Little Eateries – Cacao

Portland has a reputation for being a city of secrets. True, every big city has its secrets, but most of those other cities hide their secrets behind big, “tourist-trap” landmarks. New York is famous for all the underground, unnamed clubs at which many an indie band is bound to make their name any day now, but all those quiet places tend to be overwhelmed by the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and all other such picture-postcard attractions. In Portland, a city not quite as grandiose as NYC, the secret places can only hide in their own reputation. You know they’re there, but you don’t know exactly where.

That is, you didn’t know until you met me. I can tell you exactly where to find the best in underground attractions in Portland. For today’s trip, I’ll be taking you to a miniscule café known as Cacao, famous for its thick and rich drinking chocolate. Little more than a closet next to the Heathman Hotel on Salmon Street (there’s another one on SW 13th), Cacao boasts a plethora of gourmet chocolate-derived delicacies,

As the car door slams behind you, I turn to you with a grin. Are you ready?

You nod. I put the car in gear, turn the radio up, and we’re off to Portland.

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Cacao only has two rooms: a storage room with an imposing EMPLOYEES ONLY sign and the main shop. Bisected by a glass counter, customers can peruse a menu featuring drinks and candies, make a selection, and then enjoy their purchases while sitting at the bar that runs along the floor-to-ceiling glass window that brightens up the little shop. We make our selections from the list of coffee, hot chocolate, and drinking chocolate, and do just that. The enormous glass windows provide an excellent vantage point for people-watching, which in Portland is raised from the level of a mere pastime and becomes almost an art form.

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Cacao is most famous for its rich drinking chocolate. This is a different beast entirely from the more pedestrian hot chocolate. Hot chocolate has a much higher amount of water in proportion to chocolate than the thick, sweet drink on offer at Cacao. Hard-core Starbucks aficionados may remember a beverage called a Chantico that used to be sold there. The drinking chocolate at Cacao is strikingly similar; so thick and rich, it would not be too much of a stretch to call a cup of Cacao drinking chocolate a pudding. As a result, the cups of drinking chocolate sold at Cacao are very small, so that the rich flavor of the beverage can be savored, but the tummy of the drinker might be spared an ache or two.

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The interior of Cacao is painted blue, like the inside of a cloud, accenting the deep brown of the chocolate treats lining the walls. Cacao is not only a purveyor of drinking chocolate, but of edible chocolate treats as well, which stock the shelves in bright, inviting boxes. The presence of these, as well as several coffee-table books about the history and preparation of the sweet treat, the tiny shop is a veritable shrine to the cacao bean.

After gulping our sweet drinks, we peruse the edible chocolates available for sale. All provided by local artisan companies, they range from bricks of fair-trade baking chocolate to plain-packaged affairs infused with lavender and chili powder (almost coming across as healthy food), to fancily presented confections in the shape of flowers or cute animals. Cooing over cunningly rendered pansies and laughing at bricks of milk chocolate wrapped to resemble minnows, we make a few selections, and the friendly barista wraps them for us with a smile. We should probably hurry home after this–we don’t want our chocolates to melt in the hot Sun before we get them home!

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As we drive home through the city, the buildings are light up from within. It feels like we’re driving through a city of stars. The radio is playing softly, and the night air is warm around us. Driving fast across bridges and slow through back streets, we finally find our way home. As you exit the car, I flash the headlights for you and grin.

See you next time…

Abridged Shakespeare at the Post 5

Portland’s a great place to watch theater, both professional and otherwise. For example, a troupe that hails from the Post 5 Theater in Northwest Portland does a show called “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” for the majority of the month of July until the 4th of August. Billed as a comedy and promising an hour and a half of Elizabethan fun, we decide to give it a try.

As the car door slams behind you, I turn to you with a grin. Are you ready?

You nod. I put the car in gear, turn the radio up, and we’re off to Portland.

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The Post 5 Theater is in a white-washed building that looks like a university chapel. Parking along a side street, we find the entrance and give a dollar to the man with the basket and a hopeful expression. It’s pay-what-you-will, which is both appropriate for a Shakespeare show and fortunate because it saves us more money for food. The show takes place in the courtyard, a small square enclosure dominated by a plywood stage painted deep red and purple, with billowing red velvet curtains. The rustic nature of the courtyard and the smell of dirt and alcohol perfuming the air gives the place a definite seventeenth-century vibe of low-budget coziness.

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The people who are beginning to join the audience are a typical cross-section of Portland citizens. Some families (though there are no young children present–good thinking in hindsight, since this definitely ISN’T a kids’ show), a couple of couples that have the look of university students, a cadre of giggling retirees, and a few local eccentrics. As we spread out a blanket and arrange our sweaters and scarves (we opt not to pay the extra $3 for a wooden chair), we see the curtain rustling as the actors prepare to start the show.

