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Salt & Straw

April 22, 2015

I mentioned that a couple of years back I was having a conversation with a co-worker of mine and she gave me 2 suggestions of places that I absolutely must try if I ever headed to Portland.  Ever since that conversation, I’d always kept these 2 eateries in mind knowing that one day I’d make it to Portland.  The first place she suggested was Voodoo Doughnut, which my husband and I tried and enjoyed.  Tough a bit touristy, my husband pointed out that we were tourists and it’s the tourist thing to do.  The second place my co-worker recommended was an ice cream shop that was particularly well known in Portland.  I remember after we had that conversation, I checked out this ice cream shop’s website because it sounded so interesting.  I discovered that, at the time, the ice cream shop had just announced plans to expand beyond Portland and open up a store in Los Angeles.  A few months after this conversation, my husband forwarded me a link to a listing of the world’s 30 best ice cream parlors, and this particular ice cream shop was on that list.  That’s when I knew I had to remember this place because whenever I made it to Portland, I was going to have to make it a point to stop and try some of their ice cream.  You all know how obsessed I am with ice cream, so it would be impossible for me to go to Portland and not try this ice cream.

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Salt & Straw is the story of a woman who had a long time dream of opening an ice cream scoop shop, but always lived her life in the safe lane.  That is, until she decided to cash in her 401(k), move back to Portland, and move forward with throwing everything she had into this idea of creating fun, unique, interesting and creative ice cream flavors that also incorporated and highlighted every culinary aspect that was uniquely Portland or Oregon.  Soon, she reconnected with her cousin who was just about to start a culinary career after having traveled around Asia while studying abroad.  After several conversations and their realization that they were headed in the same direction with their life goals, the cousin moved from Seattle to Portland and the next day became Salt & Straw’s head ice cream maker.  Today, the culinary talents, and unique ideas of these two cousins has seen Salt & Straw expand from a brick-and-mortar store and a push cart to 3 Portland stores, as well as locations inside Nike and Intel’s offices in Portland, OMSI Portland, the Moda Center and inside a couple of Portland’s ritziest hotels, prior to expanding their brand to the Larchmont neighborhood of Los Angeles.  With famous chef and TV celebrity Andrew Zimmerman having boasted that Salt & Straw has “…some brilliant, brilliant ice cream…every flavor reeks of Portland,” stepping into one of their Portland shops is like taking a culinary food tour around the state of Oregon.

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I made sure that during our time in Portland we would run into 2 of Salt & Straw’s 3 Portland locations.  Our first opportunity came when we dined at Pok Pok in the area known as Restaurant Row on SE Division Street.  Located just down the block from the hugely popular Pok Pok, Salt & Straw draws quite the nighttime crowd.  My husband and I talked about hitting up Salt & Straw after dinner to grab some ice cream to go.  Unfortunately, by the time we finished dinner, the temperatures were in the high 40s and we were freezing.  When we walked up to Salt & Straw, what had been a decent sized line before dinner had grown to an unbelievably long line that snaked throughout the inside of the store and gushed out onto the street outside of the store.  The idea of waiting 30-45 minutes for some ice cream just wasn’t happening that night.  Fortunately, on the day we were leaving town, I had planned for us to in one of Portland’s trendier shopping neighborhoods on NW 23rd Avenue.  Having been characterized as one of America’s best shopping streets, NW 23rd Avenue boasts a large variety of boutique art, clothing and home decoration stores mixed in with cafes, chocolate shops and restaurants on both sides of the street for blocks and blocks.  In the heart of NW 23rd Avenue in the historic Esquire Building sits Salt & Straw.  With a warm and inviting atmosphere which includes a loft style creamery upstairs where the ice cream is churned, the smell of fresh made waffles wafting in the area, and beautiful bay windows with small seats and tables for guests to dine in, Salt & Straw feels like your neighborhood, old-fashioned ice cream scoop shop.

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When you step up to the ice cream counter, you see chalkboards with handwritten listings of everything available in the store on that particular day.  In fact, one of the boards reads, “our ice cream is handmade in small batches using only all natural dairy with the best local, organic and sustainable ingredients Oregon has to offer as well as imported flavors from small hand-picked farms from around the world!”  My husband and I were glad that we waited until our final day to hit up Salt & Straw on a cold, drizzly morning when the ice cream shop wasn’t busy, as opposed to the very busy Friday night stop we could have made after having dined at Pok Pok.  Being unfamiliar with Salt & Straw and what they had to offer, we really needed the time to look over all of the offerings and weigh our options.  The people working behind the counter were so incredibly friendly and helpful answering all of our questions and offering numerous samples.  They were also very well trained and versed on what all the ingredients in each one of the flavors available were and where the ingredients came from.  On top of offering traditional scoops of ice cream, Salt & Straw also offers various sundaes using homemade ingredients and accompaniments, ice cream floats featuring local Stumptown Coffee, Atlas Sodawork’s rootbeer and Lavender & Spruce cola, as well as whole pint milkshakes and draft beverages that again feature Stumptown Nitro Coldbrew coffee and Atlas Sodaworks’ Spruce Cola, Birch Beer and Ginger Beer.

What was interesting to learn about, that I’ve never experienced at any other ice cream shop was the history and story behind the ingredients that go into all of the different ice cream flavors that Salt & Straw churns out.  There are some popular and favorite flavors that can always be found at Salt & Straw’s Portland shops and then some additional seasonal flavors that are added depending on what’s available and the time of year.  Sea salt with caramel ribbons is a Portland favorite created with the owner of Portland’s internationally renowned salt shop in mind.  He has written a James Beard award winning cookbook, and The Meadow’s fleur de sel, made in Guatemala from salt pans that supplied the Mayan Empire, is used in this particular ice cream flavor.  Hand-burned caramel, made in store is combined with this amazing fleur de sel to create one of Salt & Straw’s more popular flavors.  Also available was Honey Lavender, which is what my co-worker told me was to-die-for, made from Oregon-grown lavender steeped in honey to extract maximum floral flavor.  The honey used is from Bee Local honey which harvests their honey from urban hives located throughout Portland creating unique and local flavors that are constantly changing throughout the year.  Another flavor on the menu was Stumptown Coffee & Burnside Bourbon made from Stumptown’s single-origin Sumatra coffee combined with Portland’s own HolyKaKow Chocolate and the local Eastside Distillery Burnside Bourbon.  Cinnamon Snickerdoodle was also on the menu, using a mixture of snickerdoodle cookie and spicy cinnamon ice cream, both featuring Red Ape Cinnamon out of Eugene, Oregon.  Red Ape Cinnamon harvests cinnamon from Sumatra and uses 5% of their profits to donate to non-profit organizations that help save orangutan habitats in Sumatra.  You’re beginning to see now how each ice cream flavor has their own story and how it really is a culinary journey of Oregon.  Other flavors available the day we visited Salt & Straw included: almond brittle with salted ganache, chocolate gooey brownie, double fold vanilla, peppermint cocoa, Oregon rocky road, peaches with toasted walnuts, mincemeat pie, and Congressman Blumenauer’s fruit cake.

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Being afraid to be too crazy and step too far outside of my comfort level, I chose a single scoop of the Freckled Woodblock chocolate topped with homemade whipped cream.  I was curious as to why it was called “freckled” chocolate and the girl helping us behind the ice cream counter was able to explain the process of making this flavor so precisely that it sounded so intriguing, all while she was luring me in with a visual description of what the ice cream would taste like.  According to Salt & Straw, Freckled Woodblock chocolate is made by, “roasting cocoa beans in a 19th century-old fire roaster, Woodblock was the first bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Portland.  We add a bit of Jacobsen sea salt, the first to harvest salt from the Oregon coast in over 200 years, and then use an old-school ice cream making technique called “freckling” to suspend the chocolate in an untempered state.”  So, don’t mistake this ice cream for a plain old chocolate ice cream, it has a history and ice cream-making technique which reaches a lot deeper than that.  As the girl behind the ice cream counter explained to me, this ice cream taste like chocolate with subtle hints of dark chocolate “freckles” and a bit of salt, just enough to give it a salted chocolate taste.  I’m not a huge fan of salty and sweet items together, but in this case, it works with the chocolate as it plays off the chocolate and dark chocolate “freckles” and creates an inviting combination.

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My husband was intrigued by all of the unique flavors available on the menu and couldn’t decide what to order.  Then he saw something on the menu called a “tasting flight” and had to inquire as to what that consisted of.  A tasting flight is made up of 4, 2-oz. scoops which allow you to “taste” 4 different flavors.  Essentially, it’s the equivalent of a double scoop of ice cream at the shop.  Once my husband heard that he could have a 4 flavor sampler, he knew that’s what he wanted.  Now he just needed to decide what 4 flavors he would choose.

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The first flavor that my husband chose was Coconut with Petunia’s Salted Caramel Bars.  My husband is a huge fan of coconut-flavored anything, so it’s no surprise that he’d go with the coconut ice cream.  This is a coconut based, non-diary ice cream combined with salted caramel bars from Petunia’s Pastries.  Petunia’s salted caramel bars are vegan and gluten free.  Additionally, hand-burned caramel and house made chocolate ganache are swirled into the ice cream making this ice cream fruity, chocolatey, caramely and slightly salty.  I took a spoonful of this ice cream and thought that the coconut ice cream was incredible.  Packed full of coconut flavor, it was hard to believe that this was a non-dairy ice cream, you couldn’t even tell.  Hands down, the best coconut ice cream I’ve ever tasted.  My husband agreed that the coconut flavor in the ice cream was spectacular and a winner at any other ice cream shop.  While the ice cream was tasty, my husband didn’t think that the ice cream flavor overall with Petunia’s salted caramel bars was really anything special.  There wasn’t any special ingredient in here that he hadn’t tasted before in some sort of combination.  And out of the 4 different flavors that he tried, this one stood out the least.  Not to say it wasn’t good, but compared to the other three flavors, there was nothing to make it unique and special.

