Portland vs. Seattle food fight

Two Northwest titans duke it out for the title of best food city

Northwest smackdown

Photo by Annabelle Breakey

Northwest smackdown

Arguing for Portland: Food blogger/cookbook author Ivy Manning (she writes for national magazines). Small, funky, adventurous, and thoroughly locavorian: That’s how Portland rolls. Unlike our big sister to the north, we aren’t swaddled in red tape (how are those distilleries coming, Seattle?) or snarled up in traffic on our way to dinner. No. Dining in Portland means riding your bike to a 4-course, under-$10 vegan brunch, or toasting the man who made the gin or Pinot Noir in your glass. This is perhaps the most democratic food city in the West, a place where chefs have found a culinary sweet spot between cheap rents and easy access to local meat and produce that’s grown a stone’s throw from city limits. All of which boils down to a world-class food town ... without a worldly price tag.

Arguing for Seattle: Cookbook author Jess Thomson (she contributes to Seattle Met and EdibleSeattle). Of all cities, Seattle knows it doesn’t pay to be popular in high school. You might be pretty now, Portland, but when the food-truck fire fizzles, The New York Times isn’t going to be thick enough to keep your flame burning. Go ahead: Make your farm-to-table roots look deeper by snuggling closer to your beloved animals. We’ll keep making great food from a more diverse culinary background, using ingredients from the best artisanal markets in the country, created by chefs who have a knack for winning awards. And then we’ll shift into high gear.

Portland: Star wattage

Photo by Alicia J. Rose

Portland: Star wattage

Okay, so we don’t have any Michelin stars (Portlanders have never been much for white tablecloths), but Andy Ricker took home Best Northwest Chef at the 2011 James Beard awards. Plus, if you’re looking at who gets the media love, it’s Portland hands down. National magazines gush over the food scene here, The Wall Street Journal just did a 4-recipe series with Beast’s Naomi Pomeroy (pictured), and The New York Times could practically have its own Portland section. No one is calling Seattle the “new food Eden.” Ahem.

Score: 8 

About the scoring: We weighed each writer’s argument against Sunset’s collective food IQ and then scored. Cities earned up to 10 points in each category except “smug factor,” where they lost points. 

Portland: New ideas

Photo by John Clark

Portland: New ideas

Portland started the food-truck craze and elevated distilling to an art, and you’d be hard put to name a city that’s approached DIY food and farming with as much gusto. Add the fact that farm-to-table and foraged ingredients are simply a given here, and you get a sense of Portland’s ridiculously high bar for innovation. It also doesn’t hurt to have a forward-thinking, food-loving mayor who makes barriers to entry low, like allowing “cart pods”—parking lots reserved exclusively for food carts.

Score: 10

Portland: Great markets

Portland: Great markets

Many of Portland’s cooks and chefs are on a first-name basis with the people who grow and raise their food, thanks to 21 farmers’ markets within city limits and more than 80 CSAs in the state. Locally owned New Seasons Market, dedicated to the area’s farmers and food artisans, has been so successful, it now has 10 locations. And specialty stores like the salt merchant Meadow rule.

Score: 8 

Portland: Obsession factor

Photo by E. Spencer Toy

Portland: Obsession factor

Portlanders are obsessed with food and urban farms—maybe even too obsessed. Where else could a Basic Pig Slaughtering class become an instant hot ticket? Or a law pass that allows every household to have up to 3 pygmy goats within city limits? And we have at least 19 notable cookbook authors, including Janie Hibler, whose books have snagged 1 James Beard award and 2 nominations.

Score: 8

Portland: Booze & caffeine

Photo by Paula Watts

Portland: Booze & caffeine

Portland has 37 microbreweries, more than any other city in the world (take that, Düsseldorf!), and leads the charge when it comes to subtler, second-wave microbrews like Belgian-style lambics and French Saisons. It’s also the nerve center of the microdistillery trend, with 5 clustered around Distillery Row, and folks innovating their own vermouth and sake. And while Seattle has the caffeine edge, P-town still has the hottest cup in the West—Stumptown Roasters. 

