Good evening, friends and neighbors!
The hint of fall is in the air as I sit under the blacked-out stars on the patio of the Space Room on Hawthorne. Usually it's a lot wilder, with hipsters celebrating the coming of Friday like the weekend was starting Thursday- "Thirsty Thursday" I think some people still call it. I always really liked this kind of weather, where you packed a light hoodie for the morning and evening, but crammed it in your bag during the hot sunlit hours. It certainly seems more pronounced in Oregon than it ever did in New Jersey. I suppose that's because most of my autumns in New Jersey were home by the sea, not out in the Pinelands or anywhere especially wooded. Even in super-hip and compulsively urban Portland, you can't forget there are woodlands out there. The trees are starting to change, littering the streets with scarlet and ochre leaves. It's turning into the time of year that demands light music, whiskey, and warmth.
Well, I'm having a martini. Cucumber dill-infused vodka, a refreshing little twist. It's my Friday. After coming home, stripping off the remains of my work of the last week and zonking out for about an hour, I decided that was break enough, and time to get out among people and back to work.
As of September 11th, it has been one year since Emily and I dropped everything and headed west. In the course of that year, we've:
- Moved once
- Learned to live and love a new city
- Made friends
- Said goodbye to friends we just made
- I was unemployed for at least 6 months.
- Restarted The Black Hat Bakery as The Black Hat Baker and took it legit.
- Got engaged- our date is officially January 7th, by the way.
- Faced changes and losses that we weren't near enough to deal with quickly.
- Counted on the goodwill and love of more people than we believed we could deserve.
- Relied on luck and hope perhaps a bit more than we should have.
New Year's Eve of two years ago, I promised myself I wouldn't be in the same job. I promised myself I'd be out seeing the world, working for myself, or working for a business I loved and agreed with. I finished that promise with the words of my grandfather:
"They will love you, or they will hate you- but never let them ignore you."
Two years later, I am an honest-to-God entrepreneur. I work a day job I love, doing work I enjoy and get creative control in. On the side, I work to fulfill two goals I made long ago at the same time- I wanted to make people happy, and I wanted to save the world. If I can entertain people with my writing and stories, and teach them to bake and look after others- that's a job worth doing.
A year and a half ago, I didn't expect to be doing any of that 2000 miles from everything I knew and loved.
A year is a long time, and it's not so long at all.
I've been trying not to write too many self-serving blogs recently. I want everything I write here to be helpful or of interest to you guys, my readers, where/whatever you are. If I want to share all of this with you, I'm going to teach you something while I do it- and this is something I'm still learning myself, even as I sit under the stars 2000 miles from home, two drinks in, and listening to cars crawl along Hawthorne.
"BE PATIENT. YOU WILL NEVER SEE THE GOOD THINGS YOU WANT COMING."
This has been a king-hell-bastard of a year. I learned a lot, often unpleasantly, and always just doing what I'd been trying to do all along:
1. Look after myself and those I love.
2. Do what I love to do.
3. Try to make the world better.
In the course of one year, it got me to some pretty dark places- I thought I was twisted or sick. I thought I should give up. I thought I was no good to begin with and who was I fooling.
It also got me to some places of indescribable beauty- where I KNEW all was well, and that I couldn't forgive myself if I ever gave up, and that I still had skills worth sharing, and that I was where I was meant to be.
In other words, it carried me through life. Life sucks. It's also beautiful. It's painful. It's also ecstasy.
In a few months, or maybe a little sooner, I'll see my old home for the first time in a year. I'll marry the woman I love, and who I managed to build a life with among all this madness. I'll see old friends, and maybe some will ask how Portland is, or what life is like out here.
I think about that as I look past the patio lights at the cloudy sky, and then down the road at restaurants, bars, stores, people, libraries, museums, a city I've only had a year to know.
I think I'll say "It's life. Just a little wilder and weirder."
Thanks for sticking around, folks. This should be interesting.
Good evening, friends and neighbors!
Hope your Labor Day was fun and restful, and that all the kids are excited to be back in school.
What? Weirder things have happened.
Case in point was MY Labor Day, spent in the kitchen of Crema Cafe + Bakery, my current employers.
