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Saturday, November 5th, 2005

Portland Trip

I’m still trying to catch up on posts, and yet I still seem to be almost two months behind on everything…

Here are the food highlights from my trip to Portland (Oregon) over Labor Day weekend:

Friday, 9/2/05

  • We arrived at our “downtown” hotel (which was nowhere near downtown, but for $40 per night via priceline we couldn’t complain too much). We decided to have a cocktail at the hotel bar, mainly because it was named “The Speckled Rooster”. It smelled like bleach and cigarettes, but after several cocktails neither of us cared. After a few hours I realized that I needed food, but even in my inebriated state I knew better than to eat at The Speckled Rooster.
  • We walked (stumbled?) down the street and found a restaurant called Colosso, where I encountered the worst drink I’ve ever had in my life. It was so bad that I’ve managed to purge the details from my mind, but I can tell you that it tasted like the bad, bitter Chinese medicine my grandma gives me when I’m sick. Despite the awful drinks, we had some great food: an enormous plate piled high with delicious cheeses, various salami and a wonderful cayenne-spiked fruit chutney. We also tried some charred lamb skewers with great, spicy, cucumber riata.

Saturday, 9/3/05

  • The next morning I was craving a big breakfast (a.k.a. hung-over) and B suggested Milo’s City Café. When I saw how many different kinds of eggs benedict they had on the menu, I was smitten. My eggs benedict came with pepper bacon, tomato and a wonderful, light and lemony hollandaise. I was full after the benedict, but my meal also came with a bowl of fresh fruit and a giant helping of yummy, deep fried potatoes.
  • After too much (window) shopping in Portland’s gorgeous kitchen stores, I wanted lunch outside and near the water. There weren’t too many choices, so we ended up at Three Degrees Restaurant at the RiverPlace Hotel. It skewed a touch too yuppie for my taste, but on this lazy, sunny Saturday afternoon it was perfect. We settled into rocking chairs on the enormous Southern-style wrap around deck and drank vodka lemonades and people watched. We made a light snack out of the house smoked salmon salad—which was surprisingly tasty.
  • For dinner, we went to one of my favorite restaurants in Portland: Gino’s. It’s not fancy by any means, but it serves really great Italian food in a down-home atmosphere. We started with an incredible scampi appetizer, which was basically a pile of shrimp sautéed in a ridiculous amount of garlic and wine. The shrimp were perfectly cooked and the broth was heavenly with the accompanying wedges of garlic bread. I was saddened to hear they were out of porchetta that night, and I reluctantly ordered a simple, seared rib-eye steak. It was incredible. The steak was tender and flavorful and didn’t need any accompaniment except a touch of salt. Alongside was a nice sauté of fresh veggies. The only misstep on the plate was the mashed potatoes; they tasted fine but were ice cold. B had the seafood pasta, which was a lot like a bouillabaisse over pasta and it featured incredible, plump mussels, more shrimp, calamari and other bits of fish.

Sunday, 9/4/05

  • On Sunday we went to my favorite breakfast spot in Portland: Byways Cafe. To me, this is the epitome of a diner; comfy, kitschy, Americana style, a bustling and saucy waitstaff, and simple, but good breakfast fare. Oh, and really delicious table jam that tastes homemade.
  • I think we were petering out on food at this point, so we skipped lunch and had a quick, early dinner at La Buca. La Buca is a very casual, Italian eatery that is known for panini. I was torn between panini or the pulled pork over soft polenta; pulled pork won out. Unfortunately, it was a little greasy and the flavor tasted slightly off. B ordered the penne with four cheeses and sausage, which was pretty damn good.
  • After dinner we decided to grab a drink at Doug Fir. The space was absolutely amazing and the mix of materials was mind boggling; it was like a super-hip and modern log cabin. I fell in love with the place instantly. Unfortunately, the place was so crowded, noisy and pretentious that we didn’t stay long. It’s rumored that Doug Fir has excellent breakfasts, so next time I’m in Portland that will be a must.

