“The best method for a beginner is to use two hands, one overlapping the other,” Eilif says, brandishing a fire-engine-red axe in a show of demonstration. A towering, bearded dude with flaxen hair falling over his wide shoulders, his ever-present smize and affable personality offset his stature. He’s the exact kind of guy you’d imagine as the founder of Portland Axe Throwing.
Lauren, my travel companion and the photographer for this post, came upon the club in a news piece. “How Portland is this?!” she said after sending me the link. “We have to put it on the list. It’s SO Portland.” I had to agree. We had spent a week brainstorming iconic Portland restaurants, institutions, and activities, and this addition was incontestable.
“Bring it back behind your head, then take a step forward and…” Eilif performs every movement slowly, purposefully, until he hurls his long, lumberjacky arms forward, releasing the handle. The hatchet whips around and around — handle over blade, blade over handle — for a split second before striking his homemade target with a satisfying thwack. It’s portable, he says of the cage-enclosed, unwieldy-looking target; he tows it by bike to every meet-up. Grinning good-naturedly, he hands me an axe. “It’s not too hard.”
Portland, am I right? Full of beards in beanies with more smiles to spare than Canadians. I threw the axe. He was right — it actually wasn’t that hard.
One off the bucket list; 16 more to go.
The Oregon Zoo, Biketown, Pine Street Market, Hopworks, and Le Pigeon
The very first item on the list was the Oregon Zoo. It’s the most beautiful natural zoo I’ve ever visited in the US. It’s bursting to the brim with leafy trees, even in the winter, which is perhaps how a zoo should be? (I’ve heard secondhand accounts that animals like trees.)
With many programs in development for animal interaction, like a sloth encounter program and a giraffe-feeding platform opening in spring, the Oregon Zoo seeks to educate and fascinate its visitors on its many inhabitants. It made us remember how much we loved the zoo as children and really how much we still do as adults.
Just as importantly, the zoo is doing something similar for its residents, including the five Asian elephants that live here, four of which were actually born in the zoo. To keep them healthy and active, both physically and mentally, their massive, free-roaming enclosure called Elephant Lands is six full acres of concrete-free combined indoor and outdoor space. To stimulate them, their enclosure is rigged with various timed feeders. Some of these dangle hay from just-reachable nets, thereby cutting down stereotypic behaviors like pacing by encouraging the elephants to forage for food like they would in the wild.
After leaving the zoo, which was somehow only a 15-minute drive away from downtown, Lauren and I decided to do some sightseeing via bicycle like ~locals~. It was easy to check out a bike from one of the very visible and very orange Biketown stations. We cruised around and found the Keep Portland Weird sign.
Eventually, we pedaled our way to lunch at nearby Pine Street Market, a food hall saturated with the competing smells of delicious things being grilled, baked, brewed, and eaten. We suffered some serious indecision, so we very rationally decided to eat nearly everything, beginning with ramen.
The Portland locations of Marukin, a Japanese chain, offer a rarity in the ramen world: vegan options made with local soy milk. (Very Portland.) However, we opted for traditional tonkotsu, then tried and failed at pacing ourselves as we slurped up mouthfuls of toothsome noodles and savory, umami-rich pork bone broth in our best imitations of anime eating.
We also sampled some dishes from Pollo Bravo and Olympia Provisions’ OP Wurst. Then, clutching our distended bellies, we answered the beckoning of the soft serve senapais at Salt & Straw’s Wiz Bang Bar, delivered as the distinctive, sticky-sweet odor of fresh waffle cones being made. Post-cones, I undid the top of my pants, not pictured below.
Our next stop was Hopworks Urban Brewery, an industrial yet colorful 20-barrel brewhouse where each beer on tap is annotated with what percentage of its ingredients are organic. The majority were over 90%. “All the ingredients are sustainably sourced, and 99% of the ingredients are actually from Oregon,” brewmaster and founder Christian Ettinger proudly noted. On top of this, construction was also sustainable; the tables and bar were built from materials leftover from what the space once was: a tractor showroom. Hopworks is also a B Corp and certified Salmon-Safe, which means they handle water runoff that’s safe for local fish populations.
This all made for pretty guilt-free guzzling during our sampler of 15 out of the 22 beers on draught, which were all as fresh as beer comes, pumped straight from the barrels where they’re made downstairs. And as I sipped on one of my favorites, a fresh and round Ferocious Citrus IPA, Ettinger credits “the incredible #thirst of Portlanders” as his main inspiration for his brews. [Emphasis and hashtag added.]