As you might expect, business was VERY swift that day, and I was double-timing it around the kitchen. As the only pastry guy on duty that day, I had to make sure the front was stocked. Pastries, pies, cakes, pudding- whatever I could whip up with what was available that the customers would like.
One of the great things about working in a small place like Crema is the creative freedom. As in all kitchens, one taste is worth a thousand explanations. If you can bring the boss something new and good, very often the response is "Make it, put it out there- if it sells, make it again." In a way, it's the ultimate trial by fire for a new recipe. While most creations are bound to become one-offs, or made infrequently when time/materials present themselves, good products that can speak to the public in all seasons are likely to be asked for again and again, and become regular additions.
With that in mind, when I started on the pastry bench at Crema a month or so back, my first thought was, "These guys need a little East Coast in here"- and to me, that means Jewish classics.
I have not always had a great relationship with my Jewish roots and faith. I all but denied them for about four years after an unfortunate argument with a rabbi. Since college, however, I've found myself embracing my Jewish heritage and culture more and more- but that's another story. Something that helped me along as reconnecting and learning the recipes of my youth.
Since the head of pastry, Victoria, already had a pretty solid rugelach recipe she made now and again, I figured it couldn't hurt to show them hamantaschen and my Bubba's Jewish Apple Cake.
While my Bubba's Jewish Apple Cake is eternal, unchanging and perfect (I will f*^&ing fight you if you argue different), the great thing about hamantaschen IS the fact that the fillings in the triangular sugar cookie can change as you see fit. With Portland's absolutely INSANE growing seasons and produce, fillings were limited only by my imagination.
Which is why this story involves an amusing conversation that started over a Peach Blueberry and Thyme-filled hamantaschen.
One of my hobbies recently has been reading up on the Yiddish language- the language of the Jewish Diaspora since at least the Middle Ages. It combines Biblical Hebrew, German, Slavic, and a number of other languages in its melange of dialects. As such, when I write up the display tags for my pastries, sometimes I add in Yiddish phrases and jokes, like:
"Oy, geshmakht!" (Wow, great taste!)
"Nu? What do you want for $3?" (Shut up, it's funny.)
As the crowds are winding down and I'm starting preparations for the next day, Zach- one of the baristas- comes back and says, "Someone wants to talk to you about your hamantaschen, but he's pronouncing it 'geshmahkt' or something? I don't get it."
I can't help but chuckle- "Nu? One of the customers speaks Yiddish!" I am greeted by a friendly older gentleman that we'll call Leroy. Leroy was new to Portland and was in our neck of the woods for the Portland Theater Festival. He pointed to the tag on my hamantaschen and asked if I was fluent in Yiddish.
I confessed that I wasn't, but I was picking up a few phrases here and there through my reading. He smiled and told me that he had wanted to learn Yiddish for a long time as it was his parent's primary language. He then asked if I was going to be here later, and I told him I'd likely be there until closing time. He grinned and said he'd be back.
About two hours later, I'm starting to wrap things up in back. I had prep done for tomorrow, all the wholesale pastries and stuff for morning bake ready to go- all that was left was wrapping and cleaning.
That's when Zach pops in the back again. "Hey Matt, that old guy's back, and he's got a book for you."
The book was his textbook in beginner's Yiddish, written and assembled for a college course he had attended some time ago. As he lived in the neighborhood (and now knew where I worked) he offered to let me borrow it so I could get some REAL lessons in, rather than just memorizing phrases.
You'll never know what can happen over tasty pastries.
Nu? What did you want from a blog I'm writing at 11 at night?
Oh, that's right- recipe!
Yield: maybe 30 cookies?
1 1/2 C. Butter
1 C Sugar
2 Eggs (room temperatur)
6 Tbs orange juice
1 tbs vanilla
2 tsp baking powder
4 1/2 C flour
Filling (You can make this, or get jars of pie filling from the store- whatever you like!)
