A toast to the roast

Portland, greenie do-gooder capital? Kate Armstrong raises a glass of beer and a cup of fine coffee to that.

As hard as I might try, on my arrival in Portland, Oregon, I can't shake a scene from the American TV comedy Portlandia, shown on YouTube a few days earlier. The series' tongue-in-cheek humour takes the mickey out of Portlanders - their love of community, their efforts to save the planet and their preference for piercings and tribal tattoos.

One episode features two Portlanders who ask their waitress about the origins of a chicken dish. The chicken is, they are told, from a local farm, wholly organic and has led a happy life. The diners request further information. The waitress happily reappears with a dossier containing a picture of the chicken - and its name. It's a hilarious take on greenie do-gooders.

Although many of Portland's 570,000 citizens laugh about Portlandia (it's also a play on the name of the 11-metre female statue above the city's municipal building), I'm beginning to think, albeit in secret, the stereotype is partly true. My Lonely Planet guidebook, too, says Portland - also known as Stumptown, Beertown and the City of Roses - is a "haven for activists, cyclists, grungsters, vegetarians, outdoor nuts and dog lovers". So far, I've seen a good attempt at saving the environment and helping the community.

To start with, there's the public transport. To reach the city centre from the airport, we take modern light rail. The 45-minute trip costs just more than $US2 ($1.82). Several people using electronic wheelchairs smoothly manoeuvre their way on and off the carriages, thanks to ramps. A bicycle hangs from a hook inside the door, which is testament to Portland's reputation as the city of cycles: the 521 kilometres of bike lanes encourage cycling rather than driving.

Things have changed since 1844, when two settlers bought a claim to land here and tossed a coin for the name - Portland won over Boston. The settlement grew into a pretty and vibrant metropolis of low-rise buildings (testimony to the preservation of the city's retro constructions) and 12 bridges spanning the Willamette River. On the city's doorstep is the 2086-hectare Forest Park as well as the beautiful Portland Japanese Garden, said to be the most authentic outside Japan. Portland's once-grimy industrial riverfront is now part of the attractive Waterfront Loop, a five-kilometre bike path hugging both sides of the river.

Owing to the weather, we ditch our decision to ride bikes everywhere and catch buses instead. It doesn't rise above 12 degrees all week; even the local paper declares the city "Portlandic". The teeming rain - the city receives more than 922 millimetres of it a year - doesn't let up for a week. The clouds obliterate the landscape, including the much-feted Mount Hood and Mount St Helens - the volcanic mountain that erupted in 1980, killing 57 people.

Even without landmarks, Portland is easy to navigate. It's divided into quadrants. The Willamette River separates Portland from east to west and Burnside Street, a main boulevard, separates north and south; streets are prefixed with their orientation, "NE" (for north-east) and so on.

Each quadrant boasts its own neighbourhood and much of the city's appeal lies in these areas. Neighbourhoods are enclaves of cafes and bars, restaurants, eateries and boutique breweries. (Central Portland has more than 37 breweries; these would justify several weeks' worth of visit in itself; we simply don't have the time to do them justice.)


The south-west, or city centre, boasts the quirky Powell's Books, one of Portland's famous landmarks. This multi-level shop fills a city block and stocks an incredible 1 million books on three floors. It looks like a backdrop to a '50s sitcom, such is its retro facade and, as a popular meeting point, you won't be here long before someone mentions it. It's the doorway to the Pearl District, a former industrial area now successfully converted into fashionable apartments and artsy cafes and boutiques.

A stone's throw across the river, attractive streets are lined with Portland four-squares - handsome houses with pitched roofs. Daffodils and blossoms bloom in driveways, many of which have been converted to vegetable and herb gardens. (Heaven forbid the driveway be used for a car.)

The enclave along SE Hawthorne Boulevard is popular for its vintage stores, piled high with funky clothing and retro furniture; N Mississippi Avenue is home to one of the best recycled building-material warehouses in the world, chic boutiques and diverse gift shops. some of the best cafes can be found on SE Division Street and slightly further north, at Belmont Avenue. And cafes are a thriving industry.

