PORTLAND, Ore. — Is it possible for an Angeleno to leave home and find love in a region where sunshine is merely a rumor and 50 shades of gray are a daily atmospheric reality?
It's helpful if the pursuit of that bliss involves a white-hot controversy that upon occasion dominates headlines and ensnares academics, government officials and medical researchers.
I am speaking, of course, of carbohydrate love.
Portland — where the constantly caffeinated seem to have an ever-growing selection of pastries to consume with their coffee — is a logical destination. "We love our bakeries like we love books and strip clubs," a writer at Portlandfoodanddrink.com professed last year.
My husband, Steve, and I flew to Portland in early December, primed for a pastry crawl — 48 hours of maple frosting and bacon, of gingersnaps and drop biscuits with lemon curd. We were also primed for a visit with our 25-year-old son, Greg, who wanted to introduce us to his serious girlfriend, thus allowing us to witness a more traditional sort of affection.
Our list of stops was informed by recommendations of friends and coworkers who have some awareness of Portland's growing reputation as a gastropolis.
During the 48 hours, we stopped at seven places, ranging from artful (Bakeshop) to playful (Voodoo Doughnut Too). We drove about 70 miles in total as we wended our way around four of the city's five quadrants (North, Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest). Portland is not difficult to navigate and the locals' idea of bad traffic made us snort with derision, but we discovered that there were times to turn off the GPS and ask for directions.
Mostly, we grazed. We consumed shortbreads and gingersnaps, Fruit Loop doughnuts and macarons, at prices that ranged from $2 to $6 (although some of the big loaves of bread cost as much as $15). During our short stay, we must have consumed a month's worth of calories, and we agreed to give up sugar not only for Lent but also for the rest of the year, a resolution we broke as soon as we spied "made in Oregon" chocolates at Portland International Airport. It was an experience we'd repeat tomorrow.
Here's a rundown of the bakeries and sugar shacks we visited:
Known for: Pastry chef Kim Boyce worked at Campanile and Spago before relocating to the Pacific Northwest. Her creations, which are sold to other restaurants and coffee shops, attest to a thoughtful, sophisticated baker.
Highlights: Shortbread, ginger molasses cookies, chocolate orange pecan scones, chocolate espresso cake
Vibe: The Bakeshop counter is relatively small and practically elegant, reflecting what is being sold. Next door at Case Study Coffee, the mood was one of quiet contentment.
Overheard: Bakeshop is a carry-out kind of place next door to Case Study Coffee, which roasts its own coffee and encourages carry in. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, most customers seemed engrossed in their computers and their pastries; eavesdropping was a challenge. But a preschooler clutching a hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows proved the exception by loudly extolling its virtues.
Conclusion: An adult experience. Look for Madeleine Peyroux on your iTunes, plug in the headphones and dig in. Most items $2-$6.
Info: 5351 N.E. Sandy Blvd.; (503) 946-8884, http://www.bakeshoppdx.com. Open 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays.
Voodoo Doughnut Too
Known for: Tourists, long lines, doughnuts covered with maple frosting and bacon, arcade games and T-shirt sales. Despite all this (or because of it), Voodoo gets great press. Bon Appétit once proclaimed: "What Dalí was to art, Voodoo is to donuts." (There are two other locations: the original, in Northeast Portland, and a shop in Eugene, Ore.)
Highlights: Bacon maple bar, the voodoo doll (a doughnut filled with raspberry jelly and topped with chocolate frosting), the Loop (covered with Fruit Loops) and the maple blazer blunt (decorated with red sprinkles).
Vibe: Voodoo Too feels like a combination tourist trap, fetish shop and sweet factory. It's fast, furious and fun — in a sledgehammer kind of way.
Overheard: Loud rock 'n' roll, gluttonous grunts
Conclusion: Despite the protests ("Overrated!") from the locals in our group, a stop is compulsory for any visitor with a jones for sugar.
Info: 1501 N.E. Davis St.; (503) 235-2666, http://www.voodoodoughnut.com/voodoo_doughnut_too.html. Open 24/7 "except for certain holidays." Doughnuts from 95 cents. Cash only.
Little T American Baker
Known for: Baker-owner Tim Healea's chewy breads with fine crumbs, Stumptown Coffee, Sally Lunn bread, and a listing in Bon Appétit's 2010 "10 Best Boutique Coffee Shops."