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Without further ado about anything, the three fellows come out on the stage. After a brief introduction (which is delivered in the style of the stodgiest and most pompous professor that everyone’s ever had), the ac-tors disappear behind the curtain briefly and then re-emerge dressed far away from the nines in torn ruffled shirts and black tights littered with runs. Zounds!

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They rocket through their schtick, sending up every single play Shakespeare ever penned and peppering them with pop culture references and blue jokes and literally spitting out the old-fashioned speech. The audience is showered with confetti, water, and silly string at pertinent moments in the show. The thespians throw on clumsy drag as needed and allow their bellowing voices to fill the twilit courtyard. The histories become a mimed football game, the comedies are condensed into a massive conglomeration of confusion and hilarity entitled “Four Weddings and a Transvestite,” and the tragedies are lightened with copious amounts of fake gore and excessive clowning. The three actors are definitely fools in the Shakespearean tradition, and they’re enabled by their own silliness to get away with everything, egged on by those of us who are rolling on our blankets with laughter.

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There’s a ten-minute intermission, during which we avail ourselves of a few snacks available within and take a few hasty sips of alcohol in the Beer Garden. Bobbing our heads to the piped-in funk music, we wait for the actors to return and entertain us once more.

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After four hilarious versions of Hamlet (fast, super-fast, extra-super-fast, and backwards), the show concludes with one final burst of enthusiasm. After slipping a couple more dollars into the basket, we lounge around for a while, having a couple more beers and watching a series of local stand-up comics testing their routines on the indoor stage. We’re very warmed-up, theatrically-speaking, after the Shakespearean spectacle we’ve just witnessed, and we spend a good time giggling delightedly at the local talent.

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We passed a few restaurants on the busy 82nd street as we were driving to the theater, so we decide to grab a quick bite before going home. Cloistered in a brightly-lit Chinese restaurant, noshing on crab puffs and sesame cakes, we rehash the show and drink cup after cup of strong green tea. It’s become very late, and it looks like we’re going to need some caffeine to get ourselves out of the city.

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As we drive home through the city, the buildings are light up from within. It feels like we’re driving through a city of stars. The radio is playing softly, and the night air is warm around us. Driving fast across bridges and slow through back streets, we finally find our way home. As you exit the car, I flash the headlights for you and grin.

See you next time…

Powell’s City of Books

The brilliant thing about Portland is that not every adventure needs to be a loud and extravagant one. Those are sometimes the best kinds of adventures, I know, but they’re certainly not the only kind. Today, you and I are feeling a bit inclined toward a more quiet kind of exploration today. With that in mind, we decide to check out a certain bookstore. Portland has no shortage of bookshops (some of which we might get to explore together this summer). However, all bookshops great and small pale in comparison to the famous Powell’s.

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There are five Powell’s outlets in Portland (not counting the three at Portland International Airport), but the one we’re visiting today is the City of Books. Recognized as the largest independent new and used bookstore in the entire world, the City of Books lives up to its name and delivers a real slice of the rich intellectual culture for which Portland is famed.

As the car door slams behind you, I turn to you with a grin. Are you ready?

You nod. I put the car in gear, turn the radio up, and we’re off to Portland.

Despite the fact that the City of Books takes up an entire city block, when we arrive via Burnside Road, we realize that the entrance to the store is relatively unassuming. It boasts a black-and-white marquee, like an old-timey movie theater, with a single eye-catching red bar. POWELL’S NEW AND USED BOOKS. We look at each other, shrug, and head inside. From the modest outward appearance, we assume that we can’t be in store for a great shock.

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Inside, we’re greeted with rows of cashiers along the walls, which are universally Portland hipster types. As you travel around Portland, you tend to recognize that Type: woolen hats, vibrant tattoos of all shapes and sizes, mostly bespectacled, and artfully mismatched clothes, with at least one item of clothing made out of flannel. In the middle of the room, as you’d expect, there are shelves and tables that are loaded with books. Mainly new releases, featuring hard backs and bright, shiny covers. So far, so ordinaire. It’s only when we pass the information desk and pick up a couple of maps (???) that we start to get the idea that this is really not your grandma’s local book shoppe.