For dinner, we hit up legendary Portland mainstay, Le Pigeon, which came highly recommended to us by many a driver and many a local, one of whom let her eyes roll into the back of her head in ecstasy as she lauded the foie gras. The cozy, charming restaurant didn’t disappoint. A sweet, tangy, and herbaceous plate of tuna tartare was easily my favorite of the night next to, of course, their ultra-lavish signature dish: foie gras profiteroles. No spoiler alerts, but suffice it to say that the confusion your mouth experiences is pleasurable albeit mildly discomfiting.
When our waiter, Chris, asked for our thoughts on the rich, odd little cream puffs, we answered, “Weird, but good!”
“That’s pretty much our thing,” he replied with a laugh. It’s kind of Portland’s thing too, I think.
Portland Art Museum, Pistils, Nong’s, Coava, and Pok Pok
The morning began with a heaping helping of culture at the Portland Art Museum downtown. Divided into two wings, one for modern contemporary art and one for nearly everything else, PAM is known for both works by well-known artists and lesser-known and emerging artists.
An especially unique and diverse collection was the one devoted to Native American art, which combines historical pieces with contemporary pieces made in the same tradition. Another favorite was Northwest Art, which highlighted artists living and working in the region. Obviously some seriously stunning scenery to lay your little eyes on here. We were also lucky enough to catch the exhibition Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA, a behind-the-scenes look at the sets, costumes, props, and process of the acclaimed local animation studio.
After feasting our eyes, we decided to feast our mouths too. For lunch, we chose Nong’s Khao Man Gai for their famous chicken and rice. A whole chicken is poached with herbs and spices, producing both the most tender meat you’ve ever just barely chewed and a rich broth that’s then used to cook the aromatic, savory rice. Of course, it’s nothing without the sauce, a kicky mix with fermented soybean, garlic, ginger, and Thai chilis. (They sell the stuff by the bottle, and I have deep, haunting regrets about not getting one.) It’s also served with a savory, clear soup that will be your literal ambrosia if you’re into cilantro. (I am.)
Partly because I was dressed aptly that day, we paid a visit to Pistils Nursery, a mini oasis in the form of an outdoor nursery and greenhouse. Stocked with plenty of plants and carefully curated home goods, Pistils is the ideal place to build a a baby bubble of a garden, otherwise known as a terrarium. And that we did, with a lot of tamping and assistance in navigating the vast selection of sands, crystals, rocks, and mosses.
Then, falling prey to the afternoon slump, we resolved to put Portland’s rep for coffee to test with a cupping at Coava. Cuppings, for the uninitiated, are the professional process used to evaluate the quality of coffee. And coava, which is pronounced “coe-vuh,” is the Turkish word for unroasted, or green, coffee seeds, according to roastery and coffee shop owner Matt Higgins.
A longtime barista, Higgins saved up over 13,000 dollars’ worth of tips to begin his own coffee venture. Now he specializes in cream of the crop, single-origin coffees. To pay homage to his producers, with whom he buys from year after year, each coffee is named after the exact person who produces, cultivates, or grows it. “You can make bad coffee with good beans, but you can’t make good coffee with bad beans. It’s all them; all I’m doing here is not messing it up.” I think it’s fair to say that he isn’t. Because the David Mancia was rich, fruit-forward, and delicious.
We continued to put PDX to the test at dinner. Although both the ramen and chicken and rice were belt-bucklingly delicious and authentic, this city is known for its Thai food. Portland institution Pok Pok and Chef Andy Ricker probably have a little something to do with that, so we went to investigate.
After ordering half the menu and probably a whole small pigs’ worth of pork, we could see the appeal of the vibrant, kitschy-chic spot. Everything was explosively flavorful and spiced just right (heavily, perfectly). We were surprised to find that we had devoured the majority of the meal, left only with enough for a single to-go container to remember the evening by. The shock was unwarranted; Portland was clearly a food witch casting some kind of sinister bottomless spell on our bellies.
VooDoo Doughnut, Powell’s, Lardo, axe throwing, vintage shopping, wineries, and Nomad PDX
Our last morning, we “investigated” yet another staple food of Portland, the yeasty beasties at VooDoo Doughnut, before visiting Powell’s City of Books. The city’s most popular bookstore is sectioned into nine color-coded rooms and over 3,500 sections, with new and used books sold side by side. The space was once a car dealership and occupies one whole block on Burnside, so that might give you an idea of its browsing potential. Just be sure to make time for the elegant little library that is the rare book room upstairs, with its shelves of autographed first editions, various ephemera, and outsized, collector’s edition art books.
