From Food Capitol to Tech Capitol

Sadly, I’m moving on from my week in Portland. I am having a difficult time saying goodbye to the purple hair, tattooed bodies, gauged earlobes, delicious street food, and friendly, laid back population. I’m remembering walking pass the block-long que outside of Voodoo Doughnuts that was extreme anytime of the day- or night, any day of the week; the model shoot by the pedestrian light while I strolled over to the food carts, and the homeless man who suggested the bacon cheeseburger dumpling, his favorite item on the Dump Truck’s menu, before going back to sorting out trash.

Now, I’m in Mountain View, home of Google headquarters, in Silicon Valley, Northern California. This is tech-capitol. Why, they have even bred their own car, Tesla, and quite a fancy one she is. But not once have I been blown away by a meal. And so close to San Francisco- I was expecting differently.

What they do offer, are wonderful markets, and a diverse variety of them. A fifteen- twenty minute walk from our summer apartment (complete with an outdoor pool and small, but efficient gym), are an array of markets: Mi Pueblo, a small, Mexican, predominantly Spanish speaking shop where you can find tamarind pods and cheap little avocados. The Milk Pail Market: a produce shop that’s too small a space to comfortably fit shoppers and allow them to leisurely maneuver their carts around the fruits and vegetables, cheeses, and European treats, with glorious prices. My most recent proud purchase: Organic strawberries for $1.29. And in a different direction and a little more of a walk, there’s Rose: a Persian market, with lusciously arousing orange blossom honey that goes perfectly with their “sarshir”, a delightful cream which traditionally is supposed to be the top layer of fat skimmed off of boiled milk then left to chill. I enjoyed the two together over a thick slice of their Challah. They also have white cheeses by the pound, olives and Middle Eastern style pickles, and a butcher counter with not only halal meat, but also organs- sheep organs, and right below you’ll find the skewers. Kabob away.

So, although I haven’t been impressed by any restaurant here in Tech-Central, I have been enjoying grocery shopping more than ever, along with the mild temperatures, sunny days, cooler nights, and pleasant breezes.

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Food Cart Capitol; Nong’s Khao Man Gai

I don’t know how I’ve gone without telling you about Nong’s khao man gai. I’m honestly in awe that I haven’t even mentioned it; I’ve been preoccupied raving in person to every face I encounter. That and the fact that I’m lazy and have yet to transfer the photos from my camera to my laptop.

So, I’ll call this my last blog post on Portland, and dedicate it to my last meal there. It was towards the last days of my trip. I was walking back from Downtown to the hotel, alone, hungry, and my feet nearing exhaustion in my Toms. I saw a sign quoting Nong’s Khao Man Gai is open, with long-necked chickens in three blocks at the top, and an arrow to the left. The logo clicked familiar- a food cart in one of the downtown pods closed earlier than closing hours. Later, I’d learn that yes, because after the lunch rush, they easily run out of food, and go home early.

The signs took me to a block down and around the corner from where I was staying, to a little shop, with food to go, and a few tables and chairs to eat in. The wall was covered with reviews, newspaper clippings, and photographs, including Amanda Freitag standing outside the downtown cart. For those who don’t watch the Food Network as religiously as I do, Amanda Freitag is a regular judge on Chopped. If you’re thinking you have no idea what I just said, well, she’s a big deal.

Before you go to think my trip was merely a culinary one and not educational at all, I will share with you a little history lesson I learned that day myself. Nong came to the 9-10 or so years ago. She worked her way up from kitchens to her own cart, which is serving up just one thing, chicken and rice. If there’s just one thing on the menu, it has to be damn good.

The to-go shop, though, goes beyond their standard and large sized chicken and rice, giving customers a vegetarian and pork option. I’m neither a vegetarian, nor a fan of pork unless dried, smoked, cured into its bacon, proscuitto,… form. I ordered the khao man gai. Chicken and rice. You’re given an option of white meat, dark meat, or mixed. White meat.

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I carried my paper bagged lunch to the hotel, and luckily, it’s bottom didn’t steam off until I was inside my room, propping it on the table. In front of me, I had a plastic tub with its lid sealed shut, a small cup of sauce, and a parcel, wrapped in waxed paper and secured with a rubber band. At first, I thought she must have forgotten to put my chicken and rice in there, or she misunderstood my order. But then, I unwrapped it, slowly and carefully, and there it was, my chicken and rice, and another little cup of sauce.

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It appeared bland, white chicken atop white rice, decorated with a few sprigs of cilantro and thin cuts of cucumber. I took a fork and it was tasty. The chicken was moist and flavorful, and I could bet my left hand that rice was cooked in the same liquid the chicken had bathed in. I opened up my tub of soup, and found it to be rather a broth, but delicious and comforting on another glum Portland afternoon. I went back to the chicken, and poured one of the sauces over it, and suddenly good became magical.

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They bottle that sauce, and with good reason. It should be found in supermarket aisles right next to the Kikkoman for all I know.

It was a perfect meal for a cold, rainy afternoon; homey and comforting, simple and delectable, with a soy ginger sauce that took it to the next level. Seven dollars had never made me so full. And I don’t know what went into the making of it, but it felt decently healthy. As soon as I mouthed the last grain, I thought to myself, we can’t leave Portland without the guinea pig trying this.