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The next flavor in his tasting flight was the strawberry honey balsamic with cracked black pepper.  I was most excited to try this flavor as I’ve tried to make balsamic glaze as an ice cream topping at home and it just didn’t turn out that terrific.  I know that reduced balsamic vinegar with strawberries is a great flavor combination, so I was certain that done correctly in an ice cream format with black pepper would be spectacular.  The ice cream is made with strawberries, jam and syrup from Oregon Hills Farms and balsamic vinegar from a 5th generation bee keep at Honeyridge Farms.  The cracked black pepper is a trick used to bring out the strawberry flavor in the ice cream.  For me, this ice cream was amazing.  It had a hint of sweetness from the reduced balsamic, and it had the farm fresh flavor of ripened strawberries, and just the hint of black pepper that really did enhance the strawberry flavor, as advertised.  It was just a good combination of flavor components all together and really well-made ice cream.

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Of the 4 flavors in my husband’s tasting flight, my favorite was the Arbequina olive oil.  The ice cream itself didn’t look like anything special, perhaps just like a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  But again, what did I expect olive oil ice cream to look like?  Made with Arbequina olive oil Red Ridge Farms’ Oregon Olive Mill located in Dundee Hills, the beautiful wine country located just outside of Portland, they were one of the first farms in Oregon to grow, harvest and press olives into olive oil.  The Arbequina olive oil is described as, “slightly spicy with sweet grass notes and floral undertones.”  This particular flavor of ice cream became popular after the famous TV talk show host Oprah named it as one of her favorite things.  And one of my favorite things it became.  The texture, feel and taste of the ice cream was so smooth and silky.  The ice cream has a very smooth, silky feel to it.  And you definitely get the hints of floral in the flavor of the ice cream.  A spoonful of the ice cream just slides right down your throat and coats it in all this luxurious goodness.  One of the best, most unique ice cream flavors I’ve tasted in a long time.

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Hands down, my husband’s favorite of the 4 flavors is the one he most wanted to try when we stepped into Salt & Straw: pear & blue cheese.  Personally, before tasting the ice cream, the combination made me cringe a bit.  But then again, I’m not a huge fan of savory flavors in my sweet dessert, so I couldn’t quite fathom how something as pungent as blue cheese with something like pear as an ice cream would work.  On a savory dish, I enjoy the combination of pears with Gorgonzola cheese, so I imagined that a pairing with blue cheese would be similar.  But that’s a savory dish, like a pizza, not a sweet dish like ice cream.  At Salt & Straw, Oregon Trail Northwest Bartlett pears from Salem are paired together with aged Rogue Creamery’s Crater Lake Blue Cheese.  This particular cheese was recently named the best in the world at a cheese competition in France.  This ice cream combines two of Oregon’s best flavors into a creamy and rich ice cream.  And after a tentative taste, I must admit that this pear & blue cheese blew away any of my expectations of how good pear & blue cheese ice cream could be.  With every bite, you could taste the sweet flavor of the Bartlett pear, and you got a slight undertone of blue cheese, but interspersed in the ice cream were little pockets that had crumbles of actual blue cheese in it and it was like finding a hidden surprise.  Those hidden pockets of cheese just burst with flavor and were a perfect compliment to the creamy ice cream and sweet Bartlett pear.  It was almost like a perfect match made in heaven of two incredibly strong, but opposite flavors, combining together to form an incredible ice cream.  My husband fell in love with the ice cream after the first bite, and still claims to this day that this is the best, and most unique flavor combination in an ice cream he’s ever had.  It was just that spectacular.

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I’m so glad that we made the time to seek out and try Salt & Straw.  My husband will tell you that out of all of the ice cream shops I’ve dragged him to over the years, this is easily his favorite.  All of the ice creams were obviously made with a lot of thought and care and really represented incredible flavors from all over Oregon.  It really was like a culinary tour of the best that Oregon has to offer in ice cream format.  Each flavor of ice cream definitely had the hand made, small batch flavor behind it.  Each spoonful was packed full of vibrant tastes and flavors and it was obvious the care used to craft each individual batch of ice cream.  If I lived in Portland, I think you’d find my husband and I at Salt & Straw multiple times a month, if only to try out all of the new and seasonal flavors.  In fact, my coworker who first told me about Salt & Straw lives so close to the new Los Angeles location that she says she’s been there so many times she can’t even count.  Looks like I need to visit Salt & Straw Los Angeles before too long to get my Salt & Straw fix.

Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe

April 16, 2015

On our last day in Portland, my husband and I boarded a Portland Streetcar and decided to spend the morning walking around NW 23rd Avenue.  Once named one of America’s best shopping streets, this part of Portland is filled with cafes, boutiques, and art galleries.  Exactly what you think of you when you picture Portland.  This particular Sunday morning was cold, drizzly and overcast.  Again, exactly how I picture Portland to be in the winter.  Towards the end of our morning, my husband saw a chocolatier shop and suggested that we step inside to see what they had to offer.  I had read about this particular chocolatier and was excited to see what kinds of chocolates they had on display.

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Opened in 1993, Moonstruck Chocolatier was born of an idea to create exceptional, handcrafted superior chocolates in Portland, Oregon.  Today, Moonstruck makes all of their chocolate by hand, hand crafting and hand decorating each individual piece.  All their chocolate is made with the highest quality ingredients, and Moonstruck is known for pairing their amazing chocolates with the fresh flavors of the Pacific Northwest.  Moonstruck’s Master Chocolatier is Chef Julian Rose who was recently named one of the best chocolatiers in North America.

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For Moonstruck’s location on NW 23rd Avenue, they opened a chocolate shop and cafe in one to entice shoppers to come in, take a seat and enjoy some delicious chocolate or perhaps some hand crafted beverages which also feature some of their amazing chocolate.  In fact, you can even order drinking chocolate.  And of course, there’s no shortage of hand crafted truffles to choose from.  The hardest part of enjoying yourself at Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe is choosing which truffle pieces to sample.

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Along one wall of the shop was a display of pre-packaged gift boxes to purchase and take home to share.  There were these incredible chocolate bars that I was so tempted to take home with me.  It is the Strawberry & Basil Sugar in dark chocolate bar that really caught my eye.  The combination of strawberry and basil is always a good one, and the idea of basil sugar was an interesting one.  And just look at those strawberries, they look amazing and delectable.  The candy bar next to it is pralines, pecan and candied ginger in a mix of dark chocolate and milk chocolate.  I thought for sure that would entice my husband as he is a huge fan of candied ginger.  While we did walk away with a gift box to bring home, we ended up passing on these chocolate bars.  Though, now looking back, I really should have gotten the Strawberry & Basil Sugar.

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But I was so distracted by these beautiful display cases full of some of the prettiest chocolate truffles I’ve ever seen.  Look at the cute ivory toffee mouse truffle there in the middle of the picture.  It looks so cute, almost too pretty to eat.  The descriptions of the chocolates are just as enticing as looking at the chocolate truffles themselves.  The ivory toffee mouse truffle consists of smooth milk chocolate toffee ganache with caramelized hazelnuts, hand formed into the shape of an adorable mouse, hand dipped in ivory chocolate and hand decorated.  I’d eat that just from the description alone, even if I never saw the chocolate truffle itself.  Look below at the cute milk chocolate lab truffle, or the extra bittersweet black cat truffle right next to it.   Other truffles included the espresso caramel, and honey vanilla caramel.  And there’s the milk chocolate bunny truffle made with creamy milk chocolate ganache, hand-formed into the shape of a bunny with almonds for ears, enrobed in milk chocolate and hand decorated.

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There’s just so many different truffles to choose from.  As we were there just after Christmas Day, Moonstruck had a whole collection of Mr. and Mrs. Claus truffles that were so cute.  Other holiday-themed truffles included the extra bittersweet snowflake truffle made of extra bittersweet ganache enrobed in dark chocolate, and decorated with an all-natural snowflake design.  Another truffle that must have been quite popular for the holidays was the hot toddy truffle with dark chocolate ganache with notes of honey, brandy, star anise, cinnamon, and bergamot, enrobed in milk chocolate.

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The hardest part of our trip to Moonstruck was deciding between all of the fantastic flavors.  My husband and I discussed back and forth which few flavors we wanted to sit down and sample.  There was the Grenada truffle made of whipped single-origin dark chocolate ganache made from rare Trinitario cocoa beans from the Caribbean, enrobed in dark chocolate and finished with roasted cocoa nibs.  The Ocumarian truffle is made from single origin dark chocolate ganache made with rare Cricollo cocoa beans from the Ocumare Valle of Venezuela, flavored with ancho and chipotle chiles, inside a dark chocolate shell.  Spicy!  Want something fruity instead?  What about the wild huckleberry truffle made with creamy ivory chocolate ganache layered with wild Oregon huckleberry preserves inside a hand painted milk chocolate shell.  I think my husband would enjoy that.  The peanut butter cream cone caught my attention with crunchy peanut butter whipped with milk chocolate French butter cream, inside a milk chocolate cone finished with roasted peanuts.

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What really caught my husband’s eye was this display of brightly colored truffles flavored with alcohol from various Oregon distilleries.  There’s the Oregon Spirit Distillers Wild Card Absinthe truffle which uses Wild Card Absinthe infused in dark chocolate ganache which imparts botanical and anise notes, hand piped into a dark chocolate shell.  There was also the Bendistillery Crater Lake Pepper Vodka truffle which blended ivory and dark chocolate infused with Pepper Vodka which features five different peppers in an ivory chocolate shell.  These particular chocolate truffles infused with alcohol were so intriguing to my husband because he’d actually had some of the alcohol from some of the distilleries that were featured.

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My husband thought that this would be a great gift set to bring back as a gift to his co-workers.  Moonstruck Chocolatiers sold a special 12-pack of these particular chocolates called the Oregon Distillers chocolate truffles.  My husband was right, these chocolates were a huge hit at his office.  My husband even got to try a couple and he said they were outstanding because you could clearly taste the spirit in the truffle, but you could also see how well it combined with the amazing chocolate from Moonstruck.  If enjoy these kinds of spirits, how could you turn down the Rogue Ale Dead Guy Whiskey truffle made with blended ivory and dark chocolate infused with Dead Guy Whiskey which features sweet notes and a peppery finish inside a milk chocolate shell which is then hand decorated.

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And it’s not just chocolate truffles that are being made at Moonstruck Chocolatiers.  There was also a delectable display of various flavors of macarons and even some left over holiday peppermint bark.  I had considered picking up a couple of these gorgeous looking macarons, but my husband reminded me that we were here to get chocolate and I should stay on track.

