By the way: Byways Café

September 9, 2009

Byways Cafe

If you’ve never been humbled by a plate of French toast, it’s time you make a trip to Byways Café, a 1950s diner at 1212 N.W. Glisan Street, right in the heart of Portland’s ritzy Pearl District. The down-home café serves a killer plate of Amaretto French Toast — four thick, fluffy pieces of brioche served with honey pecan butter and maple syrup — piled so high you’ll have to take a moment to admire before you dig in.

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Good thing we split a plate between the three of us. Trying to tackle servings solo would have done us in.

The walls and glass cases above the booths in the café are filled with the type of travel kitsch your grandmother would bring you home from summer vacation — snow globes, porcelain bells, commemorative plates. The decor gives the place a comfortable, retro feel.

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Cabinet fillings by our booth

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The counter, during a rare moment when it’d cleared out

The wait staff was friendly enough that I forgave them for not bringing me a cup of coffee until the third time I asked (once it arrived, it was good).

Also on the breakfast menu: blue corn pancakes, biscuits and gravy, all sorts of scrambles and hash. Lunch is apparently available sometimes too, and on that menu, you’ll find burgers, corned beef sandwiches, fried egg sandwiches and BLTs. Portions are hearty.

To know what’s going on at Byways RIGHT NOW, find them on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bywayscafe.

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While I was out

September 8, 2009

I’m terribly sorry to have disappeared since, well… April 12. I got caught up in my job reporting for The Times (serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, Ore.) and funneled most of my writing energy into covering a rabbit hoarder arrested for breaking her restraining order against rabbits, a police investigation of a hobo hit by a train, the rise of a rapper from suburbia, the school district’s firing and rehiring of its teaching force and other stuff involving the city of Tigard, 10 miles south of Portland, and its 15 schools.

I loved my job at The Times, but, alas, Friday was my last day. I’m headed for the creative nonfiction graduate writing program at Portland State University, which starts Sept. 28. I’m looking forward to dedicating the next two years of my life to learning everything I can about the craft of writing and stretching myself into new territory. I’ll also be teaching undergraduate composition classes as part of an assistantship, which will be an adventure in itself.

In an attempt to make up for my months away from Out to See and offer a glimpse into the summertime scene in Portland, I’ll post a few photos from the last few months.

Bikey fun

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Portland celebrated Pedapalooza 2009 from June 11 – 27. The two-week bike festival featured a naked ride through the downtown streets, rides in which all participants dressed up as pirates, cowboys and zombies, a couples-only Bike Kiss-In during which riders smooched at intersections, and an urban homestead ride where participants visited three expert veggie gardens in the Portland area. Above, unicycle jousting at the culminating event, a bike fest in Colonel Summers Park. It got ugly.

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My sister Laura and I went backpacking in the Elwha River Valley in Olympic National Park in late July. Unfortunately, we didn’t take a good look at each other before we left town and realized on the way — after several sets of strangers commented — that we were wearing the EXACT same outfit: blue shorts, gray shirts, hiking boots. Unfortunately, neither of us had brought a change of clothes, and we had to put up with the comment “I’m seeing DOUBLE!” from multiple people we passed on the trail.

Morning light on ferns — the view from our tent.

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The peeling bark of the evergreen Madrona tree.

Full of hot air

Hot air balloon on the inside

I went up in a hot air balloon for a story I wrote about Tigard’s annual balloon festival for The Times. I took this shot from the basket just as the pilot released that black piece of fabric from the top to lower us. The story I wrote about the experience is here.

A rock in a haystack

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When our parents visited, we took a field trip to Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach. Then we ate Shrimp Louie at a nearby restaurant.

Lots of pots

Pots!

Laura has continued her study of pottery at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. I’ve continued my study of breakfast, out of pretty bowls.

The Decemberists in July

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Unlike most of Portland, I wasn’t a huge Decemberists fan before I saw them play with Blind Pilot and Andrew Bird at the McMenamins venue outside the historic Edgefield Manor near Troutdale, Ore. But after seeing the band perform its rock opera “Hazards of Love” live, my mind changed. They were incredible.