Coffee conversation isn't limited to "flat white", "single origin" and "terroir", the latest word to enter coffee lovers' lexicon. Here, the talk is of methodology: from syphons to filters, espresso to pour-overs (hot water poured into filters from different heights).

At Portland's popular cupping - or tasting - sessions, bean boffins spout wine terms such as "deep berry notes" and "strawberry aromatics".

Our first introduction to Portland's bean scene is Stumptown Coffee Roasters. The city's original gourmet coffee house and quality micro-roaster is viewed affectionately by aficionados. We love it, too, until our earnest, bean-loving friend, Tom, introduces us to Heart. Heart roasts some of the best fair-trade beans around, sourced from Kenya, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Brazil and Bolivia. The cafe's interior is the coolest in coffee land: a garage-style space with a massive roaster in one corner, the bar in another, lines of blond-wood tables and '60s-style office chairs.

Our city-centre cafe favourite is Public Domain, where our dreadlocked barista concocts delightfully smooth blends. And if it's the coffee culture we - my coffee-snob partner and I - are here for, it's a full-on cuisine scene we get. Portland is foodie nirvana and, just a few kilometres from the city, the Willamette Valley wine region produces excellent pinot noir and pinot gris. The US Travel + Leisure magazine describes Portland as the food capital of the US.

Even Portland's "fast food" is to die for. Outdoor food carts - converted camper trailers - are clustered in central locations. These regulated street vendors are trained chefs who whip up dishes as creative as their names: Nong's Khao Man Gai is acclaimed for its chicken dishes, Mount Tabor makes a great "schnitzelwich" while Swamp Shack cooks great cajun. Plus, they are fun meeting spots for alfresco snacks.

Portland's Gore-Tex-loving locals embrace informality as much as they do smart fine dining (their rain jackets still come with them; coat hooks are an important part of a restaurant fitout). And diners are fanatical about local produce; that is, produce grown within 50 to 80 kilometres of the city. Menus frequently acknowledge the bounty of farmers and provedores who help to deliver "farm to table". Organic herbs are often foraged by the chefs themselves.

Markets, too, are integral to the "go local" scene. The popular Saturday central farmers' market has 140 vendors and 16,000 visitors. You can almost take it for granted that restaurants buy local and they go to great efforts to distinguish themselves in other ways, as we discover.

Bamboo Sushi, the first certified, sustainable-sushi restaurant in the world, avoids serving seafoods listed on the endangered-stocks register and ensures its seafood comes only from unthreatened sources. It serves some of the best sushi dishes I've ever eaten. Evoe at Pastaworks is renowned for its "in the moment" chef's surprise - the eatery is attached to a much-lauded produce store called Pastaworks and chefs conjure dishes with whatever ingredients are available that day.

Further north, at Natural Selection, a vegetarian eatery, chefs whip up a four-course gourmet menu before our eyes; a massive preparation bench graces the middle of the restaurant floor and copper pans hang from above. Unlike Natural Selection, little distinguishes the interior at Pok Pok. It doesn't need to. The owner of this Thai-themed eatery, Andy Ricker, is Portland's west coast answer to Australian Thai cuisine guru David Thompson. Think fresh Thai and delightfully zingy flavours and great spicy chicken wings.

Slightly further west, in Portland's redeveloping industrial district, is Olympic Provisions. This charcuterie-cum-eatery, in a warehouse conversion - all cement floors, wood and steel trim - is where hungry hipsters dine on some of the best meats around, all cured on site. Nearby, at the gourmet eatery Le Pigeon, mismatched vintage plates are the crockery of choice, while the wine glasses are designer Riedel, common in Portland restaurants. In a quirky twist, burgers are often on the menus at some of the city's best fine-dining experiences. Le Pigeon limits the burgers to five a night and people queue at 6pm so as not to miss out.

Portlanders make Australian diners seem Spanish in their dining hours; locals eat out early here. By 5.30pm, restaurants are already full with customers; happy hour extends way beyond cocktails - restaurants serve top-quality dinners at reduced prices to afternoon diners. We stand out by our late arrival.

But, we discover, we are obvious foreigners in other ways, too. First, we use umbrellas - locals seem oblivious to downpours and don't bother with such accessories. Second, we are tattooless. Portland's restaurant kitchens are like tapestry conventions; the forearms of most baristas and chefs sport brightly hued images, everything from bicycles and moths to smiling suns and new-age messages.

