The Cabbie Knows

In Portland, Taxi Drivers Are Tuned Into the Food Scene

illustration by Lisa Kirkpatrick

The shuttle to my hotel had already left the airport and it was beginning to mist, so I opted for a cab ride into downtown Portland. When I explained to the driver that I was in town for a convention of culinary professionals, the name of the organization didn't mean anything to him but he knew just the same. "Oh, yeah, the thing Julia Child's here for?" he asked, explaining that he'd seen the nation's most identifiable culinary celebrity on a local TV program promoting a kick-off event with "that Galloping guy (Graham Kerr), Yan Can (Martin Yan), and Caprial (Pence)." It's true, I thought, everybody does know Julia. I don't do nearly as much traveling as I'd like, so attending the 20th annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) was quite a treat. Going to Portland for the first time afforded me the opportunity to meet and learn from people whose work I've long admired, renew acquaintances I'd made at the Greenbrier Food Writer's Symposium in 1996, and spend more time talking to cab drivers in one week than in the rest of my life, total. Little did I know the first night that every Portland cabbie I encountered would be tuned into the Portland food scene and have culinary nuggets to share.

The driver asked me to give Julia his regards and dropped me in front of the Benson Hotel (309 SW Broadway, 503/228-2000), a charming turn-of-the-century hotel recommended by Chronicle co-workers. Green Gourmet caterer Diana Welsch was relaxing in a comfy chair in front of a roaring fire in the Benson lobby. Being greeted by a friendly Austin face made me feel right at home even though I'd just arrived in a strange city without my luggage. The desk clerk handed me a message from Bertram's chef Miguel Ravago, inviting me to a dinner party in honor of his book. With the address in hand, Diana and I hailed a cab and went off in search of the party. Downtown Portland was buzzing, even on a Tuesday night. The cabbie wasn't familiar with the restaurant but suggested that in that newly trendy neighborhood, we might have trouble getting in without a reservation. However, he assured us downtown was a safe place for us to be out at night. It was beginning to look like Portland cab drivers know about food and restaurants the way Austin cabbies must know about music venues and movie locations. In minutes, we'd found the inviting light spilling from the windows of Cafe Azul (112 NW Ninth Street, 503/525-4422).

Sisters Claire and Shawna Archibald closed the original location of their little Mexican restaurant in the Oregon wine country town of McMinnville last summer and moved their operation into town, to an area known as the Pearl District, where galleries, upscale shops, trendy restaurants, and bakeries are popping up in remodeled warehouses. Sound familiar? Cafe Azul is long and narrow with a 50-seat dining room in front, a bar in the middle, and the kitchen in back. It's all soft lighting, blond wood, and understated decor embellished with the tantalizing aromas of robust Mexican fare.

Chef Claire Archibald's menu features a small selection of traditional Interior Mexican dishes prepared with imported chiles and the freshest regional produce she can find. Locally grown cress graces a salad and the queso fundido is made with local Vella jack cheese. The Sopa de Mariscos features Prince Edward Island mussels and steamer clams in a broth with guajillo peppers and garlic. The ethereal corn tortillas are handmade and the homemade chips are long, thin strips of the tortillas, deep fried to a golden crisp. We enjoyed appetizers of the chips with three sauces and Tlycoyos, two gordita-like boats with crispy pork cracklings in the masa, topped with epazote, salsa verde, and crumbly cotija cheese. The best entree I tasted was the Manchamanteles, literally "tablecloth stainer," a dish of boneless lamb braised in a smoky, sweet-hot sauce of chiles, pineapples, and plantains. We used the seemingly endless supply of delicate fresh tortillas to mop up every drop of the richly flavored sauce. Travel weary and tortilla stuffed, we were grateful it was only a short cab ride back to the Benson.

The next night, as I was getting in a cab outside the Benson, a tall, lanky figure strode out of the hotel door attired in black from his boots to his fedora and pipe. "There's that guy, uh, what's that guy's name, you know, the character actor?" asked the cabbie, pointing as we passed the dark figure on our way down the street. The man was Vincent Schiavelli, familiar character actor and cookbook author who was attending the conference to promote his new book Bruculinu, America (Chapters/Houghton-Mifflin, $24 hard) and act as master of ceremonies at the Julia Child Cookbook Awards. The presentation was held in Portland's Arlene Schnitzler Auditorium, a refurbished vaudeville house somewhat reminiscent of our Paramount Theatre. Schiavelli's hammy performance added a touch of Hollywood to an event which is already described as the "Oscars for cookbooks." It was exciting to be in the audience when Cocina de la Familia (Simon & Schuster, $30 hard), the book that local chef Miguel Ravago co-authored with Marilyn Tausend, was awarded the crystal whisk in the American regional category. It was also very satisfying to see potential new Austinite Deborah Madison win both the general category and book of the year with Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway Books, $40 hard), illustrated with photos by Austinite Laurie Smith. After the awards, we attended a tasting banquet presented by 30 of the Northwest's best chefs before returning to the Benson lobby bar to drink champagne in honor of the successes of our friends old and new.

The next day, on the way to the Portland Convention Center for the first official day of conference seminars, the driver asked what convention I was attending. When I explained, he asked, "So, do you know Caprial? I've driven people from all over the world to eat at Caprial's place. She's really put Portland on the map." Indeed, the popularity of her syndicated cooking programs on The Learning Channel and PBS has delivered an international clientele to Caprial's Bistro & Wine (7015 SE Milwaukie Ave., 503/236-6457), the cozy 39-seat neighborhood eatery run by the husband-and-wife chef team of Caprial and John Pence. Caprial Pence sold out two nights of cooking classes in Austin last January and at that time she described the planned expansion of their restaurant which was to have been completed in time for the anticipated convention crowds. When Central Market cooking school director Kathy Cochran-Lewis and store manager Gary James had lunch there during our stay, they found that the Portland building permit process had held up the expansion; it probably wouldn't be completed until August, a problem many Austin restaurateurs surely understand. Pence expects to be back at Central Market in the fall, perhaps with husband John in tow this time.