Opal Creek

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We could hear rushing water all during our night hike into the Opal Creek Wilderness on the west slope of the Cascades (the beams of our headlamps picked up a a frog, a newt and two scorpions — ack!). In the morning, we realized we’d been walking beside a crystal clear creek full of deep, wide swimming holes. They were freezing, but the sun was out, and we jumped in.

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The broken windshield of a rusted car we encountered along the trail on the way out.

Soapbox Derby

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A giant rodent, miniature ice cream truck and normal-sized coffin roared down the road winding around Mount Tabor during the 9th-annual Adult Soapbox Derby on Aug. 22. The event required them to get down the mountain in a car powered soley by gravity in the quickest time possible.

Among the rules:

  • Each car must be piloted by a driver that will remain sober until the car is no longer racing
  • The car must have functional brakes
  • The car must have a horn
  • The car may not weigh more than 500 pounds
  • Teams may not spend more than $300 on their vehicles

We watched from a grassy spot along the road — and pretty much avoided getting wet from the competitors who opted to douse spectators on their way down the track.

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Team Lego Maniacs hydrates for the competition

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They might look like they’d go fast, but team Twin Barrels Burning crept and swerved unsteadily down the mountain

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That would be team Pigs in Space (note the pig ears and noses on the participants).

OK, well that’s pretty much all I have in my “things I should have blogged about” file. I hope to be more attentive to this site during my next venture.

Fire and brimstone and hot as hell

April 12, 2009

My sister Laura spent the last week tending the needs of a wood-burning kiln that demanded pretty much constant attention. The high-maintenance oven, a half-cylinder made of soft brick covered in clay and built into a hillside, required supervision 24 hours a day for an entire week.

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The whole operation was set up under a metal roof in wine country 50 miles southwest of Portland, on the property of a Japanese woman named Ruri who built the kiln in 2005 and holds group firings about twice a year.

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Laura is studying in the ceramics program at the Oregon College of Art and Craft and joined seven others in tag-teaming kiln care. Every three to five minutes, the person on duty would slide open the iron door at the front and toss in a few logs. Over the course of the week, the kiln devoured nine cords of wood (stacked together, that amount would measure 36 feet high by 36 feet wide by 72 feet long and take up 1,152 cubic feet).

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The side of the kiln and staging area, as seen from up near the chimney

To avoid being blinded or catching on fire, the kiln tenders had to wear protective glasses, cover every inch of their faces with masks or handkerchiefs and wear nonflammable clothing and thick leather gloves.

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Daniel working the night shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

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Laura monitoring the fire through a stoke hole.

When I showed up to visit on the last day of firing, the temperature inside the kiln was more than 2,400 degrees, and flames were shooting out all the vents and stoke holes. It was cold and rainy outside, but T-shirt weather by the kiln.

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That’s me, almost ready to throw a log into the blazing pit of fire

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The kiln tenders recorded the temperature inside the kiln every hour.

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The chimney

The ceramic pieces that emerge from wood-burning kilns are testaments to the fires that create them; their surfaces bear the marks of the ash, wood and flames that lick and nick them as they bake.

But kilns cannot be rushed, and Laura and crew have to wait a week for theirs to cool before they unbrick the doors and find out how everything fared.

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Laura took the nighttime pictures.

More coffee talk

March 10, 2009

It was a showdown, but rather than pistols, hot rods or decks of cards, espresso makers were the weapon of choice. Sixty of the country’s top baristas displayed their skills at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 2009 Barista Championship in Portland this weekend.

I stopped by the convention center on Sunday in time to catch the top six baristas facing off in the finals (oddly enough, no Portlanders made it to the final round, not even Alex Pond of the Fresh Pot, Northwest Regional Champion this year). The aroma of the competition floor alone was enough to give me the jitters and make me immediately use the bathroom three times in a row.

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Devin Pedde of Los Angeles’ Intelligentsia Coffee prepares a coffee drink during the final round.

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The competition took place at the three coffee-making stations at the center of the room.

Mike Marquard of the Saint Louis’ Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co. stepped into the spotlight soon after I arrived. The red handkerchief in his pocket perfectly matched the tablecloth and the cups he would use to serve his drinks. (Showing a little flair, the apron around his waist pictured a triceratops and the word “booyah.”)

