Beertown is Keeping it Weird

Lompoq Pub
Lompoq Pub

All photos by Christine Campbell. 

My sister once stated that Portland, Oregon, by far, was her favorite US city. From Vancouver, Canada – it is a mere 5-½ hour drive - so last May, we decided to take a little trip and hit the road, exploring all there is to see, eat, drink and do.

We booked into The Nines Hotel located on SW Morrison Street in the heart of the Pioneer District inside the landmark Meier and Frank Building. The interior design was contemporary with a feminine edge.  There were two restaurants on site, The Urban Farmer and Departures Restaurant.  Urban Farmer was located on the main lobby level in the centre of a well-lit atrium.  Departures is a rooftop restaurant with a buzzing evening cocktail hour and Asian fusion fare.

On our first evening, we asked the ever so friendly valet where he would go with his friends for a casual burger and a beer.  His answer was our first destination – The Rialto Poolroom Bar and Café.  This establishment has been owned and operated since 1920.  It was a local spot where the hospitality industry people gather and the vibe is casual and inviting.  The burger and beer did not disappoint.  We both had the Alder burger that came with bleu cheese, bacon, and sautéed red onion – a hearty meal for two tired travelers.

Rock Bottom Brewery
Rock Bottom Brewery

We didn’t have a set plan for our time in Portland, but definitely wanted to hit some of the craft breweries.  First stop was Rock Bottom Brewery, which has been going for 19 years.  It is a chain with 38 locations across the U.S. and it is clear that the draw is its excellent beer, great food and wonderful staff.  We were treated very well and I met the brewmaster, Charlie Hutchins, who has been brewing beer here for over 6 years.  His favorite beer and most popular among guests is the Kolsh style German beer with a floral and hop finish.  At 4.9% abv. It is the lightest in body.  I had the traditional Maiwiener – which is a Vienna lager made for the month of May and it was refreshing and crisp.

After lunch, we got our Converse sneakers on and headed down to the popular Pearl District just north of downtown.  It is here that I found my favorite bookstore on the planet Powell’s Books, which is the world’s largest new and used independent bookstore.  A booklover could literally spend days on end in this labyrinth of row upon row of books…it was sheer book-geek heaven.  Everything was well organized and there were store maps peppered throughout on the walls in case you got lost…it was that big.

After some serious book shopping, it was beer time again. We headed into a huge, low-rise building that looked like a log cabin – the famous Deschutes Brewery.  Since 1988, this  family owned and operated brewery has gained notoriety both locally and internationally.  I had the brewer’s creation sample tray of 6 beers, of which Session Obsession (an American IPA with 70 IBUs with tropical and citrus notes) and Smooth Hoperator (their latest experimental Pale Ale with 55 IBUs and apricot notes) were my favorites and my sister went for a pint of the Pine Mountain Pilsner with 5.2% abv. and 40 IBUs.

Rialto Poolhall
Rialto Poolhall

That evening, we returned to The Rialto for their by-request 80s dance party located downstairs in the Jack London Bar.  It was luck of the draw with what was played, but the DJ chose excellent tracks from the requests the crowd had hand written down for him.  Cheap drinks, cool people and 80s music on a Friday night? What more can two gals on vacation ask for?

On Saturday, I booked us seats for a craft brewery tour called Brewcycle where riders choose either an 11-person or 15-person bike to tour breweries around the city. Our bike was called ‘Jimmy Googins’ and it was the 11-person variety.  We were told to select a DJ for the trip as they have speakers for the bike set up for iPhone capability.  That added to the experience, especially after the group started to loosen up.  I met a group of women who graduated from high school together and now meet up once a year for a mini-reunion.  There were also two grad students from California there with two of their friends who lived in Portland, but hadn’t done a craft beer tour before.

Andrea and Jimmy were our hosts at Brewcycle, and told me a few interesting facts about Portland.  Namely, that there are more brew pubs, coffee shops and strip clubs per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.! Brewcycle has been in operation for 3 years and stops off at a handful of brew pubs.  Our tour included Quimby’s, which have food trucks attached in the parking lot, Lompoq Brewing and, finally, BridgePort Brewing Company, which is the oldest of the bunch and celebrating their 30th year.

They don't call it "City of Books" for nothing!
They don't call it "City of Books" for nothing!

The cost for this tour is $25 on the weekend and $20 mid-week.  You need to purchase whatever you want to drink/eat at each location and you only get 25 minutes per stop.  This timing takes into account travel from place to place.  I was unsure if 25 minutes per spot was ample but the tour is intended to be an introductory craft brewery tour so that you can then go back later to your favorites and spend more time.  I, personally, liked the balance of biking and then rushing inside to order.  The music from the DJ got louder as the tour proceeded and there was a narrow plank of wood behind the driver that served as an impromptu dance floor – fun!  The tour was a total of 2 hours and I left feeling that I met some great people and experienced a different side of Portland – cycling slowly through the quaint, sunny streets I was able to relax and take in the scenery.  When walking, I seem to be focused on my destination.  Here, on a bike with 10 other people, I was able to enjoy the journey of moving from place to place.  When we passed by pubs and restaurants, people actually smiled and some waved.  And, of course, along the way we tasted some great beer.

We took some mellow shopping time after the tour and then headed out for dinner at the suggestion of one of the nicest cashiers I have ever met who looked after us at Nordstrom’s Rack.  We went to Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen on 835 SW 2ND Ave.  My sister is a huge Vietnamese cuisine fan and she said it might have been the best she has ever tasted.  We shared two small plates – the first was cream cheese wontons with a sweet and sour sauce that was a delicate balance of creaminess and spice.  Then we had sugar cane shrimp, shrimp meat wrapped around a sugar cane…a must!  Finally, we had our Pho – mine was the tofu and veggie and my sister had the Tom Yum with lemongrass and avocado. It is not a traditional restaurant in that you walk in the door and sit down and wait. Here, you order first, pay, and then they sit you. It flowed like a well-oiled machine, the turnover was impressive (and immaculate despite of this) and the portions were just the right size.  Even though it was busy, I never felt rushed and it never sounded too loud.  It is a fantastic dining experience with exotic flavors and bustling energy.

Lu Lac Vietnamese restaurant
Lu Lac Vietnamese restaurant

It was time to return home on Sunday. As we drove North back to Canada, we both said that Portland needs to stay weird and awesome – because that is exactly what it is.

The Nines Hotel

The Rialto Poolroom

Deschutes Brewery

Brewcycle Tours

Powells Bookstore

Rock Bottom Brewery

Luc Lac Kitchen