Indelible stains are apparent elsewhere; this is a city, after all. An artist tells us "for all its beauty and clean living, there's an underbelly to Portland". He's referring to the city's many pornographic stores and adult bookshops. And the rate of homelessness seems extraordinarily high. Under bridge overpasses are piles of sleeping bags and sodden blankets left abandoned as the homeless go about their day's business, including queueing at the city's food shelters. It's sobering stuff.

On our final morning, the clouds clear and the sun appears. The streets are a hive of cyclists. I sip on my final superlative coffee and buy a newspaper, The Oregonian. I count more than 19 advertising supplements. Given what we've experienced so far, I am surprised by the blip in environmental considerations. Or have I metamorphosed into a Portlander, such as that depicted in Portlandia? The archetypal community-minded, environment-focused, vegetable-growing greenie? Perhaps - it's hard not to here.

Even so, I'm still a diehard carnivore. Before departing, I order a dish comprising pork. My vegetarian partner raises his eyebrow as I can't help but ask: "What farm is the pig from? What type of organic process was used? Are the herbs grown or foraged?" I fall short - just - of asking its name.

The writer travelled with assistance from Portland Tourism.

Trip notes

Getting there

V Australia flies from Sydney to Los Angeles daily, from about $1600 return. 13 82 87, vaustralia.com.au. From LA, Alaska Airlines has connections to Portland, priced from $US400 ($370) return. alaskaair.com.

Staying there

A former department store, now a lovely luxury hotel, The Nines has a fabulous location in the heart of the city at 525 SW Morrison Street. Rooms from $US200 a night.

+1 877 229 9995, thenines.com.

Inn@Northrup Station has great rooms, with kitchenettes, from $US160 a night. 2025 NW Northrup Street. +1 503 224 0543, northrupstation.com.

The funky, minimalist and "so very Portland" Ace Hotel, at 1022 SW Stark Street, is a great summer option. Rooms from $US150 a night. +1 503 228 2277, acehotel.com.

Eating there

Natural Selection, 3033 NE Alberta Street. +1 503 288 5883, naturalselectionpdx.com.

Pok Pok, 3226 SE Division Street; +1 503 232 1387, pokpokpdx.com.

Evoe, 3735 SE Hawthorne Blvd; +1 503 232 1010, pastaworks.co.

Bamboo Sushi, 310 SE 28th Avenue. +1 503 232 5255, bamboosushipdx.com.

Olympic Provisions, 107 SE Washington Street. +1 503 954 3663, olympicprovisions.com.

Le Pigeon, 738 E Burnside Street. +1 503 546 8796, lepigeon.com.

Drinking there

Stumptown Coffee Roasters, 4525 SE Division Street. stumptowncoffee.com.

Public Domain, 603 SW Broadway. publicdomaincoffee.com.

Heart, 2211 E Burnside Street. heartroasters.com.

See + Do

The stunning two-hectare Japanese Garden in Portland's west hills drips with willows and cherry blossoms. Open daily, 611 SW Kingston Avenue. japanesegarden.com.

Powell's Books, 1005 W Burnside Street. +1 503 228 4651, powells.com.

More information

travelportland.com, bikeportland.org, foodcartsportland.com.

Top five green things to do in Portland

It's easy to be green in Portland. The city lends itself to all things sustainable.

1 Tour the city by bike. Pedal Bike Tours rides to breweries, parks and coffee haunts. pedalbiketours.com. If you prefer to explore on your own, rent a bike at Waterfront Bikes. waterfrontbikes.com.

2 Eat out — almost anywhere. Most restaurants support local producers, from organic chicken farmers to vegetable growers.

3 Drink organic, sustainable beer at Hopworks Urban Brewery (pictured). The brew kettle is fired by oil-converted biodiesel, used grains become cattle feed and the building is powered by wind energy. hopworksbeer.com /going_green.php.

4 Visit the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland's Chinatown. It was built on a former vacant parking lot. portlandchinesegarden.org.

5 Buy produce at one of the weekly farmers' markets. portlandfarmersmarket.org.