A free evening on the town Thursday night found the Austin contingent spreading out around downtown Portland. Diana Welsch sampled the acclaimed eaux-de-vie of the Clear Creek Distillery, where they make hand-crafted fruit brandies with the extraordinary fruit of Oregon's Hood River Valley. Later, she feasted on wild Northwest sturgeon with new friends at the Heathman Hotel restaurant (1001 SW Broadway, 503/241-4100), a dinner she des-cribed as "possibly the best meal I've eaten, ever." Schlotzsky's executive pastry chef Rebecca Rather and the Central Market folks attended an IACP Foundation benefit barbecue with Julia Child. I found that my chosen travel reading — Micheala Roessner's The Stars Dispose, a historical novel about an apprentice chef in Renaissance Italy — put me in the mood for Italian food. Dining at Piatti (319 SW Broadway, 503/525-0945), just next door to the hotel, I savored a rich, creamy lamb risotto with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and local goat cheese that was certainly fit for Caterina de Medici's Florentine kitchen. Later, I met friends in the Benson Lobby Court bar, now the unofficial schmooze central for the convention. Imagine the Four Seasons lobby bar during SXSW with agents and editors instead of record company execs and you've got the picture.

Late Friday afternoon, our group did some daylight exploring in the Pearl district, with a chatty cab driver as our guide. He pointed out a couple of popular clubs in case we were interested in nightlife and delivered us to the legendary independent Powell's Book Store which houses an entire city block of books, including thousands of cookbooks. During the ride, we gobbled buttery shortbread cookies from the Pearl Bakery (102 NW Ninth, 503/827-0910). While he was looking in the Oregonian's weekly dining and entertainment section for a restaurant where Diana could get smoked salmon hash for breakfast, the cabbie came across a restaurant ad and launched into a sales pitch for a highly regarded Portland Tex-Mex restaurant. The place he described reminded me of a story I'd read in the American-Statesman last year. A transplanted Portland journalist named Joel Weinstein lamented the fact that Austin had no genuine Tex-Mex food to compare to the fare at his favorite Portland joint. I'd dismissed Weinstein's story with a laugh when I read it, and he left Austin for Dallas before I even had a chance to discuss it with him. I had the cabbie tear out the ad and I put it in my purse.

The seminars ended Saturday afternoon with a master class in culinary problem-solving with the conference Scholar-in-Residence, Atlanta food scientist/cooking teacher Shirley O. Corriher. Taking a class with Corriher or researching a problem in her book CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking (Wm. Morrow, $40 hard) is like having a wise, jovial grandmother or aunt looking over your shoulder in the kitchen, imparting invaluable cooking wisdom and common sense. And, she's one of the few people who can tell funny stories about Julia Child and get away with it. After her hilarious, informative class, I hailed a cab and went looking for Tex-Mex food, Portland style.

Esparza's Tex-Mex Cafe (2725 SE Ankeny, 503/234-7909) is a funky little joint decorated in true Tex-Mex fashion. Stuffed examples of small Texas wildlife (snakes, armadillos, snapping turtles, bobcats, etc.) adorn the ceiling, along with a collection of brightly dressed Mexican marionettes. A genuine set of longhorns grace the top of the mirror behind the bar where the stools are covered with cowhide-patterned vinyl. The chef/proprietor is congenial Uvalde native Joe Esparza, descendant of the proud Tejano family of an Alamo defender. Joe's cafe has been winning awards in Portland for nearly eight years now.

Esparza describes his two main culinary influences as his mother, who brought home many German foodways from the home where she worked as a cook during his childhood, and an uncle who served smoked wild game meats in his Uvalde-area bar. Esparza orders his chiles from Hatch, New Mexico and makes his own masa for the handmade tamales served every day. The cafe's eclectic menu features tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and plenty of Esparza's specialty smoked meat dishes served with his mother's German-inspired fresh mashed potatoes. The table hot sauce would pass muster in any Austin Tex-Mex joint and the chips were homemade. The only misstep was a frozen margarita made with that nasty foamy green mix. As soon as I bit into the Wild Boar Guisado With Chile Colorado, I knew this guy was the real deal. However, I let him bring a slice of smoked pork loin stuffed with ostrich and buffalo in a chipotle mushroom sauce, a cheese chile relleno in a perfect lacy egg batter coating, a smoked turkey tamale, and a lovely, quivering flan, just to make sure. When I was done, the restaurateur himself called me a cab and walked me to the curb when it arrived. If you find yourself homesick for Texas in Portland, go see Joe.

Just as I was beginning to get my bearings in Portland, it was time to come home. I'd fallen in love with the city and its delightful cuisine. I mean, any city where you can get a bountiful, elegant salad of fresh, sweet Dungeness crab, field greens, and crisp spring asparagus from hotel room service is alright with me. Though I'm extremely proud of my newly acquired cab hailing expertise, the hotel bus to the airport was considerably cheaper, so I took the bus Sunday morning. It was cheap, efficient, convenient... and very disappointing. I'd quickly come to expect rides where I learned something new about Portland and its food. The bus driver simply delivered me to the airport on time.

The plane trip back was a harrowing, anxiety attack-inducing nightmare, but when I stumbled out of Mueller airport into a quintessentially muggy Austin night, my stress dissolved in the familiar steam. The friendly cab driver laughed at my pitiful airplane story and explained that he was driving a cab at 1am to help finance completion of his documentary film on his Seminole Indian heritage. How Austin is that?

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