I am one lucky SOB in that one of my side hustles is taking me to Portland, Oregon a couple times per year. On the downside, when I do make it there I am obligated to be out in the suburbs from about 7AM-5PM on Saturday and Sunday, and I basically fly in late after work on Friday, teach all day Saturday and Sunday, and then fly out at midnight on Sunday. So, that leaves very little time to explore Portland, especially the coffee scene where most of the shops open and close about the same time I start and stop teaching. In the past I’ve crammed 1-3 places into the hour before or after my classes, but that’s not very fun. This time I got to go while I was on a two week break between trimesters, so I was able to tack on a half day at the beginning and end of my trip. So, here’s what I did with 1/2 of a Friday and 1/2 of a Monday (and Saturday and Sunday evenings… so I guess I’m cheating a little bit)! I had perfect weather (bright, clear, sunny days for the most part, no rain, highs in the low 70’s)!
I will say driving in Portland seemed way harder this time than the other 3-4 times I’ve been here. It’s probably only because I did so much more of it, and not at 6AM on Sat/Sun morning, when no one else is out and about! Between the crazy roads, construction, bike lanes and pedestrians, your driving game and awareness needs to be strong or someone will end up unhappy! I landed at PDX and was in my rental car by about 10AM on Friday, May 1. After getting my car, my first order of business was to jump over to Washington state and grab a Geocache so I could check off another state! Yes, I am a geek about more than just coffee!
Heading back into Portland the traffic was crazy. Pretty much stop and go, everywhere. I needed to be at Sterling Coffee Roasters to pick up some samples sometime after noon, so I had no real agenda. I started making my way back from Vancouver, WA (just over the Columbia River north of Portland) and quickly realized Siri was going to take me right past an area in the northeast part of town where I’ve been before… The main roads I know in this part of town are Killingsworth St and N. Albina Ave, so I told Siri to head for the Red E Café! Red E Café is a big, comfy place that also doubles as an art gallery. Their coffee, tea and cascara (“tea” made from the discarded skins of coffee cherries) are always solid.
I figured I’d be drinking a lot of espresso on my adventure because it’s fast, I love it, and it’s a great way to sample a fair amount of coffee without having to search for a bathroom 100 times or get caffeine poisoning! When I got to the Red E, I decided on their single origin washed Yirgacheffe. The other espresso they were pulling was their Colombia Coocentral Co-op and I’d had that the first time I visited. The Yirgacheffe was a good choice and I was off to a great start! Really full mouthfeel, berry jam and very dark artisanal chocolate all served up in a pretty, bright red ACF demitasse with a palate cleanser of sparkling water. This was a bright shot with a lot of lemon tones in it, too. A few bucks well-spent!
On a side note, there’s a great beer bar right next door to the Red E called Saraveza. I had a couple beers here with CJ From Tanager the last time I was in town and it has some well-curated taps. It’s also a very unpretentious neighborhood joint, so you don’t have to drink your beers with your pinky sticking out, unless you want to!
From there I swung down to Albina Press Coffee Shop, which is only 1/2 mile away down N. Albina Ave. I’d read about this shop a few times but their weekend times never jive with mine, so I knew this may be my only opportunity to try them out. This is a corner place, nice and big with lots of comfortable seating. I didn’t realize they only serve Stumptown coffee (which I’ve had many times), but I went ahead and lined up a $2.75 shot of Hairbender (and another sparking water… glad Portland has embraced this Italian tradition). I was rewarded with a more traditional shot featuring deeper notes of cocoa and caramel. It was good and a nice yin to the bright yang I just drank at Red E!
As I continued my way south I stopped at Coava, which I’d also never been able to get to with my teaching schedule. I was shocked by how big this place is! This place is enormous! And most of the space is just open, so I don’t know if it serves as gallery space or what, but for the size of Coava it had relatively sparse seating. I liked the workshop vibe, which leaned toward modern industrial. I threw caution to the wind at Coava and had their Kenya Gichuna single origin espresso (three espressos in about 30 minutes? No problem). It was super bright, as you’d expect, but had lots of sweetness and a complex cocoa finish. And a palate cleanser of sparkling water! They did a good job keeping the acidity from stripping the enamel off my teeth, but Kenyan SO espressos are not for the faint of heart and this was a really nice one. Three for three!
By this time it was still a ways until noon and I had never made it to one of the better known tourist (hey, I was touring, so I did tourist stuff and I gave zero cares!) destinations in Portland, Voodoo Doughnut. I’d first read about them years ago because of their infamous Nyquil doughnut (a glazed doughnut with a plastic shot glass of Nyquil stuck in the center!). By this time I’d been up for ten hours so I was ready to eat anything! Voodoo also happens to be across the street from the famous “Keep Portland Weird” sign (a slogan imported by way of Austin, TX) and at ground zero for downtown Portland activities, shops, restaurants, etc. I was prepared for a long line, but I walked right up and had the classic maple bacon bar (good) and Life’s a Peach peach fritter (also good, and has a 1/2″ layer of cream cheese icing on top!). Now I was amped on sugar AND espresso, so I did the only thing a sane person can do and headed to Sterling Coffee Roasters!
Sterling was yet another place I’d heard of but had never gotten to. It’s pretty far west relative to where I need to teach when I’m in Portland, so it’s always impossible for me to get there. This location (41 NW 21st Ave. in the Alphabet District of the northwest part of town) is this tiny, tiny little place, with a few itty bitty tables and a small coffee bar. We’re talking 10 people would feel cramped, but that made it intimate and I really loved the vibe. The two baristas were great, they had a cool Italian soundtrack going and it felt a little slice of Europe in the heart of PDX! I also loved that the baristas knew everyone in there by name and everyone who was there drinking coffee knew everyone else, too! So it’s definitely a neighborhood hangout for regulars, but people were very friendly and it wasn’t like the record player skipped when I walked in or anything.
I had the Deri Kochowa, another washed Ethiopian single origin espresso. Sterling serves their espresso in a tall glass that sort of funnels aroma right into your brain. And sparkling water! The presentation is great and the shot was tasty. One of the guys in there reading the paper told me he has that espresso about three times a week and that it was getting really good right now, so I’m glad I tasted it! I walked out with three bags of coffee that will be featured in reviews very soon!
Following what turned out to be excellent advice from the baristas and patrons, I walked a handful of blocks to Fish Sauce. The wait was pretty long, but it was a nice opportunity to sit outside on an absolutely perfect day and enjoy a gigantic bowl of pho (filet mignon and meatballs)! It was very, very good and very relaxing. I went to the Japanese Gardens for the rest of the afternoon and that was great. I was back in my hotel by 5:30PM and dead asleep by about 8PM, if not earlier, but when you are out of the house by 4:30AM central time, that’s a long day! Catch Part 2 soon…