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I swear the older I get the more susceptible I become to suggestion. For the
past couple years I've meant to check out bakeries offering Day of the Dead
treats, and every year I'm either distracted or forgetful. This is pretty
sad considering three of these years I lived in one of NYCs largest Mexican
neighborhoods, Sunset Park. It wasn't until I read a recent
Manhattan-centric New York Times round up of restaurants with special Day of
the Dead menus that I became motivated to take an interest.

For no particular reason I'm kind of so-so on upscale Mexican
restaurants, not that I've tried that many of them. But Suenos had always
sounded interesting to me, maybe because of the youngish female chef. This
was really an excuse to try a new-to-me restaurant that I'd probably never
get around to otherwise. The whole thing was last minute, James called
Friday afternoon for seating that same evening, which was why we ended up
with such an early reservation. Dining at 6pm on a Friday in Manhattan makes
you a weirdo, I know that, but sometimes you have no choice.

We chose from the prix fixe menu with drink pairings. I had seafood
tacos with ancho chile tortillas and a more standard margarita (as opposed
to Jamess “smoky” version that accompanied his duck flauta. I
didnt think there was anything wrong with the waitress emphasizing the
tequilas smokiness though James seemed to find this hilarious and
pretentious) and pork loin stuffed with apples, canela, pine nuts, and
salsa, paired with sangria. Dessert was the only course that actually
included one of the traditional items I was interested in, but it was so
heavy: toasted day of the dead bread, candied pumpkin seeds and chocolate
atole with crema de mescal. It wouldve made a nice breakfast. I was glad to
have sampled the cuisine, I enjoyed the meal, though next year there will be
no excuse for not branching out.

Suenos* 311 W. 17th St., New
York, NY

Creative Outlet

I'm not sure if there any of these stores in Portland proper, but each oddball outlying community like Oregon City, Gresham and Vancouver, WA, have one. I've only ever been to the Beaverton location. Ages ago, when I was still in college, I tagged along with my dad and his wife and bought peculiar edibles with food stamps. A new love was born.

In my day this haven was called Canned Food Outlet, and I've waxed nostalgic before. Canned foods are really only a minor component, they also have frozen and refrigerated goods, beauty products, toys, candy, a liquor section, and more.

I just like to browse the food aisles for brands unknown to me and general rejects. This is where bad flavors and odd combinations go to die. But they also have items that could be considered more specialty or gourmet (I hate that word, but it's easy shorthand for better than regular supermarket offerings) like things you'd find at Trader Joe's. The Hansen's mango sparkling juice I purchased on my most recent visit falls into this category (it's not even on their website, and probably for good reason'it didn't quite taste as nice as it sounded).

The KC Masterpice Dip&Top Sauce in cool ranch bbq flavor made with Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing that I also bought for shits and giggles clearly falls into the ungodly flavor combos camp. I couldn't resist. I lose all sense of decency when I set foot in the Grocery Outlet! (their exclamation point, not mine).

During my visit last week, the cashier instructed me to write my phone number (I used my mom's) on the back of my receipt and stuff it in the cardboard box displayed at the front of the store to enter a drawing for free groceries in the amount of your total. Well, I'm still waiting for my $11-and-change prize. Maybe my mom made off with my winnings and didn't tell me.