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While we were at the Café, my husband and I decided to share a hot drink and pick out a couple of truffles to sample while seated at the café.  Since it was cold and drizzly outside, we ordered a vanilla latte to split between us.  A nice, pick-me-up drink that we could both enjoy.  The latte was actually quite tasty and rich and really hit the spot, for me at least.  The perfect hot drink on a cold, brisk day.  And I actually found that the vanilla in the latte was a good pairing for the different kinds of truffles I picked out to enjoy with my husband.

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Since it was so close to Christmas, I chose a Mr. Claus truffle to sample.  The Mr. Claus is made from milk chocolate ganache which is hand shaped and painted as a jolly Santa with this signature red cap and beard.  The milk chocolate ganache was so smooth and creamy, it was like chocolate butter that just melted in your mouth.  I’m not sure I’ve tasted better chocolate truffles in my life.  My second choice was the French silk mousse truffle made from whipped dark chocolate mousse piped inside a dark chocolate shell and enrobed in dark chocolate.  The whole truffle is then hand-decorated with a heart design.  My husband and I both enjoyed the dark chocolate flavor.  I was surprised to find that even with a dark chocolate filling, a dark chocolate shell and then covered again in dark chocolate that the taste of the chocolate wasn’t bitter at all.  Again, the whipped dark chocolate filling was incredibly smooth and creamy and this truffle highlighted all of the finer points of the richness of dark chocolate.  It was absolutely divine.  Finally, my last truffle choice was the cookies & cream cone.  My husband and I agreed that this was our favorite of the three truffles we sampled.  The cone contains chocolate cookie and vanilla French butter cream inside a dark chocolate cone with a hand dipped chocolate top.  The crunch of the chocolate cookie was a nice texture contrast to the vanilla French butter cream.  The truffle literally tasted like I was enjoying the most amazing cookies and cream ever.  The cone was incredibly taste, and again very smooth, but it wasn’t over the top.  I seriously thought about going up to the counter and ordering a couple more of these cones.  Looking back, I’m quite sorry I didn’t try any more truffles as they were just so wonderful.

I’ve never had chocolate from a chocolatier that was as good as the chocolate my husband and I had at Moonstruck Chocolate Café.  We’ve talked fondly about how much we enjoyed their chocolate and how fantastic and rich, but not too over the top, the hand crafted truffles tasted.  We’ve even looked into how to order these chocolate truffles online, and I have no doubt that we’ll probably be placing an order sooner rather than later.  Moonstruck Chocolatiers really do use such quality ingredients that you can absolutely taste in the richness of the chocolate truffles.  Everything just melts in your mouth like rich, smooth, creamy butter.  And the fact that each piece of chocolate is hand decorated and hand designed is just amazing to think about the care and quality and time that goes into making each individual piece of chocolate.  When I think about what an ideal chocolate shop should be like, Moonstruck is exactly what I picture in my head.  I would never pass up an opportunity to have any of their chocolates.

Portland City Grill

April 14, 2015

Our last full evening in Portland was Saturday night.  While Portland might not be as big of a city as Los Angeles, it’s still a Saturday night which means if we want to find a good place to have dinner, we still need reservations.  Making reservations means a little research needs to go into looking for an appropriate restaurant to dine at.  The restaurant my husband eventually suggested was located right in downtown Portland.  In fact, the restaurant is located on one of the top floors of one of Portland’s tallest buildings, meaning the view was going to be spectacular.  I thought this would be the perfect setting to cap off our holiday trip to Portland.  When I made the reservations, I specifically requested that we get a window seat so that we could enjoy the view.  We arrived at the restaurant on a somewhat breezy and rainy Saturday evening.  By the time we made it up to the floor where the restaurant was located, we found that the dining room and bar area were packed to the gills.  In fact, while waiting for our table, one of the other guests I was speaking to had raved about how wonderful the food was and how it would be worth the wait.  I was excited!  The only drawback when we arrived was that the hostess noticed our request for a window seat, but had told us that if we really wanted a window seat there was a bit of a wait as none of them were quite available yet.  However, if we wanted to be seated right away, we could, just not at a window seat.  Considering the fact that we’d never been to this restaurant before, we really wanted the view, and we were pretty sure we’d never be back again, we told the hostess that we’d be willing to wait for a table seat.  In the end, the wait was almost an hour past our reservation time to get the table we wanted.  Let’s see if the setting, the view and the food would be worth it or not.

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Portland City Grill, located on the 30th floor of the US Bancorp Tower in downtown Portland is an award-winning restaurant that specializes in steak and fresh seafood and a very lively happy hour.  With a menu that specializes in food prepared with a Northwest flair as well as Island and Asian influences, Portland City Grill is the perfect place to dine out on special occasions or even for business meetings as it offers a little something for every one.  The night we were at the restaurant, the bar was hopping with a very lively crowd.

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Being located in the heart of downtown, but in one of Portland’s tallest buildings, one of the restaurant’s most stunning features is it’s unrivaled views of Portland as well as the nearby Cascade Mountains.  We arrived well after the sun had set, but that didn’t deter from the view of Portland’s city lights laid out below us.  The scenery was fantastic, and the view was well worth the wait for the table.  The setting and atmosphere of the restaurant was intimate and private, and though the dining room was expansive, it didn’t feel crowded.

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After an hour of waiting to eat, my husband was ready to order a cocktail off of the restaurant’s drink menu.  After perusing the various drinks, my husband ultimately settled on an Old Fashioned.  Made with Bulleit rye, sugar cubes, fresh muddled oranges and peach bitters it was the bitters that caught my husband’s eye.  After tasting his cocktail he really liked it.  He described the drink as tasty.  The drink was a bit fruity and citrus flavored, and a bit on the sweet side with the sugar cubes, but it was a good mix.  He conceded that ordering an Old Fashioned may be his new go to cocktail at restaurants when we go out in the future.

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By the time we sat down and ordered, I was starving, so I decided to order a salad to start my meal.  The chophouse Caesar was my choice, as I’m a huge Caesar lover and I always like to see the different ways Caesar dressing is prepared because no two restaurants who make their own Caesar dressing ever prepare it the same way.  I’m more a fan of the thick, creamy Caesar dressing, and for me, I have greens with my dressing, as in, I like a lot of dressing.  Portland City Grill delivered.  Thick, creamy Caesar dressing that stuck like glue to the Romaine lettuce, though they called it a lemon Dijon vinaigrette on the menu.  The idea of finely grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese on the salad also worked well and the flavors of the salad dressing were really good.  Finally the addition of a bit of radicchio with the Romaine was different.  I’m not normally a fan of radicchio as it can be really bitter, but in this salad with the strong Caesar dressing, I actually liked the little notes of bitterness in the greens.

We just had to start with some appetizers to tide us over, besides the fact that the menu was so varied and there was so much to choose from.  In the end, my husband and I couldn’t quite agree on an appetizer to share, so as is the norm for us especially when we’re traveling, we each order our own dish.  It’s the phenomenon of feeling like this is the only time you’ll ever eat at this restaurant, so why not go all out and try the things you want to try?  Dangerous philosophy sometimes.

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My husband, who seems to be really into duck dishes recently decided to order the five-spiced Peking duck and steamed buns.  This was Portland City Grill’s take on the classic Peking duck, but instead of sliced duck meat with the crispy duck skin, what you get with this dish is a duck confit leg.  Served along with sesame Hoisin sauce and a side of kimchee this dish was a bit Chinese, a bit Korean, and I guess a bit Pacific Northwest?  It was just different.  I’ve never see Peking duck served with kimchee before.  My husband’s initial reaction was that he thought that the meat should have been taken off of the duck leg to make it easier to access rather than having to pick it off.  However, he said that point became moot since the way the duck leg was prepared, the meat fell right off the bone.  The meat of the duck leg was moist, tender and delicious.  Take a bit of the duck meat, some of the sesame Hoisin sauce and load it up with some of the green sprouts into the steamed bun, the bun tasted delicious.  The sesame Hoisin sauce was a bit sweet and a bit messy and sticky, but was a perfect match to the steamed buns and duck meat.  My husband added a bit of the kimchee to his buns and he liked the contrast in flavors.  For him, this was a terrific appetizer.  He would have taken this exact dish as an entrée if they had offered it.

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I guess keeping with the Asian flair of the menu items, I chose to order the crispy shrimp & crab roll.  According to the menu description, the crispy shrimp & crab roll was made with a soy paper wrap, stuffed with avocado.  That was all that was in description.  I assumed that the only other ingredients would be crispy shrimp and crab, so a roll of some sorts, but not quite sashimi.  I was a bit surprised when the dish was brought to the table and I realized that the soy paper wrap was pink in color.  Definitely not what I was expecting.  To add flavor to the dish, the cut roll was sitting atop chili oil that had been spread on the dish.  As soon as I saw the chili sauce, I was a bit wary as I knew I wasn’t going to love the spice factor.  And I was right.  The chili oil and the chili flakes were hot, a little too hot for my tongue, so I found myself trying to scrape off what I could.  However, the crispy shrimp & crab roll itself were fabulous.  Absolutely tasty.  The crispy shrimp provided a nice crunchy texture to the roll and the flavor of the deep-fried shrimp was sweet and succulent.  The creamy avocado was a nice compliment to the sushi rice and the crab mix.  Even the soy paper wrap itself wasn’t to so bad.  If not for the chili oil, I would have really been in love with this dish.

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As hungry as I was before we sat down, after my Caesar salad and my crispy shrimp & crab roll, I was actually quite full and a bit worried about the entrée I ordered as I knew I was going to have some trouble finishing it.  Oops!  I guess I wasn’t quite as hungry as I thought I was, or I was more full to begin with than I thought I was.  And unfortunately, I ordered a very heavy entrée too.  My selection was the shallot soy glazed beef short ribs served with buttermilk mashed potatoes, roasted tomatoes and pan jus.  The soy glazed beef short ribs were double the size that I had expected them to be and considering that I was already getting full, just seeing the size of the short ribs made me that much more full.  The ribs were incredibly tender, like for tender, and pretty much fell apart on their own, which was fantastic.  The soy glaze gave it a nice salty flavor and with the pan jus the flavor of the short ribs was fantastic.  This was the type of dish I was looking for when I decided to order the short ribs.  The tangy buttermilk mashed potatoes were a perfect compliment with the soy glaze of the short ribs.  Add the pan jus to the buttermilk mashed potatoes and you have a total winner that I’m a complete sucker for.  I polished off the mashed potatoes and tried to stuff as much of the beef short ribs into my mouth as I could.  This was an excellently prepared meal.

