One of the greatest joys of exploring a new city is the opportunity to dabble in its culinary delights. Though not considered one of the nation’s gastronomic hubs, Portland, Oregon has a stunning array of restaurants that range from chic gourmet bistros to down home food trucks hustling everything from burritos to samosas; more than enough to make any foodie happy.
To many food snobs, authenticity is paramount. Pho Van, a Portland institution on 82nd Avenue, has recently opened a satellite restaurant in the trendy Hawthorne district. Though the new branch is more centrally located, one of my friends insists on driving the extra miles to the original. Why? Because the servers are not Vietnamese in the Hawthorne restaurant means that the cooks may not be as well, he reasoned. It’s all about authenticity.
My sojourn began at lunch that day at Fong Chong Restaurant. Located in the heart of the city’s tiny Chinatown, Fong Chong does not look like much from the outside. Besides the pricey Chinese Garden, Portland’s Chinatown is nothing more than some restaurants and a prime spot for the city’s homeless to congregate. The interior of Fong Chong is just as unassuming as its exterior. It’s a large, hollow space filled with haphazard tables. We arrived at the peak of lunch hour and almost all the tables were filled; a waitress brusquely waved us to a table and set down plates, chopsticks and tea. But the patrons that afternoon at Fong Chong were not there for the ambience, they came for the dim sum.
For those not familiar with the ritual of dim sum, the servers circle the dining room with carts filled with small plates (mainly dumplings of some sort). The diner selects from the carts and the servers mark off the selection on a slip that sits on the table. Very simple. The biggest pratfall is arriving hungry and eating everything that comes up to immediately. My friend and I loaded up on the goods: dumplings filled with shrimp and cabbage, pork shu mai, har gow. The best part of the meal wasn’t even the dumplings: that would be the sautéed broccoli greens and sliced barbecue pork. My friend and I rolled out of there very full and very happy. Bring on the next meal!
A few hours passed and I went to the Hawthorne District to interview a band (Cut Copy, for the interested). The weather alternated between drizzle and sun- we’re definitely in Oregon. Down the street a sign cried out “Nick’s Famous Coney Island.” The place looked old-school. I had to check it out. I soon learned that Nick’s has been around Portland since 1935. The original owner had come from Philadelphia and brought the East Coast chili dog with him. According to locals, Nick’s has had a history of being a scuzzy dive that served greasy food to drunks on the weekend. But, earlier this year, Nick’s closed down. In an effort to revitalize the business, a longtime patron bought and remodeled the restaurant. When I entered that afternoon, none of the former scuzz covered the lacquered booths or Yankees memorabilia on the wall. A full bar had also been installed. But I wasn’t there for a drink. I wanted one of those damned famous Coney Islands.
Now, I lived in Maryland before coming to Oregon and anyone familiar with D.C. knows about Ben’s Chili Bowl. It seems like there are 1000 different names for sausages throughout the country and Ben’s is famous for its “half-smokes.” The dog itself at Nick’s is very much like Ben’s half-smoke: long, lean with a favorable red-coloring and a nice, taut skin. Nick’s also had a subtle, spicy taste. I was given the option of ordering up to four dogs per bun. Judging from the price of $6.75 for one dog, I figured a solo journey would be enough for me. I ordered a standard Coney Island, which came with the choice of chips or macaroni salad. Within three minutes out came the dog, completely covered with chili sauce, raw onions and a mess of shredded cheese. Make no mistake, no finger food here. I wish I had been given the options before ordering because I hate raw onions. The chili was richly flavored, but I don’t think the cheese added much but extra calories. I had opted for the macaroni salad, apparently bound with the same variety of special sauce McDonald’s slathers on Big Macs. I walked out quite full, but missing Ben’s Chili Bowl from back East.
I should have stopped after the dim sum and the dog, but my friends were hosting a party to watch the debate and had ordered Hot Lips pizza. Let’s make no bones about it, pizza is really damned hard to resist. I come from a strong East Coast tradition when it comes to my pie. I grew up near Philadelphia where there seemed to be two pizzerias every square mile. I like my slices soft with chewy crusts and tangy tomato sauce. Most pizza out of the Philly-New Jersey-New York region just doesn’t cut it for me. So, Hot Lips would be meeting a tough judge. The pizza arrived and won some first glance points. One half was pepperoni and green olives, while the other had been laden with an assortment of vegetables. We had asked for the veggie side to be vegan, but they had included cheese; as a gesture of good will, they sent another small vegan pizza at no additional charge. I have yet to find pizza that suits my Eastern tastes, but Hot Lips was pretty good. The sauce was piquant and the crust had a good flavor and consistency. I put down four slices while the candidate droned on, soon reaching for the Tums as they fought with the Nick’s for territory. Unfortunately, this may be my only Hot Lips experience. The pizza cost $32. Blaspheme!
So what else to say? Obama won the debate, I didn’t get sick. Go for Fong Chong, eat at Nick’s only when drunk and if you’re rich, go to Hot Lips!
by David Harris
Fong Chong Restaurant, 301 NW 4th Ave. (503) 228-6868
Nick’s Coney Island, 3746 SE Hawthorne Blvd., (503) 235-4024
Hot Lips Pizza, Various Locations.