Score: 10

Portland: Crowd control

Photo by John Clark

Portland: Crowd control

Portland’s food is for everyone. Only a handful of restaurants charge over $28 a plate or need to be booked more than a few days in advance, and the 600 or so food trucks represent true dining democracy. Plus, restaurants are easy to get to, thanks to P-Town’s ferocious commitment to public transit and lack of sprawl (something to keep in mind when you’re sitting in Seattle traffic). The only time you might have to wait to be seated is brunch.

Score: 9

Portland: Smug factor

Photo by Bjorn Kindler / Getty

Portland: Smug factor

Portlanders say it’s the media that brings an air of hipsterdom and preciousness to its micro-everything culture and urban-farming craze. Well, up to a point. This city doesn’t stand on ceremony—no one bats an eye if you wear jeans to a 7-course meal—but it can feel like you’re not a real local unless you own a chicken coop or make beer in your bathtub. And you can’t ignore Portland’s one-upmanship when it comes to the “greenness” of the food or its ultra-hard-core vegan community.

Score: –7 

Portland: Variety / diversity

Photo by David Lanthan Reamer

Portland: Variety / diversity

There are plenty of options for Vietnamese, izakaya, Korean, East African, and of course Thai here, thanks to the Andy Ricker empire—Pok Pok, Ping, Whiskey Soda Lounge (pictured), and the recently opened Pok Pok Noi. The food-cart culture is also helping to change Portland’s ethnic food scene, with Mexican, Bosnian, Polish, Turkish, even Nordic soul food. But it has a ways to go.

Score: 6 

Seattle: Star wattage

Seattle: Star wattage

It’s obvious that the national media hearts Portland’s food scene more than Seattle’s, though our bakeries and artisanal markets get lots of ink. Still, our chefs soldier on, maybe because they clean up come awards time. We had 10 semifinalists for the 2011 James Beard awards; while Portland won Best Northwest Chef, we’ll live, seeing that Seattle’s dominance of the category (Jason Wilson, pictured, was the fifth straight Seattle chef to win in ’10) was getting downright embarrassing.

Score: 7 

Seattle: New ideas

Seattle: New ideas

Okay, we give Portland its cute Nordic food trucks, DIY butchering, and backyard goats, but Seattle beat it to the pop-up punch, with temporary restaurants now replacing underground supper clubs as the dining trend du jour. And Melrose Market is just another example of how Seattle dominates when it comes to artisanal food markets.

Score: 7

Seattle: Great markets

Seattle: Great markets

You can get anything in Seattle. Let’s start with Uwajimaya, the no-holds-barred Asian market. Want geoduck clams? Kaffir limes? Forty thousand kinds of miso? Check all. Pike Place Fish Market (pictured) has its world-famous fishmongers; a Middle Eastern souk; and shops specializing in truffles, tea, spices, hazelnuts, crumpets, you name it. For your everyday grocery list, there’s organic and fiercely seasonal PCC Natural Markets, with outposts all over town.

Score: 10 

Seattle: Obsession factor

Photo by Kyle Johnson

Seattle: Obsession factor

Seattleites get into tweeting wars about which new burger joint is best, and locals here blog the pants off Portland: On The Times of London’s list of the top 50 food blogs in 2009, Molly Wizenberg (pictured) of Orangette nabbed the number 1 spot, with 3 other Seattle blogs listed—Portland got zip. This might explain the city’s cottage industry of bloggers turned cookbook authors, like Shauna James Ahern, whose Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef made The New York Times’ top 10 cookbooks of 2010.

Score: 9 

Seattle: Booze & caffeine

Photo by Paul Edmondson

Seattle: Booze & caffeine

Coffee is a way of life here, and incredible local roasters like Herkimer, Caffé Vita, Cafè Fiorè, Lighthouse, Fuel, Victrola, and Zoka are a dime a dozen. On the cocktail front, the city’s having a golden age, with locally made bitters like Scrappy’s and house-infused syrups the norm. Murray Stenson, named Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail (the Oscars for bartenders) in 2010, is a local, and his protégés man great bars across the city.