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With Portland City Grill’s reputation as a top notch steak and seafood restaurant, my husband decided to try both of them for dinner and ordered a surf and turf dish.  The turf was a rib eye steak from Omaha, 36-day aged.  The surf was an herb butter roasted 12 oz. lobster tail.  The entrée was served with Bernaise garlic fries, and while my husband isn’t the biggest fan of sauce of any sort, and he would have preferred these fries not to have Bernaise sauce on them, it was fine.  Fries are wonderful nuggets of fried potato goodness after all, and it’s pretty hard to ruin them.  My husband, amazingly enough was able to polish off his surf and his turf.  he was even kind enough to offer me a bit of his lobster tail, which was nice of him, though I was dying from being so full.  We were both surprised at the size of the lobster tail, as usually in a surf and turf dish, you get a 6 or 8 oz. lobster tail.  However, at Portland City Grill, the surf is certainly not forgotten as the lobster tail felt like it was almost as big as the ribeye.  And of course, the 36-day aged ribeye was fantastic, you just can’t go wrong with something aged for flavor that long.  And ribeye is my husband’s favorite cut of beef.  He was more than satisfied with his meal.

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By the time dinner was done, I was stuffed to the gills.  I literally felt like I was going to explode.  However, my husband was still interested in dessert.  And even though I felt like I couldn’t put another spoonful of food in my mouth, the thought of dessert temporarily perked me up.  I’m a dessert kind of girl, and it’s hard for me to turn down any sort of sweet after-dinner treat.  So, I told my husband I’d split something with him, though since he’d be eating most of it, he could choose what we ordered, as long as it was something I could eat.  His choice was the 8-layer pineapple cake with coconut sorbet and ginger caramel.  Talk about a combination of flavors my husband loves: pineapple, coconut and ginger.  An interesting combination, but yet it works because the ginger gives a bit of a kick and helps to balance out the sweetness of the pineapple and coconut.  Even though I thought I wouldn’t really be able to eat much of this dessert, I must admit it was so good that I actually ate more than I thought I would of it.  The coconut sorbet was fantastic with a very milky, coconut flavor that stood out prominently against the slightly sweetened pineapple cake.  But the ginger caramel was the star of the dessert.  The ginger kept the caramel from being too sweet as it really mellowed the sweet notes, and the sugar of the caramel kept the ginger from having too much of a bite.  The flavors mixed so well together and were a perfect compliment for one another that my husband and I agreed that this was an excellent dessert choice.

Dining at Portland City Grill had me running the gamut of emotions.  I was initially excited to have a nice meal with a view atop one of the tallest buildings in Portland.  But, the wait for our requested window table was really starting to put a sour taste in my mouth even before we were seated as it seemed like such a ridiculous wait.  However, by the end of the night, I was stuffed to the gills enjoying the great food and appreciating the fantastic scenery for which I was forced to wait for.  Overall, the experience of dining at Portland City Grill in my mind outweighed my dissatisfaction with the length of the wait I went through in order to get the table we wanted to sit at.  The food was excellent, and incredibly filling.  Simple meals, classic favorites, well cooked and well prepared.  Portland City Grill was a great cap off to our wonderful Christmas trip to Portland.

Voodoo Doughnut

April 8, 2015

A year or so ago, I was having a conversation with one of my co-workers about our various travel adventures.  I had mentioned to her that my husband and I had contemplated a trip to Portland, Oregon, but that it hadn’t quite panned out.  Instead, that year over Christmas my husband and I had flown to Phoenix, Arizona.  But, before I knew that our trip to Portland wouldn’t work out, she had said to me that if I ever got the opportunity to go to Portland that there were 2 specific eateries that I should check out.  One of those was a doughnut place that she said I just had to try out for myself because it was just too weird to explain.  Since that conversation, I had seen another friend of mine who had traveled to Portland make a stop at this same doughnut shop.  So, when my husband and I were finally headed to Portland, I told my husband that this doughnut shop would definitely be on our list of places we had to check out.

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Voodoo Doughnut is the brainchild of two longtime friends who decided together that they wanted to start some sort of crazy, wacky business that would fit the weird, eclectic vibe of Portland.  The biggest problem they had was they didn’t know what kind of business they wanted to start.  After much thought, they came up with the idea to open up a doughnut shop.  With neither of them having any knowledge of how to make doughnuts, they sought out the advice and tutelage of some doughnut masters and from there learned the skills necessary to make a basic doughnut.  They then turned the basic doughnut idea on its head by coming up with some of the craziest, wackiest, and most inventive doughnut creations ever.  They established their first location in the heart of Old Town Portland, a neighborhood that they called the “crotch” of the city.  Today, Voodoo Doughnuts has grown into a cult legend and has expanded into 5 total shops, including 2 full service shops and a food cart in Portland, a full service shop in Eugene and even a full service shop in Denver, Colorado.

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With this original store located in Old Town, it may not be in the most desirable neighborhood ever, but, that’s the beauty of why the founders wanted to open their store here, to help revive the neighborhood and its surrounds.  Bordered by Chinatown, the nearby rescue mission, and a police precinct, the shop is most recognizable for its neon pink sign and its constant, never ending line out front.  We visited Voodoo on a Saturday morning around 11 am when it was cold, windy and slightly drizzly, and there might have been 10 people standing outside in line accompanied by another 10 or so people standing inside the store waiting in line.  We came by this location again on Saturday night around 6:30 pm when it was even colder and rainier and wouldn’t you know it, the line was twice as long as when we were there during the day.  We finally walked by Voodoo Doughnut around 10 pm Saturday night and the line was even longer then.  It’s crazy how much people are willing to do to buy some doughnuts.  It’s a good thing that this doughnut shop is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  I guess Portland residents and tourists just can’t get enough of the yeasty goodness.IMG_6180

Once you get through the line outside the store, you get step into a very eclectically decorated store inside complete with custom stained glass that depict some famous celebrities, and of course the famous voodoo doughnut himself.  The garish chandeliers, hanging from the ceiling and pink lighting all add to the creativity and style that have given Voodoo Doughnuts the name reputation it has.

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There’s a menu board that adorns the back wall of the store, right behind the cash registers.  The menu board lists all the different kinds of doughnuts being served in-store that day.  The doughnuts are broken down into the following different categories: cake doughnuts, vegan doughnuts, cruellers, raised doughnuts and fritters.  Below each category is a detailed description of what kind of doughnuts Voodoo Doughnut makes in each category.

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If the board is too hard to read, there are revolving glass cases up at the front of the store next to the cash registers.  Each glass case contains shelves filled with various doughnuts on display that rotate around.  If you can’t decide what you want to order when you reach the register, just look at the glass display case and point to what you want.  When you place your order, the clerk goes to the back where the doughnuts are lined up on racks and grabs what you order before it’s boxed up for you.

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Some of the fun in going to Voodoo Doughnut isn’t just for the doughnuts you order, but looking at the glass revolving display case to see all of the doughnuts are available.  There’s the blueberry cake doughnut with glaze that’s pretty easy to spot in the display case.  I kind of thought that my husband might have chosen that doughnut, but then again, its probably one of the plainest doughnuts on Voodoo’s menu.  Other familiar doughnuts include the old fashioned with glaze, the chocolate or maple old fashioned, the lemon chiffon crueller, French glazed crueller, chocolate, maple or cinnamon sugar cruellers as well.  Theres also the vanilla plain cake doughnut with sprinkles, chocolate frosting plain cake doughnut, and the chocolate bar and maple bar.  Then you get to some of your more unique, and creative doughnuts.  There’s the triple chocolate penetration doughnut made with a chocolate doughnut with chocolate glaze and topped chocolate pebbles cereal.  There’s the Tex-Ass challenge doughnut, which in and of itself isn’t that unique of a flavor as it’s just a glazed doughnut, but the challenge comes in the fact that it’s the size of 6 normal doughnuts that can be yours for free if you can eat the entire doughnut within 80 seconds.  Next to the Tex-Ass Challenge bought is the Old Dirty Bastard doughnut named after the rapper made with a raised yeast doughnut topped with chocolate frosting, Oreo’s and peanut butter.  Not the kind of doughnut you see every day.

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It gets even more creative than that.  There’s The Loop doughnut which is a raised ring doughnut with vanilla frosting topped with fruit loop cereals.  The Voodoo Bubble doughnut stands out with its pink frosting top made from bubble gum dust atop vanilla frosting with a piece of bubble gum in the middle.  How about the dirt doughnut which is a raised yeast doughnut topped with vanilla frosting and Oreos.  Next to the Voodoo Bubble doughnut is the Miami Vice Berry doughnut which has vanilla frosting topped with blue raspberry powder over half the doughnut and raspberry sprinkles over the other half of the doughnut.  Mixed in there is the Orange Tang doughnut which is a doughnut topped with vanilla frosting, Tang (to give it it’s nice yellow color) and a side of orange sprinkles.  Mixed in there is also the Grape Ape doughnut which is a doughnut with vanilla frosting, grape dust to give it a light purple color and lavender sprinkles.  And down on the bottom shelf, I spy the Dirty Snowballs doughnut which is a chocolate cake doughnut with marshmallow topping, dipped in coconut with a dollop of peanut butter right in the middle over the hole. For a fruitier doughnut, try the Mango Tango doughnut, which is a raised yeast shell filled with mango jelly and topped with vanilla frosting and tang.

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There was the Old Dirty Bastard doughnut, now here’s the Marshall Mathers doughnut, which is a plain cake doughnut with vanilla frosting and topped in mini M&M’s.  Next to that is the peanut doughnut, a chocolate cake doughnut with chocolate frosting and a peanut topping.  Towards the back is the Ain’t That a Peach Fritter doughnut which is a peach fritter topped with cream cheese frosting topped with pink and orange sprinkles.  Next to that is the Diablos Rex doughnut which is a chocolate cake doughnut with chocolate frosting, red sprinkles a piped on vanilla frosting pentagram and chocolate sprinkles filling in the hole.  There’s the Tangfastic doughnut which is a plain cake doughnut with vanilla frosting, tang for the yellow color, and three marshmallows filling the hole.  Next to that is the Arnold Palmer doughnut with vanilla frosting and a lemonade/ice tea dust on top.  For something a little more familiar, there’s the normal Apple Fritter doughnut which is just a fried doughnut with apple chunks and cinnamon covered in glaze.