Under the scrutiny of four judges, Marquard produced a cappuccino, a single shot of espresso and his signature drink, a citrus-laced caramel espresso wreathed by honey-cut tobacco smoke, which he created by enclosing his coffee creation and burning tobacco leaves together under an overturned glass. He finished right as the clock hit the 15-minute time limit — and placed sixth overall.

To assign points, the judges consider the quality of the espresso first and foremost. But everything else matters too. They also note the temperature of the drink, the timing of the shots, the cleanliness of the work space, the service… and probably even the music blasting from the speakers

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Pedde, who placed fifth overall, answers emcee (and 2008 champion) Kyle Glanville’s questions after his turn.

Michael Phillips of Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee won the championship and will represent the United States in the World Barista Championship in Atlanta, Ga. April 16-19.

Check out the Oregonian’s slideshow of the event here.

The witching hour is underway

March 4, 2009

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A Chinese Witch Hazel shrub in Portland’s 5,100-acre Forest Park.

And you thought it was simple

February 27, 2009

I like my coffee like I like my men. That’s right, you’re thinking it: COMPLEX. Turns out, I’m in luck. According to the experts at Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters, coffee beans have about 800 flavor characteristics, more than twice the number found in wine.

The staff at the Southeast Belmont Stumptown offer twice-daily “cuppings” (at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.) to inform people about the finer points of the beverage. My sister Laura and I attended one with our aunt and uncle, who were visiting from Spokane last weekend.

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Coffee buyers carry out the ritualistic cupping process before each purchase to determine the quality and qualities of the beans in question. And really, they approach the whole thing with a mug-half-empty mentality: they’re in it to find the defects.

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We were encouraged not to share our observations during the cupping so as not to influence each other’s impressions.

At our cupping, a Stumptown coffee master lined up seven trays of coffee beans — from Guatamala, Panama, Ethiopia and Kenya — along the shop’s low, wooden counter. We sniffed, snorted and sipped our way down the line five times, evaluating the beans each time in a different way.

The process took about an hour and went something like this:

  • We smelled the dry grounds of each bean, making sure to inhale the fragrance through our noses AND our mouths.
  • We sniffed the grounds again, this time soaked in just-boiled water.
  • We used spoons to break the crust that developed on the surface of the solution and and inhaled the aroma again.
  • We dipped our spoons in the coffee mixture and slurped it up as loudly as possible, trying to get the coffee droplets to reach both our tongues and the back recesses of our nasal passages. (The Stumptown staff member demonstrating had this part of the process down, but when I tried to execute with as much gusto, I ended up just inhaling the coffee. Cough.)
  • We slurped down the line again to taste the coffee at a slightly cooler temperature, when its true qualities are said to reveal themselves.

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Some are fruity, some are nutty, and now I can tell you which is which

I’ve been aware that different blends of coffee have different characteristics, but I’ve never paid attention to what those differences are. I just drink whatever’s in my cup and have a general sense of whether I like it or not. The process of tasting coffees back to back enabled me, for the first time, to note the nuances that make each bean distinctive — and realize I have a lot to learn when it comes to café.

How do you accidentally purchase a vibrating pillow? Well, I’ll tell you…

February 19, 2009

I didn’t realize the corduroy cushion I purchased for $2.99 from Goodwill the other day had any special features until, after hours of using it to pad the seat of my wooden desk chair, I noticed it was especially hard in the center.

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When I unzipped the back (yes, it zips) and dug around in the foam stuffing, I discovered… THE LARGEST BATTERY PACK I’VE EVER SEEN. The clear plastic apparatus inside the cushion was larger than my outspread palm and contained two D-size batteries (of the four required for operation). How I missed the extra firmness and heft of this pillow in the Goodwill store and under my ass for four hours, I cannot tell you.

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I’ll be honest: I’m not quite sure what a battery-powered pillow is capable of. During optimistic moments, I convince myself that if I purchased two more D-size batteries and flipped the switch, it would sing me a Christmas carol.

During more realistic moments, however, I’m positive that I never want to touch my pillow again.

Oswald West State Park: BEACH TRIP ’09!!!

