Try to think of a food that isn't grown, raised or harvested in the Pacific Northwest, and you'll realize why in-the-know gourmands have been putting down roots in the region for decades. Outsiders, who have been slower to discover the abundance, now flock here for the food, seeking a taste of Northwest cuisine prepared by talented chefs who cook local, seasonal foods with an alluring simplicity.
The late James Beard (1903–85), an American chef, food writer and Oregon native, believed that preparing foods simply, without too many ingredients or complicated cooking techniques, allowed their natural flavors to shine. This philosophy has greatly influenced modern Northwest cuisine.
In some of Beard's writings, he describes his first tastes of wild mushrooms, herbs, truffles, berries and seafood, both in his hometown of Portland and on the coast at Gearhart, where he spent his childhood summers. Those tastes of foods at their seasonal prime shaped his reverence for quality ingredients.
In the spirit of James Beard, Pacific Northwesterners don't like to think of their food as trendy or fussy, but at the same time they love to be considered innovative, especially when it comes to 'green', hyperconscious eating. Don't be surprised if, when sharing a meal with locals, the conversation turns to how the food was prepared, grown, harvested, slaughtered or caught, which inevitably leads to conversations about the morals and ethics of its consumption. These are people who love to show off their homegrown vegetables, neighborhood-picked fruit, eggs gathered from backyard chickens and honey from nearby hives.
What do fried pies, burgers pressed between grilled cheese sandwiches, waffles slathered with Nutella, Thai street food, Italian-style espressos and poutine have in common? They're dishes served from some of Portland's most popular food carts. During the past few years, the number of food carts on the west coast has exploded as creative professional chefs and amateur home cooks have looked for cheap and easy ways to serve their creations to the masses. The public has hungrily sopped up cart food, especially in Portland, where more than 500 carts now operate citywide.
Cart culture thrives late at night, during the after-hours hunger period, and at lunchtime, although it's not hard to find carts open for business during other times of the day (don't ever give up hope of finding an early-morning pastry or afternoon plate of huevos rancheros). Most cart owners cook the food served there, and visiting carts will help you appreciate their efforts, which require long hours in tiny kitchens and a willingness to feed hungry people in a highly competitive marketplace.
While carts are required to have the capability of being mobile by law (all have wheels even if they're cosmetic), most park in permanent locations – in empty parking lots, driveways and street corners. In Portland many carts are arranged in 'pods,' clusters that allow cart operators to share resources like dining tables, electricity and water. Find maps and descriptions of Portland's individual carts and pods on www.foodcartsportland.com.
Living in the Pacific Northwest means finding mushrooms growing everywhere from car trunks to manicured lawns, but the abundance can make for good eating. Edible wild mushrooms sprout year-round and include the fluted chanterelle, bolete (otherwise known as porcini), morel and matsutake.
While it's easy to walk into most woods and find mushrooms ripe for the picking, don't eat just anything. Always show an experienced mushroom picker the fruits of your foray – many toxic mushrooms look identical to edible ones. Mycological societies and foraging groups are scattered around the region and welcome visitors to meetings and 'field trips'.
Don't be surprised if you encounter some truffle enthusiasts along the way. While Europeans have been sniffing out the expensive underground fungi with pigs and dogs for hundreds of years, Americans are newer to the hunt – three new varieties of truffles were discovered in Oregon just 30 years ago. To go on a bona fide truffle hunt or learn more about the mysterious edibles, contact the Oregon-based North American Truffling Society (www.natruffling.org), or attend the annual Truffle Festival (www.oregontrufflefestival.com) in Eugene, OR, for dog-training workshops, elaborate truffle dinners and more.
With hundreds of miles of coastline and an impressive system of rivers, the Pacific Northwest offers seafood galore. Depending on the season, specialties include razor clams, mussels, prawns, albacore tuna, Dungeness crab and sturgeon. Salmon remains one of the region's most recognized foods, whether it's smoked, grilled, or in salads, quiches and sushi. On the coast you can always find good seafood and can buy directly from the boat if you're willing to take the time to ask around. Of course, the closer you are to the source, the better the quality, so don't expect inland towns to have the freshest seafood.
While the Northwest has a reputation for vegetarian and vegan eating, recent years have seen a meat backlash, and in true Northwest style, the carnivore craze has involved sourcing top-quality meats locally (think pigs fed hazelnuts during their final days). Small-scale meat farmers who raise cattle, lamb, pigs, chickens and goats form relationships with urban chefs, who will sometimes visit farms to participate in slaughter. Also, some ranchers sell everything from grass-fed beef to pigs' feet and livers at farmers markets. Other evidence of meat mania? Butchering classes for the public as well as restaurants with their own 'house-cured' meats, such as pancetta, sopressata and sausage.
Finding local products has become a popular pursuit for an increasingly food-aware, eco-minded population (most of whom believe that shipping food long distances wastes precious resources). The year-round availability of fresh produce has spurred a fanaticism for seasonal eating. Many of those food fanatics prefer organic, sustainably produced edibles, and conventional farmers and vintners are working to meet the demand by undergoing the two- to three-year organic-certification process.
Farmers markets have become the best examples of this new hyper-awareness of food sourcing, and a handful operate year-round. Some of the most popular markets go beyond offering produce, with everything from pastries, artisan cheeses, honey and jams to prepared foods like wood-fired pizzas, roasted peppers, and biscuits and gravy.