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I spy the McMinnville Cream doughnut, which I was very tempted to order made with a raised yeast shell filled with Bavarian cream and topped with maple frosting and a set of eyes with a mustache.  One of Voodoo’s more popular doughnuts is the maple bacon doughnut which is basically a maple bar with strips of bacon atop it for the sweet and savory feel.  How about the chocolate coconut doughnut which is a chocolate doughnut topped with chocolate frosting and coconut flakes.  Want something a little spicy?  Try the Mexican Hot Chocolate doughnut which is a chocolate cake doughnut dusted in cinnamon sugar and a bit of cayenne pepper.  To round out the one of the more creative doughnuts, there’s the Maple Blazer Blunt doughnut which is a raised yeast doughnut rolled into a blunt and dusted with cinnamon sugar, the tip is dipped in maple frosting and red sprinkle embers to look like a lit up blunt.

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Once you’ve made your selections, you walk out of the store with the pink Voodoo Doughnut cake box.  There is no place inside the store to sit and eat your goodies.  There are, however, some tables just outside of the store that you can take your chances on as it’s Portland, which means it’s usually cold, windy and rainy!  But, as the pink box says, “Good Things Come in Pink Boxes!” and waiting to dig into your Voodoo Doughnut purchases is pretty much unheard of.

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My husband and I chose 4 doughnuts between the two of us, 2 for each of us.  My first choice was the Portland Cream doughnut.  Named after the city of Portland, it’s a raised yeast doughnut filled with Bavarian cream, topped with chocolate, and two white cream doughnuts which are supposed to represent the vision of the city of Portland.  If you know anything about me, you know that I can’t resist eclairs, not so much because of the éclair itself, but for the fact that I’m a huge lover of Bavarian cream.  So you can bet that as soon as I see a doughnut on the menu filled with Bavarian cream, I’m all over it.  A fried dough, chocolate coating and stuffed with Bavarian cream, could there be anything better?  The doughnut was delicious and fresh, and I loved the Bavarian cream inside, which was plentiful.  The doughnut was also much more filling than I had anticipated and made it difficult for me to finish my second doughnut.

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My husband’s first choice was the signature Voodoo Doll doughnut.  Made from a raised yeast doughnut, it is filled with raspberry jelly and topped with chocolate frosting.  Each Voodoo Doll is hand decorated with a different personality and is meant to be representative of a real Voodoo Doll.  The final part of the Voodoo Doll is the pretzel stake that is driven through the Voodoo Dolls “heart.”  In my husband’s case, his Voodoo Doll was decorated as a long, pink-haired girl dressed in a yellow bikini.  Quite comical, and cute.  Of course, my husband decided to enjoy his Voodoo Doll by eating off her head first in one fell swoop, er bite.  The frosting on the doll was sweet, but the raspberry filling and the chocolate frosting were good and tasty.  It was the characteristics of the Voodoo Doll that was the most entertaining, especially seeing this yellow bikini on a drizzly, windy cold day in Portland.

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For my second doughnut, I chose the Memphis Mafia doughnut.  This doughnut was way more massive than I had anticipated and much more filling, especially after having just finished off a Bavarian cream doughnut.  I was stuffed to the gills.  The Memphis Mafia is fried dough mixed with banana chunks and cinnamon and then covered with a glaze with chocolate frosting, peanut butter, peanuts and chocolate chips on top.  The cinnamon with the banana chunks and fried dough was reminiscent of what an apple fritter would taste like, except this had bananas instead of apples.  The entire doughnut was heavy, and dense from the combination, but tasted wonderfully.  Not too much cinnamon to overpower the taste of the dough and the sweetness of the bananas.  Then you go and top the whole thing with a mixture of chocolate, peanut butter, peanuts and chocolate chips to take the whole thing over the top.  This doughnut is the perfect combination of creamy, salty peanut butter, sweet chocolate and fruity banana.  Though it was dense and heavy, it’s probably one of the better doughnuts I’ve ever tasted.

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The second doughnut my husband chose was more because I dared him to order it.  If he wasn’t going to order it, I was going to.  After the Voodoo Doughnut, this particular doughnut may be Voodoo’s best known creation.  This is the cock-n-balls doughnut.  Voodoo makes this doughnut two ways, either plain like the one we bought, or customized.  The customized doughnut comes with phrases written on the doughnut using frosting, phrases such as “bite me” and other colorful phrases.  The cock-n-balls is essentially a large, raised yeast doughnut triple filled with Bavarian cream and topped with chocolate frosting.  I don’t think I need to go into any details as to why it’s called a cock-n-balls doughnut, just look at the shape.  What surprised me about the doughnut itself was just how large it was.  The thing was massive, literally.  It was more like the size of 2.5 or 3 of my Portland Cream doughnuts put together.  As far as the doughnut itself goes, it’s essentially the same as the Portland Cream doughnut I had, so the taste of the doughnut was the same, just on a much larger scale.  Luckily, my husband is also a fan of Bavarian cream, so the more cream in the doughnut, the better.  And I admit, it was funny seeing him bite into this big cock-n-balls doughnut.

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Was Voodoo Doughnut as a doughnut shop any better or more spectacular than any other doughnut shop I’ve ever been to?  My husband and I agree that we weren’t blown away by the taste of the doughnuts alone.  But, where Voodoo Doughnuts makes their mark on the food scene is their creativity, and artistry in the design and flavor profile of their doughnuts.  The originality of the names, the designs and shapes of the doughnuts and the design and creativity in decorating the doughnuts is what makes Voodoo Doughnut standout from everyone else.  There’s a memorable quality to biting into a doughnut shaped like a Voodoo Doll or a cock-n-balls or a doughnut named after Marshall Mathers or Old Dirty Bastard.  It’s an experience you just don’t forget.  Couple that with the eclectic design of their stores with the stained glass and the display cases and the chandelier and the pink box of goodness, and this is definitely and experience from my trip to Portland that I’ll definitely recommend.  Ultimately, is this a bit of a tourist trap?  Sure it is.  But hey, as my husband pointed out to us, we were tourists visiting Portland, so why not?  When in Rome, or in this case, Portland…

Pok Pok Portland

March 31, 2015

Many years back, my husband and I were watching “Diners, Drive Ins and Dives” on The Food Network and saw an episode where Guy Fieri is in Portland, Oregon to visit a Thai restaurant that had become a local favorite for serving authentic Northern Thai cuisine.  In the episode, Guy interviewed the restaurant’s owner who told the story of how he had gone to Thailand on a vacation that just kept getting extended and extended and how he basically fell in love with the country, the people and the food.  So, he learned how to cook authentic Northern Thai cuisine and brought what he learned back to his hometown of Portland.  In the episode, dishes are shown being cooked using traditional Thai methods and authentic Thai cookware, such as clay pots.  I remember watching the episode and telling my husband that we had to remember this restaurant if we ever found ourselves in Portland.  Fast forward 3 to 4 years, and my husband and I were watching CNN one night to see a new episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show, “Parts Unknown” where he’s visiting the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.  It turns out that this entire episode features Anthony Bourdain being shown around all of the culinary delights of Chiang Mai by his personal tour guide, and fellow chef and friend.  This chef friend also happens to be the owner of the same Thai restaurant in Portland that Guy Fieri visited all those years prior.  Again, I told my husband that one day, we would have to visit this Thai restaurant.

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Pok Pok, the brainchild of owner and Chef Andy Riker, named a James Beard award winner as the Best Chef: Northwest in 2011, has created a cult following for his famed restaurant located on SE Division Street in Portland, now known affectionately as Restaurant Row in Portland.  Along with Pop Pok, Chef Riker owns a number of other restaurants and bars on Restaurant Row as well as in New York City and soon, Los Angeles.  However, Pok Pok is the restaurant that started it all.  After having been exposed to the cuisine of Northern Thailand, in and around the capital of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, Andy Riker decided he wanted to learn how to create such dishes and flavors and brought all of his knowledge back to Portland with him.  Specifically, his aim was to focus on a specific type of cuisine which most of Pok Pok’s menu is based off of, called Isaan-syle food, with Isaan being a reference to certain ethnic minority found in the far northern reaches of Thailand.  Chef Riker thinks that what distinguishes Pok Pok from any other Thai restaurant in Portland, or really anywhere, is his heavily influenced Isaan-styl food which really consists of ultra hot and spicy dishes eaten with sticky rice and made from techniques that are not found in Central Thai, Chinese-influenced cuisine which you find in most mainstream Thai restaurants.  The name of the restaurant is an “onomatopoeia” as Chef Riker describes it for the sound that the mortar makes in a pestle when making green papaya salad, one of the most famous Thai dishes around.

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The restaurant itself literally looks like it used to be a house, now transformed into a restaurant.  The idea of Pok Pok was to bring Northern Thai street food to Portland, and one of my husband’s first comments when we arrived was that the setting of the restaurant really felt like you were dining on street food.  Near the front entrance, if you can call it that as it really was the driveway of the house, was bar stool style seating over a long wooden bar table, much like you might experience if enjoying street food in Chiang Mai in a crowded night market.  The house consisted of an upstairs dining room, a basement-type dining room and bar area, a garage area converted into a take-out window with some additional seating, the bar stool seating, and a makeshift heated tent area built over the driveway that contained more seating.  It was within this heated tent area that consisted of 2 larger tables and 4 smaller tables that my husband and I were seated after about a 45 minute wait.  Pok Pok, with its limited capacity doesn’t accept reservations and being there on a Friday night, getting a table was tough.  It didn’t matter that the temps on this day after Christmas were in the 40s and the wait time for a table of 4 or larger was upwards of 2-3 hours, most people actually waited.  We were lucky with a “short” 45 minute wait.

