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.
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.
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.
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!
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…