Reading and browsing being the strenuous labor it is, we earned a stop to refuel at Lardo’s. It’s fitting their motto is “bringing fatback” because their fries and sandwiches are so lusciously loaded with rich fats and full flavors. We were discovering that sheer strength of flavor was a PDX signature. And on a personal level, I was learning that fries sans pork scraps were a waste of my time.
With a full tank of fat and fries, we went to put our hands on some hatchets with aforementioned urban lumberjack Eilif Knutson. Portland Axe Throwing owes its origins to Knutson and his friend Steve casually tossing axes at a tree near the warehouse where they worked. They eventually graduated from the tree to a target, which they stealthily concealed in a nearby blackberry bush. Their exponential growth in skill was somewhat incidental, a product of necessity: “The bush was on a hill, and we really didn’t want to climb down the hill to get the axes,” Steve explained.
Now they have 20 or so people in the league and hold events like their Christmas Sweater Axe Throwing Party. Knutson attaches a homemade tow dolly to his bike and hauls the target, which can be used just like a dartboard, from brewpubs to parks to the occasional backyard every other Friday for their gatherings. The transportation is likely more difficult than the actual throwing, which is easier than you would think — two hands, overhead, one step, and release. Lauren and I both caught the bull’s-eye after a few tries. Hachetbrag.
Spending money is good and stimulating for the economy. This is what I told myself while vintage shopping on Hawthorne. Stop buying things. That’s another thing I told myself. But there’s no sales tax in Oregon, so everything is, like, 8% off!
This little tête-à-tête with myself maybe happened in a changing room and likely convinced people that I had visited one too many dispensaries. I blame Portland’s vintage stores, which are notoriously well stocked and well curated. One could easily spend days browsing the goods of the 60 vendors at House of Vintage alone, but we had a prior appointment with some fermented grapes, so I essentially bought half the things I tried on and called it a win.
Because you can’t go to Oregon and leave without trying its famed vino, we uncorked a few at SE Wine Collective. This unique, collaborative space is actually home to 12 separate wineries. Winemakers rent space and equipment for winemaking and share people as well. There’s no semblance of competition, says Kate Norris, co-owner of the facility and wine label Division.
Norris and Tom Monroe strived to make the location a relaxing, approachable spot that’s a far cry from typically sterile tastings. Of the wines, she says, most people think of Pinot Noir when it comes to Oregon: “That might be the beginning of the story, but it’s not the end.” More than 20 varieties of grapes come through the door of their facility, and over 9,000 bottles are produced there annually. We sipped on a wide selection of wines, including the almost-too-drinkable, fruit-forward Winemaker Cuvée from Willful, a very fresh and not-at-all oaky, Oregon-style chardonnay from Welsh, and a light, earthy, tasty gamay from Division.
At last, we journeyed to our final, closing meal of the weekend: Nomad PDX. As we pulled up, our driver made this plea: “If it’s good, you have to let me know. I’ve been dying to try this place.” So Jake, if you’re reading this post of mostly food porn garnished with some Portland peculiarities — it is good. Very good.
We arrived early sat in the tucked-away Ash Bar for a drink before our seating. The U-shaped bar gave the space an intimate feel, as did the soft lighting, which looked as if strained through a fine muslin sieve. Despite the same U-shape making an appearance at the dining table, the main dining room was a striking departure from Ash Bar. It was brightly lit, unadorned, and without even the most paltry of partitions between the kitchen and dining area.
This unconventional setup fulfilled two purposes: It allowed us to observe the chefs while they performed their culinary artistry on every course of the tasting menu while also allowing them to directly present said plates immediately. The food was delicate and complex with diverse influences that ranged from Japanese to Nordic. It was the perfect close to our weekend, and we enjoyed the process, presentation, textures, and flavors of every plate, Jake. Definitely come and eat here, my dude.
Marking off the items on our bucket list, we parsed out Portland — it’s creative and stylish, sustainable and organic, and often incredibly DIY, and it’s indisputable that it is delicious. Portland is a product of passionate people, collaborating together yet determined to do things their own way. Their gritty, hands-on know-how about food, axe-throwing targets, wines, tropical terrariums, antiquarian texts, and anything else you can think of is what makes PDX the charmingly odd little place it is.
“We’ve gotten away with being a big town for too long,” said Teisha, one of our drivers. “It’s a small city now, but one where everyone really takes care of each other.” They really, truly do. And we’re eternally grateful that they extended this courtesy to us for a weekend and through a bucket list too.
Photographs by Lauren Zaser