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First off, and this is going to seem really odd, but Pok Pok had, hands down, the best water I’ve ever tasted at a restaurant.  When you’re seated, your waiter brings you plastic cups and a pitcher full of water.  Normally, I’m not a water drinker at restaurants, and literally I refilled my water cup a couple of times.  I thought maybe I was crazy, but my husband and I both commented on how terrific the water was, and how tasty it was.  It wasn’t until the end of the meal that someone at the next table over mentioned to his table that he loved the water as well and asked the waiter about the water and why it was so flavorful.  I swear, I’ve never taken a picture of a water glass at a restaurant before, but I just couldn’t resist this time around as I wanted a way to remember how amazing this water was.  The secret?  The water is flavored with pandan leaves.  The minute the waiter said that, I immediately was able to identify the slightly nutty and slightly sweet flavor in the water.  I was hooked.  Pandan leaves are from a plant commonly found in Southeast Asia.  Pandan leaves can be found in many culinary uses in Southeast Asian cooking.  I’m most familiar with the use of pandan leaves as flavoring in various Thai desserts, and I’ve seen it used as a wrapping for savory foods and desserts steamed in pandan leaves.  However, I’ve never seen it used to flavor water before, and I’ve got to say, it was amazing.  I’m going to have to try this myself at home when I get my hands on some pandan leaves.  It was, bar none, the best water ever!

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Enough with the talk of water, let’s get onto the real drinks.  My husband ordered a drink called naam manao, which in English literally translates to lemon water.  Essentially, the menu described the drink as fresh squeezed limeade, Thai style.  You see, in Thai, the word for lemon or lime is the same: manao.  And limes are much more prevalent in Thailand and used in cooking than lemons are.  To me, fresh squeezed limeade, Thai style means a lot of lime and just a touch of sugar to balance it out a bit.  After all, Thai cooking is all about the balance of flavors.  For my husband, he described the drink as fizzy, sour and sweet.  In other words, anything that tangy and “lemony” is a winner in his book.  Simple, to the point, refreshing and absolutely delicious.  He loved it.

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For my drink, I ordered the kafae boraan yen.  If I had to translate that, it would be ancient cold coffee, essentially old school Thai iced coffee.  The menu described it as “sock brewed “ancient” Thai iced coffee with condensed milk and sugar.  Made with Stumptown coffee.”  Stumptown Coffee Roasters, of course being a Portland-based coffee roaster whose original shop is also located around Restaurant Row and says this is the store (and coffee) that started the “coffee revolution” in Portland, or I might say throughout the country as I see Stumptown Coffee featured in a bunch of up-and-coming restaurants, cafes, shops, etc.  Ancient, or traditional, Thai iced coffee is made by steeping fresh ground coffee beans in a “sock”, much the way you’d steep tea.  The fresh “steeped” coffee is then flavored with condensed milk, and in this case at Pok Pok sugar to sweeten it further, and chilled over ice to create traditional Thai iced coffee.  Traditional Thai iced coffee has a sweeter flavor to it than regular Thai iced coffee and generally a better, fresh coffee flavor due to how the coffee is prepared.  This kafae boraan yen was fantastic with a full-bodied and strong coffee flavor, completely offset with the sweet notes of the condensed milk.  I could have drank the whole cup down in one gulp (I have a weakness for Thai iced coffee), and had to refrain from doing just that.  I easily could have drank 4-5 cups of the kafae boraan yen.  Good thing there was pandan leaf-flavored water for me to drink!

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We started our meal with one of Pok Pok’s most famous dishes, and what they call their signature dish, Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings.  Named after Ike, Pok Pok’s daytime chef who brought the recipe from Vietnam.  The dish, which can also be requested to be cooked spicy, contains fresh whole natural chicken wings marinated in fish sauce and sugar.  The wings are then deep-fried, tossed in caramelized Phu Quoc fish sauce and garlic and served with Vietnamese table salad.  I didn’t see a single table the night we visit not order at least one, if not 2 or more, orders of these fish sauce wings.  So, how could we not give them a try too?  However, we went with the original wings as I am not a fan of spicy food (I know, I’m not truly Thai since I can’t handle spicy food).  This was one of my husband’s biggest reservations about dining at Pok Pok, since they are known for Northern Thai cuisine and Northern Thai food is known as being extremely hot and spicy, all the kinds of food I don’t eat, my husband was concerned I’d be able to find anything to eat that I would like.  Imagine that, a Thai person going to a Thai restaurant and not being able to find anything I could eat?  It would only happen to me.  These fish sauce wings were amazing.  First off, they’re called wings, but you actually get much more than just the wing.  And while 6 wings in an order might seem small, you’re actually getting a heck of a lot of food – much more than I anticipated.  The wings are sticky, it’s the caramelized fish sauce that cause them to become almost like a glaze that sticks to your fingers.  As fish sauce is readily used in Thai cuisine, my husband and I are quite familiar with it.  What I wasn’t prepared for was how sweet fish sauce can become when it’s caramelized.  The chicken meat is tender and moist, having been marinated in the fish sauce and sugar combination.  Again, it’s a balance of flavors using the extremely salty fish sauce, balanced out by some sugar to cut the saltiness and add some sweetness.  It’s like making a salt brine.  The wings are deep-fried to a nice brown with a crisp skin and tender and moist meat.  But it’s the tossing in the caramelized fish sauce and the garlic that really gives these wings their flavor. Our fingers were sticky from the caramelized fish sauce, but my husband and I cleaned off those wings.  I can see now why they are a signature dish of the restaurant and why everyone orders them, they are finger licking good, literally.

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The way the menu is set up at Pok Pok, dishes can be shared family style, or each person can order their own dish for their own personal meal.  My husband and I decided that we would each pick a dish, but we would share our dishes family style.  For my dish, I chose a special fish dish handwritten in chalk on a board inside our dining area.  Plaa Neung Manao was the dish, which is literally translated as steamed lemon fish.  The handwritten description for the dish was a dish made from a whole stripped bass steamed with lime, chilies, garlic and coriander leaf.  Our waiter had warned us when we ordered the dish that this was literally a whole fish, head, tail and all, not just a filet of fish.  I wasn’t surprised because that’s how you would find a fish dish in Thailand served.  The bass was so much larger than I imagined it would be when it was brought to the table.  I was so glad that we each only decided to order one dish as this fish was large enough to feed 4 people.  The fish smelled wonderfully, you could smell the lime and the coriander and the fish looked delectable, full of succulent, flaky white meat.  Unfortunately, much to my dismay, the fish was so incredibly spicy to my tongue.  Don’t get me wrong, the taste of the dish with the broth of all of these spices and herbs and the amazingly tender fish meat was incredible, but the chilies, which were chopped and minced so tiny and rubbed all over the skin of the fish really did a number on me.  You could taste the bite of the chili with each bite, so much so that I had to try to just eat the fish meat without the skin.  It was just that side of too spicy to me.  However, my husband, ever the trooper, and lover of spicy food, really liked the flavor of the fish.  He thought it was a perfectly spiced, steamed fish with really wonderful meat on the very fat fish.

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As a side dish to go with our fish dish and my husband chosen entrée, we ordered a serving of sticky rice.  Sticky rice is a Northern Thai staple, replacing the common place steamed Jasmine rice you normally see accompany Thai food.  Sticky rice literally sticks to your fingers, hence the name.  With a flavor that is not as fluffy and sweet as Jasmine rice would be, sticky rice is the perfect accompaniment to many Northern Thai dishes which are eaten strictly with your fingers.  Like those dishes, sticky rice is easily eaten using just your fingers.  Often times, you take a couple of fingerfuls of sticky rice, and kind of use that a spoon or serving utensil for whatever food you’re eating, you dip the sticky rice into your bowl and use it to scoop out a serving of whatever food you’re eating, then you take the sticky rice and whatever food you’ve scooped up and plop it right into your mouth.  No need for utensils whatsoever when you’re eating Northern Thai finger foods.  Sticky rice has always been a favorite of mine and at Pok Pok they try to emulate how you’d find sticky rice served in Thailand.  If you ordered sticky rice in Thailand, you’d get a small serving size of it served to you in a weaved bamboo basket.  At Pok Pok, you get the same thing, an order of sticky rice brought out to the table in a faux (read: plastic) bamboo basket with a serving of sticky rice inside a plastic bag inside the basket.  It’s a great accompanying rice dish to any food dish.

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My husband’s choice for entrée at Pok Pok may have just lead him to the discovery of a new favorite dish to rival his love of traditional tom yum goong soup.  What my husband ordered is pet pha lo.  This is a soup dish commonly found in Thailand, though usually made with pork (or muu in Thai) rather than pet, which means duck in Thai.  As described on the menu, it’s a Thai style stewed duck leg in 5 spice soy broth, with pickled mustard greens, stewed boiled duck egg, crispy garlic, and chile vinegar dipping sauce.  According to Pok Pok, this is a Central Thai/Chinese speciality, which is a spot on description as the 5 spice soy broth is definitely a Chinese influenced flavor profile.  But like any good Thai dish, the 5 spice soy broth is balanced in flavor with a bit of .acidity from the pickled mustard greens, and of course there is the chile vinegar dipping sauce for spice and heat.  The dish is served as a soup in large bowl with a whole steamed duck leg.  The idea with the dipping sauce is to take the meat off the duck leg and dip it into the chile vinegar dipping sauce for added flavor.  The meat from the duck leg is already heavily flavored from the 5 spicy soy broth that it’s been stewing in.  The broth at Pok Pok made the whole dish, it was so incredibly flavorful and wonderfully prepared.  The addition of crispy garlic, which I hadn’t seen before was new and very welcome, especially since my husband and I are garlic lovers.  The stewed duck egg was delicious as well, and my husband was nice enough to share half the egg with me.  Of course, as the egg has been stewing, it has turned this deep, rich brown color from the soy broth and the flavors of the broth have imparted itself into the egg.  My husband fell in love with this dish.  He loved the duck meat and how tender the meat was since it had been stewing in the broth, it was so flavorful and completely fall off the bone.  He also loved the flavor of the chile vinegar dipping sauce and how it added flavor and heat to the duck meat.  For him, this was a perfect dish and he was so glad he chose this for his entrée.

