Portland’s Biggest Restaurant Supporter Is Also Its Biggest Judge
Karen Brooks also serves as jury and executioner
Hey, Restaurant Critic asks a city’s (semi) anonymous restaurant critic about the art of, well, reviewing restaurants. This just in: It’s a difficult job, people. The weight gain. The terrible trends. Those wigs!
At Portland Feast, a three-day food and wine bacchanal held last September, one of the big highlights was a party on the 80-acre rooftop of advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy. I’m pretty sure I ate foie gras torchon while chilling in the nest. The party was insanely cool, and not only because I pocketed a handful of saucisson D’Arles from Olympic Provisions on the way out. And not only because I drank barrel-aged Negronis with fat straws. And not only because everybody was there. The coolest thing was that the throwdown was a book party for one of the city’s dining critics, those supposedly anonymous executioners of taste (and restaurants). And people were saying nice things about this restaurant critic. Everybody.
But Karen Brooks, the current food critic at Portland Monthly magazine, is not the average egg-headed foodnik. She’s also served as the magazine’s arts and culture editor and has played in bands around the city, and was a longtime writer/editor at both The Oregonian and Willamette Week. She’s also really well liked (though history shows a bloody path of epic takedowns, particularly in the 30-year critic’s early days). “Everyone loves talking to the food critic, especially in Portland, Oregon,” she says of her job. “I feel like Oprah.” Brooks recently released The Mighty Gastropolis: A Journey Through America's New Food Revolution (written with Gideon Bosker and Teri Gelber), a collection of chef profiles and recipes dedicated the city’s movement. We asked her to elaborate a bit for us.
What should the rest of the country know about the Portland restaurant scene?
New York dining is serious. L.A. is wild and Memphis is, well, barbecued. Portland's food scene is something else: the land of personal experiences. A food first — "come as you are" — risk-taking attitude makes it easy to find meals custom-crafted for pure audacious pleasure. Portland's small scale is part of the charm. You can bike everywhere. Great cocktails and micro-roasted coffee are never more than a napkin's throw away. Access to prime ingredients is unrivaled: even sandwich shops get the good stuff. You won't find the next Per Se or Mugaritz here; we don't have the money to support those dreams. Portland is about quality of life and gutsy comforts, handcrafted to the max, affordable for all. Wheeling and dealing in the Rose City means negotiating for a small-batch local whiskey or prying wild morels from a forager. No idea or food formula is forbidden. Everyone is welcome to the table. That's the rule. That's how Portland defied the gods of gastronomy.
How do you avoid being recognized in restaurants? Is it important to you? You're a pretty public figure?
Not sure I was ever all that anonymous. In the age of bloggers and a radically changed media landscape, few established critics haven't been outed. My system has always been the same: sneak attack (make reservations under a fake name); always pay my way; stay gracious and respectful; don't pull punches. Can a kitchen play favorites? Sure. But so far, my sudden appearance has yet to magically transform a kitchen into El Bulli. I'm good at sniffing out what matters (to me, anyway): passion, commitment, creativity, a genuine feel for food. Can I get better service? Rarely happens. I've had owners say hello, then sent forth waiters who disappeared for such long stretches I feared putting their faces on flyers. How can you deliver service if you don't know what it is? Manipulating critics is more an obsession in the high-end world of big-money restaurants. Portland isn't in that game.
I’m in town for 48 hours. My bank account is full. Go…
Day one: Fuel up at Sterling Coffee Roasters: espressos in single-malt scotch glasses and cappuccinos balanced like the scales of justice, courtesy of the nicest, nattiest baristas around (grab a bag of beans for the road). Hop across the street to Ken’s Artisan Bakery for monumental cinnamon rolls or berry-jeweled Oregon "croissants" (think Danish from the dining room of paradise). You can bring the goods over to Sterling’s and inhale over coffee; Portland is that kind of place. Lunch is Evoe for a made-to-order meal in a quirky room of stools and hyperseasonal worship. For dinner, put a bird on it. Put yourself in the tattooed hands of Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker — flavor genius, Portland’s unofficial offal ambassador, and the James Beard Rising Star 2011. Name your courses, dig into the impressive wine list, and let the man fly.
