Monday, May 21, 2012

Forktown Food Tours, Portland, Ore., Review

 The perfect long-weekend getaway for Southern Californians, Portland has an array of foodie-themed attractions, including Forktown Food Tours, a fun-filled culinary walking tour.
 
8 out of 10 Peppers = Spicy

One great thing about moving to the West Coast in my 20s is that the region is still full of discoveries for me. Whereas I've been up and down the Eastern Seaboard more times than I care to count, including month (or longer)-long stays in cities from Philadelphia, Pa., to Charlotte, N.C., not to mention our annual summer vacations in Hilton Head Island, S.C., the West is still largely wild to me. I have yet to do a trip to Seattle (toward the top of my travel list) or to Hawaii (at the top of my fantasy list).

I did, however, recently make it over to Portland, Ore. Spurred by a wedding of one of Nick's college roommates (they went to Lewis & Clark in Portland, and the groom recently moved back there), Nick and I took a Friday off work in order to spend a long weekend in this city that's all about buying local and being green. Portland is truly the perfect long-weekend travel destination for Southern Californians. The culture is similar to ours (farmers' markets, huge bookstores, enclaves of locally-owned businesses that support each other), it's fairly inexpensive (the public transit system is terrific; we got to our hotel easily on the light rail for only a few dollars), and the misty rainy skies will make your return to SoCal that much better (actually, we lucked out: It only rained for a few hours at the beginning of our trip, though that was enough for me to declare that I could never live in Portland.)

Plus, there's more than enough foodie fun (and other attractions) to fill up a long weekend. Nick and I opted to do a culinary walking tour by Forktown Food Tours. The company offers two regular tours -- the Alphabet District Tour and the North Portland Tour -- and we choose the Alphabet District one simply because it fit best into our schedule.

I'd absolutely recommend this tour, and, the next time I'm in Portland I'll likely try to fit in the North Portland Tour. Our guide, Heidi, was friendly and knowledgeable. At first, Nick and I were worried that we'd be the only two people on the tour, because we arrived about 10 minutes early and no one else was there, but within about five minutes of the tour start time, our full group of about 10 people had arrived, including another couple from Los Angeles.

One pleasant surprise on our tour is that in addition to sampling the food at various restaurants, we also got to sample some homemade brews. Portland is known for its locally made alcohol, including a huge assortment of beer (so much so that brew-focused tours exist) because the city has some of the naturally cleanest water in the U.S., which lends a distinctive flavor to its drinks. We sampled alcohol at several of the six restaurants we went to, plus we even went to one full-on distillery, Bull Run Distillery, which features rum and whiskey as its specialties.

I was thrilled with the "buy local" mentality of the city and of the restaurants. All of the food tasted so fresh, which makes sense because in some cases it literally came from a garden just steps away from the restaurant's doors. We had two salads during the tour, and both were simple yet spectacular. At Kenny & Zukes Sandwichworks, the employees went above and beyond to make Nick a sandwich that didn't contain beef. (The restaurant's specialty is pastrami, and we didn't think to tell Forktown ahead of time that Nick doesn't eat beef.)


My favorite spot on the tour was PBJ's Grilled. One critique I have with the other restaurants' samples is that they were too safe -- tasting like items that I make on a daily basis at home. But PBJ's Grilled really pushed the envelope. First of all, grilling a PB&J is brilliant. But beyond that, the combinations this food cart came up with are genius. We sampled a Spicy Thai sandwich, which contained orange marmalade, Sriracha, fresh basil, curry, and PBJ’s peanut butter. Doesn't that sound exotic and delicious? It's so perfect because Thai food normally has peanut sauce in it anyway, so it's just enough of a stretch to use peanut butter instead. We also sampled the Hot Hood (shown), which contained black cherry jam, jalapeno, applewood  smoked bacon, and PBJ’s peanut butter on challah bread. I loved the combination of the spicy with the sweet.

Unfortunately, the tour didn't take us to two of the foodie spots that Portland is most known for: Voodoo Doughnut and Stumptown Coffee. We did manage to make it to Voodoo Doughnut before we returned to LA, and Stumptown will be something we'll look forward to on a future trip.

It was also a bit of a bummer that the tour ran over time-wise, mostly because the first restaurant wasn't ready for us on time, so we had to postpone some other plans we had for that day. Also, the Alphabet District is one of the few places not on the light rail, so we wound up waiting and paying for a taxi to take us back to our hotel. (I was willing to brave the streetcar, but Nick had enough adventure for one day and said he'd pay for the cab.) If you're driving, Forktown advises looking for street parking though it cautions that "parking can be a challenge" in this neighborhood.

Overall, though, the food tour really was a great experience that I'd recommend. Walking is a great way to learn the city, especially if you happen to luck out and get a sunny day like we did. (The tours go rain or shine.) And, yes, I would probably go on the tour again just to get another grilled PB&J. (Can we get one of those carts in LA, please?!)

P.S. I didn't get to eat any Indian food in Portland but was thrilled to see several Indian food trucks. Here's a list of a few of them for you.

Forktown Food Tours, forktown.com, Portland, Ore. (503) 234-3663.

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