Monday, 9/5/05

  • By our last day, we were thoroughly burned out on eating out, so we ordered in. Hotel breakfasts at high-end hotels are never that great, so it follows suit that hotel breakfasts at cheap hotels would be even worse. The eggs tasted fake, the bacon was burnt and the biscuits resembled paper weights. The hot chocolate transported us back to childhood camping trips with Swiss Miss on the campfire. Oddly enough, the combination of all these breakfast items was strangely satisfying and comforting.

Since this was a vacation, I decided to give my camera a break as well. Although, I just had to snap a picture of this license plate. I couldn’t resist.

Saturday, April 23rd, 2005

Pot pies at the beach

On our last full day in Newport, the weather had turned cold and stormy. After so much excitement crabbing the previous day, we were more than content to stay indoors and relax. Although, towards the end of the day I convinced K to go with me to the aquarium.

I had read rave reviews about the Oregon Coast Aquarium, so I was really excited to see it. I had even read that it’s one of the best aquariums in the country. If this is true, then we must have some lame aquariums. Or maybe I’m just spoiled by my last visit to the Vancouver Aquarium. The Oregon Coast Aquarium tank displays seemed terribly uninspired and even the informational displays were as bare bones as possible. The two things that I did like were the circular tank of seductively lit jellyfish and the gigantic octopus. The octopus gave us quite a show, coming out from his hiding place to demonstrate wall climbing techniques.

Later that night, we thought about eating at one of the fancier places in Newport—April’s or Saffron Salmon. We stopped by both to check out the menus. They sounded great, but in the end we decided that our room had the best view in town and, on a whim, I had brought up a few frozen pot pies from my freezer.

Let me just say that these are no ordinary pot pies. They are pot pies sent down from the heavens. They are made from scratch with tender, perfectly cooked chicken, fresh vegetables and amazing homemade gravy. And if that isn’t enough, they are topped with a buttery, puff-pastry crust and sprinkled with a touch of paprika. I wish I could say that I had made them, but I actually bought them at A&J Meats on Queen Anne. It had always been my intention to perfect my pot pie recipe, but once I discovered these at A&J’s, I just gave up; it seemed impossible to improve upon them. That is until K mentioned the lobster pot pie recipe in Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. I may need to try that one…

Friday, April 22nd, 2005

Crab vs. Mink

On our second day in Newport, we woke up to unexpectedly glorious weather—one of those days where it’s hot out before 9am. I had seen crab rentals in the lobby and decided that today was the day I’d catch my first crab.

I didn’t have the first clue about crabbing. I assumed we’d rent a crab ring in the morning, toss it into the water, go play and check on it the next day. The woman at the rental counter laughed and said if we did that we wouldn’t catch any crabs. I was confused—didn’t the crabs just walk into the trap and not come out? I had heard tales of crustacean cannibalism… maybe the crabs ate each other if they spent too much time in a confined area. Or maybe someone would steal our crabs if we left the ring unattended? We decided to check out the town first and then come back and spend the rest of the day crabbing.

We drove through Newport’s main street; it was touristy, as predicted, but also kind of cute and the perfect place for a family with young kids. We drove a little further and ended up on Historic Nye Beach. It was breathtaking… in more ways than one. The beach was unbelievably beautiful, but it also was unbelievably smelly. There were thousands of tiny, bright purple jellyfish washed up on the beach and rotting in the sun. When a jelly completely dried up it left behind a hard little disk, about the size of a half-dollar, and it looked like a translucent computer chip. I was fascinated with the jellyfish, but they smelled so bad that we had to leave.

On our way back we drove through the town of Nye Beach, which was the exact opposite of Newport’s tourist strip; upscale and understated. It was weird how different each area was, considering they’re less than a mile apart. In Nye Beach we stopped at the cutest little deli (Village Market & Deli) and purchased some delicious provolone and hard salami for lunch.