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It’s when we exit that first room that we finally are able to appreciate the sheer size and scope of the City of Books. It. Is. Massive. Rooms leading into rooms leading into rooms, filled to bursting with books of all shapes and sizes. The maps we were ever-so-wise to snag help us to navigate through each room via a color-coded system which we vow to memorize:

Green: Information, audiobooks, and new arrivals

Blue: Literature, criticism, small press, and poetry

Rose: Children’s and Young Adult fiction, graphic novels, sports, and hobbies

Orange: Crafting, gardening, business, and cooking

Gold: Horror, sci-fi, mystery, and erotica

Purple: History, philosophy, sociology, and politics

Red: Travel, foreign languages, martial arts, and metaphysics/religious studies

Pearl: Music, art, film, and photography (also a small room populated with rare books)

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We wander together past shelves upon shelves of books on all possible subjects. We laugh and clown as we always do, but we keep our voices low. From countless hours spent in libraries and museums, we know to use our inside voices among as many books as are here. If we keep quiet, we can almost hear them shout-whispering to us about all the knowledge they contain. The printed words around us, invisible in their bindings, make the City of Books feel as though it is populated by a multitude, and that only a very small part of that multitude is made up of human beings.

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As we wander through endless shelves and stacks of books, we point out books we had to read for English classes, books with absurd titles or pictures of naked bodies on the covers, or ones that honestly look quite interesting. We pick up a few, flick through them, the bound papers rasping between our fingers. Some of them we decide to keep, and we carry them on our hips like we’re in school again. Others are put back, only to be picked up by someone else. The other people in the City of Books seem less real than the books; they haunt the aisles of literature. As ever in Portland, the most interesting people can be seen at every turn, and it seems that bookstores and libraries invite the strangest and quietest characters. Wearing layers of clothes, even despite the summer heat outside, and hiding themselves behind shaggy hair, these introverted citizens mingle with students, hipped-up hipsters, and wide-eyed tourists like us in this immense warehouse of books.

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For a quick break from browsing, we decide to check out the café. In my humble opinion, I murmur to you as we stand in line, it’s impossible not to feel comfortable here. At once cozy and industrial, the café is decorated by dark wood and gray concrete and glass, it’s cluttered with sturdy tables and chairs. Attached to the wraparound windows is a bar, where more hipsters perch, browsing through their selections of books and sipping fair-trade coffee. We approach the front of the line, order a selection of caffeinated beverages and sugary snacks, and stake out a table for ourselves. We guzzle and nosh on our tasty treats, chatting about books and news of the world and popular music. We only leave when we feel our hands beginning to rattle our cups in their saucers.

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Turning our maps this way and that, we find our way back to the checkout with our purchases. Before we pay over our money at last, we can’t help but browse through the selections of cool doodads that populate the racks around the cashiers, prompting bibliophilic suckers like ourselves into quick impulse buys. Magnetic poetry, coin purses shaped like tacos and cookies, T-shirts advertising classic works of literature, and Portland-centric mugs and buttons all tempt us. As the friendly hipster behind the register rings up our purchases, he informs us cheerfully of Powell’s book buy-back policy. Powell’s accepts donations of gently used books, in return for cash or in-store credit. We look at each other happily–some of our dusty volumes could surely be turned into a new coffee mug for each of us.

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With our packages wrapped in rattling plastic bags, we finally exit the shop. Emerging from Powell’s into the fading daylight feels like coming up for air after a long time under the sea. Orienting ourselves quickly to the city’s inimitable compass, we find our car and begin the long journey home.

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As we drive home through the city, the buildings are light up from within. It feels like we’re driving through a city of stars. The radio is playing softly, and the night air is warm around us. Driving fast across bridges and slow through back streets, we finally find our way home. As you exit the car, I flash the headlights for you and grin.

See you next time…

Last Thursday

I’ve always wondered what it must be like inside an anthill or a beehive. The closest I’ve ever come to knowing what it’s like has been attending the Last Thursday Market in Portland. Happening on the last Thursday of the month (fittingly enough), Last Thursday brings meaning back to the descriptive cliché “hive of activity.” It’s partly a street fair, partly a dance party, partly an impromptu concert on many stages, and partly a high-energy piazza where the people of Portland and their eager spectators (that’s you and me) can show off their wares, their skills, their clothes and colors, and their sheer spunk. There is no place along Alberta street where people aren’t talking, shouting, dancing, singing, or doing something to make you take notice of them.

As the car door slams behind you, I turn to you with a grin. Are you ready?

You nod. I put the car in gear, turn the radio up, and we’re off to Portland.

The drive we took was very long and circuitous, owing to the large amount of road traffic at 5:30 in the afternoon. Last Thursday starts at 5 PM, but we should definitely leave earlier next time. Driving through the city in the dusty, late-afternoon sunlight, and sweating in the early summer eat, we squint at street signs and one-way signs, looking for any signs of a street market happening.

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Finally, we see it, and realize that there’s no way we could have missed it. It’s not so much a street market as it is a festival, a massive party all along Alberta Street as far as the eye can see. The sudden burst of motion and color makes us shout in celebration. One of the great things about Portland is that, though the city may be difficult to travel through with all the myriad transportation and many one-way streets, but it’s always worth it to arrive at your destination, wherever it may be.