4 Peaches, peeled, pitted, and chopped small.
2 Pints Blueberries
1/2 C. Sugar
3 Tbsp Corn Starch
1 Tbsp Lemon Juice
1 Tbsp Dried Thyme
Fresh Thyme for Garnish
Method for Filling
Method for Cookie Dough
Assembly and Baking
Good evening, friends and neighbors!
I tend to do my best thinking when I'm outside. I've heard that it's something to do with endorphins, or the activity of the body matching the activity of the mind. It might also be the mirepoix of light, fresh air, and action that stirs the imagination to open doors it might have sullenly slogged by- even if the body itself seems to be slogging it's way through the rainy, suddenly sleet-in-May-filled streets of Portland.
I tend to do my best THINKING when I'm moving around outside.
My best WRITING, however, tends to happen in pubs and restaurants.
As I write this, I am ensconced in a small subterranean cocktail lounge called Pepe Le Moko, hidden away between two stores on 10th St., just off of Washington.
Past a young woman in the doorway shucking fresh oysters and prepping appetizers, a narrow staircase leads to a pleasantly dark, well-arranged bar- moodily lit as seems appropriate, with smooth jazz playing at a noticeable, but not obnoxious level. I can't help feeling nostalgic for certain bars in Philadelphia that echo this sort of not-unpleasantly-stereotypical atmosphere.
Really, only the most uninformed tourist would doubt that beneath it's shiny, liberal-artsy, crunchy exterior, Portland is an honest-to-God drinking town, and there really does seem to be a bar not just for whatever you are craving, but whatever mood you are in.
Since moving to Portland a year ago (oh god it's been a year), I've found myself belly-up to many fine establishments, and there are a few I come to again and again, based on what I'm feeling. Maybe it's a fantasy of vintage class. Perhaps it's a place to swap stories and lies with friends. Often it's a quiet place to nurse a drink, sit down, and write.
Here's my list.
These bars tend to be either subterranean or well-secluded, allowing you to ignore the world outside and focus on whatever it is you are doing, whether that is writing or just drinking at enjoying a classy form of isolation. Usually not specializing in anything in particular, what makes a good writing bar can really depend on the person. For me, I like a good beer list, or solid cocktails.
Joining Pepe le Moko in this category is the McMenamin's-owned "Al's Den" in Downtown. I first found this place while trying to find a place to wait out the rain, have a pint and write. A narrow flight of stairs down from the pavement leads to a smallish, warm basement bar with a quiet atmosphere, fine McMenamins beer, and friendly people- the perfect place to wait out the storm.
On East Burnside is a curious addition to this category called Rontoms. With the unobtrusive exterior of an old warehouse, Rontoms is a hip and spacious bar with regular music, great beer, and great food. Rontoms is a BIG space, but the choice of furniture (almost all low couches and chairs around coffee tables) and the layout of the room give one the sensation of people-watching in an enclosed space. An ebullient staff and solid food menu means an experience that I can only describe as "feeling pleasantly alone in a crowd."
If you are interested in going a little further east and checking out the North Tabor neighborhood, you'll find the Caldera Public House. Locating in a historic drug store, Caldera offers bar seating, a few comfortable chairs around a bookshelf, and a back patio. While their beer menu is a little lacking for Portland, their cocktail list presents intriguing offerings, like the "Dark Garnet" and "Leche Diablo." Both Emily and I have found ourselves slipping down the block to get some writing in at their comfortable tables. Their 10pm closing time, however, tends to forbid late-night workshopping sessions.
The Local Watering Hole
Like a traditional Irish or English-style pub, the common thread in these bars is the homieness- between the atmosphere and the staff, you get the feeling that coming here is a pastime, where the servers know you and what you like. You might even have a favorite spot. Not necessarily a place to be alone, these are places to meet friends, enjoy company, and drink a few beers. As you can imagine, this is the category that MOST bars in Portland fit into. No matter what part of the city you are from, you are rarely far from a pub you can call home.
My current local is the Horse Brass Pub, on SE Belmont. With an absolutely phenomenal beer list, and excellent English and American pub fare, the Horse Brass sometimes doubles as a Writing Bar for me when I really crave the noise and action of a busy bar. While you won't be getting too many cocktails from the bar, that's not the reason you came. This is a place to meet friends and have a beer or whiskey...and then another... and another... and another.