Grocery Outlet! * 3855 SW Murray Blvd., Beaverton, OR

La Fogata


Yes, it's one of those suburban strip mall, big margarita joints. I don't
mind that type of food, in fact I crave it every now and then (luckily NYC
isn't so highbrow in the Tex-Mex department–there are plenty of
salt-on-the-rim, chips-and-salsa places to choose from). But Portland's west
suburbs actually have a Mexican population, hence "real" Mexican food. I saw
taco trucks in parking lots and read about tiny tacquerias in Hillsboro, my
mom's environs.
It just wasn't right to be so close and not even get to try the regional
offerings. But my sister is vegetarian (they're fine people, but the worst
for food exploring) and I didn't have the urge to get my mom and husband in
the mood. Trekking out on my own wasn't really an option since I didn't have
a car or any solitary time to spare.
This was hardly a culinary getaway. I was there from NYC, my sister from
England on short notice to see our father who'd unexpectedly been put on
life support. Hardly festive and appetite inducing. And in a way La Fogata
was wholly appropriate. My dad was a most un-Mexican Mexican. He loved these
sorts of Gringo-filled combo platter restaurants. He didn't speak Spanish,
though he must've grown up on at least some traditional Mexican food. I'm
guessing he wanted to be more American and he did a pretty good job (he was
exactly like Hank Hill if he were Hispanic). I wouldn't mind being a little
less, but honestly I wouldn't argue with a scalding hot plate of oozing
refried beans with a thick skin of pepper jack cheese and a nice crisp
chimichanga, authentic or not.

La Fogata * 3905 SW 117th Ave., Beaverton, OR

Village Inn

I swear they used to have a monte cristo, but apparently those days are gone. Now its all skillets (isn't Applebees all into those too?) and low carb. Not that their food has become any healthier, of course. Everything is cheesy (literally). Melts are a great category, and oversized in classic chain restaurant style. I love this casual dining genre, but even I was starting to feel a little ill by the time I hit Village Inn, my last day in Portland (it probably didn't help that I'd just come from the hospital down the street, sort of knowing that would be the last time I'd probably see my dad). All the bacon, turkey, swiss cheese just weren't working their melt magic. Now, if I could've had those fillings encased in french toast with a side of jelly, I might be singing a different tune.

Village Inn * 1621 NE 10th Ave., Portland, OR

Cornelius Pass Roadhouse

Cornelius. The name would throw me and my sister into giggles. In the
backseat of the Tempo or Mercury or Escort, whichever Ford model we owned
that year, wed bust up pronouncing it Planet of the Apes-style, plowing
through the tiny township on our way to Cannon Beach.

I don't think Cornelius is actually a town, its a pass (whatever that
means) and it used to seem farther than far. Now my mom lives minutes away
and the McMenamins have converted a roadhouse (another one of those terms
that sounds good on paper, but isnt clear in reality. It's hard not to
conjure up Patrick Swayze.) into a microbrewery in typical Northwest
fashion. This time my sister behind the wheel, me shotgun, mom and step-dude
in the back, we drove a mere mile or two to my last Portland meal on my
recent more (family) business than pleasure trip.

I cant believe I actually ate a salad during this week, but my body was
starting to rebel—who knew I was capable of tiring of the
fried/sweet/oily canon. Normally, I wouldn't have an issue (while outside
NYC, I tend to loosen my dietary rules) with eating french fries for lunch
and dinner, but it had become too much, I needed real vegetables. So, the
Thai chicken salad it was. It wasn't remarkable, but appropriately crispy,
fresh and went well with a ruby ale. Really, at least on this particularly
evening, food was merely an excuse for drink. We downed a few diverse
microbrews, then hit a nearby Albertsons for a case or something lower brow.

Pass Roadhouse
* 4045 NW Cornelius Pass Rd., Hillsboro, OR

The Freshman

I love the name–how could you not? And no, not just because I have a fondness for Frank Whaley and his oeuvre. I would go regardless of what they served just to see what someplace called The Freshman might have to offer. Luckily, The Freshman is a shiny strip mall Chinese bakery, bubble tea, fast food joint near my moms mobile home park. Thats a genre I can appreciate, and I convinced my mom and sister to check it out with me for lunch. Loaded up with a seafood fishball noodle soup concoction, tapioca ball smoothie and something vegetarian for my sister, a porky noodley dish for my mom and lots of sweet filled buns to go, we did a pretty good job of ruining our appetites for Izzy's buffet later that night.