If you miss the markets, don't worry. Many grocery stores and specialty food markets prominently label local foods. Large-scale brands like Tillamook Cheese, which makes cheese, yogurt and ice cream in the coastal town of Tillamook, Oregon, have a devoted customer base that enjoys supporting local economies. So does the fast-food chain Burgerville, which buys ingredients for its menus from local sources – it offers Walla Walla onion rings, blackberry or hazelnut milkshakes and Tillamook cheddar burgers.
Upscale restaurants also reflect the public's passion for local foods. Some menus name the farms and harvesters who supply specific ingredients. If you're curious, ask servers for details about a restaurant's sourcing practices – most likely they'll be used to such requests.
The further you head inland, away from the region's biggest cities, the less you'll find things like pork finished on hazelnuts and discussions about organic produce. Expect more 'traditional' meat and potato dishes, pizzas and burgers, and fewer ethnic restaurants, with the exception of Mexican food. Thanks to a large immigrant population, you can find many excellent, authentic Mexican restaurants throughout the Pacific Northwest.
In the cities, you'll discover diverse ethnic cuisine, from Ethiopian to Ecuadorian, but it's Asian foods that really shine. Vancouver, in particular, offers a high concentration of Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Asian-fusion restaurants, but it's easy to find all types of Asian food everywhere in the Northwest.
As for 'Northwest cuisine,' the nebulous, all-encompassing term doesn't really mean much. Try asking a local, 'What exactly is Northwest cuisine?' and you might experience an uncomfortable pause followed by, 'local, seasonal and fresh,' or 'organic and sustainable.' While those words won't conjure up an image of a specific dish or narrow to a section of the spice rack, they hint at what truly defines the regional fare: simplicity.
Vegetarians, Vegans & Special Diets
More than in any other part of the country, vegetarians and vegans will discover plenty of food made just for them. So many people practice animal-free eating that even the smallest cafes and restaurants will frequently carry vegan pastries or desserts. Even if you're not dining at a strictly vegan or vegetarian restaurant (of which there are a handful in larger cities), you'll discover vegetarian-friendly menus at most eateries in the metropolitan areas. Ethnic cuisine, such as Thai and Indian, usually includes many vegetarian items, and there's no shortage of delicious meat-free main dishes in cafes and restaurants and at food carts.
Outside the cities, vegetarians have fewer choices, and vegans even fewer still. Avoid Mexican restaurants, which usually cook seemingly meat-free dishes in lard, and opt for pasta and pizza joints, although restaurants of every kind usually have at least one vegetarian main meal. Don't be surprised if small towns in the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon (prime cattle country) don't offer veggie burgers.
People with other types of dietary restrictions, including those who are gluten free or lactose intolerant, will find friendly foods everywhere from restaurants to grocery stores, especially in the cities. If you're looking to avoid specific ingredients, be sure to ask. Most restaurants are happy to accommodate you, and some already identify these types of foods on their menus.
Culinary Calendar & Food Festivals
Oregon Truffle Festival, Eugene, OR
Chinese New Year, Vancouver, BC
Razor Clam Festival, Ocean Shores, WA
Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival, Astoria, OR
Feast Tofino (www.feasttofino.com), Tofino, BC
Comox Valley Shellfish Festival, Vancouver Island, BC
Strawberry Festival, Lebanon, OR
Washington Brewers Festival, Redmond, WA
Oregon Brewers Fest, Portland, OR
International Pinot Noir Celebration, McMinnville, OR
Garlic Fest, Chehalis, WA
Feast Portland, Portland, OR
Wenatchee River Salmon Festival, Leavenworth, WA
Fresh Hop Ale Festival, Yakima, WA
Wild Mushroom Celebration, Long Beach Peninsula, WA
Wine Country Thanksgiving, Willamette Valley, OR
Holiday Ale Festival (www.holidayale.com), Portland, OR
Farmed and Wild
The diverse geography and climate – a mild, damp coastal region with sunny summers and arid farmland in the east – foster all types of farm-grown produce. Farmers in these parts grow plenty of fruit, from melons, grapes, apples and pears to strawberries, cherries and blueberries. Veggies thrive here too: potatoes, lentils, corn, asparagus and Walla Walla sweet onions, all of which feed local and overseas populations.
Other well-known farmed products include hazelnuts (also known as filberts; Oregon produces 99.9% of the hazelnuts grown in the US) and herbs, especially lavender and spearmint. Hop farming is another regional specialty. The Northwest is the only region of the country with large-scale hop farms, which provide the sticky, fragrant cones that help add flavor, aroma and bitterness to many beers around the world.
Many wild foods thrive here as well, especially in the damper regions such as the Coast Range. Foragers there seek out year-round wild mushrooms, as well as summertime huckleberries and blackberries.
- Portland Meat Collective (www.pdxmeat.com) Offers courses on butchery, sausage making, curing and cooking meat, and slaughtering. The school has expanded to Olympia, WA, after a successful crowd-funding campaign.
- Art of the Pie (www.artofthepie.com) Presents four-day Pie Camps and one-day workshops at various locations on the Olympic Peninsula, WA. Perfect your pastry and learn secret baking techniques.
- Diane’s Market Kitchen (www.dianesmarketkitchen.com) Takes students to Pike Place Market in Seattle to shop for fresh ingredients for cooking classes that follow.
- Wild Food Adventures (www.wildfoodadventures.com) Offers workshops that teach participants how to forage for edibles in nature, in various locations around the Pacific Northwest. Learn how to harvest wild berries and make acorn pudding and cattail pancakes.
- Portland Preserve (www.portlandpreserve.com) Teaches classes on canning and cooking in the Portland area. Learn how to pickle, make jams and more.