Sunday, August 4, 2013

Northwest Road trip with Bikes: Portland 1

Hawthorne bridge

 My wife M and I managed to have a break at the same time, so at the last minute we decided to put a road trip together. Destinations that we considered include Portland, San Juan Islands, and Vancouver, BC. After looking at various transportation and lodging options, we decided to travel to Portland and the San Juan Islands for this 8-day trip.

Gondola
Tram that travels between the two campuses of OHSU;
Brilliant!
We loaded up our stuff and bikes--her Trek 720 and my Specialized Sequoia--on our car and began driving north on Highway 5. We were in the middle of a heatwave that impacted much of the West Coast. The Bay Area has begun to cool down as we were leaving, however, the HWY 5 corridor is more inland, and it was scorching once the morning sun had some time to cook the earth. As we left Mt Shasta and California around noon, the car's thermometer was registering triple digit, and hovered there for the rest of the trip to Portland. We stopped in Ashland to have lunch, and stopped whenever we needed to refill our water bottles or gas tank, or empty our bladders. We got to Portland around 6PM, and though it was beginning to cool some, it was still in the 90's and more humid than what we are accustomed to in the Bay Area. We stayed at a house we found on Airbnb in Southwest Portland, near Oregon Health Sciences University. Our host is a nice young couple who had moved to Portland relatively recently.

After settling into our room and rolling our bikes into the garage. My friend Joseph from high school came by and took us to dinner. Since he is vegetarian also, he is familiar with the many vegetarian/vegan options available in Portland. After a short discussion, we decided to eat at Los Gorditos, which is a greasy-spoon, Mission-style taqueria with a full vegan menu.

Vegan mexican food
Great Vegan Cal-Mex food at Los Gorditos
Coming from the Bay Area--the supposed mecca of Cal-Mex food and a metropolitan area with a good vegetarian/vegan population--I thought I had seen the newest and best of vegetarian Mexican food, but I was impressed and humbled by the food at Los Gorditos. The restaurant has on its vegan menu items that are commonplace in regular taqueria but unusual in vegetarian joints, such as vegan quesadilla and vegan chile relleno. When I was ordering, the cashier asked "what kind of vegan meat do you want, tofu, soyrizo, or soy curls?" I felt embarrassed for not knowing what soy curls are--they were good!

Joseph was kind enough to give us his run down of Portland after moving there from Seattle three years ago for a job. Although he prefers Seattle still, he does like PDX quite a bit. He drove us around and we got out the car and walk around the downtown and waterfront areas in the NW. We saw amazing food cart clusters, the long line at Voodoo Doughnuts, and the many folks out and about in and near the Esplanada and the waterfront park. The Willamette River and the several bridges over it provided great ambiance to the summer late dusk (it was close to 10 and it was still not dark out). By the time Joseph dropped us off it was past 10pm. We fell asleep pretty quickly after a long day of driving.

Riding along the river
riding along the river toward downtown
The next morning, we chatted with our host some over breakfast, got our bikes ready and set out to explore Portland. We didn't have any specific destination in mind. From the get go we were impressed with the city's famed bicycle culture; not only were the infrastructure plentiful and well-designed, but the sheer number of people on bikes is perhaps unrivaled in the United States. We rode along the Willamette River and the connecting bike paths toward downtown, and eventually ended up near Voodoo Doughnuts again, but the line was still too long. We were getting hungry as it was close to lunch time so we rode around looking for a food cart cluster--another great feature of Portland. A few blocks away at the intersection of Stark and 3rd, we found DC Vegetarian in a cluster. We ordered a vegan bacon cheese burger (check out this portlandia clip for reference) and a vegan bah mi (Vietnamese-style vegan beef sandwich). They were both extremely delicious.

DC Vegetarian
Food Cart Cluster
The food cart cluster concept is brilliant, and I wonder why more cities don't learn from Portland to encourage it. These clusters are usually located in empty parking lots, and bring benefits to all parties. For vendors, the cost of starting a business is significantly lower than starting a restaurant. Given the low cost, vendors can have a longer incubation period where they can test and adjust menu to find out what customers like. Being close to several, even a dozen or more other vendors attract a wider audience who may not have been coming for a specific food cart, but may end up buying from it once they get to the cluster for various reasons. Once a vendor establishes a clientele and a strong demand, it can set up a location that can serve more customers (see Los Gortidos above). For patrons, having many food carts in a cluster means many options of food, and also innovation of menu where vendors are more willing to try new ways of preparing food because their start-up and ongoing costs are lower. For the cities, food cart clusters energize gray and dead spaces such as parking lots or other empty lots, and generate foot traffic and commercial activities. We found Portland downtown to be buzzing around lunch time where people were out on the sidewalk and benches eating and chatting.

The Redlight
We returned to Voodoo Doughnuts yet again after lunch, but after seeing the unrelenting queue, we decided to move on and check out other parts of the city. We rode across the Burnside Bridge, and rode to Hawthorne. We parked our bikes (great parking infrastructure!) and walked and checked out different stores. M. scored some vintage T-shirts at Redlight, and we decided to check out a tea bar where we can sit and read for a while.


Side of the caboose
The Tea Chai Te Too is located in Sellwood, which is south of the SE Portland. We rode to the river bank and followed a long (4 miles) rail-to-trail Springwater corridor to Sellwood. The trail is extremely well maintained and provide commuters and recreational cyclists a fast, safe, and pleasant way to travel between SE Portland and Sellwood. The front part of Tea Chai Te Too tea bar is housed in a former caboose. It even kept some original setup of the train cart. We ordered several different types of cool tea and read and dozed off for a couple of hours. We decided to eat at Los Gorditos again because it was simply too good.


Crossing Hawthorne Bridge
Afterward, we crossed the Hawthorne Bridge back to the west side. As we exit the bridge (which has separate bike exit ramps) we saw the bike counter, which was showing "6267". Which shows the volume of folks traveling on bikes. We hung out on the Esplanade for a little longer as the sun was setting; folks were out walking and riding around. Portland reminded me of London with its many bridges on the Thames. The ride back to our BnB was very enjoyable, as the temperature has finally dropped to a comfortable level. It was a wonderful day in Portland!

Under hawthorne bridge
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