When we got back to the hotel, we changed into more appropriate crabbing attire and headed back down to the rental desk. I asked a million questions and finally figured out that the crab ring lies flat on the bottom of the water, so the crabs can walk in. Then when the ring is pulled to the surface, it forms a basket that catches the crabs. A crab ring is rented for a period of 24 hours ($8) and you can crab for as long as you want within that time period. The ring rental came with a large bucket and a green plastic ruler for measuring the crabs. We also had to purchase two crabbing licenses ($6.50 each) and I bought a pair of plastic coated gloves ($3) that I figured would come in handy. Now all we needed was bait. The brochure I picked up said that the bait should be as smelly as possible: our choices were chicken or mink. I assumed the mink would smell more than the chicken (an understatement), so we purchase a frozen mink (sans head, tail or feet) for $2.50. I calculated that we’d need to catch at least three crabs in order to break even since I had seen $9 fresh crabs for sale in town.

We headed out to the hotel’s private dock with our crabbing supplies, a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips and a few Rainers. I still wasn’t exactly sure what we were doing, but there was no one else on the dock to pepper with questions; we had to wing it. The first step was baiting our trap. I unwrapped the mink and was hit with a putrid smell—despite being frozen. Between one frozen mink and thousands of rotting jellyfish, the jellyfish are surprisingly better smelling. I was hoping I could get away with not touching the mink, but I couldn’t grip the string with the gloves. Holding my breath, I tied the mink to the bottom of the trap as quickly as I could. It ended up looking exactly like a giant, trussed pork loin.

We lowered the ring into the water, popped open our beers and discussed strategy. K wouldn’t touch the crabs, so we decided that she would pull up the ring and I would grab the crabs. And safety first; if K got nervous she was to ditch the ring back into the water. K asked what we’d do with the crabs that were under the allowed size of 5.75 inches. I said I’d gently place them in the water and they’d float back down to their home.

We were anxious and didn’t have a watch to tell if the recommended 20 minutes had passed (I’m pretty sure it was only 5), so we decided to pull up the ring and see what we had caught. K cautiously pulled up the net while I took pictures. I was thrilled to see that there were about six crabs in our net! Most of them were under the required size—so small that they could crawl through the net and onto the dock. We didn’t account for this in our strategy, so some excitement ensued. I ended up running around the ring, herding the escaped crabs back into the water while K screamed and pointed when they got loose. Finally we were left with one, giant crab. Just as I was getting ready to put it into our bucket, we remembered that we had to check the sex (you’re only allowed to keep male crabs). I flipped it over and was crushed to find it was a female. Before putting it back in the water, I wanted a picture of me holding my first crab. K was getting the camera when I felt a hard pinch through the gloves. I screamed at the top of my lungs and hurled the crab back into the water, screaming “It BIT me! That f*cker BIT me!” while K laughed. Our first pull was a bust, so we lowered the crab ring back into the water.

Each subsequent pull yielded many more little crabs, but also a few male ones that were large enough to keep. We learned that tossing the ring as far out as we could returned better crabs. I also learned that gently placing the crabs back in the water is neither wise nor practical. I quickly realized how vicious and strong crabs are and I ended up throwing them off the dock as quickly as I could. One crab was holding on so tightly that I couldn’t get him to budge. I was pulling on him as hard as I could while Kelly tried to saw off the piece of mink he was clutching with the ruler (didn’t work).

On the fifth or sixth pull, K pointedly informed me that she couldn’t do this anymore. I was confused since she seemed to be holding up pretty well. Finally she pointed at the mink. Oh. The crabs had gotten to the mink insides. I told her not to look and that I’d take care of it. Ahem. Could I really do this? Our mink meat was about a foot and a half long and at least two feet of intestines were hanging out. All I needed to do was pull the guts out and get rid of them so it didn’t look so gruesome. I pulled. And pulled—all the while screaming at K not to look. She’d die if she saw what I was seeing.

I don’t think degutting an animal can be compared to anything else in life. The best I can say is that it was like pulling a tissue out of a brand-new Kleenex box. I mean, there’s not much resistance, but you do have to tug a little and the sound is not so pretty. I was losing my nerve, but I figured if I didn’t do this, K couldn’t go on—and she was already being an incredible sport considering she’s doesn’t even eat seafood. I kept screaming at K not to look as I yanked and yanked. About five feet of intestines came out and with one last tug, came free. Whew! Then I realized the guts were entwined in the net. “Don’t look!” I screamed. I was slightly hysterical at this point, partly because I was feeling queasy and partly because I thought it was hilarious that we were making such an incredible scene.

