Grilled cheese and ice-cream and donuts and duck and kale and figs and cider…this is my prescription to you for sustaining yourself through a day in Portland.
Do not eat it all at once. Do not expect it all to be in the same part of the city. Do not concern yourself with thinking about how you’re going to eat all of this and not end up a) the newest and squidgiest contestant on ‘The Biggest Loser’ or b) horizontal on a park bench somewhere clutching your tummy and whispering to yourself ‘How did I get here? How did this happen?’. Trust me when I say you will easily walk it off; in fact after 24’000 steps spent personally trotting around this oddly charming, hip and I-don’t-really-care-what-you-think city, I guarantee it.
When J and I put Portland on our road-trip map earlier this year, we were both really looking forward to seeing what it had to offer – it’s notorious for being a bit artsy, a bit hipster, a bit laid back – but I was especially excited because the food scene in America’s 29th most populated city has literally exploded over the past few years, leaving food trucks and independent cafes and world class restaurants in its wake. With literally too much choice for the time allowed, decisions had to be made about what we’d be eating otherwise, frankly, it was all going to end in my confused-and-overwhelmed-and-over-stuffed-tears.
With a critical harshness that would make Simon Cowell give me a slow hand clap, we ended up with the Grilled Cheese Grill food truck, Salt & Straw farm-to-cone ice-cream, classic-brioche-with-an-unexpected-twist Blue Star Donuts and Veritable Quandary, a local landmark in Portland’s restaurant scene since 1971.
This post is going to cover the little comers of Portland devoted to cheese and ice-cream so first, who’s up for the best grilled cheese of their lives at Grilled Cheese Grill, a nonchalantly-cool-but-casual converted school bus…?
The Grilled Cheese Grill invites you to come by for ‘a taste of your childhood’. Now to be fair I don’t think grilled cheese sandwiches are something that we plucky Brits could nominate as the food of our childhood. Cheese on toast absolutely with toasty cheddar bubbling under the grill and decorating the oven with golden spillages and a good dollop of HP sauce to dip it in but grilled cheese with a side of tomato soup is a particularly American tradition.
Never mind all that you cry, how the heck was it? Was it any good? Was it worth filing away months ago as somewhere to fill your face with cheesy goodness?
Oh it so was.
With 3 locations across Portland and a mobile truck to rush to the aid of anyone suffering from a midday fromage deficiency, this place often ranks in the top food trucks of the city and with that in mind we headed to the converted school bus branch located in NE Alberta Street with anticipation.
A small lunchtime queue had formed despite it being in a location that I found a little unusual to begin with. See, one of the things I learnt about Portland on this whistle-stop tour is that you can stumble across the most amazing places to eat, drink and shop and they seem set smack bang in the middle of a residential area. The lines between suburbia and city and business and home appeared more blurred to me here than in just about anywhere else I’ve been. It wasn’t a bad thing by any means, it just took a little getting used to. Apart from ‘proper’ downtown Portland where your desperate-to-spend-their-money shoppers will find Macys and Gap and Niketown, most other parts of the city were a lovely blend of house-house-shop-house-shop-apartments-restaurant-restaurant-house.
So anyway, having found our little school bus, J and I hit the menu and picked the Kelsey – Tillamook cheddar with basil pesto on multi-grain wheat bread into which we added avocado – and the Mondor – Tillamook pepperjack avocado, red onion and roasted red peppers on Portland French Bakery multi-grain wheat.
BTW, Tillamook is an award winning, farmer owned dairy from Tillamook in Oregon so it’s great to know everything you’re devouring in as ladylike a manner as possible is local and sustainable and hey, I know you care about these things as much as I do because why wouldn’t you want to eat the food of your locale when you’re there?
The Mondor was, in a word, awesome. The gentle heat from the pepperjack was offset beautifully by the sweet peppers and the crunchy freshness of red onion.
The Kelsey was, in another word, amazing. Honestly, if you asked me to choose my favourite, I’d have some idea of how Meryl Streep felt in ‘Sophie’s Choice’ but it would have to be this one. Keep that to yourself though please…I don’t want the Mondor to get a complex. The Kelsey was unbelievably fragrant from the basil and the avocado added a creaminess that worked alongside it and a freshness that lightened the cheese.
The bread in both was perfectly toasted. It was crunchy but not overdone, buttery but not greasy and soft & sweet inside without being off-putting. There was a slight tang of salt and almost a hint of rosemary as well…as a simple combination of a few quality ingredients, it was pretty damn near flawless and the fact that it came served in a yellow plastic basket appealed to the kitsch lover inside of me.
The sour, tangy freshness of a giant pickle cut through the carby overload nicely too and what makes these sandwiches even more appealing is the fact that they don’t leave you feeling as weighed down or sleepily-full as you might expect – for saying I was mainlining cheese and bread as though it was my last supper, it was actually the lightest overdose of those things I’ve ever had.