Khao man gai did not end up being the guinea pig’s favorite of the food carts. I think his heart leaned towards the wood-fire pizzas that came straight out of a legit wood-burning oven in a cart called Pyros. Yes, a real oven inside a food cart. I can’t imagine the temperature highs in there.

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But, I can’t blame him. The guinea pig I mean. For not putting Nong’s on his top list. It was a rare sunny day in Portland, and we set out to have lunch at their downtown cart, not the airconditioned to-go shop, hitting the busy rush and the harsh noon sun. I’ll admit, the chicken wasn’t as tender, and the hot tub of broth wasn’t as comforting when your back is exposed to UV rays and sweat is trickling down your face. This is why cloudy with a chance of rain suits Portland best.

When waiting in line at the cart, I spotted Miss Nong herself, black cap, black top, hair dyed bleach and half tattoo sleeves- blending in perfectly with the inked Portland scene. She was stopping by I guess, to check on things, because it seems now she’s doing too well to run the joint herself. She has a quirky white guy to do it for her.

The guinea pig and I will just have to go back sometime, and try Nong’s once again, but on a cloudy day, with sprinkles of rain and breezes of cool. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a day like that in Portland.

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Food Cart Capitol; Off the Carts

This one is for JC, who firmly believes that my all-from-scratch soups are oh-so-good they should be shared with the rest of the world by being readily available on supermarket shelves. My soups even scored number two on her Top Twelve of 2012 list of favorite eats– how humbling. So, naturally, while in Portland I tasted the best soup I’ve ever had, of course I thought of her.

It all started on a Tuesday night when the guinea pig and I went on a dinner date; he suggested to go someplace nice that night, not necessarily fancy but not a stand on the side of the road either. I put on my orange strap wedges and chose the venue: Farm Cafe, which ended up being a block down from our hotel. I made reservations for 7:30 and we were unusually on time. Our hostess was spacey. She wore round spectacles and short pigtailed hair and a blank expression on her face, fitting right in with the Oregon scene. We sat outside under the shelter of an umbrella; you never do know with Portland skies, and ordered  beers. The guinea pig and I both love trying all things local when we travel, especially microbrews. I did find Oregon beers a little too hoppy for my New England taste; their IPAs do not tickle my fancy. Many of our bar adventures did not include vast options of local microbrews on draft, but the Farm Cafe offered a decent variety, and I was able to avoid another hoppy IPA for a dark, heavy stout.

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We were sitting comfortably in our light jackets in the patio with lines of lightbulbs decorating a brick wall and grape vines climbing up the entryway, when our appetizers arrived, baked brie and a bowl of the soup of the day, both to share between the two of us. The guinea pig fell for appearances, diving into the fancy brie, that came hot in a white porcelain boat topped with pine nuts and strawberries that had melted in its own sweetness in the oven. I started the soup, mixing in the black pepper sprinkled on top. Oh that soup. Only inhaling its aroma and warmth was ecstatically satisfying. Beer, cheddar, and leeks. Must I say more? Executed unsurpassably. It couldn’t have been done any better; I doubt it could. It was beautifully smooth, like one of those  Venus commercials where a silk scarf slides off of their recently shaven, perfectly airbrushed legs, but all on my tongue, the background music playing and my taste buds rejoicing.

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We exchanged appetizers. I tried the brie, gooey and warm, sweet from the fresh but baked strawberries, crunchy from the pine nuts, and crispy from the crusty bread. I am a cheese-fanatic. While I have not yet met anybody who does not like melted cheese, I am admittedly a bit of an extreme. So, I surprised myself that although I had no criticism for the baked brie, I wanted the soup back. I thought, it might be my lucky day, since the guinea pig prefers his soup chunky and not blended into baby food, maybe he’ll push the bowl back without my intervention. I’d get what I want and not come off as greedy. Imagine how I felt when I heard him make love to the soup, my soup.

But could I blame him? This was a bowl blended into the perfect consistency of harmonious flavors. The good news is that my last bite, before the entrees were brought out, ended back on the soup: beer, cheddar, and leek. And all’s well that ends well.

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Surely dinner did not end at appetizers. It ended on a sweet note, with dessert. The guinea pig and I couldn’t come to a unanimous decision so we thought to get two and share; one a chocolate molten cake with coffee ice-cream, the guinea pig’s choice, and another a tart rhubarb  crumble with a scoop of cold vanilla bean melting a-top. And these came after entrees, my dijon-spicy eggplant and breadcrumb veggie-burger that came in an almost doughnut-like of a bun, and the guinea pig’s rabbit on spaetzel. Yes everything was delicious; what a wonderful dinner that was. But that soup; I will never forget that soup. If it was not the soup-of-the-day and a permanent menu item, you would have found me skipping out on the food cart scene and at the Farm Cafe every lunch and dinner with a bowl of cheddar, beer, and leek.

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JC, if you find yourself in Portland, (Portland, Oregon obviously), I do hope it’s when the Farm Cafe’s soup of the day is their cheddar, beer, and leek again.