The Freshman * 16165 SW Regatta Ln., Beaverton, OR


Ah…sweet, sweet Izzy's. Yes, its primarily a pizza parlor, but
everyone knows its about the buffet. It has evolved over the years to
include a taco bar and oddball pizzas like mu shu pork. I tend to stick with
what I know and take the same approach as when I was a youngster. (Dont even
get me started on the thrill of my life when I got to meet Izzy Covalt in
person at the Izzys across the street from Gresham High School on the last
day of freshman year.)

Totally ignore the section with salad makings, fresh fruit and cottage
cheese and go straight for the meat and starches. I'm totally enamored with
that NW stalwart (I never knew it was regional till I moved away—same
goes for maple bars) the jo jo potato, which is no more than potato wedges
or circles that have been battered and deep-fried (delis serve them with a
side of ranch). I also get fried chicken and something with sticky bbq
sauce, either ribs or more chicken cooked in a different style. All the
sweet goo gets on your jo jos and its a match made in heaven. It's very
upsetting when there's a lull in the Hawaiian pizzas, this is rare delicacy
now that I live amidst serious pizza snobbery of the East Coast.

Dinner must be topped off by a stop at the soft serve sundae bar, and
don't stop there, there's fluffy pudding and whipped cream concoctions,
brownies, fudge lava cake, and plenty more. And all the soda you can drink
(which albeit, isnt much).

Izzy’s * 11900 SW Broadway St., Beaverton, OR


If mooncakes are the fruitcake of Asia, then it’s no wonder that I have such a soft spot for the hearty little underdogs. It’s hard not to root for food with such a bad holiday (re)gift-giving reputation. Dense, heavy, stodgy—sure—but I actually think fruitcake tastes good. I’m not bowled over by the looks of these studded loaves, though. Mooncakes also taste good, however I’m more taken by their range of flavors, colors and designs. They have style and substance.

My first mooncake tasting in 1999 was slightly accidental. Browsing through Chinatown on the way to a friend-I’m-no-longer-friends-with’s apartment in the East Village (we’d both started dating new guys around this time, and it’s weird to think that we’re still with them. In fact, I think she’s marrying hers this month. Mine is her former best friend.) I ended up in a bakery. It’s hard to resist the pull of sweets in glass cases, no matter their country of origin.

A few of the treats on display seemed a little spendy, and it was exactly these round, pastry-covered orbs that I was most attracted to. I purchased a couple, knowing they were mooncakes, but not realizing they were a sporadic special occasion item. It wasn’t until I plopped onto the beastly pal’s bed and started snacking on my treasures (or does that make me the beastly one? She didn’t have a proper living room, just so you know.) that I realized how dense and rich they were.

Clearly the cakes were meant to be savored and shared, though I wasn’t prevented from plodding my way through them (I have no sense of portion control or stopping when full—I’m the quintessential American glutton that Europeans love to feel superior to.). They were mostly of the standard baked, lotus seed paste variety. I don’t think I got any surprise mouthfuls of egg yolk, though I definitely did get one of those nutty ham filled ones. Sweet and savory is one of my favorite flavor combinations, so it was a welcome surprise.

That was my first and last foray into the world of mooncakes until last year when I happened to be in Singapore during mid-Autumn festival (there was also that Hungry Ghost thing going on—what is scarier than ravenous spirits walking the earth?). We really got into the mall culture of the city, sort of because I enjoy shopping centers (particularly in other countries) but mostly to escape the exhausting, sticky heat (we couldn’t stop marveling at how all over S.E. Asia if a restaurant had both outdoor and indoor seating, everyone went al fresco. Me, no way.).

Takashimaya quickly became a favorite stop. We have one here in NYC, but it’s completely different, small, sparse, way precious and expensive. And most glaringly, it lacks a food court, instead merely offering the zen chic Tea Box Café in the basement where fast food fun should be. Our second visit to Nge Ann City was a sensory overload. On the bottom floor we were bombarded by the overwhelming snack stalls where we never were able to snag a seat. Then I had my mooncake interest rekindled by Bengawan Solo who tempted me with rows of soft, translucent miniature rainbow-colored confections (snowskin style, I later discovered).

