I made my way to the old part of SE Divison, a place that used to have mechanic shops and furniture stores line the streets only a few years ago. A decade ago, you wouldn’t recognize the SE Division you see today, a bustling area with food carts, boutique shops, quaint cafes, old-school barber shops, and good eats. In fact, some of the best eats in Portland, as I soon would learn on my Forktown Food Tour.
I paused with a tinge of excitement before I walked around the corner to Sen Yai – the meeting point and first stop of the day for my tour on SE Division. I had no idea what my taste buds would experience today, but I knew I was going in with an open mind and an empty stomach to take in as much of the foodie scene as I could handle.
I had passed by Sen Yai numerous times in the past few weeks on my way to yoga classes down the street, always with a tilted head and curious interest for eating there at some point. Noodle house? Yep, those two words sat well with me and my stomach.
Which is why I already felt good about the tour going in, we were meeting at a spot I’d been wanting to try for weeks. A spot I never would’ve labeled a “foodie” hangout as it looked so unassuming from the outside. But I should know better by now to never judge a book by its cover.
When I walked into the bright turquoise building, I was early and expecting to wait a bit until the group arrived. Lucky for me, Arielle, our tour guide was already sitting in the side room and came out to introduce herself and beckon me inside the room to chat. We were soon joined by another early bird, Mel, who to my joy was a food & travel blogger. Great! I wouldn’t be the only one glued to a camera and taking way too many pictures of my food today.
The rest of the group slowly began to trickle in and we got settled with one of their specialty cocktails, an Apple Gin Rickey with homemade drinking vinegar, and started group introductions. We had an Aussie, a couple from Los Angeles, a couple from New York, and two couples from Washington State and eastern Oregon. It was a full group and we were ready to dig in.
Arielle started off by sharing a little about herself and how she was originally from New Mexico. A classically trained artist in oil painting, Arielle was an artist by day and waitress by night when she first moved to Portland. Her love for the food scene only grew with the years she stayed in the city. Throughout the tour she managed to do a great job of bringing together history, cuisine, and even a touch of art at each stop we made.
She continued to talk a little more about the history of Sen Yai and what we would be eating today, at our current location and also at the 5 other stops we’d be making during our 3 hour tour.
I was surprised to learn that Sen Yai is the sister restaurant to Pok Pok, another Thai place just down the road that is one of the most popular spots to eat in Portland. I’d already tried Pok Pok a couple months ago, and I do have to say both are comparable to each other in terms of cocktails and eccentric Asian food.
Sen Yai is known for their unique cocktails and their noodle dishes. Sen Yai directly translates to “big noodles”, after all. In addition to the cocktail we had, we also tried their family style MaMa Phat Ramen Noodles to share.
Andy Ricker, the chef and brains behind both Pok Pok and Sen Yai is a James Beard award winning chef (basically the Oscars of the food world) and his dishes in turn reflect a deep understanding of human taste buds when it comes to fusion Asian cuisine.
After Sen Yai, we made our way to Koi Fusion, A Korean-Mexican restaurant located in an even newer part of SE Division. We had tacos with delectable and slightly spicy homemade kimchi and I was sold on the simple yet mouthwatering farm-to-table ingredients.
Koi Fusion actually started as a food cart, as many of the micro-Portland chains are prone to do, and once they became popular enough, opened up a few different locations around Portland (a mix of food carts and restaurants).
Somehow, even though Korean and Mexican style cuisines seem to be complete opposites, Koi Fusion works in a big way. At the end of the tour, most of our group agreed that this was their favorite stop of the day.
Ingrid’s Scandinavian Food + Scout Beer
We soon moseyed on over to the Tidbit Food Cart Pod, potentially my favorite pod in all of Portland, and enjoyed the unusual sunny day while sitting out on the picnic benches.
This pod is particularly great, not only because of the variety of cuisines present at the individual food carts, but because there is a beer garden called Scout that serves up tasty brews to enjoy outside. We sipped on the Astoria Lincoln Lager, which went perfectly with our Scandinavian Pear Wraps from Ingrid’s cart.
Ingrid’s Scandinavian Food is a family-run operation and serves up Norwegian specialities, especially lefse (Norwegian flatbread) type snacks, such as wraps. They only opened a couple of years ago but have managed to already garner a loyal following.