Pok Pok was everything I had thought it would be.  My husband and I were incredibly pleased with the food and our whole dining experience at Pok Pok.  I had wanted to eat here for so long that there was the danger of it not living up to its reputation.  But that wasn’t my experience at all.  Yes, the restaurant is so hugely popular that they can quote 2+ hour wait times, and people still wait.  But it really wasn’t that bad, especially if you go in expecting to have to wait a bit.  The restaurant setting and atmosphere itself is so much more quaint than I had expected.  You literally feel like you’re being welcomed into someone’s home, which you actually are.  Everything actually feels so authentically Thai, my husband even said so.  The small tables, the silverware, the serving dishes, the tablecloth on the tables, everything feels like you’re dining somewhere in Thailand at a small roadside mom and pop restaurant rather than in the middle of Portland, Oregon.  And the food and drinks were fabulous.  This was probably the most authentic Thai food I’ve ever been served outside of Thailand, and it had the whole package of food and atmosphere.  I can see now why Pok Pok has had the cult following it has had as they really go out of their way to try to do it the right way.  I’m so glad that after all these years, I finally was able to check this box off of my “need to eat at” list!

Creamery Cafe and Tillamook Ice Creamery at Tillamook Cheese Factory

March 26, 2015

During the Fall of 2014, my husband and I decided that for our annual Christmas trip out of town we would head up to Portland, Oregon and the Oregon coastline for a few days.  My mom went to graduate school in Oregon and I’d always heard stories about it growing up and had wanted to visit, but never had.  Crazy, since I live in California and have traveled all over, but I’ve never been to the state just north of where I’ve spent my whole life.  My husband has passed through Portland and other parts of Oregon several times and always thought that I would like Oregon.  In fact, there was talk last spring of us trying to head up to Southern Oregon to visit Crater Lake National Park.  Unfortunately, that never materialized, but that’s definitely on the “to do” list for the future.  For now, it was time to take a few days off and enjoy what Northern Oregon had to offer.

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As my husband and I planned our trip to Oregon, we starting coming up with a list of places we were interested in visiting or checking out that were in and around the Portland area, or out towards the coastline.  As I looked online for various things, one thing on the map of Oregon caught my eye, to the west of Portland, near the coastline was a small little town called Tillamook.  The name caught my eye because my husband is a huge lover of all things cheese, and Tillamook Cheese is quite well known.  When I investigated further, I discovered that there was a Tillamook Cheese Factory that was open to the public and could be visited.  The minute I brought up this idea with my husband, he enthusiastically agreed that we should make a trek out to the Tillamook Cheese Factory.

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Tillamook is a small community in northwest Oregon where the yearly rainfall average is plentiful making grass growing easy.  In turn, good grass means a perfect place for cows to graze.  Grazing cows means a booming dairy farm community.  In the late 1890s, a man by the name of Peter McIntosh brought with him an age old recipe for cheddar and an expertise in cheese making to Tillamook.  Beginning in 1909, a bunch of dairy farmers banded together to create the Tillamook County Cheese Association.  This farmer-owned co-op produced the first official Tillamook Cheese.  Today, Tillamook Cheese is still a farmer-owned co-op made up of just about 100 farm families from Tillamook County, many of which have been part of the community for multiple generations.  Being farmer-owned means that Tillamook can control the quality of the product that goes into producing their world famous dairy product.  From the time the milk leaves each dairy farm, it arrives at the Tillamook Cheese Factory within one hour.  Unlike other cheese factories, milk arriving to the factory is turned into cheese within 24 hours of arrival at the factory, therefore, preservatives are never required nor added to the milk.  Essentially, within 25 hours of leaving the farm, the milk becomes cheese.  And it takes a whole lot of milk to produce a small amount of cheese.  For instance 100 pounds of fresh milk only produces 10 pounds of cheese.  In normal day at the factory 171,000 pounds of cheese are produced, or about 130 million pounds of cheese per year.  That’s a lot of cheese and a lot of milk.  But, the Tillamook County Cheese Association doesn’t just make high-quality tasty cheese, they also use the dairy to make other products, such as butter, ice cream, yogurt and sour cream.

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When you visit the Tillamook Cheese Factory, you can go on a self-guided tour of their cheese-making operations.  There are descriptions and videos which show you how the dairy they receive is processed, and how the milk is turned into curds and whey and how those curds and whey eventually become the famous Tillamook cheese that we all love.  The operation is huge, and has to be the largest operation in Tillamook County, either in terms of dairy farms associated with the Tillamook County Cheese Association that supplies all of the milk, or the actual cheese makers, ice cream makers and other people who work at the Tillamook Cheese Factory.

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Of course, at the end of your self-guided tour, you’re provided with free samples of the world famous Tillamook cheese.  The cheese samples we were provided with during our visit included the squeaky cheese (curds), Tillamook medium cheddar, and the special reserve extra sharp cheddar cheese.  The squeaky cheese curds are what my husband was most looking forward to prior to visiting Tillamook, and hoping that they would have samples of.  For me, out of all of the different varieties of cheese that we sampled, the special reserve extra sharp cheddar was my favorite.  I’ve always been a fan of cheddar cheese, and for me, the sharper the better as it’s that extra bite of the sharp cheddar that draws me in.

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The other three flavors that we sampled were Swiss cheese, smoked medium cheddar and garlic white cheddar.  The Swiss cheese was good as it was just so different from the other varieties available for sampling.  As expected, it had a nutty flavor to it, but it wasn’t incredibly pronounced, which is what I like, especially since I’m not the biggest fan of Swiss cheese.  I was quite surprised to taste the smoked medium cheddar as the first thing that hits your taste buds is the flavor and aroma of the smoke.  Even if you weren’t told in advance what kind of cheese this was, you would know right away that it was smoked.  That smoky flavor was very strong and pronounced.  The same could be said about the garlic white cheddar, the cheese was very garlicky with a pungent garlic flavor.  If you aren’t a fan of garlic, you’d want to stay away from this particular variety of cheese, as the garlic really tasted like fresh garlic infused into this cube of white cheddar cheese.

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At the very end of the cheese making factory tour and sampling, you’re led through a market where every variety of Tillamook cheese and dairy product produced at the factory is sold to the public, including gift baskets and samplers that you can’t find anywhere else.  My husband couldn’t leave the store without picking up a package of squeaky cheese curds for the road.

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As part of the Tillamook Cheese Factory, Tillamook operates their own fudge shop, café and ice cream shop.  The fudge shop was stocked with more than 20 different flavors of homemade fudge using Tillamook dairy.  Some of the flavors included, maple walnut, marionberry cheesecake, dark chocolate hazelnut, caramel coconut cheesecake, mint chocolate swirl, heath toffee crunch, peanut butter, white raspberry cheesecake, salted caramel, milk chocolate walnut, creamsicle, creamsicle chocolate swirl, amaretto chocolate swirl, and vanilla pecan just to give you a sample.  The café, known as the Creamery Café serves up a wide variety of food items featuring, what else, various Tillamook cheese products.  My husband and cheese go together like a moth to a flame, there was no way we were visiting the factory without enjoying lunch at the café.

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My husband went with your traditional grilled cheese sandwich with a side of tater tots.  Of course, at Tillamook, it’s not just your simple grilled cheese, rather this was the Centennial Grilled Cheese made with a combination of sharp cheddar and vintage white medium cheddar on thick sourdough bread.  The combination of the sharp cheddar and vintage white medium cheddar was a terrific combination as there’s a bit of a bite from the sharp cheddar, but that’s balanced out with the medium white cheddar.  The creaminess of Tillamook cheese allows the cheddar to melt perfectly on crispy, crunchy sourdough bread that compliments the melted cheese perfectly.

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While I too choose to enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich, I kicked mine up a notice with the Cheese Supreme made with medium cheddar, bacon and tomato on grilled sourdough bread.  I paired my meal with a cup of cream of tomato soup.  After all, grilled cheese and tomato soup is every kids idea of the perfect meal.  A grilled cheese sandwich is the perfect vehicle for really being able to taste the cheese.  Even though my sandwich was made with medium cheddar, Tillamook’s medium cheddar has as much bite as most other cheese makers sharp cheddar, which I love because the sharper and more aged, the better for me.  You can really taste the creaminess in the cheese and see it in the way it melts on the grilled sourdough bread.

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Of course, if my husband and cheese are like a moth to a flame, then me and ice cream are a match made in heaven.  With a full Tillamook Ice Creamery shop located at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, I couldn’t leave without sampling some of the amazing Tillamook ice cream.

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As a full, operational ice cream shop, the Tillamook Ice Creamery makes their own fresh made waffle cones and bowls, either plain or all dressed up, and serves up not only scoops of their famous ice cream, but also milk shakes, malts, ice cream floats, ice cream sodas, and sundaes, among other items.  You can get your ice cream in a single scoop, double scoop, triple scoop or even as a 3 scoop or 5 scoop sampler dish.  Or, even you are adventurous enough, or have enough friends with you, you can try out the ice cream adventure which gives you a single scoop of every flavor the Ice Creamery has available.  That’s a whole lot of ice cream.

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While my husband and I like our ice cream, the ice cream adventure was just a bit too much for just the two of us to handle.  My husband sent me to the Ice Creamery with the orders to get him 2 scoops in a cup.  What two scoops?  He told me to choose for him, 2 scoops that I thought he might like.  Hm, the decisions were tough as so many of the ice cream flavors sounded, and looked, so tempting.  There was orange sherbert, which I was sure my husband would like, but I couldn’t figure out what to pair it up with.  Now, if it had been my husband, he wouldn’t have cared and would have just chosen 2 flavors that he liked, regardless of how well they went together.  For me, I’m pickier, and since he asked me to choose for him, I had to try and find two flavors that paired together well.  Other flavors available when we were at the Ice Creamery included fireside s’mores, Grandma’s cake batter, mountain huckleberry, marionberry pie, rocky road, Tillamook mudslide, Oregon black cherry and Oregon hazelnut & salted caramel.  I was thinking my husband might enjoy the Grandma’s cake batter, but I wanted to find something more unique, something more fitting of Tillamook.  The Oregon black cherry and the mountain huckleberry were definitely contenders.

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Not to be overlooked was white chocolate raspberry yum, a flavor I know my husband would enjoy, purely for the raspberry aspect of it.  Though I didn’t know if the “yum” was just part of the name, of it meant there was some added extra ingredient in the ice cream.  There were also more traditional flavors such as chocolate, chocolaty chip cookie dough, cookies and cream, French vanilla, old fashioned vanilla and mint chocolate chip.  The chocolaty chip cookie dough is probably one I would enjoy, though I had my eye on a different flavor.  The mint chocolate chip is something my husband would enjoy, but really, you can get mint chocolate chip ice cream anywhere.  The remaining flavors available the day we were visiting were the caramel butter pecan, udderly chocolate, egg nog, coffee almond fudge, caramel toffee crunch, chocolate peanut butter, vanilla chocolate chip and the espresso mocha.

