Portland – Food Carts, Murals and a Book Lover’s Dream Store

Multnomah Falls has been on my dream list for years.  It’s also many, many miles from our hometown, and until I talked my own gypsy mama into a 1500-mile absolutely insane road trip, I wasn’t sure when I’d get to see it.  I needed to throw in some extras to entice her into an undertaking that grand, especially since we were talking over 24 hours in the car with restless children over the course of three days.  My kiddos have come to crave road trips almost as much as I have, but there’s still only so many times one can play and/or hear the license plate game.  Even I had to admit a road trip of this scale in the time we had was insane.  But doable!

I got everyone on board with promises of a mural scavenger hunt, a plethora of food carts, donuts shaped like voodoo dolls and a book store that literally covers an entire city block.  It’s all in Portland, along with so very many things that didn’t fit our timeline, but have been added to our list for next time.

Portland is a great town for walking. Driving, when you’re from out of town… not so much.  Many of the streets are narrow, and while they apparently were made for two-way traffic, by the time everyone parks on both sides, there’s barely room for one car, let alone two going in opposite directions.  There was a little horrified steering wheel clutching and a few wild-eyed head shakes as we figured this out.  So we parked the car and walked.  MUCH more enjoyable, and much less anxiety-riddled for me, at least.  If you’re familiar with Portland and are comfortable driving there, you’re probably laughing at me right now.  I’m okay with that.

One of the things that astounds me about Portland (aside from the insanely delicious food cart alleys) is that you can round a corner of a nondescript building, and come to face to face with a stunningly detailed mural that may or may not have anything to do with the building.  Quotes and depictions of historical figures, a rhinoceros with street signs impaled on his horn, a Victorian lady five stories high against a brick building, ballet dancers, basketball players, random arrows of all shapes and sizes – they’re everywhere thanks to the Portland Mural Initiative.  You can go online, see what’s out there and plot your map.  This was my first time to Portland, and I had no idea where streets or buildings were in relationship to each other.  With limited time to explore, I was freaked out about actually finding anything in a city the size of Portland.  I spent an evening with a printed map, plotting the murals and food carts I wanted to see so we’d have a game plan as we drove.  It might sound silly, but it was that or spend an hour zigzagging through town trying to hit murals when really there are clusters in different districts.

Mural hunting is hungry work, let me tell you.  Thankfully, Portland is also home to entire blocks lined with food trucks.  We don’t have these in my hometown.  Please, please, someone get on this.  We found Carts on Foster, a little alley with about 15 permanently parked trucks with picnic benches under an awning to sit and eat your treasure trove.  Lots of choices here – BBQ, vegan, breakfast pastry, sandwiches, and my absolute favorite, Bari Food Cart.  If you are ANYWHERE near Portland, you need to stop here.  I promise.  Your mouth will thank me.  Have you ever heard of a panzerotti?  It’s a light and crispy dough filled with goodness and fried, almost like a calzone but so much lighter and flakier.  Ah, I can hardly talk about it, my mouth is watering even now.   I’ve stopped at a lot of roadside food stands all over the world, and this might possibly be the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.  I don’t know how Walter does it, but it’s beyond delicious.  That’s the other thing – Walter.  One of the nicest guys you could ever meet.  Ry went up to thank him for dinner when we were done, and to tell him how insanely tasty the panzerotti was.  Walter came out of his cart, gave us a hug, and chatted with us about coming from Italy, his family and his food cart.   This whole panzerotti experience was worth the 24 hours in the car, without a doubt.

We talked about it for hours, even while browsing the stacks of the biggest bookstore I’ve ever seen.   Ally would pick up a book on horses, poke her head out and say “How do you think he makes the outside part?”.  I headed for the travel aisle, and in the midst of reading about floating markets in Thailand, “That has to be special cheese.  That’s not normal cheese.  He must import it or have it blessed by fairies or something”.

Powell’s City of Books is another mind-boggling stop.  When you walk in, they hand you a map.  Of the store.  I can see how people could get lost in this place, intentionally or not.  This is the entire-block-book-store, and it’s several stories high.  There are chairs and cozy spots laid out for browsing, and my absolute favorite part, there are used books mixed in.  Ry and Ally LOVE to read.  It’s touch and go sometimes whether I’m going to need another job to pay for Ry’s food budget or his reading habit. At Powell’s, if there’s a popular book, you might find three new copies and one very gently used copy right next to it at a third of the price.  I let the kids load up for the car ride home.

Last stop in our Portland Whirlwind Tour – Voodoo Donuts.  So many people told me we had to try this place.  I was skeptical.  I’m all about the food, especially when it’s unique to the place we’re visiting, but hours waiting in line for a donut?  Big nope.  We headed there without telling the kids where we were going, just in case the line was insane and we didn’t stop.  We approached the building, and there was actual parking available, and no line in sight.  I thought for sure we were in the wrong spot or they were closed.  Maybe an alternate dimension where they sell cauliflower.  But no – if you visit their secondary location, 1501 NE Davis St., and time it right (like after 6 pm – who doesn’t want a donut for dinner?!), there’s no line.  We got the iconic pink box, the mesmerizing rotating trays of fancily decorated donuts, and the sheer olfactory heaven of an entire room filled with chocolate and fried carbs, with no line.  Score!  Would I have waited an hour or three for these?  Sorry, no.   But if you can sneak in when the line is small, go there!

A little tip for my fellow gypsy mamas travelling with younger children – Voodoo is known for a donut that is shaped like male genitalia.  Complete male genitalia.  I shall abbreviate it as the C&B donut (they call it the full name, no abbreviation).  It’s on the menu all laid out there, and when we went, it was right at kid height in the spinning case of wonder, right alongside the voodoo doll that everyone wants to check out.  My daughter spent quite some time trying to figure out what this donut was, before deciding it was a random shape, because sometimes donuts should be random.  Works for me.

Still high on our list for next time we find ourselves in Portland – the Japanese Garden, Forest Park (with its “Witch’s Castle), and the Oregon Museum of Science (top of the list).  If you’re in Portland and visit these (or any that should be on my list) please drop me a line and fill me in!



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