EVERY SATURDAY, the engine room of Portland’s food laboratory hums in a downtown park lined with old elm trees: the Portland Farmers Market, one of the most remarkable farm-to-city shopping centers in America, unique in every dimension of bird, bread, and greens. Here, in a microcosm of the mighty gastropolis, uncorrupted ingredients and their handmade offspring pour in at unprecedented rates. Vendors treat vegetables like art stars, each booth a personalized exhibit. Installations of cauliflower in rainbow hues stand next to haystacks of wonderfully oddball mushrooms straight from Oregon’s spooky woods, and, everywhere, boxes and boxes hold glimmering berries. Market mystic Gene Thiel epitomizes the life: one man so deeply connected to his crops that, even in his late 70s, he treks 600 miles every weekend to stand at his booth all day, because he loves the idea that we’re eating his food.

The Portland Farmers Market is one answer to the question the entire food nation is asking: how did a ruggedly handsome city with the hokey nickname “Stumptown,” a place where you might encounter 7,000 nude bike riders on your way to brunch, become the great new American food city? 

Given low barriers to entry and loose regulations, brave entrepreneurs can attain small dreams here. Rents are lower than those in most cities, enabling cooks at all levels to take risks on their own terms. Liquor licenses cost $500, among the least expensive in the United States. In most cities, a start-up restaurant costs a quarter of a million dollars, shutting the door for independents. In Portland, even a food cart can specialize in handmade beer. 

But economics is only the start. Access to prime ingredients is unrivaled. The city’s progressive urban growth boundary laws ensure that farms can flourish just outside the city limits. Nowhere in America—and increasingly rarely in Europe—can chefs get as close to the lush spawning grounds of fruits, berries, wine grapes, fish, organic meats, and other ingredients that underpin Portland’s restaurant culture. 

In large food cities, such pedigreed ingredients are normally reserved for the restaurant elite. In Portland, even good sandwich shops receive “house calls” from quality growers often known only by nicknames like “The Asparaguy.” “A million guys are selling wild mushrooms; I was offered eight varieties today, some I’d never heard of,” remarks Navarre chef John Taboada, a pioneer of Portland’s indie food scene. “On the East Coast these would be insanely priced. Where I came from, in DC, we’d have to use them in some specific way to extend their value. Here, we grill them like steaks or shave them into raw salads—uses you’ve never considered before. We talk, buy, experiment.”  

For years, Portland was a backwater, its food scene relegated to the kids’ table while rival sister Seattle sat with the big boys. This turned out to be a blessing. Freed from expectations and the media spotlight, cooks invested in ideas, camaraderie, and community. That’s the Portland way. Food festival impresario Mike Thelin, cofounder of Feast Portland, hits on a central point: “There’s something special about this culture. If you embrace it, it will open up, take you in, wrap its arms around you. But try to do something that doesn’t fit, and it will reject you like a bad kidney.” 

 

All of this helps explain why, in money-strapped times, Portland has evolved the country’s most talked-about food cart scene, where, in dedicated block-long clusters, next-generation food entrepreneurs band together in personalized shacks, selling things not typical of vendors anywhere else: wood-oven pizzas; foie gras and chips; sandwiches on cart-baked bread with fresh-smoked ham; or boozy “Amy Winehouse” cupcakes garnished with a hillock of powdered sugar and a “coke straw”—all served (relatively) inexpensively with a side of attitude. These food-cart communities, like the traveling circuses and sideshows of days past, exemplify how talent at the margins can coalesce into sybaritic sweet zones that attract all comers. The young and broke are eating it up, but so are foodies, food critics, and office workers.

Portland’s casual gastronomy can be traced all the way back to Michael Vidor, a sly-smiling, pot-smoking, Harvard-educated restaurateur who dressed like a homeless person while running L’Auberge and Genoa, legendary high-end spots in Portland’s grittiest locations. Vidor could recite the name of every boxing champ in history, but he didn’t have a clue about anything when it came to cooking. No matter. He knew what he liked, and with no experience, he conceptualized “fine” dining in Portland: no fussy food, no pretension, no throwing dishes. In 1969, L’Auberge, a tumbledown storefront on West Burnside Street, stood as Portland’s first low-rent, “don’t call us French” haute-cuisine restaurant, a model handed down to future generations.

Still, for many years, Portland was largely a culinary wasteland, where you closed your eyes and pulled Lender’s bagels from Safeway’s deep freeze. But maverick models always surfaced, including what was surely one of the world’s first micro-eateries, Briggs and Crampton, with one table, one sitting, one meal a day—lunch—for two people only. It took six months to snag a reservation. Take that, Momofuku Ko. 

Times changed when Greg Higgins pedaled by bike from New York to Portland, envisioned a farm-to-table future, and recruited like-minded chefs Cory Schreiber (Wildwood) and Vitaly Paley (Paley’s Place) to the dream in the 1990s. These spiritual daddies harnessed the state’s staggering bounty into a grower-connected model, adding big-city professionalism and setting the stage for Portland’s climb as a food-savvy destination.

But tapping local provenance was only the beginning. The generation that followed waged war on America’s conformist culture of food to create something of their own, far removed from the white-hot centers of Michelin stars. Like Portland itself, their food world is deliberate and self-possessed. You won’t find the next Mugaritz or Per Se here, and this diversity-challenged city will never spawn miniature cities perfumed by ethnic wonders like the Koreatowns and Japantowns of LA and New York. Portland is something else: a risk-taking, no-rules spawning ground—a grand little test kitchen inspiring even some of the old guard to its ways. After all, Stumptown Coffee Roasters started in a glorified garage; not too long ago, owner Duane Sorenson was just another local dude. Now he’s a global kingpin who has changed the coffee conversation. It can happen here. 

Portland is the story of cooks like Tommy Habetz, once an aide-de-camp to Mario Batali, who walked away from the swanky set in New York City to create the place he always wanted. His Bunk Sandwiches serves gutsy flavors, a punk-rock aesthetic, and enough inspiration to land him a slot in Coco, a major tome on 100 contemporary food stars. Over lunch one day, Time magazine’s Josh Ozersky pointed at Bunk’s Pork Belly Cubano and bellowed to no one in particular: “Way, way better than anything in Miami.” Habetz could cook anyplace, but Portland is now home: “It’s the people, the livability, the lack of ego and pomp. That comes out in the music scene here. That’s our style: no bullshit, nonpolished. When all of that pretense is squashed, it puts pressure on quality, forces you to have something to say. No excuses. It’s true of music, it’s true of art, and it’s true here.” 

The Mighty Gastropolis: A Journey Through America’s New Food Revolution, by Karen Brooks, with Gideon Bosker and Teri Gelber, is due out in November from Chronicle Books. Through narrative profiles, previously untold stories, and more than 50 recipes, the book chronicles a people’s army of culinary innovators and plucky pioneers who rose to create an artisanal renegade food town.