I haven’t tried much Scandinavian food and I was impressed with the fare we had there. It wasn’t at all what I imagined Norwegian food to be, but then again, I don’t really know all that much about the cuisine. The mix of the fresh pear with egg, feta, and walnuts was such an interesting yet satisfying combination.
One of my favorites of the day had to be the flavorful Bollywood Theater, another micro-chain in Portland that is known for Mumbai-inspired street food and a tasteful ambiance. We tried the Vada Pav, or the “the poor man’s burger” while we were there, made with spicy potato dumpling fried in chickpea batter.
The owner started this restaurant after a visit to India where he fell in love with the cuisine and the culture of Mumbai. This was his way of bringing the street food of India to Portland, Oregon. The food was definitely different than what type of dishes I’m used to in traditional Indian cuisine, but that’s the beauty of Portland fusion, it still managed to peak my interest and tastebuds while still having a whole lot of spice and flavor.
The inside of the SE Division location also just opened up a little Indian market, so if you’re hankering to make your own Indian dishes at home, this place has the ingredients for you to purchase.
By this time on the tour I was already feeling full but I knew we had two more stops to go and I wasn’t going to bow out now. I’m glad I didn’t because Xico was our Oaxacan fine dining stop of the day and we were able to enjoy the place before they even officially opened for service.
We were served their homemade Totopas, also known as fancy nachos, made with corn from Mexico that was ground fresh in the kitchen. I’m a huge fan of Mexican food and these Totopas, although a fancy fusion style of Mexican (as Portland is apt to do), were up to scratch and delicious. Even though I was bursting at the seams I managed to eat the majority of the chips on my plate with a wide grin of happiness.
Similar to how the Bollywood Theater began, the thought behind Xico (pronounced “chee-ko”) came from international travel inspirations being brought to the States. In this case it was Mexico, and in particular Oaxaca, that sparked an inspiration in part-owner Liz to open up the restaurant in Portland. This place also has one of the largest selections of Mezcal in town, so make sure to have a drink or two while you’re there!
Lastly, we finished off with the sweet Lauretta Jean’s pie shop for some good old-fashioned dessert. Having spent two years in Australia and New Zealand where the only type of pie you’ll find tends to involve a savory meat of sorts, I’ve grown to appreciate sweet pies in a whole new light – not to mention, it’s my favorite type of dessert.
The pies here change throughout the year depending on what fresh produce is available to bake into the all-butter crusts. We had the Blackberry Raspberry Streusel pie and it was just as good as the name sounds: fresh, tart, and I would even go so far as to use the word scrumptious. The perfect ending to a foodie filled day.
I have to admit, the cuisine in Portland took some getting used to when I first moved here last summer. I wasn’t sold immediately. Besides the food carts, I didn’t know why it was called a foodie city, but I realized to appreciate Portland cuisine you really have to appreciate fusion, and that was a style I had never spent much time getting to know. I had always appreciated “authentic” ethnic cuisines above all else.
Although I have found some of those types of restaurants in Portland (hello Baan Thai!), I’ve also found a new love for the fusion cuisine that is so popular in this Pacific Northwest city. The SE Division tour put on by Forktown highlighted the best aspects about this cuisine, and the creativity that seems to come with each new dish brought out.
In terms of the tour itself, I couldn’t have been more pleased with my sunny afternoon in SE Portland on the Forktown Food tour. Our guide, Arielle, was highly knowledgeable, not just about what we were eating but also about the history of food & farming in Oregon and the neighborhood. Beyond that, she was personable and I found her very easy to talk to if I had any lingering questions about what she brought up.
The group I was with spanned a wide range in the age department, but everyone seemed very much open to trying anything that was placed in front of them, which is important for a food tour! I also was surprised at the large size of the portions and the complimentary drinks we were given at almost every stop, those little details go a long way in making a tour the best kind of unique.
Food has a way of bringing people together and teaching you something new about a culture. I not only deepened my knowledge about Portland foodie history, but grew an even deeper appreciation for a large part of Portland culture that makes this city special.
I’m looking forward to the next time I can take a food tour to learn more about another culture from a local perspective. Forktown only helped to add another view to my kaleidoscope lens of traveling the world.
Forktown Food Tours were kind enough to offer me a complimentary SE Division tour but all opinions, as always, are my own.
Have you been on a food tour before? How do you like to learn about a new culture? Have you tasted Pacific Northwest cuisine?
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