Portland: Just Like the TV Show, Only Better, Part 2

Lan Su Chinese Garden; photos by Robert DiGiacomo

In the second of two parts, TCT co-editor Robert DiGiacomo continues his quest to find out if Portland lives up to the politically-correct, artisan-nurturing, locavore’s paradise celebrated –– and sent up –– by the IFC comedy series, Portlandia.

Episode 3: Dine like a local

In a much referenced episode during the first season of Portlandia, a couple dining at an upscale restaurant inquire about the chicken’s provenance, and are dissatisfied by the server’s answers, even when she proffers a bio of the bird.

They ask their server to hold their table, while they visit the farm, but are gone much longer than intended after being drawn into a cult, before finally returning for their table, at which point they decide against the chicken.

I didn’t bother going to the real restaurant that inspired “The Farm” episode –– Gilt Club –– because seemingly every eatery has jumped on the farm-to-table express.

I found the commitment to authenticity everywhere I ate, from Pok Pok, which specializes in the real street food of Thailand and other Asian countries, while emphasizing seasonal, local ingredients, to Tasty n Sons, a homey restaurant serving updated comfort food, family-style, to the pod of 30 or food carts in one downtown location offering every kind of ethnic food you can imagine.

Somewhat disappointingly, I wasn’t offered a bio of any fowl, fish or other menu item –– the life of the nettles used in a tasty pesto on a pizza at Oven & Shaker might have made for a compelling read, I suspect.

Still, most servers showed a willingness to please. At Pok Pok, for example, staff asked our party when we were between courses, if we minded shifting to a different table to accommodate a last-minute large group. For our trouble, we were given a 20 percent discount.

Portland-nice strikes again.

I did experience the exception that proves the politeness rule at a local landmark, Voodoo Doughnut, a 24-hour operation that always has a line out the door. Its mouth-watering choices include the signature bacon-maple bar, decadent chocolate cake versions and wacky concoctions with such toppings as Fruit Loops, grape dust and lavender sprinkles.

Despite being in the presence of so many sweet treats, the tattooed clerk sounded the only sour service note of our visit, alternating between bored and impatient with the customers. She did briefly crack a smile, before shooting me down, when I jokingly asked for extra bacon.

Episode 4: The great outdoors

Portland is literally green, with multiple squares, parks, botanical gardens and even the oldest official test garden for roses in the U.S.

For great city views, I suggest venturing away from the downtown to the International Rose Test Garden, which boasts over 600 varieties of roses, and the Japanese Garden, considered one of the most authentic of its kind outside of Japan.

The day I visited the latter happened to be a rare, clear spring day in Portland, affording spectacular views of Mount Hood.

For Asian-inspired greenery within walking distance of downtown, I checked out the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Chinatown. The compact space features a series of bridges and temple-like buildings that were constructed by artisans from Portland’s sister city, Suzhou, China. Although dangerously close to Voodoo Doughnut, the garden features a lovely teahouse with a multipage menu of teas and sweet and savory snacks

As we sipped our green tea, and sampled taro buns and almond cookies, we had our own Portlandia-esque moment of Zen when a woman at the next table regaled us tales of the good life in Portland.

The intense woman had left behind the harsh winters of her native Michigan and apparently never looked back, but hadn’t quite assumed the mellow approach to life practiced by locals.

Queen Bee studio and factory-store

Episode 5: You really can put a bird on it!

If there were a template for the quintessential Portland neighborhood, North Williams would be seem to be it.

The area’s main drag of North Williams Street boasts the usual mix of homespun restaurants and shops. There are the expected microbrewery, bike shop, tattoo parlor and modern take on traditional food purveyors, including Chop Butchery & Charcuterie and Pix Patisserie.

There are individually owned boutiques selling letter press cards and stationery, soaps and households items, and even a double-decker bus converted into a vintage dress shop. And of course there’s a place for mixologist-created cocktails –– The Box Social –– and a locavore restaurant aptly called Tasty n Sons in a warehouse-like space. The latter, which is open from brunch through dinner, riffs on comfort food with family style portions and a clever cocktail list with “Mary’s” and other libations.

I capped off my visit to North Williams –– and Portland –– with a stop at Queen Bee, the studio and factory-store for a line of handbags and accessories adorned with birds. The latter would seem to have inspired a Portlandia episode, in which the characters proclaim that everything in life can be improved if you, “Put a bird on it!”

As I watched a young woman behind a sewing machine do exactly that, I experienced one of those life imitating art imitating life moments that make for the best TV and travel.