"I make the best falafel in Oregon." Al Herre, owner-operator of Southeast's Fat Kitty Falafel cart (Southeast 21st Avenue and Division Street), may be low on humility, but he's really big on his food, as well as on stories of his past life as a New York caterer. Although his delicious, four-buck, falafel-filled lunches are awesome, it's the conversation with the former caterer to David Bowie, Biggie Smalls and assorted Mafiosi (or at least so he claims) that make us tip our hat to Herre. Speaking of tips, whatever ends up in the jar goes directly to the Humane Society, in honor of Jeremy, the actual stray fat kitty Herre adopted after it attacked the patrons of a restaurant near his old SoHo apartment. Does he miss the Big Apple? "Nah, Portland rocks the free world."
Limbo (4707 SE 39th Ave., 774-8008), the 10-year-old, mom-and-pop-operated fresh-produce market, harbors one of the city's most overlooked stashes of retail treasure: the Wall of Herbs. More than 650 gallon jars of teas, medicinal herbs and culinary spices, the largest collection in Oregon, are shelved on recycled kiwi shipping crates. What's sold at this herb-and-spice library ranges from A to Y, according to herb specialist Charity Reeves, from asafetida ($1.50 an ounce), a spice used in Indian cooking thought to aid digestion, to the popular yohimbe bark ($1.35 per ounce), a powder that's considered an aphrodisiac. Don't worry, as Limbo's ambitious herb keepers are bound to eventually find a "Z" spice (Jordanian zatar, say?) to fill their alphabetical collection. Until then, you can work through the letters at your own pace.
Caterer Larry Grimes' company Art of Catering (1019 NW Everett St., 231-8185, www.artofcatering.net) is known for pushing the culinary envelope, whether helping Wolfgang Puck stage food for an Academy Awards dinner, creating a feast for glass artist Dale Chihuly in Venice or popping out hand-dipped corn dogs for a Western hoedown in Wilsonville. But Portland clients can get a taste of the Grimes gang's forward-thinking food aesthetic without ever opening their mouths. That's because the soaring 15-foot cocoa-gray walls and polished concrete floors of Art's Pearl District warehouse headquarters are littered with selections from Grimes and wife Denise's private art collection. When clients come to talk turkey, they are instantly catapulted into Grimes' contemporary mindset, the visual centerpiece of which is Fast Pitch, a big, glossy pop-art confection by once-local artist Heidi Cody that blows up corporate fast-food logos into bold, arcane shapes. "Out of context, they are beautiful," Grimes says of the oversized arch of Taco Bell's hot-pink bell and McDonald's iconic vertical swaths of yellow and red. "But this is also what I really detest in food. We're all about quality, slow food around here. And [this space] inspires us."
With its peaceful view of Willamette Valley wine country, dusty red barn, five-acre corn maze, and rows of pumpkins, potatoes, bell peppers and other fresh veggies, Sherwood's family-owned Baggenstos Farm Store (15801 SW Roy Rogers Road, Sherwood, 590-4301, www.baggenstosfarms.com) seems like a bucolic getaway. But every fall (usually September through mid-November), farm regulars cruise in for the ultimate fast-food treat: french fries. Hand-cut, fried to order and piled up in little picnic boats, these oddball taters make Mickey D's best look like factory fakes. Farm owners Jim and Jerry Baggenstos' family and small staff-the clan has been working this land since 1919-even throw a potato festival each October to honor their spuds. "They are the perfect french fries," says Erika Polmar, who discovered the fries while scouting locations for her popular local farm dinner series, Plate & Pitchfork. "They have that light crunch on the outside, but they aren't hard on the inside. They taste like potatoes, like a fry is supposed to." And what's the perfect foil for the supreme fry? Simple: Baggenstos' killer marionberry milkshake.
Cab Calloway might be crooning over the hi-fi at the Blue Moon Diner (20167 SW Tualatin Valley Highway, Beaverton, 649-8666), but the buzz of conversation that hovers over the blue vinyl booths in this gleaming train car-meets-soda-fountain is more ones-and-zeroes than swing talk. That's because this blast-from-the-past diner hunkers in a TV Highway strip mall right across the street from Intel's Hillsboro campus-a location that effectively makes this '50s pit stop Intel's impromptu lunchroom. Not that laymen can expect to tuck away any top-secret info along with their patty melts and blackberry milkshakes. "It's all Intel talk, but I'm not computer-savvy, so it doesn't mean a thing to me," says Blue Moon owner Brad Thomason. "I just read their names off their Intel badges and write them down for the wait list. They think I'm psychic."
No one in this already well-caffeinated town seems to have the energy to match Jay Boss Rubin. His "day job," as it were, consists of frying by night for Voodoo Doughnut (22 SW 3rd Ave., 241-4704). On the side, he teaches Swahili at the aforementioned Krispy Kreme trouncer, kayaks the river and chases down doughnut thieves. And, then, just for fun, every summer he organizes the Portland Challenge-a swim across the Willamette to benefit an African charity. This year's challenge will be held on Aug. 21. Starting at the Slammer Tavern, participants enter the water around 2:30 pm, shower on the other side at Salmon Street Fountain and then retreat to a block party on Southwest Ankeny Street between 2nd and 3rd avenues. Rubin's still looking for businesses to sponsor swimmers at 25 cents apiece. To sign your company up, contact him at email@example.com or call 481-1361.
Back in the "I Like Ike" days, Renner's Grill (7819 SW Capitol Highway, 246-9097) was populated by a rotating cast of cranky boozehounds. Dogs roamed through the lounge looking for handouts while the regulars tossed ice at the bartender and passed out in the booths. While this dank oasis in the midst of Southwest Portland's Multnomah Village has calmed down since Happy Days, at least one iconic thing remains from that 1950s-flavored era: Jell-O. Or, more in keeping with Gen-Xers, Jell-O shots. While tastes change with the times (though lime and cherry are still the favorites), the price stays the same-only a buck. It makes perfect sense that they taste like gelatinous cough syrup. As the saying goes: They'll cure what ails ya.
The prices for natural foodstuffs are going up like oil-and we're not the talking vegetable stuff. So what's a health-conscious foodie to do when faced with feeding the kids on a budget? Turn to supermarket-savvy Stock Options. The year-old Portland company sells all-natural soup stock (veal, beef, chicken or vegetable) and demi-glace (veal or beef), frozen fresh, without preservatives. Local grocers like Zupan's and Sheridan Fruit Co. carry the chef-crafted goods ($4.99-$6.99), which are guaranteed to turn an average mom into the next Martha.
Looking to jog Granny's memory, or just join her for a jaunt down Memory Lane? Monticello Antique Marketplace (8600 SE Stark St., 256-8600) is not only one of this city's largest antique malls (there's 20,000 square feet of collectibles stuffed into this place), but it's also home to a sweet full-service cafe that serves a little bit more than just tea and cookies. Alongside a generous selection of soup and sammie options, Monticello also offers beer and wine. After a few sips of Columbia Crest Chardonnay, or a pint of Widmer, watch how a sweet little old lady can transform into a full-blown bargain hunter. Now that's what we call shopping.