Image: John Valls

FOR THOSE Portland chefs whose adherence to seasonal offerings borders on militancy, few things signal the arrival of spring like the red-marbled flesh of wild chinook salmon. Its annual appearance in the city’s kitchens is an experience that Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place can describe only in transcendental terms. “All winter you’re dealing with rock cod and black cod, and there’s no color,” he says. “Then all of a sudden there’s salmon and there’s color; it sends up a little signal that spring is here, and you start thinking: "what can I pair this with?”

No other fish—in fact, no other species of salmon—is thought to usher in spring like the chinook (also commonly known as the king salmon). In late March, these giants gather at the mouths of the great Western rivers: the Copper, the Trask, the Yukon, the Sacramento, and Oregon’s own Columbia. They bolt en masse from the frigid Pacific waters armed with rich layers of fat as they begin to make the harrowing journey to distant spawning grounds. Salmon caught early, at the mouth of the river, taste best because they haven’t yet expended their precious fat stores.
And chinook, being the largest of all salmon, are the most coveted.

Thanks to its high content of omega-3 oil (more than any other salmon) the chinook is both the most flavorful salmon and a heart-healthy option. And its firm, flaky meat is the most forgiving to cook. “You can grill them; you can sauté them; you can bake them,” says Marco Shaw, owner and executive chef of Fife restaurant.