If, on the other hand, you're feeling something a bit more divey, the Yamhill Pub has you covered. Yamhill Pub stands proud as your loud, dark, windowless dive tucked in the bottom of an office building along Yamhill St. A raucous jukebox, even money on getting a craft microbrew or a big label domestic, and a generally colorful clientele means a splendid place to disappear into the noise and forget you exist for a while, or at least until you get sucked into another patron's story time moment.
Maybe you're not really feeling a dive, but also don't want something TOO fancy or clever. For that state of mind, my favorite place in the city so far is Beulahland- dark, but open. Divey, but friendly and welcoming. Great beers on tap, and a menu of solidly-done sandwiches, burgers, and other staples makes it the gold standard for local in my book, and the perfect place for an after-hours drink. You're as likely to watch English Premier Soccer on the screens as you are to see flamenco dancing- which is to say, "Yes."
If you had the day off, however, you might find yourself on SE Hawthorne- a main drag of shopping, dining, drinking, and amusements. All the way at the end of the street, you'll find Quarterworld and the Space Room. Quarterworld is a retro-gaming dreamland, with a great bar and carnival-inspired food to keep you fueled as you play vintage arcade and pinball games, listen to live bands, or guess at trivia.
For a quieter time, however, wander over to the Space Room. Kitschy and goofy by purpose and pride, The Space Room is a small bar decked out with all the 1950s sci-if shlock and goofy lighting you could want, and with a classic drink menu and infused vodkas to match. Laugh at the kitsch, and drink it up. It's what you came for, and you got it and more.
These are the bars that I usually find I'm in the mood for when I have guests, or if I'm taking Emily out on a date. Make no mistake- these places are solid places to get a drink, but they aren't really the kind of place where you necessarily hang out and drown your sorrows. These places are a little swankier- you walk in here to see and be seen, and to drink the strange and wonderful cocktails they do so well.
Given that it is the commercial and tourism heart of the city, the Downtown area west of the Willamete seems to be the nexus for these sort of bars. Notable among them is Shiftdrinks. When I first walked in to Shiftdrink, I was struck by the minimalist, warehouse-like decor. I had anticipated something akin to MIlkboy- a bar in Philadelphia notable for the fact that it is directly across from Jefferson Hospital, and has a "happy hour" timed for each shift at the hospital- one should always be able to end a day's (or night's) work with a drink.
Shiftdrink, however, is something clearly different. It's a place to meet friends, and specifically to grab a cocktail. While their beer menu DOES sport some fine choices, come on- you don't go to a sushi restaurant and order pizza.
If you're feeling something a bit less cosmopolitan in FEEL, if not necessarily in location- there's always Swine. The companion bar to the Swank restaurant at the base of the Paramount Hotel, Swine specializes in two things: moonshine whiskey, and pork. With an exciting and intriguing bar menu for the bacon-obsessed individuals in your life, and great whiskey-based cocktails, it's a great place to meet friends after dinner, or before a show.
Beyond all this, however, there is one place that MUST be mentioned. Tucked away on SW Alder Ave is the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library. No, the "library" bit is NOT just them being clever. Open to the public, but reservations only available to membership (at a $600 yearly price tag, and currently wait-listed), one may ascend a staircase in an dark, wood-walled hall and enter the smoking-room/study you always wished you had. With a leather-bound whiskey list an inch thick, listing two walls worth of whiskey in alphabetical order, this is a place for special moments. This is where you can melt into the leather upholstery of an arm-chair, enjoy a whiskey poured precisely to your wishes, and wrap yourself in the serene splendor. With very few actual tables, the Library DOES sport a brief but impressive menu- the price point, however, makes it a VERY special occasion sort of place. When you have the chance to taste whiskies that cost up to $2000 an ounce... yes. You ENJOY it.
This list isn't comprehensive by a long shot, and I always love finding new and different places to try- but for the stranger in the Rose City, who may be worried by early hours of his hotel bar, or put off by the crunchy hipness of the local populace, fear not!
Portland is weird, it loves BEING weird, and it REALLY loves getting weird.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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