Score: 8 

Seattle: Crowd control

Photo by Frank Huster

Seattle: Crowd control

People here aren’t afraid to queue up for a $10 pulled-pork Cuban sandwich from Paseo, but lines here tend to be for food that hardly breaks the bank. Only Canlis has an actual dress code, and while you will wait in line for, say, a table at Maria Hines’s new Golden Beetle (pictured), it’s hard to think of a single place where the cachet comes from the simple fact that you got in.

Score: 7 

Seattle: Smug factor

Photo by Christophe Madamour / Stockfood

Seattle: Smug factor

Seattle locals do have a bad habit of turning up their noses at people who order, say, a tall skinny split-shot latte with half a shot of vanilla. And, an open letter to bartenders: We’re sick of hearing, “If you don’t like brown liquor, you’re in the wrong place.” If the lady wants a cosmo, give her a cosmo. But we’re not The New York Times’ Western mistress—Portland is—and for that reason, the chefs here may work just a little harder.

Score: –4 

Seattle: Variety / diversity

Photo by M. Beere Studios

Seattle: Variety / diversity

You can find any kind of ethnic food in Seattle. Korean eateries are huge. There’s pho on every third corner. Dim sum’s new king is Din Tai Fung in Bellevue, an outpost of a Taiwanese soup-dumpling chain that’s reputed to make the best in the world. And a large Indian population on the east side means there’s great Indian food there—something that’s almost nonexistent in P-Town.

Score: 10 

And the winner is...

Photo by Raimund Koch / Corbis

And the winner is...

Seattle: 54 / Portland: 52

Why it won: 7 spots to convince you Seattle is king

1. Salumi Cured Meats. Heralded more for its out-standing salumi sandwiches than for owner Gina Batali’s connection to superstar brother Mario, this tiny Pioneer Square spot is the place for pork lovers—and worth the wait. Ask for a peek into the curing room. 309 Third Ave. S.; 206/621-8772.

2. Melrose Market. This triangular building at the bottom of Seattle’s Pike/Pine Corridor is an artisanal food paradise filled with top-shelf vendors like the Calf & Kid Artisan Cheese Shop, Rain Shadow Meats, Taylor Shellfish, and chef Matt Dillon’s Sitka & Spruce, to name a few. 1501–1535 Melrose Ave.; melrosemarketseattle.com

3. Cafe Besalu. Pastry chef James Miller, a multiple James Beard award nominee, makes Seattle’s best croissant dough, folding it into pastries with ham and gruyère, twisting it into cardamom pretzels, or stuffing it with traditional chocolate. $; 5909 24th Ave. N.W.; 206/789-1463. 

4 more reasons why it won

Photo by Thomas J. Story

4 more reasons why it won

4. Green Leaf. Make sure you show up hungry to this tiny International District joint, where you can taste authentic, low-cost Vietnamese at its best. $; 481 Eighth Ave. S.; 206/340-1388.

5. Oddfellows Cafe (pictured). If there’s a single restaurant that epitomizes Seattle’s food-and-drink scene, this is it. In a giant, high-ceilinged room, you’ll see morning meetings over cups of bottomless (good) coffee and sizzling baked eggs, tattooed freelancers tapping away at their laptops during lunch, and a lineup of creative cocktails and locally sourced dishes for dinner. $$; 1525 10th Ave.; 206/325-0807.

6. Espresso Vivace. Think of Seattle as a body, and coffee as its blood. Espresso Vivace, which opened in 1988, embodies the city’s longtime devotion to perfecting how to roast a bean. Multiple locations; espressovivace.com

7. Staple & Fancy Mercantile. At Ethan Stowell’s latest restaurant in Ballard, you can order the Northwest-inspired Italian food off a straightforward à la carte “staples” menu, but the adventurous go for the prix fixe “fancy” menu, which means the kitchen creates a family-style supper at its whim. If you’re torn, regard the note at the bottom of the fancy menu: We would also like to inform you that you really should do this. $$$$; 4739 Ballard Ave. N.W.; 206/789-1200.

 

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