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Parking several streets away (that’s another reason we should go earlier next time; parking spots are nabbed quicker than the chocolate pieces in trail mix in Portland), we walk back to Alberta Street, stumbling over crooked paving stones and preparing ourselves for the mob scene waiting for us.

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Well, maybe “mob” is a bit strong of a word. It’s more of a throng, a river of people with two distinct currents: coming and going. Some people are performing, either selling their wares, playing music, or simply walking up and down the street in outlandish ensembles of clothes. Stepping boldly into the middle of the street, we immediately feel the energy of the entire assembled crowd surrounding us on all sides. We look at each other and get the feeling that we’re about to be a part of something wonderful.

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Our first priority is food. There are several restaurants along Alberta Street, and we decide to go to a Mexican place for burritos. Eating inside is out of the question, since we both want to still be near the action (and in any case, it’s equally hot inside as outside). So we take our burritos out to a group of picnic benches and enjoy our food while listening to a nearby rock group. They have a loud, rough energy (I think it sounds like a combination of The Clash and The Yardbirds), and I can’t imagine a better soundtrack for eating and enjoying the festival.

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Our bellies full, we wander up and down the street, examining the wares for sale at the various booths that have sprung up like mushrooms on either side of us. My favorite part of Last Thursday is the fact that it’s a massive assembly of human beings doing what humans do best: creating things that they love, and then showing those things off to other people. We stroke our hands across glistening gemstones, shining plastics, and soft fabrics, admiring vibrant paintings for sale (a few of which are still in progress!) and cooing with delight over the many animals which are present with their human companions. There’s a booth advertising an “abridged Shakespeare show” (which will be a future feature of this blog!), and several politically-oriented booths of ranging seriousness. From Communism to anti-Californianism, philosophies are on sale along with necklaces and second-hand dresses, and they all glisten and gleam in the summer Sun.

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Music is ever-present. As we go further down Alberta, there is never a moment when we don’t hear music. Whether it’s someone’s boom box, a kid playing a plastic bucket, or a quartet featuring two acoustic guitars, a washtub bass, and a musical saw, there’s a constant beat to Last Thursday, accentuated by the sound of marching feet all around us. There’s even a ukulele combo playing jaunty Ramones covers, to which we dance and shout for a few happy moments, all self-consciousness gone in the face of the unself-conscious display of joy and creativity that surrounds us.

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Occasionally, we cast our eyes up to the tall buildings that stand back from Alberta Street. On the balconies that jut out from these buildings, we see people sitting and watching the proceedings from up above. I wonder what we must look like to them: all of us in our enthusiastic tramping up and down Alberta, looking for the perfect off-beat souvenir or the ultimate display of performed weirdness to make us remember this night at many dinner-table and fire-side conversations in the years to come. I don’t know about you, but I wish that those people would come down from their balconies and join the party. Maybe they already have, and they’re tired of it? Maybe. I don’t think I’ll be tired of Last Thursday.

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Before we know it, the Sun has disappeared. It hasn’t gone below the horizon; just behind the tall buildings around us. Nevertheless, the daylight has begun to disappear rapidly, and the energy of Last Thursday is getting darker to match it. As we walk, we can see a few fights breaking out between strangers and we excuse ourselves swiftly from the bad vibes. Little lights are beginning to appear in the middle of the crowd-flashlights and glowsticks-reminiscent of the clichéd “glowing eyes in the forest” of many Disney cartoons. We’re not so much into this darker part of the party, so we decide to take our leave. We glide back down the street, comparing our souvenirs, already reminiscing about the night.

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As we drive home through the city, the buildings are light up from within. It feels like we’re driving through a city of stars. The radio is playing softly, and the night air is warm around us. Driving fast across bridges and slow through back streets, we finally find our way home. As you exit the car, I flash the headlights for you and grin.

See you next time…

Welcome!

Hey there! Glad you could make it. I’ve got a summer full of amazing journeys planned for us, and I hope you’re as excited as I am. In a city as big and grand as Portland, there are thousands of things to do, no matter what you’re interested in. I’ll be taking a grand tour of the fair city all through this summer, and it would be my privilege if you’d care to join me.

I’ll try to find at least one thing to do every week or so, at least. And I’ll faithfully post my review of it the day after. If you have any ideas of places you’d like to see or things you’re curious about, don’t hesitate to drop me a line or leave me a comment. This isn’t just my adventure–it’s OUR adventure!

Now, I’m driving down the road to pick you up. Put your shoes on and grab your flannel shirt. We’re off to Portland, baby!