After a brief struggle, I got the intestines unwound from the net and tossed them into the water. “I got it! I got it! Oh, NOOOOO! Wait… don’t look… uh… we have a problem…” I’m practically doubled over with laughter at this point. “F*ck! The guts FLOAT… don’t look!” I was trying to figure out how to make the intestines sink when an entire flock of seagulls swooped down on me. I hit the deck and covered my head for protection. I was combination screaming, crying and laughing “Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!” while two gulls grabbed the entrails on each side and I watched a horrifying and much less romantic version of the lady and the tramp spaghetti scene. I almost lost my lunch, but at least the entrails were finally gone.

We stayed out for almost three hours and caught six crabs total; three Dungeness and three Red Rock. The Red Rock crabs were a beautiful dark reddish color with bright purple highlights on their claws. The Dungeness just looked yummy. We fired up the crab pots located on the upper deck and relaxed in the sun with another well-deserved beer. Once our crabs were cooked and bright red, I covered them with ice and brought them back to our room. I shelled for about three hours that night and ended up with about 2 cups of crab meat. I melted a 1/4 stick of butter and dug in. It was the sweetest crab I’ve ever eaten.

When I got home and figured out what a mink was, I was horrified. They are ridiculously cute. When I found out they purr when they’re happy, I felt as if I’d just used a cat as bait. Will this be the simultaneous beginning and end of my crabbing days?

Thursday, April 21st, 2005

Newport beach, here we come…

My friend K is visiting from NY for two weeks and we thought it would be great to get away for a few days. My dad happens to have a timeshare condo in Newport, so we planned a trip down to the Oregon coast. Newport boasts a wax museum and a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”, so I was a little worried that it was going to be a tacky tourist town and wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

The first thing I didn’t expect was how long the drive would be. For some reason I had it my head that it was just past Portland, but it took more than five hours to get there (and we didn’t leave until noon because we were up till three in the morning the night before playing mah jong). The second thing I didn’t expect was how gorgeous it would be. When we arrived it was overcast and even still, the view of Yaquina Bay was unbelievable—sparkling clear water, working docks, boat marinas and a gorgeous bridge. Newport mainly consists of commercial fisherman and tourists, but our condo was at the far end of the main strip, so it was peaceful and pleasant.

Once we checked in, we wandered through our enormous accommodations. We were spoiled with two bedrooms—one in an upstairs loft complete with a spiral staircase, a fully outfitted kitchen, a dining area, a really comfortable living room, a fireplace, two bathrooms with two Jacuzzis and two large private decks, both with unobstructed 180 degree views of the bay. We were in heaven and couldn’t believe our good luck. After we called my dad to thank him profusely, we uncorked a bottle of wine, sat out on the deck (despite the chilly weather) and soaked in the view.

Even though it was only 6pm, I was hungry, so we decided to hit happy hour in the hotel restaurant ($3.50 French dips!). The restaurant had a lovely view of the marina, but was unfortunately also decorated like a marina: captains wheels, buoys, brass lanterns and the whole bit. And it being Early Bird time, the blue-haired were out in force. I looked around and giggled—at least it really felt like I wasn’t in Seattle anymore.

I ordered what quite possibly was the worst French dip I’ve ever eaten—and I’m pretty lenient when it comes to French dips. The bread was all wrong (rock-hard sourdough), the meat tasted sickly and the au jus was simply water tinted brown. The fries were pale and anemic and barely worth eating. K didn’t fare much better with her Caesar salad that was drowning in bottled dressing. But I was happy our meals were only $3.50 each, as the regular entrees were approaching the $30 range! I was also grateful that our condo had a kitchen. After dinner we went back to the room and spent more time on the deck, watching the lighthouse lights blink off and on, then fell asleep early from all that fresh air.

Thank you, thank you, thank you Dad!