Sat in the shaded sunshine eating these to the muted soundtrack of vintage REM with tourists and locals around me , there isn’t anything this place could do better and as much as cheese on toast is the ultimate English Sunday teatime snack, I fear it may take me a while to forget how blissful a time I had sampling the all-American version here.
Next up after a long wander down Alberta Street past cafes and bars and shops all bursting with laid-back coolness, individuality and creativity, was Salt & Straw, Portland’s premier farm-to-cone ice-cream shop. What this means in its simplest definition is that the food produced came directly from a specific farm – if you label your food as this, you need to be able to say exactly where it came from which, in this age of horse meat and pre-packaged produce, is reassuring.
Salt & Straw’s ice cream is handmade in small-batches, only uses 100% natural dairy and organic, sustainable ingredients either found locally in Oregon or brought in from globally, handpicked farms & producers. The cream that forms the base of each flavour comes from family owned farms in the Willamette Valley and their ice-cream boasts a butterfat level of 17%.
That means it is every bit as delicious as it sounds.
Started by cousins Kim & Tyler Malek who have a background in business and a passion for food, they want nothing more than a) to build a company that’s fun to be a part of, b) to support and develop the local economy and oh yeah, c) enjoy the fricking ice-cream!
Arriving mid afternoon, the shop was packed and the queue growing longer by the minute. After ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ my way through the line (shockingly me not J) and eyeing up all manner of delicious, adorable looking merchandise (again, surprisingly, me not J), we made opted for a tasting flight of 4 scoops.
Word to the wise, you’re told the scoops are child sized but have no fear and remember you’re in the sweet ole US of A – these scoops are generous and there’s no way you’d feel shortchanged.
Having seen this place and the super creative flavours they come up with on TV recently, we wanted to opt for things we’d never get to try back home which is how we ended up with Coffee & Bourbon, Honey Balsamic Strawberry with Cracked Pepper, Pear with Blue Cheese, and their seasonal hit, Bone Marrow & Bourbon Smoked Cherries.
Yup. You read every single one of those flavours correctly. This was going to be probably the most inventive ice-cream ever to touch these lips and believe me, when it come to ice-cream, I’ve been around the block and then some.
I couldn’t be more shocked to tell you that my favourite was the Coffee & Bourbon. I don’t like coffee and I don’t like whiskey but apparently if you make an ice-cream out of them, I’ll drain the dish, hit you with my spoon and lick the dregs out of the bottom. Who knew? This is the first time I have ever enjoyed anything coffee flavoured but the rich, cool, silkiness of the roasted beans with the hint of bourbon skirting around the edges totally seduced me and I’m not ashamed to say I loved it. This was the strongest flavour of the four and hit you as soon as it landed on your tongue, however close behind it was the Honey Balsamic Strawberry.
This was a flavour that kept on coming and out of the four we tried, it was the most evenly spread in terms of the different tastes being balanced. The honey sweetness of ripe strawberries came first before wham, the balsamic rolled in to announce its arrival with a real sharp kick and the pepper right behind it. I love strawberries and I love balsamic however it took me a few mouthfuls to work out what was going on because there was some definite competition between the two happening in my mouth.
Pear with Blue Cheese was the most subtle of the flavours with the fresh grainy texture of pear coming through in tiny frozen pieces while the blue cheese wafted in after the ice-cream had been on your tongue for a while. I’m not normally a fan of pear so this wasn’t a flavour I was expecting to like but this is the second time I’ve had blue cheese ice-cream now and if you have any seeds of doubt in your mind as to how it tastes, get rid of them because it’s fantastic. You have to like cheese obviously because pared down as it is, it’s still a powerful flavour but the creamy texture of the ice-cream goes so, so well with it.
Last but not least, the Bone Marrow & Bourbon Smoked Cherries. I had no idea what to expect here and hand on heart, while I salute, admire and slow hand clap Salt & Straw for their creativity and skill, I cannot say this is a flavour for me. J on the other hand loved it! This was a flavour that filled every single part of your mouth from the tip of your tongue to the roof to the back of your throat. It was warming and the pieces of Oregon cherry were sweet and added a nice texture but I simply couldn’t get past the ice-cream consistency with the flavour of meat. It was intense and strong but delicate at the same time – bear with me when I say this but it was like a bone marrow scented & flavoured cloud that filled your mouth and when you swallowed, left itself behind as well.
I have to say that this is a place I will never forget and I would totally hurry back the next time I’m in town because every month will bring new, seasonal ideas to knock the socks off ice-cream lovers everywhere – I not only love the charming, industrial feel to the shop but I also really commend the staff and the ethos of using local, organic, sustainable ingredients.
There’s no doubt that local is the hottest buzzword in everything right now, not just food – people want to support and build up and be a part of their immediate communities and they want to know that they’re giving back and actually, being a part of something really special. If you love cheese, if you love ice-cream (and actually if you don’t love either, you should probably know that we can never be the truest of friends), if you love finding somewhere new, you could visit either of these places and leave happy, satisfied and with a secret that’s now yours to pass on.