Day two: Say good morning to North African sausages, Burmese red pork stew and off-the-leash biscuits at Tasty N Sons. For lunch, burn off a few calories walking the feast streets of Portland — downtown's block-long food-cart communities. Prime stop: Nong's Khao Man Gai for Thai chicken and rice, the best you can imagine, bundled with fried chicken skin and luscious hunks of liver. Early or late evening: a barrel-aged Negroni at Clyde Common is a must. Dinner is Ox, a mash-up of Argentine barbecue and Portland bravado. Head to Castagna for otherworldly modernist desserts imagined by a former WD-50 alum. But the beauty of Portland is this: you don't need a "full bank account" to feel nourished and entertained.
How do you avoid gaining weight? Do you have a particular workout plan?
A weekly pork shabbat. Only way to survive Porklandia. Once a week, give the pig a rest. A Jewish girl has got to do that sometimes.
Why should people buy your book before booking their trip?
It's jam-packed with cool stories; it will direct you to places that have been celebrated by hard-to-impress, "I've seen-it-all" critics from such food meccas as New York City, and it will ensure you can make a B-line directly to the iconic dishes from America's most original food destination.
First, peel off the cover to the book: The B-Side is a map to "The Mighty 100: Portland's Most Inspired, Hunger-Mitigating, Thirst-Quenching Outposts." Between the covers is another dimension: the bizarre narratives, the provenance of palate-slaying dishes, the untold stories, photographs, and the first collection of pivotal recipes from the meat slayers, locavore obsessives, food carters, slow food fiends and edgy chefs who created a food town like no other.
For example, at the original Pok Pok, the boar collar in iced mustard greens and the perfume of fresh cilantro root are more delicious for understanding Andy Ricker's leap into the void and determination to bring real Thai food to America, even if it cost him his rock 'n roll T-shirt. When you pull up a communal seat at Beast, and dive into an offal offering for a king, this extreme local cooking will taste that much more powerful knowing that it's the product of an ambitious talent who scrapped her way from broke single mom to fierce Top Chef Masters competitor. Ultimately, these are tales of culinary obsession and perseverance. Reading them will make the heat hotter, the absurd richer, and bring the Portland food stalker that much closer to nirvana.
The TV show Portlandia focuses A LOT on food. Are you a fan of the show? Does it ever hit too close to home?
Spoiler alert: Portlandia is not a documentary. Even more shocking: the truth may be funnier than the show (which is very funny).
More about Andy Ricker. Are you happy or sad he's spending less time in Portland?
New York is a notorious graveyard for food-world transplants. Outsiders seeking a slice of the Big Apple rarely pierce the skin. Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker, Atera’s Matt Lightner and Stumptown’s Duane Sorenson not only succeeded but changed conversations. That's good for Portland. It proves one of the book's theories: Portland is a laboratory, a spawning ground. It’s an oven, if you will, for the kind of creativity that Phil Knight demonstrated when he made his first Nike show sole on a griddle iron. I just reported that Ricker's next project is a Thai noodle house, with options rarely seen in America. His Sen Yai or "Big Noodle" opens in Portland this spring. Maybe it will be a template for other markets. But Portland is his home. As he put it: "Never left, never will."
Is there a menu item or ingredient or preparation you just cannot deal with?
I like nuanced heat, not Novocain. I can get Novocain at the dentist...plus laughing gas.
Are you a fan of any other restaurant critics around the country?
LA Times' Jonathan Gold is my hero. The likes of Homer, Nietzsche and Joseph Beuys roam his narratives, without ever veering off point or missing a bite of detail. Seattle has a little-known posse of smart girl reviewers: Kathryn Robinson (Seattle Met), Providence Cicero and Rebekah Denn (Seattle Times) and Hanna Raskin (Seattle Weekly).
What's the worst part of your job?
Deadline stress. I'm a driven perfectionist. It's not pretty. Breaking restaurant news stories online is the worst. Fact checkers and in-depth edits are rare in the blogosphere. I'm slightly dyslexic, and have butchered names on occasion.
And the best part about your job?
I can have a great conversation with anyone.
If you could review restaurants in another city in the world, where would it be?
Moscow. Money, oligarchs, black markets, all-night restaurants, a food-obsessed nation. That would be blast. I love weaving stories of food, culture and characters. Obsessives. Outsider genius cooks. The unexpected story. That's what drives me.
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