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In the end, I was able to find two flavors that were uniquely Tillamook and representative of the area that also would pair well together and I knew my husband would love: Oregon strawberry and Oregon blueberry patch.  My husband was happy with my selection as he had had Oregon strawberry before so he knew it would be good, and the Oregon blueberry patch is a flavor he would have chosen for himself as blueberries are his favorite fruit (or you could even say food).  Made with locally grown Oregon strawberries and blueberries, the ice cream was creamy and smooth, and incredibly rich.  It tasted fresh, and made with good quality dairy.  The colors of the ice cream itself may not look the most appealing as the strawberry had a very light off-white hue with some subtle flecks of red, and the blueberry was just slightly lavender in color with some dark purple flecks.  But this tells you that the ice cream is natural with no added food coloring or dye to make the ice cream more appealing, just the use of good old fashioned fresh, ripened strawberries and blueberries.

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For me, I couldn’t resist the pull of a waffle sundae.  After all, the aroma of fresh made waffle bowls being made onsite is enough to make my mouth water.  The waffle sundae comes with one scoop of ice cream, for which I chose the banana split ice cream.  Fitting huh?  A sundae made with banana split ice cream which is a combination of vanilla and strawberry ice cream with bits of walnut, banana and maraschino cherries mixed throughout and a swirl of fudge.  It’s like a banana split all rolled up into one convenient scoop.  Top the sundae with strawberries, whipped cream and nuts, and you’ve got a recipe for ice cream perfection.  Oh man, this waffle sundae was superb.  The banana split ice cream was fabulous, super creamy and rich.  But the best part was that you could taste the banana split, the strawberry and the vanilla and the fudge swirl and I definitely got bits of maraschino cherry and banana throughout the scoop as well as the walnuts.  It’s the best banana split ice cream I’ve tasted.  Top the whole thing with whipped cream and nuts and strawberry topping, put it all inside a fresh waffle bowl, how can you go wrong?

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If you ever find yourself in Northwest Oregon, make the drive to the Tillamook Cheese Factory, especially if you’re a dairy and/or cheese fan.  It was incredibly interesting and informative to see how the dairy farm lifestyle is so ingrained in this community and how the Tillamook County Cheese Association operates as a co-op with all of these dairy farms to produce and bring to market such high quality products, including the cheese, the butter, the ice cream and so much more.  This is the life blood of the people who live in and around this community.  And of course, don’t forget to try the free cheese samples, and grab a bite to eat from the Creamery Café or to grab a scoop, or two, of ice cream from the Tillamook Ice Creamery.  Everything is made with much love and care, and it’s super fresh and tasty.  You can’t go wrong!

Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza

March 23, 2015

Right before the Christmas holiday, two of my old high school friends and I got together for lunch to share some laughs, memories and catch up on what was going on in our lives.  These are girls I’ve known forever.  One of them I’ve been friends with since we were classmates in 4th grade.  The other one I’ve known since high school, though we actually went to the same elementary school where her mother was actually a teacher for many years.  And the two of them have actually known each other since they were 6 or 7 years old in a group called Indian Princesses.  It’s crazy to think that I’ve known these girls more than half my life, almost 3/4 of my life really.  And though it’s harder these days, what with the fact that we don’t all live that close to each other any more and we all have moved on to have careers and our own lives, for us to get together, but when we’re all in the same place at the same time, we try to at least get together a couple of times a year.  For a few years there, it was impossible for us to all get together at all because one of my two friends decided to go on an around-the-world sojourn which took her away from home for almost 5 years.  But, now we’re all back in Southern California together, and trying to enjoy being in each others company as much as our schedules will allow.  When it came time to get together before the holidays, we debated back and forth for a while as to where we should meet up.  Ultimately, I told the girls that there was a pizza parlor that I had heard one of the girls talking about that had been on my list of places to try for quite a while but I hadn’t yet convinced my husband to go to that I really wanted to try.  It turns out that both of my friends had actually been to this pizza place together previously, but they were nice enough to want to indulge my whim and agree that we should meet there for lunch.

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Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza was described by OC Weekly as “an honest-to-goodness pizza parlor,” in an article hailing the opening of the pizza join as a “return of the parlor.”  Owners Joe and Jenner Rasic, who have been Orange County residents since the early 1990s opened up Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza in Placentia as a neighborhood pizza joint to bring family and friends together.  Joe grew up in his families restaurants and has set out to create a warm, inviting, neighborhood joint where groups gather to celebrate special occasions around homemade pizzas and pitchers of beer and soda.  Jenner worked as an elementary school teacher in the area for 20+ years, creating a unique connection between herself and the community.  Many of those she knows from her teaching days she sees at the restaurant, in between creating new ideas for the pizza parlors’ dessert menu.

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Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza features a bar, large screen tv’s showing sporting events, long bench-style seating for large groups, bar seating, and small tables for more intimate gatherings as well.  There’s an open kitchen in the back where you can watch your pizza being made to order.  At Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza, pizza dough is made fresh on a daily basis.  And many varieties of craft beer are on tap on a rotating basis.  Craftsman’s has been described as Shakey’s Pizza in its heyday when you’d find a pizza parlor filled with little league teams and soccer troops.  That’s the genuine feel you get when you step inside the doors of Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza.

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Since I’m not a beer drinker, I chose craft-brewed draft root beer to drink.  Served in a chilled glass straight from the freezer and poured out of the tap just like it should be.  The glass is so cold that ice crystal start to form on the root beer, which is perfect.  The root beer is slightly sweet with a bit of tang and bite, the way a craft brewed root beer should be.  So much better than the commercial root beers you buy at the grocery store.

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Having lunch with friends, we decided that we’d split a couple of pizzas between the three of us so that we could give a couple of different pizzas a try.  To start our meals though, we each ordered a side salad with Craftsman’s signature brown sugar vinaigrette.  This is the dressing that our waitress recommended to us because it was both a little sweet, but also a little tangy.  I’d never actually heard of a brown sugar vinaigrette before and was wondering if it might be just too sweet.  I don’t normally think about putting brown sugar into my salad dressings.  But, I must admit, I tasted the vinaigrette before I poured it over my salad and I really liked it.  The dressing wasn’t overly sweet, but it did have that hint of brown sugar, a little hint of sweetness to round out the bite of the vinegar and oil.  I might have to steal this dressing to make myself.  Over a bed of mixed greens, and some sliced red onions, both of which can have strong flavors, the sweetness of the brown sugar vinaigrette really helped to balance the flavors and pull the salad together.

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The first pizza we ordered was the grilled steak and potato.  If you’ve been reading my blog, you know by now that I’m truly a meat and potatoes kind of girl and this pizza was right up my alley.  Out of all of the different kinds of pizzas on the menu, this is the one I wanted to try the most.  Made with rotisserie tri-tip, covered in thinly sliced rosemary potatoes, smoked Gouda, caramelized onions, olive oil and chimichurri sauce, this pizza was fantastic.  Literally, I could have finished a whole pizza on my own, I wanted to just devour the entire pizza.  You can’t really see the tri-tip in the picture of the pizza because it’s buried under the potatoes, but believe me that the tri-tip was tender and plentiful on the pizza.  The rosemary potatoes were perfectly soft and tender and really well flavored with rosemary that gave it a nice woodsy flavor and matched with the chimichurri sauce well.  The smoked Gouda addition was a nice touch and again added a more smoky, woody flavor to the pizza.  The pizza had a taste, feel and flavor that was rustic and delicious.  What I really liked on the pizza was the use of chimichurri sauce.  I’ve never seen that on a pizza before, and personally I’m a huge fan of chimichurri sauce as it has such strong, but terrific flavors and works really well with meat.  For this particular pizza, it was the perfect “sauce” for the pizza and complimented the caramelized onions, the potatoes and the tri-tip to a T.  This pizza was absolutely outstanding, and for this pizza alone, I’d return to Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza.

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The second pizza we chose was a shrimp and pesto.  None of us had ever had it before, and we figured it was exactly the opposite of the steak and potatoes pizza.  Plus, shrimp and pesto isn’t something you often find on a pizza menu, so we were interested in how it would turn out.  In this pizza, the pesto is the “sauce” of the pizza, which is then topped with tender shrimp, sundried tomatoes, and goat cheese.  I was a bit apprehensive about this pizza because I’m not a fan of either sundried tomatoes or goat cheese and wasn’t sure how that would play on a pizza.  However, I will admit, this pizza was pretty darn good.  The shrimp were perfectly cooked and of a very good size.  The pesto sauce was fantastic and combining it with the goat cheese actually made for a very creamy and smooth texture to the pizza which I enjoyed.  The sundried tomatoes actually lent the perfect amount of acidic tang the pizza needed to balance out the pesto and the sweet, succulent shrimp, so it worked much better than I expected it to.  I was quite impressed, my friends got me to try something I normally wouldn’t order, and I actually enjoyed it.

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Of course, what would be a holiday celebration with friends without sharing a little dessert?  My friend who first discovered Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza recommended that we try the sizzling skillet apple pie.  This was Craftsman’s signature dessert.  A tart-sized apple pie served on a sizzling cast iron skillet with caramel sauce drizzled over the pie and still bubbling in the skillet, all topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream made for quite the presentation to the table.  To hear the caramel sauce sizzling and see it bubbling over as it came into contact with the red hot skillet, created an enticing show for not only for my eyes to feast on, but for my nose to take in this wonderful scent and of course my tastebuds to devour.  The pie was fantastic, and I’m not a fan of apple pie.  The caramel sauce really put it over the top, with really tender, cinnamon apple slices contained within a flaky pie crust.

Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza turned out to be a hidden gem in my book.  My friends and I had a great pre-holiday get together in a comfortable setting where we could enjoy each other’s company over some great salad, pizzas and dessert, and just feel relaxed.  Craftsman really does feel like your neighborhood pizza parlor, the place to gather and hang out.  And their pizza’s were phenomenal.  I’m in love with the steak and potato pizza, that’s steak and potatoes just the way I like it.  I’ve got to come back again in the future and bring my husband to try Craftsman Wood Fired Pizza, I know he’d like it just as much as I did.