the server where their chicken is from, its name, and if they can visit the farm where the bird was raised.


Local lamb sandwiches from The Woodsman Tavern

While most locals would not request the name of the chicken they’re eating, what I’ve learned from countless visits to the city’s culinary gems, is that Portlanders care deeply about their dishes, namely where and how they got from farm to plate.

Putting this to the test, I semi-jokingly asked my server at The Woodsman Tavern where my bacon was from. With a cheerleader-like fist pump, he exclaimed, “It’s hyperlocal; the pork hails from a nearby farm and we cure it in house.” (Satisfied with the answer, I didn’t press him on the name of the pig.)

Viewfinder Tip: While some of Portland’s best eats are downtown, others are farther afield. Stay at a hotel such as Hotel Monaco Portland to visit a baker’s dozen bistros on foot.

Surrounded by rivers, lakes, farmland, and the nearby Pacific Ocean, Portland comes by fresh naturally. Couple the field-to-fork town’s unofficial 100-mile diet with its love of chowing down, and it’s clear why savoring the land takes center stage. It’s also clear why the destination is growing into America’s main squeeze for wandering gourmands.

And then there are the chefs—in Portland, the equivalent of rock stars—whose relationship with the land is as important as their “it” dishes and the wait at their respective restaurants on a Friday night. While attending Feast Portland, the Pacific Northwest’s prime-cut food festival, I met Jason French, the chef of local restaurant Ned Ludd. When my mouth flipped out over the creamed smoked salmon on brioche soldiers he served, I spoke with him about his foray into the food scene.

“I moved to Portland from the East Coast because it matched my value system,” he said. Tired of mega-shipments of ingredients that came in a semi, he pined for fresh, small-batch, local, and authentic—all mainstays of the area’s commitment to cuisine. Adopting the norms of his new town, he changes his menu frequently, focusing on what’s in season and available.

Fresh-shucked oysters on ice at Bar Avignon

While Portland’s locavores are keenly aware—and understandably protective over—their abundant land of milk and honey, the rest of America has taken notice. How can they not when the city’s burgeoning food culture is dubbed “America’s new food Eden” by and when a Portland restaurant has risen to the top of Bon Appetit magazine’s list of 50 best new restaurants in America every year for the last three (Luce in 2012, Ava Gene’s in 2013, and, most recently, MÅURICE in 2014).

If you asked me to select a top dish or must-eat restaurant in the birthplace of gastro-legend James Beard, I’d have to decline (politely). There’s no one-hit wonder, but rather a rotating menu of pant-stretching greats. With fish caught in nearby rivers and vegetables grown in fields less than 50 miles away, it’s no wonder chefs such as rising culinary star Aaron Barnett of St. Jack and Top Chef Masters alum Naomi Pomeroy of Beast flocked to this foodie town to work with what’s in season.

In real-life Portlandia, you can be confident that even if they don’t know the name of the chicken, they know the farmer, and that’s good enough for me.

Where do you travel to find the freshest food?