February 10, 2009

It was February, and it was the Pacific Ocean off the northern coast of Oregon, but we dove in anyway. Stripped to our skivvies and plunged headlong into the waves. The shock was invigorating, paralyzingly so, but by the time all 45 degrees had fully registered, we were sprinting toward dry sand and a large rock in the sun.

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My sister Laura and I and our friends Beth and Benjamin spent the entire day on the beach at Oswald West State Park, located in a secluded cove bounded by old-growth spruce, fir, hemlock and cedar trees. The 2,400-acre park, a mere 90 miles northwest of Portland, stretches four miles between Arch Cape and Neahkahnie Mountain and contains a section of the Oregon Coast Trail that we didn’t explore but would like to.

We’d expected weather typical of the Oregon coast in winter, but the day was so unseasonably warm and sunny that between our arrival at 10:30 a.m. and our departure after sunset, we never pulled the fleece hats, winter jackets and rain gear from our backpacks.

Here’s how we kept ourselves occupied:

  • Tiptoed into and bolted out of the ocean.

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Note the wet hair. Yes, we went in all the way.

  • Accepted the Cartwheel Challenge (meaning 30 in a row) and eventually became unable to distinguish the up from down.

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  • Ate mass quantities of Parmesan-flavored Goldfish crackers and chocolate that melted in our mouths, but first, in our hands.
  • Scaled the rocks as menacingly as possible.

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I don’t know how I remained so calm in this situation.

  • Bumped, set and tried to spike a small yellow volleyball that we dubbed “Big Red” until our forearms could not take it anymore.
  • Tried to imagine why women in skorts and a large group of children were carrying around My Little Ponies and a life-sized plastic dummy with well-developed calves.
  • Stared into the ocean, listening to the waves crash into the jagged rocks offshore.

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  • Read our books, which pretty much digressed into taking naps.

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  • Watched the setting sun cast the sky in shades of gold, then sink into the horizon.

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All in all, a perfect day.

Skating to the tune of Ethan Rose

January 31, 2009

The Oaks Park Roller Rink in Portland had the feel of an oversized aquarium during musician Ethan Rose‘s rinkside performance on Tuesday. Rose’s ethereal electroacoustic music gave the place an underwater ambiance (listen here, and you’ll see what I mean), and as I skated around and around in the dim light, I found myself feeling like an anchovy, caught up in a big, circling school — or maybe a jellyfish, drifting in directions I didn’t mean to go and posing an extreme threat to those around me.

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During his performance, Rose played the 86-year-old Wurlitzer pipe organ suspended on a platform above the rink, incorporating its notes with the recorded sounds of drums and chimes. The 30-year-old Chicago transplant often uses antiquated instruments — music boxes, player pianos, carillons, skating rink organs — as the basis of his computer-generated music. Tuesday’s event marked the debut of his latest album, Oaks, inspired by the very instrument at his fingertips.

To the resonating sounds of songs like “On Wheels Rotating,” “The Floor Released” and “Scenes from When,” I rolled around the rink on bright orange wheels, trying my best not to knock down small children or get in the way of the girl in the blue miniskirt who was skating backwards, lifting her leg and doing something akin to a triple salchow. (When I tried a move — a rolling crouch, executed at what turned into a snail’s pace — the referee told me to get inside the red line so as not to disrupt the flow.)

While I did not win any rabbit’s feet or get a chance to compete in the limbo, I did enjoy Rose’s music. It seemed a perfect complement to the act of rolling around in circles.

Three cheers for the new prez

January 20, 2009

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The EastBurn threw open its doors extra early this morning for Obama. The bar/grill at 18th and E. Burnside in Portland fired up four flat screens and a projector, all tuned to coverage of the presidential inauguration, and served free warm croissants, $5 breakfast sandwiches and $2 pints for those in the mood.

Amidst neon signs, skeeball runs and buck hunting arcade games, dozens perched on sturdy stools to watch the 44th president’s 18-minute inaugural address, all acutely aware of the historic significance of the moment and glad that a smart, articulate, principled man will be in charge of our country.

Energy was high. Applause was frequent. When Obama  finished, someone in the front of the room let out a “Hip-Hip…”

Everyone else responded with an exuberant “HOOORAY!”

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Elsewhere in Portland, this was happening.