As my second day progressed in Portland, I came upon an interesting battle of food conception and, finally, a sit-down meal with my Mom and her beau. Walking as much as I did provides so much time to clear the mind. Or muck it up. Either way, my mind was being put to some use other than the daily rigmarole I confront at home. Hence, vacation!

Faces

Walking from the Pearl Bakery with a full tummy and my senses reeling from the all-out assault of deliciousness, I had no particular heading in which to follow. Which is good. There is much merit to the oft-quoted Tolkien line from The Lord of the Rings, “Not all those who wander are lost.” I wanted to unveil so many of the things I desired to leave hidden when I lived in Portland. Not being exactly sure of what fear drove this, it was easy at this point (perhaps from having to shelve fear itself over the last few years?) to just let go, walk like I owned Portland, and let everything swallow me whole. I was ready for it.

Wandering through The Pearl, it hit me that so much has changed in this newly developing area. Years ago this was the warehouse district, which is obviously evident with, duh, all the barren warehouses transformed into living spaces or retail shops and eateries and art galleries. What Portland has chosen to do with it and how to integrate it into the Portland that already existed is nothing short of genius. Seamlessly, the Pearl morphs Portland into less of an older urbanized city to a chic, modern, yet still bustling and livable neighborhood. The streetcar services the area well by making it easy to access most parts of the city core from the Pearl itself to NW 21st and 23rd marketplace-lined streets and through the city center on to the waterfront where the new tram sits ready to take anyone up to the Oregon Health and Sciences University. Its very possible to live with one car in this area without having to fill it up for weeks. Bikes, of course, are everywhere. In fact, as I rode along the streetcar to a stop at the tram, I counted over 75 bikes in a series of bike racks just at this one stop. That, my friends, is a lot of bikes (which, if you’re an OHSU student, makes sense if you’re thinking health….). In short, it was entirely refreshing to walk around an actual neighborhood without ever having to wonder where I was going to park or how I would get around.

Ken's Artisan BakeryIt wasn’t too long after the walking that my stomach signaled lunch time. Decisions, decisions. What the hell was I going to eat? It’s like setting a seven course meal in front of someone who hasn’t eaten in days. Where do you start? Well, I thought, I’ll just keep walking and see where I end up. I’d passed by Ken’s Artisan Breads the day before to have a Reuben at Rose’s, so Ken’s was an option still. But, then I did want to find some holes in the wall that seemed enticing and reasonably priced. Bah, I figured, I’ll walk and if nothing strikes me, I’ll make sure I make it back to NW 21st to eat at Ken’s.

Walking along 21st, I stumbled upon City Market adorned with colorful flowers at the entrance. There are flowers everywhere, here, by the way. The earth celebrates the sun when it does shine and every human sense knows it. I sought this market out specifically because I’ve been a fan of PBS program The Endless Feast. Ben Dyer is one of the featured hosts on the show and inside City Market is a butcher shop he runs called Viande. Being that he is one of my culinary inspirations, nothing was going to hold me back from checking out what they had to offer. The funny thing, though, was that upon walking in toward the Viande counter (which takes up a smallish corner of the market itself) I froze. Ben was there working on some meats in the window facing 21st and I just sheepishly looked at their cold case. There I was, a thirty-six year-old man and I acted like a fifteen year-old girl staring googly-eyed at her favorite emo singer. I did this once before back in 1994 when I attended the Indie Rock Flea Market in Washington, D.C. where I froze completely at the Dischord table where Ian MacKaye was standing behind the table selling his stuff. What the hell is the matter with me? I would, though, eventually catch up to Viande on Saturday.

Passing up a cheap $6 ham and brie on a baguette at City Market, I made my way to Ken’s. It was time. In the past, the only food I’d eaten at Ken’s was their famed crusty European-style breads and a few pastries. I don’t recall ever eating a sandwich there, though. For those of you unfamiliar with Ken’s, let me state one thing: legend has it that Ken is not just a culinary artist, but is a perfectionist – probably to some sort of maniacal level. His dedication to his passion for bread is pretty much unmatched in the Pacific Northwest and, perhaps, in America. You can read essays he’s written on bread at his website. They’re deep in both content and emotion. How can one not indulge in his wares?

The first things that hits you upon entering Ken’s is the smell of dark bread. This is to say: the aroma of slightly over baked crusts – the delicious crispiness and flavorful packaging to the soft and airy bread within the loaf. That much I certainly remember from running in and out of Ken’s picking up bread in the drench of winter years back. Everyone behind the counter seemed friendly and waited for my decision of which sandwich I would order. I felt no rush in the least, which was good because, although their menu isn’t extensive, each entry is something to consider.

I have to come back to benchmarks. In a bakery such as Ken’s, there must be some litmus test (much like the croissant at The Pearl Bakery) with which I can test the validity of the establishment as a whole – to just get a sense if their direction is true.

Ken's Croque MonsierKim, my dear wife, and I have a standing argument concerning croque monsieurs – embellished French ham and cheese sandwiches. It boils down to this: open-faced or no? She’s a firm believer of the closed and I think open-faced is better. I’m not sure exactly which is traditional, or if there is a traditional preparation (knowing the French, there must be). Nonetheless, it’s a bone we pick with one another over the love of food. It’s fun. And we’re bored like that.

Of course, I ordered the croque monsieur (at a mere $6.95) which, by the way, came to me served open-faced. Score one for Cas! A side note: the croque monsieur Kim ordered here in San Diego was closed (and not good…). The sandwich took a few moments to show up at my table and for good reason: everything is made to order at Ken’s. So, it wasn’t par-cooked and then given a once-over under the broiler. The sandwich was immediately appealing with the ham covered in cheese, all resting upon a slice of Ken’s country levain, and garnished with some fresh greens. Again, my sense of smell was attacked, but this time by the whiff of thyme (which sat under the ham, so as to not get burned) and the blue scent of the Gruyère cheese. I indulged immediately. The slices of ham were thin, smoky, and salty. The béchamel sauce, which made the sandwich moist and oh so comforting, was not heavy – a good thing. The Gruyère was aromatically strong yet acted like a perfect foil for the salty ham – it provided the balance for this delicious sandwich. The levain was delicate and crusty all at once. It is certainly true that Ken is a perfectionist, if this croque monsieur was any true indicator. Upon finishing the sandwich, I was left content. I almost felt like smoking a cigarette – and I don’t smoke.

It was sort of like taste bud sex.