Highlights: Drop biscuit with lemon curd, apple cheese Danish, orange brownie, pretzel bread, seeded hoagie roll, baguettes
Vibe: Modern but warm. The space is filled with light (when the sun is out), thanks to all the windows. Wood accents and flowers add homeyness, and the customers dress as if they were trying to fulfill our every stereotype of the Pacific Northwest. Think jeans, beanies, polar fleece, North Face.
Overheard: Employees who know their stuff; customers who know the menu. Locals rule.
Conclusion: A sublime experience on a Sunday morning, Little T sets the bar high.
Info: 2600 S.E. Division St.; (503) 238-3458, http://www.littletbaker.com. Open 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays. Most pastries $2.50-$3.50.
Known for: Tabor says it's the first retail bakery in Portland to mill its own flour, and the breads are baked in a wood-fired oven in the middle of the store — very cozy.
Highlights: Savory bread pudding, oat scones with currants and orange, rye Pullman loaves, light rye bread and baguettes
Vibe: Tissa Stein took a former medical building and transformed it into a neighborhood gathering spot. The bakery has a homey feel, with hardwood floors, an open-beam ceiling and a scattering of tables, chairs and bar stools, all occupied by customers clad in what seems to be a municipal requirement: jeans, beanies, fleece
Conclusion: Cool neighborhood hangout, especially for those who embrace wood-fired breads made from house-milled grains — which undoubtedly includes 99% of the city's residents.
Info: 5051 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.; (971) 279-5530, http://www.taborbread.com. Open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Prices vary; scones $3.25.
Known for: Pearl Bakery, on the edge of downtown's Pearl District, opened in 1997, which makes it one of the more established enterprises on this pastry tour. The breads are sold to local restaurants and grocery stores and to customers who took up every seat in the small storefront during our visit. Most recent accomplishment? A line of artisan chocolates.
Highlights: Ham and Gruyère croissant, cinnamon crowns, apple hazelnut paws, macarons, baguettes, Pugliese bread, roggenbrot (dark rye)
Vibe: Pearl is a neighborhood hangout, but the huge baking kitchen in the back is a reminder of its large commercial enterprise. It's close to Powell's City of Books and not surprisingly, many of the customers brandished printed matter in one hand and a mass of carbohydrates in another.
Conclusion: Bring your signed copy of Dave Eggers' "A Hologram for the King" (recently purchased after a book-signing Feb. 5 at Powell's), order a lemon tart and stay awhile.
Info: 102 N.W. 9th Ave.; (503) 827-0910, http://www.pearlbakery.com. Open 6:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays, and 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. Most items $1.25-$4.50.
Ken's Artisan Bakery
Known for: Ken Forkish opened his bakery more than a decade ago, and his empire has expanded to Ken's Artisan Pizza and a cookbook titled "Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza." His bread has inspired a great deal of praise from foodies and others, but it's the pastry selection that mesmerized customers on a recent morning.
Vibe: With its high ceilings, yellow walls and polished concrete floors, Ken's is homey and businesslike at the same time. The display of breads and pastries and sweets is like a garden of earthly delights.
Highlights: Bread pudding, apple galette, macarons, hazelnut butter cookies, brioche, walnut bread, ciabatta
Overheard: An astonished customer who asked: "How many flavors of macarons do you have?"
Conclusion: Plop the baby in a high chair with a croissant to keep her quiet, plunge that fork into your slice of opera cake and know that bliss, although temporary, is a very real state.
Info: 338 N.W. 21st Ave.; (503) 248-2202, http://www.kensartisan.com. Open 7 a.m.- 6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. Most items $2-$4.
Blue Collar Baking Co.
Known for: Blue Collar's slogan is "We're not afraid of butter!" and the proprietor means it. The year-old business is the most recent step in owner Warren Becker's evolution from home baker to entrepreneur.
Highlights: Red velvet Bundt cake, wage earner chocolate chip cookies, big rig oatmeal cookies, waitress scones
Vibe: It feels like its name — blue collar. Clocks are proudly labeled and set to the time in Scranton, Pa., Milwaukee and Cleveland. Industrial-style tables and chairs sit atop a tile floor. Cookies and pastries sit under glass domes on a counter.
Conclusion: Becker and his baked goods are irresistible. Pull up a chair and a chocolate chip cookie and banish all thoughts of kale for the next 20 minutes.
Info: 319 S.W. Pine St.; (503) 227-3249, http://www.bluecollarbaking.com. Open 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays. All cookies $1.