Like a baby drawn to bright shiny objects, I go gaga for loud, multi-hued edibles. It’s hard to articulate, except on a superficial level, why I’m so attracted to S.E. Asian kueh, as well as American anomalies like green ketchup and blue Pepsi. Rather than reveling in organic and natural like so many foodie zombies, I relish the garish and invented. Slow food and fast food don’t have to be incongruous. Not everything that’s insanely colored lacks craftsmanship.

After being schooled in snowskins, I got distracted by crazy Beard Papa (he’s in NYC now) and weirdo Tio Glutton (I’m waiting for him next). Why are the Japanese so food crazy? And why do they seem to love anthropomorphizing edibles so much? Kogepan, beerchan and the cheese family are but a mere few such freaks of nature. Well, Asians in general (not to generalize) seem way more fixated on culinary customs that we are.

It wasn’t until I stepped out into the open mall for a little breathing room that I noticed the space adjoining Takashimaya that formerly housed an art exhibit had been transformed into what appeared to be a mooncake convention in full swing. Sweet Jesus, I almost crapped myself, it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Stalls were swirling with customers vying for prime sampling and ogling positions. I regret my bewildered passivity—I didn’t get to try as many toothpick skewered morsels as I would’ve liked. It was a frenzy of purveyors and patrons. High-end hotels and local bakeries were competing for the public’s attention, each trying to outdo the other with inventive flavors, ornate packaging, and elaborate displays.

Mooncakes_1At least I was able to grab a glossy brochure from just about every table. My knowledge of style and variety was gleaned through these alluring pamphlets, not first hand experience. I have no childhood memories or points of reference to discern the good from the bad (though I’m not so retarded that I couldn’t recognize that Garfield, coffee-flavored Starbucks, and ice cream filled mooncakes probably aren’t traditional.) Shangahai, Teocheow, two yolks, four yolks, baked skin, snow skin…so much to learn.

The snowskin grabbed me, simply because I’d never encountered them before. They’re striking in color and flavor. Pumpkin, chocolate, strawberry, Oreo!? So gauche, yet so alluring. I could pick up a tin of the standard cakes in any substantial American Chinatown. But China filtered through S.E. Asian traditions only travels so far. These new anomalies I had to capture for safekeeping.

At least in my mind, and here in print, since I’m not much of a picture taker (I still have film from Christmas ’03 that I’ve yet to develop). Even buying a digital camera has proven futile in increasing my photographic output. While I’m fascinated by the food photography of others, I feel too self-conscious to snap shots in restaurants and markets. I’ll stick to the tedious written word for now, and leave the pretty pictures to those who do it better.

Saigon Kitchen

I'm not sure that its actually called Saigon Kitchen anymore, but thats what
it will always be to me. One of the nice things about Portland is that
things don't change a ton. Sure, new restaurants open, but there's not the
constant flux of NYC.

They make a mean cha giao. Vietnamese fried spring rolls are really the
best of that genre. Maybe its the lettuce, bean sprouts and crisp tangy
dipping sauce that give an illusion that theyre somehow healthier than their
Chinese or Filipino counterparts. The items over noodles, bun, is what I
like the best here, more lunchy than dinner like. The aforementioned spring
rolls make a nice topping, as does grilled pork. Like a lot of Portland
restaurants, the Vietnamese dishes on the menu stray well beyond borders.
Dont get tempted by the American-Chinese standards, keep it simple and you
wont likely be disappointed.

Saigon Kitchen * 835 NE Broadway St., Portland, OR


I’m not sure about all this inbreeding. It used to be that getting your chocolate in someone’s peanut butter (and vice versa, of course) was as far as candy combos went. Now they’ve gone and put mini M&Ms in a chocolate bar to make M-Azing. Admittedly, that’s not so weird, but I’m going to balk if they start embedding gummi bears or jelly beans in chocolate.